Empaths and Narcissists: Opposite Sides of the Coin of Dysfunction?

In my quest to better understand how I (repeatedly) got to be on the receiving end of narcissistic abuse, I have read several books that indicate there are many common traits evident in the victims of narcissists, not only among the narcissists themselves.

In Alice Miller’s book, “The Drama of the Gifted Child”, I first read about some interesting commonalities between narcissists and their victims, as well. According to the author, these common points are (from the book’s second section, “Depression and Grandiosity: Two Related Forms of Denial”):

• A false self that has led to the loss of the potential true self

• A fragility of self-esteem because of a lack of confidence in one’s own feelings and wishes

• Perfectionism

• Denial of rejected feelings

• A preponderance of exploitative relationships

• An enormous fear of loss of love and therefore a great readiness to conform

• Split-off aggression

• Oversensitivity

• A readiness to feel shame and guilt

• Restlessness

So, in keeping with the idea of “different sides of the same coin”, my understanding is this: in a narcissistic family system, a child is likely to fall into one or the other of two camps, narcissism or codependency, both as different coping mechanisms for the same dysfunctional relational dynamic. Either general subset of behavior can develop within an individual raised in a narcissistic household, depending on that person’s inborn temperament, exposure to abuse, and other mitigating factors.

The most common trait referenced in victims, according to most of the books I’ve read, is empathy – and usually a high degree of it. In “New Age” parlance, an “empath” is someone who is extraordinarily sensitive to the emotions of others. This site does a pretty good job of describing this: http://www.drjudithorloff.com/Free-Articles/emotional-empath-EF.htm

Much of what I have read about narcissists also cites common traits. Narcissists and psychopaths (it has been said that all psychopaths are narcissists, but that not all narcissists are psychopaths) are known for their uncanny ability to recognize vulnerabilities in others – vulnerabilities they do not hesitate to exploit. Just how one of these individuals spots “prey” is an oft researched phenomenon.

So, what’s the difference between being extraordinarily sensitive to people’s emotions, and being highly attuned to their vulnerabilities? In my opinion, it’s basically different wording for the same phenomenon. Both narcissists and empaths see things in others that the average individual often misses, and a person’s emotional health or attitude toward their environment is the key to their vulnerabilities. The differentiating factor is what each of these individuals does with this knowledge of another person’s inner landscape.

I was talking to a friend recently, and like me, she had been raised in a narcissistic family system. She mentioned to me that she was very much an empath; she could read people’s emotions very accurately. (I am the same way.) My best friend is also highly empathic, and she, too, grew up in a narcissistic household. All of us are in different professions, but one thing our jobs have in common is that we all directly help people, each in our own way. And we are all people-pleasers with a history of really fucked up, variably abusive relationships.

This got me thinking. Maybe most empaths (psychics) don’t really have supernatural abilities after all… Could it be that they are the psychological equivalent of professional ballet dancers, simply with psychological training from a very tender age rather than physical training? Could it be that these empaths originally developed the ability to read people in order to survive nasty childhoods? Seems plausible to me. At the other end of the spectrum, maybe many super narcissistic psychopaths developed the same skills under similar circumstances, but cope by trying to be more powerful than those who overpowered them.

But while this thought leaves me feeling a fleeting sense of compassion for the garden-variety narcissist, I have to remember the trap of the familiar. Maybe narcissists and empaths are drawn to each other because the relationship dynamic is “comfortable” to both; a giver and a taker instead of two healthy people with healthy boundaries, and able to both give and receive. These are polarized and volatile relationships, not homogenous, undramatic ones.

I’ll take a boring, undramatic relationship any day. Thank goodness for my non-narcissistic husband.


22 comments on “Empaths and Narcissists: Opposite Sides of the Coin of Dysfunction?

  1. I am an empath and get drained by the emotions of other. I also can’t deal well with highly dramatic people — I’m predisposed to try to relieve their pain or stress and many of those types LIKE that crap.

