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    darkened dreams labyrinthine's Avatar
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    Default Narcissism and Empathy

    This is a topic that has come to my mind mostly from observation of people throughout my life and some reading on psychology. It has been a point of interest to me to see how these two states of mind can interact and in some cases be confused. In both conditions, the concept of "self" and "other" becomes blurred. Those two concepts are the foundation of how we relate to self and the people around us. Our understanding of self and its equivalence to others is what we base our morals, socialization, and self-worth upon.

    When the line between self and other disintegrates, everything is experienced as part of the "self". For the narcissist, this can mean that the suffering of others only has value to the extent it can be internalized and experienced as the "self". I suspect it is even possible for an individual with narcissistic leanings to see themselves as an empath because when they encounter a person with migraine problems, suddenly, they have the problem as well. If someone is sensitive to stress, has digestive problems, etc., they internalize it as their own experience.

    The empath can also internalize these external cues and literally feel the pain of others, but the distinction comes in the manner in which the individual resolves the pain. The narcissist will require additional resources to sooth self and the empath will extend resources to sooth the other person in pain. The narcissist can live with someone who suffers from muscle pain, start to experience it for themselves, and then require the original person with the pain to give them more to help with the narcissists imaginary pain. The narcissist sees every want as their own and as yet another excuse to take more from others. The empath sees every want as a reason to eliminate pain in others, sometimes as great cost to self. When self suffers in the empath, they can sometimes not see it if they are too overcome with the pain of another person.

    Have you ever encountered either of these conditions in yourself or others? Have you noticed how the issue of the original pain is resolved for the narcissist or the empath?
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    Symbolic Herald Vasilisa's Avatar
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    Fia, I see what you are describing here, and at first blush I am not sure I have insight into this condition. I know it is not the interplay that you have described here, but bits of this remind me of a point of view I came across long ago about another paradoxical dynamic:
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    Quote Originally Posted by fia View Post
    This is a topic that has come to my mind mostly from observation of people throughout my life and some reading on psychology. It has been a point of interest to me to see how these two states of mind can interact and in some cases be confused. In both conditions, the concept of "self" and "other" becomes blurred. Those two concepts are the foundation of how we relate to self and the people around us. Our understanding of self and its equivalence to others is what we base our morals, socialization, and self-worth upon.

    When the line between self and other disintegrates, everything is experienced as part of the "self". For the narcissist, this can mean that the suffering of others only has value to the extent it can be internalized and experienced as the "self". I suspect it is even possible for an individual with narcissistic leanings to see themselves as an empath because when they encounter a person with migraine problems, suddenly, they have the problem as well. If someone is sensitive to stress, has digestive problems, etc., they internalize it as their own experience.

    The empath can also internalize these external cues and literally feel the pain of others, but the distinction comes in the manner in which the individual resolves the pain. The narcissist will require additional resources to sooth self and the empath will extend resources to sooth the other person in pain. The narcissist can live with someone who suffers from muscle pain, start to experience it for themselves, and then require the original person with the pain to give them more to help with the narcissists imaginary pain. The narcissist sees every want as their own and as yet another excuse to take more from others. The empath sees every want as a reason to eliminate pain in others, sometimes as great cost to self. When self suffers in the empath, they can sometimes not see it if they are too overcome with the pain of another person.

    Have you ever encountered either of these conditions in yourself or others? Have you noticed how the issue of the original pain is resolved for the narcissist or the empath?
    I think you mean to compare narcissism to codependency. IOW, assertiveness (healthy) is to narcissism (unhealthy) as empathy (healthy) is to codependency (unhealthy).

    To put it another way: Assertiveness and empathy are healthy and based on deliberate choice of behavior; whereas narcissism and codependency are unhealthy and compulsive.

