Empathy and Personality Disorders

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What is Empathy?


Normal people use a variety of abstract concepts and psychological constructs to relate to other persons. Emotions are such modes of inter-relatedness. Empathy may be an intuitive mode applied to the minds of other people, yielding an intersubjective agreement. Narcissists and psychopaths are different. Their "equipment" is lacking. They understand only one language: self-interest. Their inner dialog and private language revolve around the constant measurement of utility. They regard others as mere objects, instruments of gratification, and representations of functions.


This deficiency renders the narcissist and psychopath rigid and socially dysfunctional. They don't bond - they become dependent (on narcissistic supply, on drugs, on adrenaline rushes). They seek pleasure by manipulating their dearest and nearest or even by destroying them, the way a child interacts with his toys. Like people on the austistic spectrum, they fail to properly interpret or even grasp cues: their interlocutor's body language, the subtleties of speech, or social etiquette. 


Narcissists and psychopaths lack empathy. Empathy requires both the suspension of disbelief, indeed of one’s very existence (by assuming someone else’s identity if only for a moment, like actors do) and the surrender of control (by allowing other people to dictate how one feels). Both feats go against the grain of narcissists, let alone psychopaths. In the case of the narcissist, he has already suppressed his true self. To also suspend his False Self (to make room for the Other) would amount to self-annihilation.


It is safe to say that the same applies to such patients who are co-diagnosed (co-morbid) with other personality disorders, notably Schizoid, Paranoid, Borderline, Avoidant, and Schizotypal.

(continued below)

This article appears in my book "Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited"

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Empathy lubricates the wheels of interpersonal relationships. The Encyclopaedia Britannica (2011 edition) defines empathy as:

"The ability to imagine oneself in another's place and understand the other's feelings, desires, ideas, and actions. It is a term coined in the early 20th century, equivalent to the German Einfühlung and modelled on "sympathy." The term is used with special (but not exclusive) reference to aesthetic experience. The most obvious example, perhaps, is that of the actor or singer who genuinely feels the part he is performing. With other works of art, a spectator may, by a kind of introjection, feel himself involved in what he observes or contemplates. The use of empathy is an important part of the counselling technique developed by the American psychologist Carl Rogers."

This is how empathy is defined in "Psychology - An Introduction" (Ninth Edition) by Charles G. Morris, Prentice Hall, 1996:

"Closely related to the ability to read other people's emotions is empathy - the arousal of an emotion in an observer that is a vicarious response to the other person's situation... Empathy depends not only on one's ability to identify someone else's emotions but also on one's capacity to put oneself in the other person's place and to experience an appropriate emotional response. Just as sensitivity to non-verbal cues increases with age, so does empathy: The cognitive and perceptual abilities required for empathy develop only as a child matures... (page 442)

In empathy training, for example, each member of the couple is taught to share inner feelings and to listen to and understand the partner's feelings before responding to them. The empathy technique focuses the couple's attention on feelings and requires that they spend more time listening and less time in rebuttal." (page 576).

Empathy is the cornerstone of morality.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011 Edition:

"Empathy and other forms of social awareness are important in the development of a moral sense. Morality embraces a person's beliefs about the appropriateness or goodness of what he does, thinks, or feels... Childhood is ... the time at which moral standards begin to develop in a process that often extends well into adulthood. The American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg hypothesized that people's development of moral standards passes through stages that can be grouped into three moral levels...

At the third level, that of postconventional moral reasoning, the adult bases his moral standards on principles that he himself has evaluated and that he accepts as inherently valid, regardless of society's opinion. He is aware of the arbitrary, subjective nature of social standards and rules, which he regards as relative rather than absolute in authority.

Thus the bases for justifying moral standards pass from avoidance of punishment to avoidance of adult disapproval and rejection to avoidance of internal guilt and self-recrimination. The person's moral reasoning also moves toward increasingly greater social scope (i.e., including more people and institutions) and greater abstraction (i.e., from reasoning about physical events such as pain or pleasure to reasoning about values, rights, and implicit contracts)."

"... Others have argued that because even rather young children are capable of showing empathy with the pain of others, the inhibition of aggressive behaviour arises from this moral affect rather than from the mere anticipation of punishment. Some scientists have found that children differ in their individual capacity for empathy, and, therefore, some children are more sensitive to moral prohibitions than others...”