    I was just thinking yesterday and today about my hypersensitivity and feeling a little irritated by it. I had a meeting with someone who I like very well, and when he left, I felt troubled, like something was not quite right from him, but it wasn’t clear enough for me to determine the cause. Of course, being the child of a narcissist, I worry that it is me causing the disturbance. But it’s possible he was bothered by something other than me (which is more likely, but my fear can’t let go the idea that I somehow screwed up).

    So now I’m still obsessing over what felt wrong and feeling like something probably was because I was realizing that I am rarely off in reading people, but I am lacking enough information to solve the question. And I don’t really want to poke my nose in and say, “Hey, everything ok? I felt a weird vibe from you” because that just seems weird given our relatively new friendship.

    Ah well. I guess I just get to sit my discomfort until I see him next and gauge if all is OK between us.

    • I’ve got to say hearing someone else describe my “emotional landscape” is a bit of a mind f**k. Wow.

      I see the same obsessions plaguing my other empath friends, whether they’re conscious of it or not. You can usually tell what a person is obsessed with by what they talk about most.

      So here’s another parallel between empaths and narcissists. We both think the world revolves us, just from different perspectives. Narcissists are like cats, in that they think they own people. Empaths feel they are responsible for everyone, particularly everyone’s emotions (the negative ones in particular).

      We’re both engaged in forms of control as well. Narcissists/psychopaths like to control others, often just for the sport of it, to create the illusion of power in their own minds. We empaths also try to control others – those others whose (negative) emotions we pick up on – which I think is a learned behavior, adopted in order to avoid someone else’s wrath (often, but not always, a narcissist’s).

      I have to say, though, that I’ve gotten a lot better. Ever since I started to clue in that I seemed to attract certain people, then was able to find that elusive common thread among them, and then put my finger on their distinguishing behavioral weirdness, I was able to start separating myself a bit emotionally from the BS. I guess to some extent I could better see what was really “me” and what was the narcissistic toxic soup I was bathing in.

      That’s not to say I can turn the empathy off, but I seem to be able to tone it down a lot of the time now. What has helped immensely is understanding the narcissistic characteristics of my family of origin, and finally seeing old patterns repeating in different ways in my current life.

      I am totally stoked about reading your blog! It is so awesome to connect with other people who “get it” about N’s.

  2. This is SO interesting to me. This is an enormously well written, interesting article.

    I have felt and LITERALLY PHYSICALLY HURT for years – a heaving in my chest, a darkness wet over me. I have seen bullying at school, saw a girl who was said to have been “raped last week; don’t stare” – heaps of things, & I have ached and ached and ached.

    Only decades, I’m talking decades later, am I getting a grip on me, not being torn apart by all I see.

  3. Thank you for this. Spot on for a discussion I was having with myself about empaths and narcissism.

    I learned a lot from reading Alice Miller’s work. Have you ever read Going Mad to Stay Sane: Psychology of Self-destructive Behaviour by Andrew White. It is one of my favourite books. It described my situation so succinctly there were moments when I wondered if the author knew me and my parents.

    Both my parents were narcissists. One of the things they did which I found most difficult to deal with was that they made me believe that they were perfect and wonderful and that I was the one who was deeply flawed. That anything they did which was wrong was my fault.

    The empathy issue is very relevant. I was trained from a very early age to deny myself, my feelings, and only focus on their feelings. I grew to believe that anything I felt or thought was completely unimportant, and that all that mattered in life was how other people felt and thought. I also learned to monitor others for subtle clues to how they were feeling, as a form of self-preservation. To be aware of the information all people leak about themselves, their moods and thoughts, but which often goes unnoticed in the chaos of day to day life. Knowing when to apply balm to someone before they explode in a rage. Knowing how to placate a narcissist, feed their need and greed for ego stroking. And so on.

