Updated: Jul 12, 2022
What do a narcissist and an empath have in common…?
Sounds like a joke, but if you have been in or are entangled in these sorts of dynamics, it can be far from humorous.
However, the lessons learned from these experiences can be invaluable, life-changing, and potentially your greatest path to transformation.
Like everything in life, there are several sides and many shades of grey to any character traits.
It is also important to share that I am not really a fan of labels of this nature.
There are so many nuances here, however, I am using these terms because it resonates for many people and the title would be more like a paragraph without them!
I will go into a little detail in terms of the definition first, for clarity and then provide the answer to the question I have posed, because there is a striking one!
What is important to remember, regardless of labels or identifications, if we can honestly understand ourselves and face our own shadow (more on this later) then we can have healthy relationships where we can thrive.
I hope to have articulated the points in this blog well enough, but I am going a bit bog eyed now and I am a recovering perfectionist, so it is as it is!
Google the dictionary definition of a narcissist and here’s the sort of thing that comes up…
a person who has an excessive interest in or admiration of themselves.
"narcissists who think the world revolves around them"
Now if we take some of the heat out of the term narcissist and become objective to any trigger (your personal experience will determine how you feel about this word) we can explore it more generally / objectively.
Really you could take this definition and probably apply it to being a small child (or maybe a teenager)!
Babies will scream to be fed and toddlers have no regard for what is socially acceptable.
Teenagers have the immense task of attempting to integrate hormonal ups and downs, fit into or rebel against the system, develop their own thought patterns, feel emotions and differentiate themselves from parents / caregivers etc.
It’s very easy and quite normal to think that the world would revolve around this, the brain and the body are literally still developing.
It is all too easy to label someone as narcissist when it might just be that they occasionally display narcissistic behaviour, it might be that we all do!
Equally you may find yourself justifying behaviour, when you are in fact dealing with a toxic narcissist. You are the judge of that in your individual experiences.
In truth, each of us are concerned with ourselves to a degree, we need to be for our own survival.
We can probably all own up to being self-absorbed at some time in our lives. After all, we are only human.
There is no major concern with this, providing we are not hurting or manipulating others in the process.
Although, without digressing too much, when we cannot own or directly communicate our wants and needs, we tend to use a side-door or subconscious pattern to express them or have them met indirectly.
Whilst the intention may be soft, it is still technically a form of manipulation.
Most of us want to be seen and heard by at least someone (even if it is a secret you keep from yourself)! This is human nature and is perfectly healthy.
Robert Greene (one of my favourite writers) in his epic book ‘The Laws of Human Nature’ makes a profound point about this and brilliantly articulates the scale.
“We are all narcissists, some deeper on the spectrum that others. Our mission is life is to come to terms with this self-love and learn how to turn our sensitivity outward, towards others, instead of inward. We must recognise at the same time the toxic narcissists among us before getting enmeshed in their dramas and poisoned by their envy.”
There are indeed so many nuances to human behaviour and with each of our individual psyches, that it is too limiting to label people, but it is also convenient for the purpose of getting to the point.
Some people with narcissistic tendencies are not actively trying to hurt anyone but are so self-absorbed, they find it challenging to relate to others and so constantly bring conversation back to themselves.
Their view of themselves is innocent and harmless and so they may not even understand why they experience problems in relationship to others.
They may find themselves in a revolving ‘victim – persecutor cycle’ in all kinds of relationships.
Toxic narcissists have little or no empathy for others. If they show it, it is a tactic used to charm, manipulate and lure others into their tangled web of lies i.e., the distorted drama they tend to live in.
They can be confusing, for example, one minute they might be singing your praises or love bombing you with flattery, the next, they slam you with a cutting remark or a put down. This is also a method of control.
For some, the experience becomes very damaging emotional abuse and can turn into physical violence, and my heart goes out to those who have suffered any level of this toxic cruelty.
It is very important to state that I am only referring to adult relationships in this blog.
Some will make everything about you…about them! They will use anything you do or achieve to credit themselves or be about them.
Now, let’s look at the standard definition of an empath…
I would consider an empath to be sensitive and intuitive.
There are various descriptions about what this looks like and I am not looking to get into semantics but from my experience, they can be introverted or extroverted. Many factors contribute to this.
In addition, if an empath is empowered (i.e. able to use their sensitivity as a strength, has clear boundaries and effective communication skills) they are comfortable with their introversion, extroversion or a balance of both.
They don’t over identify with being the ‘quiet one’ or the ‘loud one’, they can just be themselves in that moment.
That goes for people in general really, just being comfortable being you, whatever that brings.
