Part one of this article outlined some qualities typical to each of the three major types of narcissist (grandiose, high-functioning and fragile/vulnerable) as well as narcissistic supply. Part two looks briefly at the characteristics of an empath (the narcissist’s diametric opposite) and provides tips for self-care and survival.
If a narcissist is typically self-involved, then it makes sense they would naturally be drawn to empaths, who are deeply caring, loyal and highly sensitive people. Note that highly sensitive can mean emotive, but also attuned to the emotions of others. Empaths frequently put others’ needs above their own, making it difficult for them to be assertive or set boundaries. Consequently, they are a narcissist’s delight – a ready source of narcissistic supply as well as someone to influence or control.
Not only do empaths dislike upsetting others, they feel a genuine need to help. And so, the empath is attracted to the narcissist just as much as the narcissist is attracted to the empath. While some people would just see a narcissist as boastful or self-indulgent, an empath sees both their intense charisma and their brokenness. This heady combination can be a real draw-card at first; however the empath may soon feel trapped between the need to keep trying to make things work and the desire to escape the narcissist’s influence.
For those who identify so closely with others that they’ve lost their sense of self, leaving is almost impossible. This mutually destructive relationship is known as co-dependency, which is characterised by denial and excessive compliance. However, even for empaths with a strong sense of self, leaving a narcissistic relationship (be it platonic, familial, professional or romantic) can be difficult. Being highly sensitive and conscientious, the empath is already likely to have high levels of guilt about the relationship’s dysfunctionality. And, needing to keep the empath in the subservient position, the narcissist is likely to take advantage of this – possibly through aggression and fear, but more often through passive-aggression and guilt-tripping; the empath’s Achilles’ heel.
In these situations, Dr Burgemeester strongly advocates for no contact, however this is not always possible. Parents, children and colleagues are not so easy to leave. For those relationships we must work around, narcissism and trauma expert Ross Rosenberg has developed the ‘observe don’t absorb’ technique. Additionally, the High Conflict Institute has published some survival tips, and Higher Perspectives have listed eight simple phrases for responding to manipulators.
This excerpt from an article published by the Open Mind offers a slightly different perspective:
“So many articles out there talk about ‘protecting’ yourself from narcissists. Unfortunately this language promotes the disempowering notion that ‘other people are out to get you.’ They’re not. People act within the limits of their conscious capacity, and sometimes that involves hurting others. The more you perceive yourself as a ‘victim’ of narcissists/narcissism, the less capable you’ll be of truly owning your personal power as an empath….The [best] way to regain your personal power…is learning how to respect your needs, desires and boundaries.”
This usually begins by being aware of and trusting your instinctive responses to others’ behaviour. Sometimes the behaviour and corresponding emotional reactions are obvious, but often they are subtle and confusing. For empaths who can’t quite put their finger on what is happening, here are some signs to watch out for:
- There is something ‘too good to be true’ about the connection – the other party escalates the relationships at a pace you feel uncomfortable with, but because they can’t seem to get enough of you, it’s incredibly difficult to resist.
- There are attempts to turn you against or isolate you from your family/friends or you are never given the opportunity to meet their family/friends.
- You feel accountable for the other party’s happiness, anger or sadness. They have cast you as both the source of their redemption and their downfall, while taking no responsibility for their choices or emotions.
- You notice inconsistencies in what you’re being told or have a ‘gut-feeling’ that things don’t add up. Attempts to clarify details or requests for more information are deflected with ease.
- The other party attempts to gaslight you – this is provocation through disturbing statements or actions followed by a claim that you’re being over-sensitive, crazy or overly emotional. This is often done because the narcissist needs turmoil they themselves have manufactured to feel secure and in control.
- You are told stories about how badly they have been betrayed in the past. This can be genuine, but can also be used as a manipulation tactic. If in doubt, try and have the story corroborated. Be prepared for the narcissist to go on the attack (aggressively or passive-aggressively) if you question them or muddy the waters even further with more outlandish tales.
- You are frequently ‘built-up’ by positive connection and ‘torn-down’ by punishment or withholding – there’s a sense of being overwhelmed and empty by turns.
- You feel rushed into making decisions or ‘forgiving’ someone when you’re not ready to, just to keep the peace.
- The other party is unreliable – comes and goes as they please, with little concern for others.
- You feel unable to say ‘no’ or your boundaries are often tested in an attempt to change them – in their favour of course.
- You feel accountable for almost every interaction/argument.
- There is an overwhelming sense of drama. Despite constantly walking on eggshells and a growing number of un-met needs, there is a deep desire to keep trying to make it work.
Narcissistic Support offers a series of videos detailing these and other red-flags, as well as messages about healing and support.
In my experience, re-gaining personal power begins with seeing where it has disappeared. This requires objectivity and courage, but it’s certainly possible. The empath’s greatest strength lies in what others perceive as a weakness – their deeply caring, sensitive nature. While this makes them vulnerable to narcissists, it is precisely these qualities that empower empaths to heal and foster healthier connections. I’ll close with my favourite quote from this Narcissistic Support video:
“The whole thing with having your life blown apart, when there are all these pieces of your life around your feet, is that you get to choose which pieces you want to pick up and rebuild with.”
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