    From Wikipedia, concerning codependency in particular:

    Codependency does not refer to all caring behavior or feelings, but only those that are excessive to an unhealthy degree. One of the distinctions is that healthy empathy and caregiving is motivated by conscious choice; whereas for codependents, their actions are compulsive, and they usually aren't able to weigh in the consequences of them or their own needs that they're sacrificing.
    Anyway, if you compare narcissim and codependency, then I agree with what you're saying. Both behaviors have boundary issues; both behaviors aim to control others to salve a personal need, etc. The two behaviors often end up dovetailed nicely in a relationship when they meet. Again, from Wikipedia:

    Codependents of narcissists as sometimes referred to as co-narcissists. Narcissists, with their ability to get others to buy into their vision and help them make it a reality, seek and attract partners who will put others' need before their own. Codependents can provide the narcissist with an obedient and attentive audience - the perfect backdrop. Among the reciprocally locking interactions of the pair, are the way the narcissist has an overpowering need to feel important and special, and the co-dependent has a strong need to help others feel that way.
    As for how a mutual interaction like this might resolve itself: Obviously the codependent can find him/herself sucked dry and abused. But similarly, the narcissist may find the relationship unsatisfying. The narcissist's need for "narcissistic supply" is insatiable, and the depleted codependent may not provide the necessary supply. So there may be a breakdown on either side of the equation.

    Anyway, the Wikipedia entries for "Narcissism" and "Codependency" have plenty of information on the subject.

    [ETA:] As for personal experiences:

    My last marriage was to a hoarder. Hoarding is often tied to narcissism. So I did some reading up on the subject of narcissism and then realized that I had to confront issues of codependency in my own behavior.

    Nowadays I'm much more attuned to narcissism. When I run into narcissism in various relationships in my life, it becomes a bit of a cat-and-mouse game. Sometimes you need to put up with such people in your life for one reason or another. After all, narcissism isn't a crime; it's just a person who can be difficult to get along with. So the question becomes: Assuming I don't want to end the relationship outright, how do I establish appropriate boundaries in order to coexist in a healthy manner as opposed to allowing the narcissist to trigger codependent behaviors in me?

    Like I say, it's a bit of a cat-and-mouse game; I'm feeling my way through such a relationship right now. But life is for learning, so whatever...
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    can't handcuff the wind Z Buck McFate's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by wiki quote
    One of the distinctions is that healthy empathy and caregiving is motivated by conscious choice; whereas for codependents, their actions are compulsive, and they usually aren't able to weigh in the consequences of them or their own needs that they're sacrificing.
    To get perhaps nitpicky, I think it's oversimplifying too much to simply say that one is "conscious" and the other is "compulsive". It's about boundaries- and people who are directed (or, trained? not sure of best term to use here) during childhood to construct appropriate boundaries around themselves can instinctively rely on their own sensibilities where empathy is concerned. It's not that they're more "conscious", it's that they do not need to become especially conscious of their instinctive empathetic inclinations because their own tendencies do not cause them (or others) distress; as the saying goes, it's not 'broke' so they don't have to fix it. But those with a flawed sense of boundaries (as in codepedency- perceiving oneself as merely the extension of someone else, self worth is based too much on the service one can be to others) can't rely entirely on their instinct where empathy is concerned because they'll end up drained of their own inner resources- they must become conscious of their (compulsive) instinctive empathetic inclinations in order to reset them.


    Quote Originally Posted by fia View Post
    The empath can also internalize these external cues and literally feel the pain of others, but the distinction comes in the manner in which the individual resolves the pain. The narcissist will require additional resources to sooth self and the empath will extend resources to sooth the other person in pain. The narcissist can live with someone who suffers from muscle pain, start to experience it for themselves, and then require the original person with the pain to give them more to help with the narcissists imaginary pain. The narcissist sees every want as their own and as yet another excuse to take more from others. The empath sees every want as a reason to eliminate pain in others, sometimes as great cost to self. When self suffers in the empath, they can sometimes not see it if they are too overcome with the pain of another person.
    I think I have seen something like this where the narcissist has a self image of being empathetic. They need to project an image of being someone who cares (one which they believe about themselves), and yet they don't have the internal resources to actually care (because narcissism is essentially coming from a scarcity of authentic empathy/compassion)- so their needs must 'trump' the needs of the other to veil (from themselves and others) their own inability to dish out authentic empathy/compassion.

    eta:

    Have you ever encountered either of these conditions in yourself or others? Have you noticed how the issue of the original pain is resolved for the narcissist or the empath?