“Young children's growing awareness of their own emotional states, characteristics, and abilities leads to empathy--i.e., the ability to appreciate the feelings and perspectives of others. Empathy and other forms of social awareness are in turn important in the development of a moral sense... Another important aspect of children's emotional development is the formation of their self-concept, or identity--i.e., their sense of who they are and what their relation to other people is.”

“According to Lipps's concept of empathy, a person appreciates another person's reaction by a projection of the self into the other. In his Ästhetik, 2 vol. (1903-06; 'Aesthetics'), he made all appreciation of art dependent upon a similar self-projection into the object."

(continued below)

This article appears in my book "Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited"

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Empathy: Social Conditioning or Instinct?

This may well be the key. Empathy has little to do with the person with whom we empathize (the empathee). It may simply be the result of conditioning and socialization. In other words, when we hurt someone, we don't experience his or her pain. We experience OUR pain. Hurting somebody hurts US. The reaction of pain is provoked in US by OUR own actions. We have been taught a learned response: to feel pain when we hurt someone. 

We attribute feelings, sensations and experiences to the object of our actions. It is the psychological defence mechanism of projection. Unable to conceive of inflicting pain upon ourselves - we displace the source. It is the other's pain that we are feeling, we keep telling ourselves, not our own.

Additionally, we have been taught to feel responsible for our fellow beings (guilt). So, we also experience pain whenever another person claims to be anguished. We feel guilty owing to his or her condition, we feel somehow accountable even if we had nothing to do with the whole affair.

In sum, to use the example of pain:

When we see someone hurting, we experience pain for two reasons:

1. Because we feel guilty or somehow responsible for his or her condition

2. It is a learned response: we experience our own pain and project it on the empathee.

We communicate our reaction to the other person and agree that we both share the same feeling (of being hurt, of being in pain, in our example). This unwritten and unspoken agreement is what we call empathy.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica:

"Perhaps the most important aspect of children's emotional development is a growing awareness of their own emotional states and the ability to discern and interpret the emotions of others. The last half of the second year is a time when children start becoming aware of their own emotional states, characteristics, abilities, and potential for action; this phenomenon is called self-awareness... (coupled with strong narcissistic behaviours and traits - SV)...

This growing awareness of and ability to recall one's own emotional states leads to empathy, or the ability to appreciate the feelings and perceptions of others. Young children's dawning awareness of their own potential for action inspires them to try to direct (or otherwise affect) the behaviour of others...

...With age, children acquire the ability to understand the perspective, or point of view, of other people, a development that is closely linked with the empathic sharing of others' emotions...

One major factor underlying these changes is the child's increasing cognitive sophistication. For example, in order to feel the emotion of guilt, a child must appreciate the fact that he could have inhibited a particular action of his that violated a moral standard. The awareness that one can impose a restraint on one's own behaviour requires a certain level of cognitive maturation, and, therefore, the emotion of guilt cannot appear until that competence is attained."

Still, empathy may be an instinctual REACTION to external stimuli that is fully contained within the empathor and then projected onto the empathee. This is clearly demonstrated by "inborn empathy". It is the ability to exhibit empathy and altruistic behaviour in response to facial expressions. Newborns react this way to their mother's facial expression of sadness or distress.

This serves to prove that empathy has very little to do with the feelings, experiences or sensations of the other (the empathee). Surely, the infant has no idea what it is like to feel sad and definitely not what it is like for his mother to feel sad. In this case, it is a complex reflexive reaction. Later on, empathy is still rather reflexive, the result of conditioning.

The 1999 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica quoted some fascinating research that supports the model I propose:

"An extensive series of studies indicated that positive emotion feelings enhance empathy and altruism. It was shown by the American psychologist Alice M. Isen that relatively small favours or bits of good luck (like finding money in a coin telephone or getting an unexpected gift) induced positive emotion in people and that such emotion regularly increased the subjects' inclination to sympathize or provide help.

Several studies have demonstrated that positive emotion facilitates creative problem solving. One of these studies showed that positive emotion enabled subjects to name more uses for common objects. Another showed that positive emotion enhanced creative problem solving by enabling subjects to see relations among objects (and other people - SV) that would otherwise go unnoticed. A number of studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of positive emotion on thinking, memory, and action in pre-school and older children."

