I became aware I was an empath, someone who feels other people’s emotions, sometime around 2010 or so. At the time, it was comforting to understand that there was an explanation for how I “just knew things” about people. Back then though, it didn’t seem connected to why I had a life filled with people who lied to me, cheated me, bullied me and took advantage of me. My life was an exercise in “walking on eggshells”; I knew that my narcissistic loved ones would attack me and do whatever they could to see that harm came to me, should I ruffle any feathers. I had become an expert in using my empathic skills to feel when circumstances might lead to an attack, so I became a reclusive doormat, a shell of my former self.
Over time, I understood that the narcissists had been attracted to not the real me, but the successful, confident persona that I showed the world. And even though that was the “real me” when we met, years of being subjected to the narcissist’s strategies for control such as passive-aggressive communication, triangulation, gaslighting, and projection led to a very misguided sense of self.
But what had attracted me to the narcissist? Although narcissists come from all walks of life, many have achieved positions of power and status and are attractive physically, so that part is understandable. But what makes a narcissist is their inability to have empathy for someone else. This is almost always the result of being narcissistically abused by someone as a child. The person abusing us neglects us, beats us, tortures us, and/or somehow makes us believe we are not worthy or there is something wrong with us. It is a vicious cycle that gets passed on from parent or caregiver to child and throughout generations. As children we then learn it is ok and even socially advantageous to get through life by lying, cheating stealing, and hurting each other in a multitude of ways. We learn how to ignore the little voices in our guts that tell us when something is not right and when something someone else does feels wrong.
If there has been even one adult in a narcissistically abused child’s life who can nurture their inborn empathy, it may be possible for that child to grow up and have healthy relationships. Sadly, many never get the needed support and go on to become narcissists themselves. And the cycle continues.
When I understood that it was my extreme empathy that was the real reason for the attraction, everything changed. I began to see my loved ones as the abused children they were, just trying to survive their narcissistic wounding and behaving in the only ways that had been taught to them. I began to try to elicit signs and feelings of caring and empathy from them.
My first effort at doing this was on an ex-spouse who was my original abuser and provoked rage so extreme that he went to great lengths to destroy my career, reputation, and relationship with our children. Twenty years later and I am still estranged from my children for no good reason and just beginning to rebuild my professional life. I concluded that “no contact” was the safest and best way to love this person from here on out.
More recently, another loved one has been demonstrating real empathy in the midst of the very troublesome behaviors of triangulation, projection and gaslighting. I had been able to look past his tendencies for passive aggressive communication and see his real intentions via his feelings (I literally “felt him” all the time), but with the addition of these new behaviors I could no longer coexist with him. Going “no contact” with him proved to be too painful and damaging for both of us, so I tried other strategies. The most helpful thing was to embrace the idea that like me, this man was himself a very gifted empath who had been narcissistically abused by an ex-spouse. The troublesome behaviors he had been exhibiting were the result of cultural conditioning and to act otherwise to him was socially unacceptable and very threatening.
I prayed long and hard for inspiration on how to best love this person. Here’s what I received:
- Don’t expect or demand more than he is able to do or give, while having gratitude for any signs of caring or empathy that appear.
- Make an effort to connect when there is empathy present.
- Remember that this person is a very valuable gift in your life.
- Call him out when troublesome behaviors erupt unless it is unsafe to do so. Using empathy helps me know when it is safe.
- Remember that these behaviors are not personally directed at you, despite how it feels or appears.
- Continue to practice excellent self-care.
- Love myself
- Create healthy boundaries. Short periods of “no contact” may be necessary.
- Resist the urge to get revenge or take advantage of him based on any narcissistic behaviors. This is likely just a projection aimed at me coming from him and serves as a message that I need to tighten up my boundaries.
The jury is still out whether a healthy relationship with him is possible. But I believe that with love as your foundation, anything is possible!