    As for personal experience, I lean towards the codependent end of the spectrum. One of the things I've read about healing the original pain (on the codependent end, not sure how the narcissistic end should do this) is revisiting childhood events that seem like prime examples of how I was 'trained' to ignore the self (and to attend to someone else's feelings) in order to be acceptable- and sort of 're-parent' myself in that situation, to teach myself to give my own feelings the acknowledgment/acceptance they would have been given under more ideal circumstances.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Z Buck McFate View Post
    To get perhaps nitpicky, I think it's oversimplifying too much to simply say that one is "conscious" and the other is "compulsive". It's about boundaries- and people who are directed (or, trained? not sure of best term to use here) during childhood to construct appropriate boundaries around themselves can instinctively rely on their own sensibilities where empathy is concerned. It's not that they're more "conscious", it's that they do not need to become especially conscious of their instinctive empathetic inclinations because their own tendencies do not cause them (or others) distress; as the saying goes, it's not 'broke' so they don't have to fix it. But those with a flawed sense of boundaries (as in codepedency- perceiving oneself as merely the extension of someone else, self worth is based too much on the service one can be to others) can't rely entirely on their instinct where empathy is concerned because they'll end up drained of their own inner resources- they must become conscious of their (compulsive) instinctive empathetic inclinations in order to reset them.
    I think there is more "conscious choice" in healthy empathy than in codependency. A person with healthy empathy can choose to turn off that empathy if the external demand for support is exorbitant or not warranted by the situation or otherwise doesn't ring true; whereas the codependent is kind of Pavlovian about such appeals: They hear the bell ring and they salivate.

    I think I have seen something like this where the narcissist has a self image of being empathetic. They need to project an image of being someone who cares (one which they believe about themselves), and yet they don't have the internal resources to actually care (because narcissism is essentially coming from a scarcity of authentic empathy/compassion)- so their needs must 'trump' the needs of the other to veil (from themselves and others) their own inability to dish out authentic empathy/compassion.
    Another aspect where the narcissist may appear to be "empathetic": Narcissists don't have boundaries; they don't see the codependent person as separate from themselves. When they spot a possible codependent partner, they may in fact study, stalk, and court the codependent as part of the process of "absorbing" them. Thus, during that initial phase, the narcissist may be the seducer and the codependent person may be the recipient of attentions. But once the deal is done, the relationship flips and the narcissist becomes the center of both their worlds.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Z Buck McFate View Post
    As for personal experience, I lean towards the codependent end of the spectrum. One of the things I've read about healing the original pain (on the codependent end, not sure how the narcissistic end should do this) is revisiting childhood events that seem like prime examples of how I was 'trained' to ignore the self (and to attend to someone else's feelings) in order to be acceptable- and sort of 're-parent' myself in that situation, to teach myself to give my own feelings the acknowledgment/acceptance they would have been given under more ideal circumstances.
    That's too Freudian and slow-moving for my tastes. Not to say that you're wrong; you're probably right. But I tend not to worry about such things until I find myself having to deal with a narcissist in real time. When that happens, I say to myself, "Well, I've tried X, Y, and Z in the past with narcissists, and those approaches haven't worked. So let me try to generate some new approaches, IOW, establish my boundaries in a new configuration..."