If empathy increases with positive emotion, then it has little to do with the empathee (the recipient or object of empathy) and everything to do with the empathor (the person who does the empathizing).

As Paul Bloom notes in his contrarian essay, “The Baby in the Well”, published in the New-Yorker (May 20, 2013), empathy is a blunt, biased, and stereotypical tool, ill-suited for guiding the design of public policy, which ought to be partial only to justice and constructive outcomes. We bestow our empathy on those who most resemble us and on identifiable victims who garner the most media attention. Empathy for individual sufferers blinds us to the overall picture and provokes in us the base instincts of retribution and vengeance. It distorts decision-making: thinking with one’s heart rather than one’s mind is bound to yield catastrophic consequences. This is precisely why we delegate the weighing of empathy and its implementation to faceless, bureaucratic institutions. They are less likely to be swayed by prejudice and preconception. They are more likely to optimize resources. In the long-run, they benefit the many, not the few.

Lidija Rangelovska suggested the intriguing possibility that empathy evolved to allow us to learn from other people’s experiences by tapping into their inner world. This ability grants us a tremendous evolutionary advantage as individuals and as a species.

(continued below)

This article appears in my book "Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited"

Click HERE to buy the print edition from Amazon (click HERE to buy a copy dedicated by the author)

Click HERE to buy the print edition from Barnes and Noble

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Click HERE to buy electronic books (e-books) and video lectures (DVDs) about narcissists, psychopaths, and abuse in relationships

Click HERE to buy the ENTIRE SERIES of sixteen electronic books (e-books) about narcissists, psychopaths, and abuse in relationships




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Cold Empathy vs. Warm Empathy and the Concept of “Uncanny Valley”

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“His heart was two sizes too small”

(How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss)

Contrary to widely held views, Narcissists and Psychopaths may actually possess empathy. They may even be hyper-empathic, attuned to the minutest signals emitted by their victims and endowed with a penetrating "X-ray vision". They tend to abuse their empathic skills by employing them exclusively for personal gain, the extraction of narcissistic supply, or in the pursuit of antisocial and sadistic goals. They regard their ability to empathize as another weapon in their arsenal. There are two possible pathological reactions to childhood abuse and trauma: codependence and narcissism. They both involve fantasy as a defense mechanism: the codependent has a pretty realistic assessment of herself, but her view of others is fantastic; the narcissist’s self-image and self-perception are delusional and grandiose, but his penetrating view of others is bloodcurdlingly accurate.

I suggest to label the narcissist’s and psychopath's version of empathy: "cold empathy", akin to the "cold emotions" felt by psychopaths. The cognitive element of empathy is there, but not so its emotional correlate. It is, consequently, a barren, detached, and cerebral kind of intrusive gaze, devoid of compassion and a feeling of affinity with one's fellow humans.

To clarify: I propose a tripartite model of empathy, roughly corresponding to Freud’s postulated id, ego, and superego. In this model, normal empathy is comprised of three components: instinctual-reflexive, emotional, and cognitive. Children develop empathy in three phases which correspond to these three components, constructing the emotional and cognitive tiers upon an instinctual firmament. In adults, cognitive empathy always goes hand in hand with the instinctual element and the emotional correlate/component.

Cold empathy is not the same as merely cognitive empathy, though. It is intuitive: it is the residual instinctual component coupled with cognitive empathy, but divorced from and leapfrogging the emotional constituent. Cold empathy is the ossified consequence of “arrested empathy”. It is a predator's "empathy". It is all about resonance, not about "putting yourself in other people's shoes".

Narcissists and psychopaths also appear to be “empathizing” with their possessions: objects, pets, and their sources of narcissistic supply or material benefits (often their nearest and dearest, significant others, or “friends” and associates). But this is not real empathy: it is a mere projection of the narcissist’s or psychopath’s own insecurities and fears, needs and wishes, fantasies and priorities. This kind of displayed, sometimes ostentatious “empathy” usually vanishes the minute its subject ceases to play a role in the narcissist’s or psychopath’s life and his psychodynamic processes.