I mean, can we really be one way ALL of the time? I am not so sure about that, and would question why we would even need to be?!
So, to answer my initial question, what do a narcissist and an empath have in common? And it is important to know that I am referring to an empath who has not yet become empowered.
The answer is…a lack of self-worth.
Neither feel worthy and both have boundary issues, whether they know it or not.
That is how these two counterparts attract each other, because energy speaks.
The good news is, that there is so much learning to gain from these interactions, namely to build self-worth and boundaries which is paramount to a healthy and happy life.
Plus, when we change ourselves from the inside, we change everything / everyone that we attract on the outside.
You could meet in any number of circumstances, even across a crowded room, something will draw you towards each other – that something is energy. Who we engage with / attract it is no accident IMHO.
It might be that you notice this attraction in your romantic partners. For others, it will transpire in personal relationships or friendships.
For some, it is in their working world / careers. For others, it is present in their family. There is no one way and it doesn’t mean it happens in every scenario.
Some people won’t experience these dynamics much at all, but they are not likely to be reading this blog!
So, when we say ‘like attracts like’ it may not be a match to the conscious eye, but it is an energetic one.
In some circumstances it can feel uncontrollably magnetic and even addictive!
The strength of this pull can take people beyond way their logic, rational and intuitive senses. I have other theories around this but that’s another blog!
In many situations, the empath will likely get an intuitive nudge (or feeling in the gut) to indicate that there is something ‘off’ or not quite right from the very beginning.
But, if they are not aware or in their fullest power (and it is hard to be at first, you kind of need the experience to learn) they will ignore it!
Their intuition will be dismissed in favour of whatever justification the mind can find.
For some, it is because they want to feel the love and adoration of another (nothing wrong with that but it really depends on the source)!
For others, they just don’t understand why someone would intentionally pretend to be someone they are not or want to manipulate people.
Some may like to give the benefit of the doubt or have a lot of compassion. None of this is wrong.
Some will be attracted to their portrayed power and attach to that because they haven’t discovered their own innate power yet.
The major difference here between these labels we are using, is in the expression of that low self-worth.
The narcissist externalises their low self-worth to feel superior or even just to feel better temporarily. They are takers.
They project their pain (or shadow) onto other people.
In extreme versions, they need to make other people feel small or subservient in order to feel powerful, elevated and superior.
They have real trouble seeing themselves for who they really are (for more on this, look up the Greek mythological story about Narcissus).
They can’t see the truth. They live in their wounded ego, which is fragile.
It is an unconscious protection method because they literally don’t have an esteem system that could support looking at themselves honestly.
Their apparent confidence or attractiveness can lure an empath in, but it is an illusion because beneath the bravado, they are deeply insecure.
Again, there is a spectrum here as to how the pattern will be externalised.
Some will do this by belittling or bullying or abusing another person.
Some will do whatever it takes to get attention, to feel important / superior. They need anything that inflates their ego and false sense of self and power.
Others will do it in a more subtle way that becomes poisonous over longer periods of time. This I feel, is connected to the co-dependency pattern.
They will dump their shadow onto another person. What does this mean?
The shadow is where we unconsciously hide the parts of ourselves that we have deemed unlovable in some way.
At some point in our existence, we have felt shame around these parts, so they become unwanted and disowned, suppressed, or repressed.
The tricky part about the shadow is that so long as it remains unacknowledged and kept in the dark, it never goes away.
So, the narcissist will find someone (and if you don’t play the game, they will move onto the next person) who they can ‘burden’ with their heavy load because they can’t carry it by themselves all the time.
Ideally, they will find someone who is caring, has boundless levels of compassion and possibly a guilt complex.
They will also need someone who has a hole in their boundary field (even if they think they don’t).
Someone who will listen to them and essentially love them.
Typically, people with narcissistic traits cannot find their own source of love or light inside so they ‘plug in’ to drain other people for temporary relief.
They can’t reciprocate because they don’t understand how to have healthy relationships.
They often have a trail of destruction or drama behind them when it comes to relationships, personal, professional or both. These are warning signs.
Not everyone who has had relationships problems is a narcissist of course, otherwise that would be most of us!
Relationships problems are brilliant platforms for learning and transformation.
Remember, these matters are not that black and white, I am always interested in the grey.
Empaths can sense and feel other people’s emotions so they can be perfect emotional / energetic dumping grounds for the emotions other people cannot take responsibility for.
When someone dumps their shadow on you, you can start to feel all the discomfort of the parts of themselves they can’t love.
Their anxiety becomes your anxiety. Their pain becomes your pain.