    IOW, I try to control the panic, use trial-and-error, and hope the relationship doesn't blow up in my face.
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    can't handcuff the wind Z Buck McFate's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by YUI View Post
    I think there is more "conscious choice" in healthy empathy than in codependency. A person with healthy empathy can choose to turn off that empathy if the external demand for support is exorbitant or not warranted by the situation or otherwise doesn't ring true; whereas the codependent is kind of Pavlovian about such appeals: They hear the bell ring and they salivate.
    It's like there are two different things going on here: being conscious/unaware of boundaries is one tangent, and being conscious/unaware of empathy is another. I don't see the condition of being directed/trained during childhood to instinctively recognize boundaries in a healthy way as being "conscious" so much as being lucky. I don't think there's anything particularly "conscious" about having a more reliable autopilot- I've known people who had very good boundaries for themselves, yet I wouldn't say they made more conscious choices where empathy is concerned. *BUT* again, I'm probably nitpicking semantics here.

    [eta:] I guess a clearer way of saying this is that I don't think "healthy" = "conscious", necessarily. I think empathy is a Pavlovian-like response in all of us (which is precisely why the ability to empathize must be intentionally cultivated to make it stronger- because it is such a Pavlovian-like internal response)- it's just that it's 'broken' in people with boundary issues, the 'bell' doesn't serve its purpose effectively. Codependents feel a disproportionate surplus of empathy (which as fia suggest below, at some point it stops effective as empathy), and narcissists feel a disproportionate deficit- while people with healthy boundaries feel an appropriate amount for the given situation. Just because it's a healthy amount in the latter doesn't mean it's done consciously though.
    Last edited by Z Buck McFate; 01-17-2015 at 10:27 AM. Reason: further clarify
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    darkened dreams labyrinthine's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by YUI View Post
    I think you mean to compare narcissism to codependency. IOW, assertiveness (healthy) is to narcissism (unhealthy) as empathy (healthy) is to codependency (unhealthy).

    To put it another way: Assertiveness and empathy are healthy and based on deliberate choice of behavior; whereas narcissism and codependency are unhealthy and compulsive.
    I appreciated reading your entire post because it is a well thought out and reasonable way to discuss the issue. I think your approach is worth exploring more, but I also wonder about some details of the categories.

    Narcissism can be expressed in non-assertive ways, although it is similar to assertiveness because it tends to accomplish getting what is desired by oneself. It is just unhealthy because it disregards the needs of others. A healthy assertive person can use their force of personality to get what they personally need and to help others get what they need. Also, a healthy person is happiest when those they care about are happy and healthy.

    From what I understand, narcissism can be based on either grandiosity of self and/or a persecution complex. The second form can make a person skilled at using pity for manipulation, and will also tend towards passive-aggression. I'm not sure that fits the category of assertiveness, but those behaviors are not uncommon in narcissists.

    The comparison of empathy that loses the sense of self to co-dependency could have more direct overlay, although the co-dependent behaviors of enabling the destructive behavior of others is demonstrating limited empathy in one way. I'll have to think about that aspect more. What do you think?
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    Quote Originally Posted by fia View Post
    I appreciated reading your entire post because it is a well thought out and reasonable way to discuss the issue. I think your approach is worth exploring more, but I also wonder about some details of the categories.
    Thanks. Your threadstarter popped up at a good time for me. As I said in my first post, I'm having to deal with a narcissistic person in my life right now. It's not a romantic thing; the narcissist in question is just a gatekeeper for something I want so I have to interact with them even though I would prefer not to.

    Anyway, it means that the subject is currently on my mind.

    Quote Originally Posted by fia View Post
    Narcissism can be expressed in non-assertive ways, although it is similar to assertiveness because it tends to accomplish getting what is desired by oneself. It is just unhealthy because it disregards the needs of others. A healthy assertive person can use their force of personality to get what they personally need and to help others get what they need. Also, a healthy person is happiest when those they care about are happy and healthy.
    To me, the difference between healthy/assertive and unhealthy/narcissistic is like the difference between night and day. It's like the difference between a healthy social drinker and a toxic alcoholic.