    Both my parents used various tactics to find the soft spot of others, and then use it to their advantage. They were very tuned in to other people’s vulnerabilities, yet at the same time they were completely insensitive to others. Everything they sensed was a means to a very personal end. My father often boasted about his ability to destroy other people with one well aimed comment.

    The search which led me to your post was a conflict I was trying to resolve within. I am a narcissist magnet. One thing I have noticed about narcissists is that they often claim very loudly how sensitive they are. Which is not entirely untrue, but what they actually mean is they are sensitive about themselves, not others. So, thank you for your words, they have helped.

    • Thanks for the input! I have only read one of Alice Miller’s books (so far – the one I quoted is brilliant and I will definitely get to more of her work). I’ve never heard of the Andrew White book, and it looks like it may be out of print, but will definitely pick up a used copy via Amazon.

      While I do not believe my own parents are bona fide narcissists, I believe there to be an interesting mix of personality traits (mainly empaths/narcissists) in my family that trickled down to influence how my parents “set up” their family and how we were raised. Add to that a putrid, sticky layer of “Catholic Guilt” (on both sides of the family) and it was a pretty toxic scene growing up.

      I definitely learned how to read people really well, to the detriment of my own psyche – I lost the ability to know how I felt, what I needed, what I liked. I lost myself, still trying to find myself approaching middle age.

      On the bright side, unlike what I presume to be most of the rest of my family, I’m not in denial anymore that there are some pretty deep problems. I can educate myself and make healthier choices, stand up for myself, and have the power to leave toxic situations. Yay!

  4. After reading that, I really have some better perspective on myself… and my ex of a few years ago.

  5. Thank you for this. I wrack my brain constantly whenever I realise usually too late that someone I’ve encountered or been close with is a narcissist. I always internalize it “what did I do wrong? Am I a narcissist because I’m accusing them of being one? I came from a messed up home and have low self esteem….” It just goes on and I blame myself for long periods of time and can never seem to figure out why I keep letting people treat me like this. I actually have a stalker that I’ve known since childhood with ASPD and NPD and it greatly effected me until I realised as an adult that it really wasn’t me. It still is a trigger though. I googled “opposite of narcissism” and found myself here. It really does seem like opposite sides of the same coin. Thank you!

    • I don’t know if what I said holds any water, but looking at my family dynamics and the eclectic mix of empaths and narcs, it sort of seems that way sometimes. In hearing from people who have gone through similar things, like yourself, and reading blogs within this community, I’ve realized that we are SO not alone in this. Growing up with dysfunction often means that crappy behavior was “normalized” for us, long before we had to make our way in the world as adults, so we don’t see the red flags soon enough, as well. I wish you well in your journey to self-awareness, what you experienced was terrible, but the future is ultimately what you choose to make it.

  6. Amazing, just getting in to all this.

    Completely convinced I’m an empath – incredible sense of intuition led me here – glad to be amongst friends.

    Always feel slightly lost at the moment so I’m probably taking on a lot of emotion but I have been a clear shooter in the past just have to find my way back there.

    Will continue reading to reach this goal.

    Once did drugs to numb the thoughts – eventually found the solace inside but waters are muddied again now.

    Is this typical and how to I ensure that I’m not in danger – not that I’ve been unlucky enough to be seriously harmed due to my sometimes lost/confused nature – living off my intuition from time to time to time again.

    Does anyone get the fizzy brain feeling when they encounter an opposite? I think it happens in situations of complete confrontation?

    Thanks for creating this site – it is my starting point after also typing “opposite of narcissism” when I got an under average score on a test of narcissism.

    p.s. does anyone else get “psychic” feedback when they choose to do something that they weren’t sure they should do? Sometimes I get sharp brief pains as if my body is physically rebelling against my actions.

  7. Sandrina, I just stumbled across this site and although late to the conversation, I wanted to respond to you… I hope you found a haven from the storm of being an empath…or at least sometimes it feels like a storm. I have been going for long walks lately in order to reconnect with myself. I have been trying to eat better and get more sleep. Yes, sometimes these pains are not our own; listen to that and rest.

