Sympathy vs. Empathy

One thing we often hear about Cluster B Vampires is how they lack empathy. One of the things that makes many of these emotional vampires fly underneath our radars is that we can remember instances of them displaying what seemed like empathy. The inability to reconcile these instances of supposed empathy with their other narcissistic and destructive behaviors often causes cognitive dissonance in us. I think there are two simple explanations for this incongruity. First, they learn how to fake empathy by studying the appropriate reactions of others. They never learn to truly feel empathy, but they learn to act empathetic, the way a person masters a script or a dance routine. The other explanation is that what you were witnessing was genuine, but it was sympathy rather than empathy. Narcissists feel emotions in a shallow and caricatured way, and many times (not always!) sympathy can be a shallow and caricatured analogue to empathy. Sympathy is a much easier emotional state to achieve.

I think something else to take into account is that not only do narcissists and other emotional vampires find sympathy easier to accomplish than empathy, but also significantly more attractive and reinforcing to their narcissism. See, empathy involves you lowering yourself to a person’s level and admitting that you have felt the way that person has felt in the past, that you have been in their shoes. It makes you less special and unique. Not being deemed superior even for a moment is devastating to a narcissist. Sympathy however actually elevates you above the target of your sympathy. Sympathy isn’t inherently bad, but when misused it can allow one to condescend to others and look down on them.

This metaphorical story (or allegory, I’m not sure) by Brene Brown really drives the point home:

3 Responses to “Sympathy vs. Empathy”

  1. It is GREAT to see you back.

  2. Huzzah! Your back!

    I have a friend of mine whom I’ve tried to introduce to your material. He of course refuses to read it, claiming he’s heard it all and any attempts to summarize or explain the concepts you talk about are met with claims that he already has it all down pat. He doesn’t. He’s definitely a “red-pill/game” kinda guy, though that has mellowed out in recent years. For example, he claims that he believes he is attractive, worthy and has dealt with any sexual shame issues…but when we are out he will balk at any suggestion to go talk to girls, claiming they’re simply not up to his standards, and if one that is up to his standards is pointed out, he will insist that “she’s a bitch. I can tell.”…

    At this point I’m not sure that anything I can do or say will help him see what he’s doing. But as his friend I just have to love him and be there for him. *Is* there a way to goose someones consciousness into whats going on? (Ala Zen’s koans)? Perhaps the old saying is right: “Minds are like flowers, they will only bloom when the time is right.”

  3. I can definitely see the point – but you should definitely notice two other things –

    1. Narcissists will absolutely require that you empathize with *them*, while they only sympathize with you. They’ll be the first people to accuse you of doing what this article talks about to – accusing you of sympathizing with them rather than empathizing, as part of getting their narcissistic supply from you.

    This is the biggest trap I see victims get into – a belief that they NEED to empathize with the narcissist.

    2. The video kinda goes in that direction, implying that empathizing is inherently superior and always good. It’s not…empathizing is sharing the other persons emotions. It is not inherently valuable (or unvaluable) to make yourself vulnerable – it’s something you need to make a choice about how you do it with.

    Making yourself emotionally open and vulnerable to people who will use and manipulate you is very bad, but it’s also bad when you don’t choose good paths in your openness – always listening to people’s problems, while only sometimes listening to their positives, was one of the things that made my love life a disaster (relatively speaking) before I figured it out (it’s a very “victim mentality” kind of thing).

    Even among normal people, we use sympathy rather than empathy because we want to protect ourselves from their negative and caustic emotions. Yes – I am sorry to hear that you got divorced, that your life is horrible, etc etc. But there’s a line between being empathetic, and using sympathy because those are their problems not yours, and you should not emotionally opening yourself up to their drama and the expense of your own success.

    Not that any of this contradicts the point of this article. But I think it’s worth pointing out that getting you to empathise with them, while they sympathise with you, is one common case of how narcissists trap you and use you. And a victim culture is one where they feel that you always have to empathisize with any pain or suffering they feel.

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