Cold Empathy evokes the concept of “Uncanny Valley”, coined in 1970 by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. Mori suggested that people react positively to androids (humanlike robots) for as long as they differ from real humans in meaningful and discernible ways. But the minute these contraptions come to resemble humans uncannily, though imperfectly, human observers tend to experience repulsion, revulsion, and other negative emotions, including fear.

The same applies to psychopathic narcissists: they are near-perfect imitations of humans, but, lacking empathy and emotions, they are not exactly there. Psychopaths and narcissists strike their interlocutors as being some kind of “alien life-forms” or “artificial intelligence”, in short: akin to humanoid robots, or androids. When people come across narcissists or psychopaths the Uncanny Valley reaction kicks in: people feel revolted, scared, and repelled. They can’t put the finger on what it is that provokes these negative reactions, but, after a few initial encounters, they tend to keep their distance.

At the other extreme of this spectrum, we find “empaths” whose super- or hyper- empathy amounts to a kind of “Empathic Personality Disorder”: their overabundant empathy leads them to ignore, deny, and suppress their own personality, needs, wishes, desires, dreams, and priorities in order to cater to the emotional requirements of significant others (or, in some cases, of total strangers). Empaths are not necessarily codependent or even people-pleasers: they are simply overwhelmed by their resurgent empathy, by their “exposed nerve ends” to the point of self-suspension. There is no merger or fusion with the recipients of their ministrations and commiseration - only a shared emotional ambience or a shared emotional psychosis.

Self-declared "empaths" are narcissistic individuals who trumpet their alleged hypersensitivity as a grandiose claim to uniqueness and victimhood. "Empath" is a nonsense label hyped online but with zero clinical significance. Everyone is possessed of empathy - even narcissists and psychopaths ("cold empathy"). Everyone is, therefore, an "empath"

Admittedly, there are Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs) around: their empathy is so extreme that it renders them "skinless": they cannot firewall others emotions and pain and gets flooded and dystegulated. But HSPs are extremely few and far between - not a dime a dozen. They are also utterly unlikely to expose themselves online: they tend to be inordinately introverted, schizoid, and avoidant.

HSP is not to be confused with the neurological condition Sensory Processing Sensitivity.

The online forums where self-styled "empaths" congregate are cesspools of malice and dysempathy, oneupmanship and spite, delusional fantasies and competitive, professional victimhood. Based on anecdotal observations only, most "empaths" strike me as collapsed or covert narcissists who had been out-narcissized and abused by overt narcissists. Their self-imputed "sensitivity" is merely a manifestation of narcissistic rage following a series of narcissistic injuries.

"Empath", "super-empath" - and, now, "(super)nova empath" - are self-aggrandizing labels used by covert narcissists online as they perpetuate and leverage their newfound eternal pro victim status to garner attention (and, sometimes, profit).

To prove my point conclusively, join the cesspits that pass for empath support forums and innocently dare to suggest that someone there is not an empath. Or that she may have had a role to play in the relationship (starting with her flawed mate selection).

You will instantly become the recipient of every form of abuse and malevolence known to man (or woman), far more egregious than anything you have ever endured from your narcissist. Nothing worse than the narcissistic rage or passive-aggression of covert narcissists (er, sorry, empaths).

Read More:

Hepper E. G., Hart, C. M., & Sedikides, C. (in press). Moving Narcissus: Can narcissists be empathic? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Acquired - as opposed to congenital - aphantasia is the gradually developing inability to conjure up mental imagery in the mind's eye. Aphantasic people can think or conceive of an object - but never imagine it.

Narcissists are like that when it comes to other people. They have empathy aphantasia: they can analyze and understand others but never visualize them as multi-dimensional fellow humans. They have only cold (reflexive and cognitive) empathy but not the emotional resonance that normally goes with it.

So, narcissists fail to construct a mentalist theory of mind (a theory about how other minds operate). They are not privy to the intersubjective agreement: the unspoken correspondence between sentient human consciousnesses. They are like extraterrestrial observers who crashed on our planet, dazed and bemused by the native variety of intelligence.


Empathy is a self-contained internal set of processes, triggered by the presence and self-reporting of another person.

It involves two confabulated self-deceptions:

1. That the internal experience of empathy is actually external (has to do with the other person). This confusion between internal and external objects is called “psychosis”; and

2. That the experience of empathy is altruistic and focused on the other person when in reality it is solipsistic and revolves exclusively around self-centred emotional regulation and cognitive processing.

