Relationships are hard. Even harder when you feel everything to an extreme.
Empaths can have a difficult time in close relationships and may fall into the pitfall of the narcissist. These types of people may drain your empathy and energy. But it’s important to take your power back.
In this article, you’ll learn about the empath and relationships—and a common pattern many can relate to.
What is an empath person? What’s a narcissist? And how does the narcissistic vs empath dynamic playout? We’ll discuss all that and more.
Table of Contents
What is an Empath Person?
You might be wondering “what is an empath person?”
The term “empath” and “empathy” has risen in popularity over the past years. But what does each really mean?
The term “empathy” means to understand another’s feelings or to share the same feelings. For example, when a friend is upset about a job loss, a person with empathy will understand their feelings of sadness or anger. They might even feel sad or angry along with their friend.
Empathy is a trait most people have. Like most things in life, empathy is a spectrum. Some people have a little empathy. Some people have a lot.
People who have a lot of empathy are often called “empaths.” Author Dr. Judith Orloff describes empaths as highly sensitive people who feel everything, sometimes to an extreme. They are naturally good listeners, giving and the world’s best nurturers.
The term “empath” can be used to describe someone’s temperament. It’s also used as a spiritual term (ex. “intuitive empath”). However, “empath” is not a phycological term, diagnosis, or disorder. Keep in mind though that empaths are more prone to some phycological concerns. For example, co-dependency, anxiety and numbing behaviors are common.
What is a Narcissist?
With all this talk about narcissism, what is a narcissist, actually?
To put it simply, a narcissist is the opposite of an empath. While empaths “feel everything” and are concerned with the feelings of others, narcissists don’t notice or care. They are focused on themselves and their own motivations only. Here’s some other examples:
- Disregard of others/lacking empathy
- Refusing to take accountability and/or gaslighting
- Feels or acts superior to others
- Crosses boundaries repeatedly
While this quick checklist can help you understand the term, it’s only half the picture. Like empathy, narcissism is a spectrum. Some of us rarely have narcissistic behaviors, while others seemingly bathe in it each morning. Unlike the term “empath,” “narcissist” is a real psychological term. Someone who scores high on the narcissist spectrum may be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder.
This is an important differentiation. These days, many of us call anyone we don’t like a “narcissist.” While that person may have narcissistic behavior, they aren’t necessarily a diagnosable narcissist. Only a trained psychologist can diagnose the person.
The Narcissist vs. Empath Dynamic
We’ve covered “what is an empath person” and “what is a narcissist.”
Now we can discuss the Narcissist vs. Empath Dynamic.
As you know, empaths and narcissists can be polar opposites. While one over-cares, the other under-cares. Given that they’re at odds, how do empaths and narcissists often end up together? Shouldn’t they repel one another?
As the old saying goes “opposites attract.” But it’s more than that for the empath and narcissist. It usually means a toxic dynamic and one that’s hard to break. Although they’re vastly different, they can have a weirdly magnetic pull toward one another. That’s because—even unknowingly—the empath and narcissist feed into each other. Here’s how each feed into each other.
What the EMPATH Experiences: Narcissist vs. Empath
- Empaths love giving love and attention, narcissists love receiving it
- Feels seen and heard by the narcissist at first, who puts on a façade of charm
- In first stages, receives affection from the love-bombing narcissist
- Empaths like being emotionally close and narcissists tend to get close quickly, even though it’s fake
- Empaths love hearing people’s stories and narcissists are never short on “poor me” tales
- Enjoys being there for the narcissist and listening to their many problems
- Feels like they’re helping the troubled narcissist
- Narcissists seem intelligent at first and empaths love a deep conversation
- When the narcissist’s fake charm begins to wear off, empaths have empathy for their “break in character” rather than calling it like it is
- Empaths have a hard time understanding how others can’t have empathy, so accepting blame seems more logical
- In the later stages, empaths thrive on the tiny morsels given by the narcissist. Even small acts mean a lot to the love-deprived empath.
- Empaths have empathy for narcissist’s crappy personality. They believe it when a narcissist says they’re trying to change, even when there’s no evidence.
What the NARCISSIST Experiences: Narcissist vs. Empath
- Constant affirmation about how great they are from loving empath
- Showered with love
- Empath listens and believes all their complaints, stories and pity parties
- Able to push boundaries if empath is a “pushover”
- Able to avoid accountability
- Can use empath as a doormat for their blame
- When they get more power or control, it’s easier to guilt trip and manipulate an empath
- They get to put no effort into the relationship because the empath believes their excuses (or makes excuses for them)
- When they fake attempts to change, the empath has empathy for their slow/no progress.
When the empath realizes the person is a narcissist, it doesn’t mean they’ll immediately leave. They may be guilted back into staying. Sometimes, they need no convincing at all. Empaths can convince themselves to stay with a narcissist because the narcissist needs them or that it’s the “kind” thing to do. Even if the empath knows leaving is the “right” thing, they might be conflicted by how wrong it feels in the moment.