It is draining beyond belief to your energy system and can make you mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually unwell.
You can become like a drug to them, which could be flattering in one respect and you will certainly feel needed…..but it’s not worth it!
I suppose this is where the term ‘energy vampire’ comes from.
This is not about dismissing people for having down days, feeling low and needing support, we all feel that at times as part of being human.
Being there for each other as part of a mutually beneficial and loving connection is very healthy and much needed.
However, there is a difference when it is prolonged and one-sided and in fact, you can literally feel the difference, until you lose yourself.
Ultimately what matters is how aware we are of ourselves, the real dynamics playing out in our relationships and how healthy they are.
People with strong narcissistic traits will push the limits, they have little respect for boundaries or what is appropriate.
They may make token gestures of kindness occasionally, but it more often comes from their fear of you moving away from them. It is often an attempt to reel you back.
Despite the help, support, time or love you give them (depending on the circumstances of each specific dynamic) they will often stay stuck in the same unhealthy and problematic cycles.
Watch what they do, not what they say! They are master manipulators (they must be to survive!) so they can easily say the ‘right’ thing but notice whether their actions line up.
As there are so many varying degrees of narcissism, whilst I would avoid toxic narcissists at all costs, I also have compassion for anyone struggling with these tendencies because it all comes from a point of pain.
With self-compassion, we can recognise our own tendencies, without shame and without burying them in the shadow.
It is only in recent years that the term self-love has become mainstream, so a lot of us have work to do around what that really means.
We can probably all improve ourselves and our relationships.
Now, back to the commonality! The disempowered empath also suffers from low self-worth; this is what links the two.
However, their expression is the opposite, it is internalised.
They tend to have more of an inferiority complex and so supress their own needs or voice.
They are more comfortable giving rather than taking (but often to the detriment of themselves).
Being an empath (especially an empowered one) is also a beautiful thing!
It means having empathy, the ability to tune into other people’s emotions, feelings and energy.
Empaths can be very sensitive, caring and compassionate with a big heart and a lot of love to give.
However, it can feel like a burden or a curse and something that people will take advantage of.
A co-dependent empath believes that with enough love and understanding, they can change or heal ANYONE.
It is possible and very beautiful to heal others with love and understanding, BUT, when this notion tips out of balance, it leads them to take responsibility for the other person, emotionally, practically or both.
They become more invested in the potential change than the individual wants for themselves. There is literally an imbalance.
The other person is typically not committed to change yet doesn’t stop the co-dependent from trying or propping them up (because they want to do it!); hence a vicious cycle ensues that does not work.
Usually, the co-dependent will have made some difference but ultimately not enough and can end up feeling depleted, burned out and unloved.
You can see how this pattern could cause problems for people in the field of coaching / therapy / healing etc and in management as well as in personal relationships.
Essentially, the co-dependent needs the other person to be or feel better, so it gives them permission to feel OK. They become enmeshed and very easily lose their sense of self.
What lies in the disempowered empaths’ shadow then?
They could have supressed the need to value and communicate their own needs and desires.
It has likely been deemed as unnecessary (to their survival) or selfish at some point in their existence.
Or they may have stored the belief that if they are not serving other people’s needs, then they are not of value or important i.e. safe.
They may have learned to be observant of people’s moods and how to diffuse situations or pacify people or become who they think people want / need them to be.
They may have suppressed the ability to stand up for themselves, to say no, to be heard, to ask or to value their intuitive gifts.
Everyone has a shadow. As the great Carl Jung so aptly stated;
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
There are indeed so many nuances to these situations, to human behaviour in general and to each of our individual psyches, but the terms are convenient for the purpose of explanation and exploration.
The healthiest function is to be interdependent; not co-dependent or overly independent.
I hope this has provided some interesting content for you. There is so much more I could cover and so much more grey area, but I must have a limit :D
Thank you for staying with me if you have reached this point!
It’s a potential starting point if you want to personally explore more about this topic for yourself.
I believe we are all so complex and layered, it’s impossible and so limited to define us within these terms but useful to have used them as some sort of perimeter.
I am also very excited to share that I have a NEW course coming up in a couple of months!
It is designed to empower people who want to find their balance of strength and sensitivity, build healthy boundaries and access their intuitive gifts more deeply.
You could call this an empowered empath?! I will have options for 121 or group work.
If this is of interest, please email me on email@example.com.
You are also welcome to subscribe to my newsletter (via my website) receive details and blogs like these direct to your inbox. www.amandagreencoaching.co.uk
Wishing you all the healthiest of relationships and much learning in the game of life. All experiences are great teachers for us.
Good Vibes, Amanda G