Have you ever felt undermined by a Narcissist’s dark empathy?
Have you ever felt undermined by a Narcissist’s dark empathy? Or was “dark empathy” a term that had not even appeared on your radar until now? The clue is in the name: dark empathy implies the Narcissistic art of using something that is – by its very nature good – into something harmful. Dark empathy, aka cognitive empathy, describes the black art of understanding and using your feelings, values and the way you work against you.
Narcissists get inside your head so effectively because they are so good at reading – and playing – you. Their ability to do that is exceptional.
Thinking about it reminded me of one of the more unconventional personal development seminars I went to, many years ago. Working in pairs with someone we didn’t know at all, we were meant to gaze into the other person’s eyes and “read” them.
My partner in this exercise couldn’t wait to get started: “I love this. I am great at this!” she said. “I am so empathic.” (Reader, she really was not. She actually had the gall to blame me because my feelings were not a match for her version of what I had to be feeling.)
I, on the other hand, winced as soon as I heard the brief. I expected to be terrible at it and I was.
How, I wondered, did I reconcile that failure with my client work where I am constantly working with my clients’ feelings?
The answer that I arrived at is that my work is all about attuning myself to clients’ feelings with a view to validating and honoring them. Dark empathy is a very different experience.
Dark empathy is different
And here is where it gets really weird. As I drifted off into a comparison between the way my abusive ex did empathy and the way I did it, I came up with an analogy about how dark empathy works. True, empathy – that is emotional and compassionate empathy – is all about tuning in to another person and holding a space for them to express themselves.
Dark empathy, on the other hand, is like hacking into someone’s private information and documents. Without a very good reason – such as a strong intuition that the owner was doing something seriously wrong – a principled person would not want to do that. But the dark empath would, of course, do it routinely. Because why not violate another person’s privacy, if doing so might produce something that you could use, against them, to your advantage?
When I shared my weekend musings with a client, she instantly responded:
“That is exactly what my now ex-husband did when we first met. He found my diary and read it from cover to cover.”
Mining for information
Only very much later did she realize that he had read it and mined all the information that he could find in it to destabilize and diminish her. Having identified and archived all her vulnerabilities, he married her and made a point of using every last one of them against her.
Now, this guy is a very elegant manipulator, very much more so than my own narcissistic ex. One psychological pressure point that the Diary Reader played quite brilliantly was “reasonableness”.
Not every Narcissist labors the “reasonable” angle as consistently and effectively as he did.
By rights, the idea of a Narcissist claiming to be the voice of reason should have been a bridge too far – even for a survivor of narcissistic abuse.
Except that it wasn’t.
The importance of reasonableness
Most of us who have grown up in an abusive home have had plenty of exposure to unreasonable and unloving behavior. At some level, we know that what we are living is not right and there has to be another, better way to do relationships and life.
But since we are not getting the kind of education by example that we need in our home, we have to make up for ourselves what good behavior would look like. So, for want of better, we end up creating our own avatar: The Reasonable Person.
The Reasonable Person, our avatar, is fair-minded and caring. They listen and respond fairly and appropriately. They have good judgement and a good heart. They are wonderfully impartial. They have something of the proverbial wisdom of Solomon.
We aspire to showing up in relationships as that Reasonable Person. (And we long to meet with the endorsement of The Reasonable Person.)
My client’s ex-husband knew to use her commitment to Reasonableness against her, like a talisman. He made a habit of attacking her emotionally, making outrageous, patently unfair demands of her… and then labelling her Unreasonable when she refused to kowtow to him.
Why we keep second-guessing ourselves
Given that we are not
Mr Diary Reader’s attacks left her, like so many other survivors – including myself – revisiting the whole, crazymaking scenario over and over again, to ascertain whether or not her position really was unreasonable. After all, who on earth would even make a claim like that if it wasn’t true…
(Except a Narcissist pursuing an agenda to do you down.)
He knew exactly what he was doing. Whereas she had to reconstruct every step along the way to that accusation of Unreasonableness to make sure that she had not violated her own code of conduct.
She hadn’t, of course.
But when had she ever been someone whose opinions (or feelings) mattered in the relationship?
So, how do you guard against dark empathy?
How do you guard against dark empathy
First off, you need to pick up on your own response. For so many of us, the sense that a dark empath so clearly gets us, triggers a chain reaction in us of vindication, celebration and unconditional trust. We think:
“Yea! They get me. They see me and they understand me. That means they must be just like me. They must share my feelings. That means we are probably soulmates.” And off we start to skip, metaphorically speaking, down that sunlit path to the Happily Ever After.
It could be time to put a good, sturdy, well padlocked gate on that sunlit path to prevent future dashes down it.
Instead, you need to bear in mind that the dark empath is the kind of person who reads you and then takes pains to position themselves at the head of the path, ready to grab your hand and rush you down it.
There’s no such thing as the Happily Ever After
Only very much later do you understand that there is no such thing as the Happily Ever After Path.
Rather, happiness is a one-day-at-a-time process that you journey through with someone who adds joy to your life every day, as they do to yours.
You guard against dark empathy in part by installing that visual in your mind and in part by asking two things:
- Yes, they get how I am feeling but what are they prepared to do foster my well-being?
- Does being around them leave me feeling better about myself? Do they help me to see what is great and lovable about me? Or are my good feelings about them and their place in my life?
Dark empathy is just another term for the way that a Narcissist worms their way inside your head to do harm. Your best defence from these dangerous people is to know, love and trust yourself. When you can do that, it will be much easier to see these people for what they are. Plus, you will be able to do the job of protecting yourself from them confidently. If you struggle not to be sucked into the Narcissist’s dark empathy and other mind games, I invite you to check out my Break Free Membership for the skills and tools you need to keep yourself safe.
Annie Kaszina, international Emotional Abuse Recovery specialist and award-winning author of 3 books designed to help women recognise and heal from toxic relationships so that they can build healthy, lasting relationships with the perfect partner for them, blogs about all aspects of abuse, understanding Narcissists and how to avoid them and building strong self-worth. To receive Annie’s blog direct to your Inbox just leave your details here.
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