Do you have some narcissistic tendencies? Do you want to learn to be more empathetic? If so, the research and my experience suggest three things that can help.
One of the hallmark features of narcissism is a lack of empathy, and the extent to which a person is devoid of empathy provides a good indication of how malignant or seriously pathological their narcissism might be. Some narcissists are so completely self-absorbed that they’re simply oblivious to the wants and needs of others. They still might care to some degree about how their behavior impacts others, however, if they stopped and thought about it for a minute or two. Others simply don’t care at all about others. They act without compunction, feeling entitled to do as they please without regard for the effects on anyone else. Research has shown that such callous behavior arises out of the narcissist’s lack of empathy.
Narcissism, like any other character disturbance, exists along a continuum of severity. Unfortunately, it is not an uncommon character trait. Over the years, I’ve counseled hundreds of couples whose relationship was suffering from one partner’s narcissism. I once thought such situations were hopeless. Narcissism is a personality disturbance, and personalities simply don’t change. On top of that, a few studies showed that the more malignantly narcissistic (i.e., psychopathic) someone is, the more dangerous it can be to have them become attuned to someone’s feelings, sensitivities, and vulnerabilities. So I was more than a little leery about the prospect of teaching someone to be more empathetic. However, experience taught me that most folks — even those possessing significant narcissistic traits — can indeed learn more empathy. And in displaying more empathy and bearing witness to the consequences, they can even forge healthier personalities. Some recent research has lent support to this notion. It turns out that while some folks are naturally more conscious of and attentive to the feelings of others, all but a few of us can learn to be more caring. Like with any other behavior, it takes practice, but with the right kind of practice, over time a person can improve their whole manner of relating to others.
The essence of Cognitive-Behavioral Theory is that how we think about things affects the way we feel, the attitudes we form, and most especially, the behaviors we display. That’s the cognitive-behavioral paradigm in a nutshell. But as I discuss in my book Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], what many may forget is that the relationship between thinking and feelings, attitudes, and behavior is not unidirectional. By changing behavior, and by doing so repeatedly, we gradually come to see things differently, to think about things differently, to form different attitudes, and even to feel differently. It all starts with changing behavior — trying out new ways of doing things and experiencing the consequences. It’s this kind of learning that can lead not only to a change of mind but also to a change of heart.
Do you have some narcissistic tendencies? Do you want to learn to be more empathetic? If so, the research and my experience says you need to do a few things:
Pay more attention to others — the right kind of attention.
One of the biggest obstacles to developing empathy is being so self-absorbed that you don’t pay attention to what’s going on with the other person. Paying the right kind of attention is a real skill. You have to heighten your awareness of little things like a person’s micro-expressions (i.e., the looks on their face) and the feeling states which those expressions signal they are likely experiencing. Social intelligence researchers tell us that the more keenly attentive we are to another person and their subtlest forms of communication, the more insight we’re likely to gain into their inner feeling world. Getting out of oneself and being more attentive to another is not the easiest thing for a person with narcissistic tendencies, but anyone can learn to do it. And as is true about acquiring any new behavior, the more you practice, the easier the routine becomes.
Pay more attention to yourself.
It’s not enough just to pay attention to another and to do your best to “read” their feelings. You also have to pay good attention to yourself and the many subtle (or not so subtle) messages you might be communicating with your own expressions. Your partner might have a look about them like they’ve been hurt by something you’ve said. You might take offense that they felt that way. By showing that offense non-verbally or communicating it in other ways, you interfere with empathy development. To become more empathetic, it’s important to understand that a person can’t help the way they feel, and it’s also important to mirror that you understand how that person is feeling and that it matters to you. So, learning empathy is about being more attentive not only to what’s going on with the other person but also to what’s going on with you.
One of the bigger impediments to developing good empathy is either being oblivious to or not caring enough about where the person is coming from when they’re trying to address an issue with you. Conflicts in relationships are inevitable, and having empathy isn’t about agreeing all the time or caving in to what you perceive as the other’s demands. Rather, it’s about communicating openly and clearly that you understand what they’re saying and the emotions behind what they’re saying. It’s perfectly possible to still disagree while showing nonjudgmental regard for the other person’s point of view and for their feelings. Many folks I’ve worked with were shocked to learn that all their relationship partner really wanted was to be heard by them — really heard, and not discounted or disrespected.
Of course, the prime time to cultivate empathy is in our formative years. But experience and research has clearly shown me that we can learn to be more empathetic at any age. It takes a bit of work to break old habits of relating and to replace them with more caring behaviors. But with practice and reinforcement, anyone can do it. When it comes to the health of an intimate relationship, almost nothing is as important as the capacity of partners to care about each other and about the impact of their behavior on the other.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on January 17, 2017.
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