  8. Please forgive, I mean Sadrina…

  9. I have known for about a year now that I am an empath. For about 6 months nowI have known that my husband is a intellectual narcissist. Initially I was very angry. I’ve always just felt like he doesn’t love me. It’s just a strange feeling that I get where I feel the absence of love from him. We’ve been together for 10 years and I was convincing myself that I was being foolish. I realise now that he’s incapable of loving someone else. He’s a drug addict, an alcoholic and he recently cheated. I’m getting to the point where I’m viewing him as a non human. In the past 3 years I have become very selfish. I just realised that the whole world revolves around him and I became very stubborn and vowed to do things for myself again. In a sense I started becoming like him. I needed to. I have a plan to get out of this relationship in the next two years since I’m now studying towards my degree in education. Being with someone like this has shown me how strong I am. At times I feel like I’m in training for something. I’m glad that I recognised that I am with a narcissist so that I can avoid it in the future. Everything happens for a reason. I feel that knowing him pushed me to recognise my own needs because I was always doing things for other people.

  10. I’ve recently come to this conclusion, a few months ago, as it relates to my narcissistic wife. I see us as being two sides of the same coin. I’m beginning to believe that my wife is an Empath as well but made a different choice in using her gift.
    She tries to dominate her environment out of a deep feeling of emotional fear and insecurity. She reads peoples emotions but only in defense of herself and her agendas. For her, emotions and their expression are a sign of weakness; to be taken advantage of in others.
    I, on the other hand, now understand the gift i possess in being an empath. I can
    recognize negative feelings in others and use my gift to heal them. I have had issues in the past with not being able to recognize emotional vampires like my narcissist wife. I can now “thank my wife” for all that she has taught me about myself and my gift. We really are the same fundamentally but chose to go different routes based on oir experiences

  11. I’ve recently come to this conclusion, a few months ago, as it relates to my narcissistic wife. I see us as being two sides of the same coin. I’m beginning to believe that my wife is an Empath as well but made a different choice in using her gift.
    She tries to dominate her environment out of a deep feeling of emotional fear and insecurity. She reads peoples emotions but only in defense of herself and her agendas. For her, sensitive emotions and their expression are a sign of weakness to be taken advantage of in others because she rejects these emotions within herself.
    I, on the other hand, now understand the gift i possess in being an empath. I can
    recognize negative feelings in others and use my gift to heal them. The more i embrace my own sensitive emotions and feelings the more i cam sense them in others.
    I have had issues in the past with not being able to recognize emotional vampires like my narcissist wife. I can now “thank my wife” for all that she has taught me about myself and my gift. We really are the same fundamentally but chose to go different routes based on our life experiences.

  12. I had been raised by a narcissistic mother and an enabling father. My mother saw nothing around her, only her. She was the ignoring type. When empathy was required she would just give a blank stare and change the subject. I am an empath and have attracted NOTHING BUT NARCISSISTS in my life only left burned after giving to the point of exhaustion. Years later, people do not seem to understand when I tell them I never had a voice. I am a people pleaser and have let people walk on me. Our lives are hard as empaths and I have finally realized the silver lining in dealing with narcissists is we empaths can develop strength and knowledge from their abuse. I see them coming now and choose more wisely to be with people who are growing. My emotional calmness has been restored. Sometimes it takes a lifetime…I am still standing.

  13. I command all my energy be returned to me now, I release any energy that isn’t mine

  14. Reblogged this on PSYCHE CAFE and commented:
    This article is very interesting in reference to Adoptees. I feel a lot of us are either or depending on our coping strategy.

  15. In response to your speculation that empaths are like ballet dancers. Decades ago I worked in experimental psych and wondered about this too. In people with PTSD (and that includes children of abusive homes, which often are led by … narcissists), there is a symptom called hypervigilence, which is this marked ability to process micro-stimuli in the environment and evaluate dangers. (My work was looking at any neurological components).