This Narcissist vs. empath cycle can create what’s known as a trauma bond. Although a trauma bond is traditionally between a person and their abuser, a similar dynamic can be created without abuse. For more information, read 9 Trauma Bonding Signs To Scan Your Relationship For
When you realize you’re in a narcissist vs. empath dynamic, stop waiting. Take your power back.
It’s important to hold the narcissist accountable for their actions. However, we must also hold ourselves accountable to ourselves. We can get angry at the narcissist. We can make excuses to stay or buy into their guilt trips. But ultimately, it is up to us to realize—and break—the co-dependent bond.
As empaths, we cannot count on the narcissist to break the bond for us. They won’t. They will keep chewing at the thread until it disintegrates from underneath you. It’s far healthier to cut the thread yourself for a clean break.
Empath and Relationships: Romantically
With an empath and relationships that become romantic, the bond can be even more toxic. That’s because, unlike other relationship types, the feeling of being in love can taint the truth even more.
Instead of seeing the narcissist vs. empath dynamic for what it truly is, we believe the rose-colored version. At first, the charming narcissist seems perfect. We might even think they’re an empath! Maybe even psychic! They have an uncanny way of knowing what we want and need to hear.
When their façade fades and we begin to see who they truly are, we may ignore it in favor of the idealized version of them. In this stage of the narcissist vs. empath dynamic, the narcissist might not even need to do anything. The empath is convincing themselves. Every time the narcissist slips, the empath counts all their good traits. Even if they have a sinking feeling in their stomach.
There comes a time with the empath and relationships when enough is enough. The empath finally calls out the narcissist. The narcissist may blame or outright deny accountability.
Eventually, the narcissist will concoct a confusing blend of accountability and blame. In order to keep you, they may take minimal accountability when absolutely necessary. However, this won’t be in the form of any tangible change.
Still, as empaths, we believe the narcissist when they say they’ll change. We have empathy because changing is hard. And maybe it’s even harder given their difficult childhood. After all, we understand narcissism is a real mental health disorder. And we correctly know that the disorder is often caused by childhood trauma. We ask ourselves, doesn’t the narcissist deserve love too? Aren’t we all just wounded children?
We are correct to understand that everyone has a different set of problems. And we are correct to have empathy for them. We are incorrect to use that as an excuse for bad behavior. We cannot allow ourselves to justify bad behavior, no matter the reason.
As empaths, we need to give others the freedom to work on their own problems. When we stay with a person who is hurting us, we may think we are helping them. But really, it is hurting them too. The bad behaviors are being further ingrained in them. It instills that some people will take their treatment. When we say “enough,” we send the signal that it’s not okay to treat others this way.
Yes, when you draw boundaries, the narcissist will likely go find another to walk over. But it’s not our job to fix them. It’s our job to present them with the choice to heal themselves. In letting go, we’ve already done our job. We’ve given them the freedom to make the choice to heal—whether they take it or not.
Empath and Relationships: Non-Romantic
The narcissist vs. empath dynamic is unfortunately common among the two groups. If you’re an empath, you’ve probably experienced and can relate to much of the information here.
When most people think of an empath and relationships, they think about romantic connections. It’s true that the narcissist vs. empath dynamic can be toxic and strong among lovers. However, we also need to look for the dynamic within our other relationships.
The narcissist vs. empath can be present in:
- Acquaintances (ex. the mom in your PTO group who always manipulates you into doing the work)
- Empath and relationships of any other type
When it comes to an empath and relationships, since the bond can be hard to break, it’s best to avoid getting close with narcissists altogether. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible. For example, if you’ve grown up with a narcissist father, you can’t take back the past, but you can avoid getting closer in the future using boundaries.
In cases where we must have contact with a narcissist (ex. co-parenting), it’s critical to make your boundaries known and to hold the person accountable when they inevitably break them.
Unfortunately, empaths are good are drawing boundaries inside their head. But when it comes to holding them, empaths tend to drop the ball. Remember that boundaries are useless if they live inside your head and not in practice.
Summary: Narcissist vs. Empath | The Empath and Relationships
We’ve started by discussing “what is an empath person.” If you can relate, it’s helpful to know about the common patterns with the empath and relationships.
The narcissist vs empath dynamic is an unfortunate and common one. The empath gives the narcissist exactly what they want: love, praise and lack of boundaries. In return, the narcissist slowly lowers their charming façade to show their careless interior. When confronted with the truth, it can be hard for the empath to see and believe. Even when the empath sees the narcissist for what they are, it can be extremely difficult to leave.
Although the narcissist vs empath dynamic is common in romantic relationships, it can happen in all types of connections, like parents, coworkers and friend relationships.