Empathy has all the hallmarks of – mostly healthy - narcissism.

The narcissist and psychopath hold in contempt: weakness; perceived inferiority (moral, intellectual) and this contempt often masquerades as altruism and sanctimonious self-righteousness; for inadequacy: win-lose zero sum failure, loser; emotions (especially on display); vulnerability; neediness, clinging; attachment/bonding/love; empathy; altruism.

Interview granted to the National Post, Toronto, Canada, July 2003

Q. How important is empathy to proper psychological functioning?

A. Empathy is more important socially than it is psychologically. The absence of empathy - for instance in the Narcissistic and Antisocial personality disorders - predisposes people to exploit and abuse others. Empathy is the bedrock of our sense of morality. Arguably, aggressive behavior is as inhibited by empathy at least as much as it is by anticipated punishment.

But the existence of empathy in a person is also a sign of self-awareness, a healthy identity, a well-regulated sense of self-worth, and self-love (in the positive sense). Its absence denotes emotional and cognitive immaturity, an inability to love, to truly relate to others, to respect their boundaries and accept their needs, feelings, hopes, fears, choices, and preferences as autonomous entities.

Q. How is empathy developed?

A. It may be innate. Even toddlers seem to empathize with the pain - or happiness - of others (such as their caregivers). Empathy increases as the child forms a self-concept (identity). The more aware the infant is of his or her emotional states, the more he explores his limitations and capabilities - the more prone he is to projecting this new found knowledge unto others. By attributing to people around him his new gained insights about himself, the child develop a moral sense and inhibits his anti-social impulses. The development of empathy is, therefore, a part of the process of socialization.

But, as the American psychologist Carl Rogers taught us, empathy is also learned and inculcated. We are coached to feel guilt and pain when we inflict suffering on another person. Empathy is an attempt to avoid our own self-imposed agony by projecting it onto another.

Q. Is there an increasing dearth of empathy in society today? Why do you think so?

A. The social institutions that reified, propagated and administered empathy have imploded. The nuclear family, the closely-knit extended clan, the village, the neighborhood, the Church- have all unraveled. Society is atomized and anomic. The resulting alienation fostered a wave of antisocial behavior, both criminal and "legitimate". The survival value of empathy is on the decline. It is far wiser to be cunning, to cut corners, to deceive, and to abuse - than to be empathic. Empathy has largely dropped from the contemporary curriculum of socialization.

In a desperate attempt to cope with these inexorable processes, behaviors predicated on a lack of empathy have been pathologized and "medicalized". The sad truth is that narcissistic or antisocial conduct is both normative and rational. No amount of "diagnosis", "treatment", and medication can hide or reverse this fact. Ours is a cultural malaise which permeates every single cell and strand of the social fabric.

Q. Is there any empirical evidence we can point to of a decline in empathy?

Empathy cannot be measured directly - but only through proxies such as criminality, terrorism, charity, violence, antisocial behavior, related mental health disorders, or abuse.


Moreover, it is extremely difficult to separate the effects of deterrence from the effects of empathy.


If I don't batter my wife, torture animals, or steal - is it because I am empathetic or because I don't want to go to jail?


Rising litigiousness, zero tolerance, and skyrocketing rates of incarceration - as well as the ageing of the population - have sliced intimate partner violence and other forms of crime across the United States in the last decade. But this benevolent decline had nothing to do with increasing empathy.

The statistics are open to interpretation but it would be safe to say that the last century has been the most violent and least empathetic in human history. Wars and terrorism are on the rise, charity giving on the wane (measured as percentage of national wealth), welfare policies are being abolished, Darwinian models of capitalism are spreading. In the last two decades, mental health disorders were added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association whose hallmark is the lack of empathy. The violence is reflected in our popular culture: movies, video games, and the media.

Empathy - supposedly a spontaneous reaction to the plight of our fellow humans - is now channeled through self-interested and bloated non-government organizations or multilateral outfits. The vibrant world of private empathy has been replaced by faceless state largesse. Pity, mercy, the elation of giving are tax-deductible. It is a sorry sight.


Click on this link to read a detailed analysis of empathy:




Other People's Pain - click on this link:



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