    So, your speculation was spot on!

    So-called mind readers, etc., train themselves to read these very same micro-expressions in others. Only for them, they know what card someone picked out of a deck and don’t get quite so emotionally involved.

    In 2015, a tremendous crisis (driven by a professional narcissist) showed me that I had surrounded myself with people who were on some point in that spectrum. My family, my health, my life destroyed, it was time to figure out how to keep the little SOB’s (well, they were women) out of my life for once and for all.

    Empathy is a wonderful thing, but other people rarely need it as much as we think they do. Narcissists train us to believe we are responsible, and we take that to the outside world. When healthy people see that, it’s alarming because it’s either intrusive or needy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Knowing the Narcissist

Read and understand all about narcissists from the best source possible. A narcissist himself.

Butter Makes Your Pants Fall Off

Food is the Best Medicine and Fat is the best Food

Sarafina Bianco

Friends call me Fina.

Surviving Narcissistic Abuse

Moving forward towards freedom, hope, and happiness.

The Babushkas of Chernobyl

A story of three unlikely heroines from the most toxic place on Earth

No, Not Baby Anymore.

I know the pieces fit. . . cause I watched them fall away.

Emily L. Hauser - In My Head

Writer, social activist, a lot of Israel/Palestine, and general mental rambling

Dating a Sociopath

The truth will set you free!

The Belle Jar

"Let me live, love and say it well in good sentences." - Sylvia Plath

Dree Speaks Freely

Clearing My Thoughts. Speaking My Mind. On My Own Terms.

Psychopath Resistance

Learn how to recognize them. Then you can resist them.

Everyday Red Flags

The Discernment Project


Psychopathy Awareness

An Upturned Soul

Sometimes I Climb the Walls and Lie on the Ceiling

Silver Boundary

Stop the abuse and attract authentic love.

The 4 - Hour Body

An uncommon guide to rapid fat-loss, incredible sex, and becoming superhuman


Just another WordPress.com site


My mind in motion, reflecting the movies it plays.

b-R-o-K-e-N 101

Journal recovery from an emotional affair


Support for survivors of domestic violence, rape and fraud

Soul Healing Art

by Kimberly Harding

Rule of Stupid

Reading, writing and a-rhythmic tics

The Project: Me by Judy

The Tools I Wish I'd Known About Sooner

I Won't Take It

Life After an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

BroKen, Not Shattered!

Living a life with PTSD

Quotes from an Emotional Cheater

Remembering it all, one bullsh*t line at a time


Down to Earth Spirituality


Essays From the Cougar Den

Ladywithatruck's Blog

There is no rhyme or reason with a narcissist. Carrie gives you Reimer Reason

Deliberate Donkey

we're telling secrets here

My journey of healing from psychological abuse

psychological abuse is very prevalent in our day and age, though few know how to recognize it

Keep It Up, David!

I'm slimming down and not stopping now.


the lived experience of being dead inside

Phoenix Rising

"I hope the leaving is joyful; and I hope never to return." Frida Kahlo

Joyful Alive Woman

One Woman's Ongoing Journey of Healing from Family and Friendship Narcissism

KinkyLittleGirl - On Abuse and BDSM

A compendium of resources and thoughts about abuse in the BDSM world, and a lot about abuse in general that is useful regardless of one's sexual preferences.

After Narcissistic Abuse

There is Light, Life & Love


Just another WordPress.com site

Mel Joulwan : Well Fed

“Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.” ~ William Gibson

The Narcissistic Continuum

“Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.” ~ William Gibson


“Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.” ~ William Gibson

SlowBurn Personal Training Studios & The SlowBurn Fitness Revolution

“Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.” ~ William Gibson

The Paleo Diet – Robb Wolf on Paleolithic nutrition, intermittent fasting, and fitness

“Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.” ~ William Gibson

Psychopathyawareness's Blog

information about psychopaths

%d bloggers like this: