Although much of the readily available online information on narcissism equates this personality disorder with psychopathy, it is actually a bit more nuanced. There is a distinction between “good” and “bad” narcissism, which lies in the intention.
“Good” versus “bad” narcissists
“Good” narcissists are aware of their selfish tendencies, and consciously work to avoid them but are often deficient in their success as a result of their neurological limitations. “Bad” narcissists essentially exhibit the same qualities as psychopaths in that they do not care what kind of impact their behavior has on others. Unlike psychopaths, however, they are generally very insecure and care about the way others perceive them.
Lack of empathy
According to a study done by researchers at the University of Surrey and the University of Southampton, narcissists are usually physiologically unable to see things from others’ perspectives unless specifically prompted to do so.
There were three experiments done in the study, all of which were designed to test the narcissists’ ability to empathize with others. In the first scenario, volunteers were asked to read a passage depicting the lead-up to a relationship breakup. No matter how extreme the scenarios were, narcissists who ranked high on the scale did not show empathy.
However, in the third scenario, narcissists were specifically asked to take on the perspective of a character who was emotionally suffering. After this exercise, many of them actually responded with indicators of an empathetic response (i.e. increased heart rate).
Although narcissists innately lack the ability to empathize with others, they can sometimes come off, at least initially, as very caring people as a result of their social charm. They oscillate between feeling a God-like sense of self-importance and a secret, deep crippling feeling of insecurity. This feigned confidence can seem very authentic, and often draws people to them.
Empaths tend be drawn to narcissists because they are captivated by the “false self” narcissists present (in which they can seem kind, giving, and intelligent). This facade quickly dissipates when narcissists become tired of or disappointed by the empaths, at which point they become cold, calculated, and punishing.
Is there hope?
As evidenced by the aforementioned study, some narcissists have the ability to respond to others’ pain appropriately, if prompted. When we encourage them to consider a situation empathetically, they are more likely to do so than if we just attempt to let them come to that conclusion on their own.