Narcissists avoid shame at all costs. It is their nemesis or “kryptonite”, if you want to see it that way. It’s not clear where the roots of narcissism start but generally held opinions point to parenting styles that are “shameful”. 669 more words
Anyone who’s loved a narcissist wonders, “Does he really love me?” “Does she appreciate me?” They’re torn between their love and their pain, between staying and leaving, but can’t seem to do either. Some swear they’re loved; others are convinced they’re not. It’s confusing because sometimes they experience the caring person they love, whose company is a pleasure, only to be followed by behavior that makes them feel unimportant or inadequate.
Narcissists claim to love their family and partners, but do they?
Romance vs. Love
Narcissists may show passion in the early stages of dating. But that sort of passion, according to Jungian analyst Robert Johnson, “is always directed at our own projections, our own expectations, our own fantasies … It is a love not of another person, but of ourselves.” Such relationships provide positive attention and sexual satisfaction to support a narcissist’s ego and self-esteem.
For most narcissists, their relationships are transactional. Their objective is to enjoy uncommitted pleasure (Campbell et al., 2002). They’re playing a game, and winning is the goal. They’re engaging and energetic and possess emotional intelligence that helps them perceive, express, understand, and manage emotions (Dellic et al., 2011). This helps them manipulate people to win their love and admiration. They brag to be respected, loved, and gratified. Additionally, their good social skills allow them to make a good initial first impression.
They can show great interest in romantic prospects and seduce with generosity, expressions of love, flattery, sex, romance, and promises of commitment. Amorous narcissists (Don Juan and Mata Hari types) are adept and persuasive lovers and may have many conquests, yet remain single. Some narcissists lie and/or practice love-bombing by overwhelming their prey with verbal, physical, and material expressions of love.
Narcissists lose interest as the expectation of intimacy increases or when they’ve won at their game. Many have trouble sustaining a relationship more than six months to a few years. They prioritize power over intimacy and loathe vulnerability, which they consider weak (Lancer, 2014). To maintain control, they avoid closeness and prefer dominance and superiority over others. Game-playing thus strikes the perfect balance to both get their needs met and keep their options open to flirt or date multiple partners (Campbell et al., 2002).
A sudden breakup can be traumatic to their ex, who is bewildered by their unexpected change of heart — proposing one minute, and then exiting the next. They feel confused, crushed, discarded, and betrayed. If the relationship had continued, eventually they would have seen through the narcissist’s seductive veneer.
Some narcissists are pragmatic in their approach to relationships, focusing on their goals. They may also develop positive feelings toward their partner, but more based on friendship and shared interests. If they marry, they lack the motivation to maintain their romantic façade, and employ defenses to avoid closeness. They become cold, critical and angry, especially when they’re challenged or don’t get their way. They’re likely to support their spouse’s needs and wants only when it’s inconvenient and their ego is satisfied. After devaluing their partner, they need to look elsewhere to prop up their inflated ego.
How is love defined?
Real love is not romance, and it’s not codependency. For Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, it’s “to will the good of another.” In The Psychology of Romantic Love (1980), Nathaniel Branden states that “To love a human being is to know and love his or her person.” It’s a union of two individuals, which requires that we see another person as separate from ourselves. Further, in The Art of Loving (1945), Erich Fromm emphasizes that love entails effort to develop knowledge, responsibility, and commitment. We must be motivated to know another’s wants, needs, and feelings and provide encouragement and support. We take pleasure in their happiness and try not to hurt them.
When we love, we show active concern for their life and growth. We try to understand their experience and worldview, though it may differ from ours. Caring involves offering attention, respect, support, compassion, and acceptance. We must devote the necessary time and discipline. Romantic love can evolve into love, but narcissists aren’t motivated to really know and understand others (Ritter et al., 2010).
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, narcissists “lack empathy and have difficulty recognizing desires, subjective experiences, and feelings of others” (p. 670). Research shows that they have structural abnormalities in brain regions associated with emotional empathy (Schulze et al., 2013). Hence, their ability to appropriately respond emotionally and express care and concern is significantly impaired.
Narcissists have s several hurdles to loving. First, they neither see themselves nor others clearly. First, they experience people as extensions of themselves, rather than separate individuals with differing needs, desires, and feelings. Second, they overestimate their own emotional empathy (Ritter et al., 2010). Third, their defenses distort their perceptions and interactions with others. They brag and withdraw to control closeness and vulnerability, project onto others unwanted, negative aspects of themselves, and they use denial, entitlement, and narcissistic abuse, including blame, contempt, criticism, and aggression, to ward off shame. Perfectionistic narcissists callously put down others and may attempt to destroy adversaries in order to sustain their illusion of perfection (Lancer, 2017). All these issues impair narcissists’ capacity to accurately take in another person’s reality, including that person’s love for them. In fact, narcissists emotional intelligence helps them manipulate and exploit others to get what they want, while their impaired emotional empathy desensitizes them to the pain they inflict.
Can we measure love?
Love is difficult to measure, but research shows that people feel love expressed by: 1) words of affirmation, 2) spending quality time, 3) giving gifts, 4) acts of service, and 5) physical touch (Goff, et al. 2007). Another study revealed that participants also felt loved by a partner who: 1) showed interest in their affairs; 2) gave them emotional and moral support; (3) disclosed intimate facts; 4) expressed feelings for them, such as “I’m happier when I’m near you”; and 5) tolerated their demands and flaws in order to maintain the relationship (Swenson, 1992, p. 92).
People who love narcissists are starved for many of these expressions of love. Sometimes, narcissists are remote, dismissive, or aggressive; other times, they show care and concern and are helpful. It’s not that narcissists are incapable of feeling or even intellectually understanding someone’s feelings. The problem appears to be rooted in childhood trauma and physiological deficits that impact emotional assessment, mirroring, and appropriate empathic expression. (Unconscious or unexpressed: “I love you, but”); Expressed: “I’m too busy to come to the hospital,” sounds pretty cold, but may not reflect the narcissist’s love for the person hospitalized. When the importance of a visit is explained to them, they might make the trip.
They may show love when they’re motivated. Their love is conditional, depending upon impact on the narcissist. My book Dealing with a Narcissist explains in detail how to navigate and beneficially use this in relationships with narcissists, addicts, or anyone highly defensive. Because narcissism exists on a continuum from mild to malignant, when it’s severe, selfishness and inability to express love become more apparent when greater demands are placed on a narcissist. Dating or long-distance relationships that have fewer expectations are easier.
Bottom line: Wondering whether a narcissist loves you is the wrong question. Although it’s wise to understand a narcissist’s mind, like Echo in the myth of Narcissus, partners overly focus on the narcissist to their detriment. Instead, ask yourself whether you feel valued, respected, and cared about. Are you getting your needs met? If not, how is that affecting you and your self-esteem and what can you do about that?
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Branden, N. (1980). The Psychology of Romantic Love. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, Inc.
Campbell, W.K, Finkel, E.J., & Foster, C.A. (2002). Does self-love lead to love for others? A story of narcissistic game playing, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(2), 340-354. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/5a8d/b3534f5398d42cfd0160ca14f92fd6bf05e5.pdf
Delic, A., Novak, P., Kovacic, J., & Avsec, A. (2011). Self-reported emotional and social intelligence and empathy as distinctive predictors of narcissism” Psychological Topics 20(3), 477-488. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/0fe0/2aba217382005c8289b4607dc721a16e11e7.pdf
Fromm, E., (1956). The Art of Loving. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers.
Goff, B. G., Goddard, H. W., Pointer, L., & Jackson, G. B. (2007). Measures of expressions of love. Psychological Reports, 101, 357-360. https://doi.org/10.2466/pr0.101.2.357-360
Johnson, R. A. (1945). We, Understanding the psychology of Romantic Love. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers.
Lancer, D.A. (2017). “I’m Not Perfect, I’m Only Human” – How to Beat Perfectionism. Los Angeles: Carousel Books.
Lancer, D.A. (2014). Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You. Center City: Hazelden Foundation.
Ritter, K., et al. (2010). Lack of empathy in patients with narcissistic personality disorder, Psychiatry Research. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/2fe3/32940c369886baccadb14fd5dfcbc5f5625f.pdf.
Schultze, L., et al. (2013) Gray matter abnormalities in patients with narcissistic personality disorder. Psychiatric Research, 47(10), 1363–1369. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2013.05.017
Swenson, C. (1972). The Behavior of Love. In H.A. Otto (Ed.) Love Today (pp. 86-101). New York: Dell Publishing.
© Darlene Lancer 2018
An unwillingness to empathize is different than being unable to do so.
We generally assume that narcissistic people lack empathy, as though they are missing a certain brain function. Granted, such thinking can make us feel better when a relationship dissolves. However, in some circumstances, an individual with a narcissistic personality disorder may display empathy, which can be confusing.
Consider the possibility that narcissists are consciously and unconsciously unwilling to empathize, rather than lacking the capacity to do so. The notion that a person can have a capacity for empathy, yet not be empathically responsive, may be useful for understanding the personality characteristics of people we label as narcissistic.