    The assertive person is direct; you can negotiate with them; X means X and Y means Y. By comparison, the narcissistic person is toxic: They are manipulative or pushy or full of hidden agendas. So you're always having to guess what they're up to and put up barriers. Negotiating with narcissists is slippery, and the terms keep changing; things keep dropping through loopholes. At best, you try to keep the narcissist at arm's distance. Or you just drop them and stay away from them.

    That's my experience of the difference: You can let healthy/assertive people into your life because you can negotiate terms with them. By comparison, you have to kind of live in parallel with unhealthy/narcissistic people and try to maintain your distance and not get sucked into their weird agendas. To repeat the earlier simile, dealing with a narcissist is like dealing with an alcoholic: It's doable, but you have to keep them at a distance so that the toxic part of their life won't screw up your life as well.

    Quote Originally Posted by fia View Post
    From what I understand, narcissism can be based on either grandiosity of self and/or a persecution complex. The second form can make a person skilled at using pity for manipulation, and will also tend towards passive-aggression. I'm not sure that fits the category of assertiveness, but those behaviors are not uncommon in narcissists.
    Here's an article that goes into some of the differences: Are we more narcissistic than ever before? - Features - Health & Families - The Independent

    The article distinguishes between
    1) Grandiose narcissism = divas, "stars," people living large
    2) Vulnerable narcissism = big sense of entitlement but with low self-esteem = internet troll, hoarder, person with prickly personality
    3) Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)

    As for myself, I just kind of go by the distinction that I raised earlier: Can I negotiate and be direct with the people in my life, or do I find myself being pushed about, manipulated, or end up getting caught up in head games?

    Everyone has baggage, and there are lots of different diagnoses that can lead to manipulativeness and hidden agendas. But as a rule of thumb goes, that distinction (direct vs. manipulative) seems to help me sort out a lot of the problem people early on.

    Quote Originally Posted by fia View Post
    The comparison of empathy that loses the sense of self to co-dependency could have more direct overlay, although the co-dependent behaviors of enabling the destructive behavior of others is demonstrating limited empathy in one way. I'll have to think about that aspect more. What do you think?
    The distinction between healthy/empathy and unhealthy/codependent is a bit tricky for me, because it strikes closer to home for me. I look at narcissists from the outside, whereas I have to consider my own agenda when I talk about codependency.

    Also, I think there is less analysis of codependency. Codependents are just kind of seen as kindhearted suckers and saps who fall into the clutches of narcissists and abusers and get sucked dry. The common wisdom seems to be that if you just get them away from the narcissists, codependents will be fine.

    But I think codependents can be as agenda-ridden as narcissists. I don't really consider myself as all that empathetic. I can blow off a lot of pain and suffering around me. It's just that some certain kinds of distress signals really strike a chord with me, and I find myself running to people's aid unthinkingly and reflexively. But that means the agenda is about me and not them. And in fact I find that my assistance can be interfering and obnoxious to the recipient. IOW, in my own way I can be as big a control freak as the narcissist.

    So I look on it as something that I have to keep an eye on in myself and question my own motives. I shouldn't just assume that what I do is automaticallly "good" simply because I'm acting on the side of the angels and coming to someone's assistance.

    I hesitate to say too much more; I don't want to make the discussion about me. I would just refer you back to the Wikipedia article on "Codependency." It should be clear from the Wikipedia article that there's more baggage entwined with the concept of codependency than simply an overabundance of empathy.
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    Quote Originally Posted by fia View Post
    Have you ever encountered either of these conditions in yourself or others? Have you noticed how the issue of the original pain is resolved for the narcissist or the empath?
    I have encountered and inhabited both conditions in myself, and I have come to see them as two manifestations of the same trait. I cannot articulate a name for that trait. It's an inner conflict that may always be there. As the story goes, each day presents a decision: which side will I feed?
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