Empathy is the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person.  Some regard empathy as a vicarious affective response based on the awareness of another person’s emotional state.  Many definitions of empathy include the concept of perspective-taking—emotionally or cognitively seeing things from the other person’s position.  Thus, empathy can involve both a cognitive process (the ability to understand another person’s view in terms of what the other is thinking or feeling) and an experiential process (resonating with another person’s emotional response).
A lack of empathy is often considered to be one of the distinctive features of narcissism. However, this is not entirely the case. The criteria for the formal psychiatric diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association includes “lacks empathy,” but this designation has a critical qualifier: namely, “is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.”  An unwillingness to empathize with another person is not the same as being unable to empathize with another person.
Some researchers have found that the cognitive functioning necessary for empathy, such as the ability to role-play or take another person’s perspective, occurs in a different location of the brain than the emotional aspects of empathy, such as sensitivity to what another person is feeling or experiencing.  Whether one is narcissistic or not, our brains simulate the feelings of those around us. This ability to mimic another’s feelings enables us to reconstruct within us what other people may be experiencing. 
Given the many and complicated interactions we have with others throughout our lives, the ability to automatically understand what is going on with someone else is a crucial skill for successful social functioning. Some studies have shown a relationship between narcissism and deficient emotional empathy, but that narcissists, nevertheless, can recognize and react to the suffering of others, even if they are motivated to disregard such distress in other people. 
The capacity to empathize does not preclude its use for bad behavior. Descriptions of empathy have included the notion that empathy can be used for destructive purposes.   Thus, people who have a narcissistic personality may consciously or unconsciously be motivated to withhold an empathic response to control a partner or to justify their behavior. They may exploit their understanding of another’s emotional state to manipulate that person. Using their empathy manipulatively, people with narcissistic pathology know how to evoke insecurity in their partners and provoke attachment anxiety. 
The concept that a person can have the capacity for empathy, yet not be empathic in his or her response, is also important for understanding how people with a narcissistic personality disorder may protect themselves. Consider for a moment that these people do not really lack empathy, but instead, their vulnerability limits their freedom to express it. Thus, they have an unwillingness to empathize rather than a lack of empathy.
Many people who seem to lack empathy for the other humans in their lives can express enormous sympathy and compassion for their pets, and they may overtly express empathy regarding an ill or injured animal. In such situations, someone with a narcissistic personality may feel emotionally safe and capable of vulnerability. The subjective experience of trust can be a powerful tool for narcissists that reduces perceived threats and allows them to attend to the needs and feelings of others. 
There is evidence indicating that narcissistic individuals are hyper-sensitive to information that could cause them psychological distress, but at the same time, they may be oblivious to such information at the level of conscious awareness.  Interpersonally, where someone with narcissistic traits experiences helplessness or vulnerability, they are likely to withhold an empathic response automatically, appearing cold-hearted or as refusing to take responsibility for hurtful behavior. How do we understand why someone would appear to lack empathy or have an unwillingness to empathize? The answer involves a personality organization that over a lifetime has been scripted to avoid shame.
When emotions occur in persistent or repeated forms, we consider them as dispositional characteristics of the individual or personality traits—situations that typically activate a coherent pattern of interacting emotions or scripted behaviors. Unfortunately, the language of personality traits overshadows the emotional states that motivate the behavior.  For example, we generally consider narcissism as having to do with behaviors or traits, such as grandiosity, entitlement, and a lack of empathy, but this obscures how these behaviors and traits are patterned responses to specific emotional experiences. Shame is the central emotional experience of narcissism, and narcissistic disorders reflect behaviors that serve to disavow and regulate shame.  
Since an empathic response often involves an unconscious assessment of one’s vulnerability to experiencing shame, the narcissist’s inhibition of an empathic response (“unwillingness”) may simply be self-protective. This also points to the affective limitations that accompany narcissistic personality disorder. Narcissists do not consciously feel a lack of empathy or an unwillingness to empathize. Instead, in many situations where one might expect them to empathize, their limitations activate a sense of helplessness (imagined vulnerability) followed by scripted responses to shame, such as shame-fear (fear of loss of face) or shame-rage (protection from some imagined trauma from the past). 
Thus, if you are involved with someone who is motivated by shame to be consciously or unconsciously unwilling to empathize with what you feel, your task is to protect yourself. Blaming heartache on a former partner’s “lack of empathy,” for example, is a mistake. You may be responding to your own shame by attacking someone who could not provide what you needed in the first place, due to their restricted emotional freedom. Instead, by accepting your disappointment and looking inside yourself, you can learn.
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