5 Signs You Are Dealing With an Empathic Narcissist

An empathic narcissist is a person who exhibits narcissistic traits but also demonstrates a form of empathy, primarily cognitive. While they can understand others’ emotions and motivations, they may not genuinely feel for them. This cognitive empathy is often used for manipulation and control rather than genuine connection.

two people sat in chairs. man sat in one of the chairs is sad with a rain cloud above his head. the woman is the other chair has a hand on the man's back, consoling him

When you first meet an empathic narcissist, it will not be obvious they are narcissistic unless you know the warning signs, some of which can be subtle.

They can seem very caring and supportive, especially at first, but their seeming empathy is a strategy to manipulate and control people.

When it comes to the more grandiose type of narcissist, the signs are usually clearer. They are overtly attention-seeking, extroverted, arrogant, and do not care about other people unless they want something.

That’s why when you meet an empathic narcissist, you may not think they are narcissistic because the classic warning signs are not as visible. To spot an empathic narcissist, look out for some of the signs described below.

However, keep in mind that these are not diagnostic, and only having one or two of these traits is not enough to indicate empathic narcissism.

1. Apparent Insightfulness

Empathic narcissists will give you the feeling they understand you deeply and know exactly what you want and need. But this apparent insightfulness is a result of mirroring and cognitive empathy rather than genuine care.

Narcissists are very good at mirroring; they mimic your body language and speech and emulate your interests, attitudes, and behaviors. This makes you feel validated and connected to them.

Their ability to read your mental states (cognitive empathy) makes you feel special and heard, and comfortable letting your guard down.

It’s easier to manipulate people when they trust and rely on you – and empathic narcissists use this to their advantage. You might even share your inner world, secrets, and fears with them, which they may later use against you.

2. Underhanded Superiority

All types of narcissists believe in their superiority, grandiosity, and entitlement. Initially and on the surface, empathic narcissists may seem caring, reserved, and humble – because that’s the façade they want to present to the world.

But if you pay close attention, you may notice their façade slipping from time to time and catch glimpses of their true colors even early in the relationship.

For example, they might make sweeping statements about people like “everyone who didn’t go to university is dumb”. Or they underhandedly put people down and gossip “I feel so sorry for Karen when everyone calls her ugly”.

3. Hypersensitivity to Criticism

Narcissists rely on external validation, attention, and admiration to maintain their self-esteem. That means they have a fragile ego, which is much more apparent in the vulnerable type than in the grandiose type.

Because of this fragility, they are hypersensitive to criticism and experience shame and anger when they perceive any negative feedback. They may withdraw or become outwardly angry at the “perpetrator”.

For example, if they ask whether you like their outfit and you give your honest opinion, they might sulk, become very upset, or lash out at you.

Thus, if you notice hypersensitivity to perceived criticism and negative feedback, and their reaction is disproportionate, it could be a sign of empathic narcissism and narcissism in general.

But note that hypersensitivity alone does not indicate narcissism – it could also just be a sign of low self-esteem.

4. Victim Mentality

Empathic narcissists feel like the victim in every situation. Nothing is ever their fault, and they never take responsibility.

If they failed an exam, it’s because the exam was unfair; if they received negative feedback at work, it’s because their managers are incompetent; if they trip over a stone, the stone was in the way – and so on.

Because they believe they are superior and perfect, they cannot accept blame, as this would challenge their sense of reality and self. So, they blame others, turn the tables, and can never be held accountable for their actions.

5. Covert Manipulation  

Empathic narcissists use empathy to manipulate people and exert control over them – narcissists need control to get their narcissistic supply.

Thus, although they may appear to be doing things in your best interest, in reality, they are being nice and supportive for self-serving purposes. They want you to admire and depend on them and provide the validation they desperately need.

If they feel they might be losing control over you (e.g., you want to leave them or did not respond to their message immediately), they will try to regain control. They might give you the silent treatment, play the victim, emotionally blackmail you, or use any other tactic to manipulate you back under their control.

Another common manipulation tactic narcissists use to control people is gaslighting. So, if you notice gaslighting behavior and often feel confused or self-doubting after an interaction with them, you may be dealing with an empathic (or other type of) narcissist.  

How to Deal With an Empathic Narcissist

How you deal with an empathic narcissist depends on the type of relationship you have with them. Overall, however, it is advisable to proceed with caution if you have any type of narcissist in your life.

Empathic narcissists can seem loving and kind at times, but they engage in many behaviors that are detrimental to the relationship and the person they are in a relationship with. The fact that they can seem so supportive and insightful makes the manipulative and callous behaviors especially confusing.

Like with other narcissists, you may not see their true colors at first or during the “love bombing” phase. Eventually, however, they will become more and more emotionally unstable, aggressive, manipulative, and derogatory. Many people experience a relationship with empathic narcissists like “walking on eggshells”.

Thus, having a relationship with them can be difficult, emotionally exhausting, and confusing. If you sense that your well-being is being negatively affected by having them in your life, it may be best to end the relationship or distance yourself from them.

Here is some general advice for dealing with an empathic narcissist:

Mindful Communication

As mentioned above, narcissists are hypersensitive to criticism and do not accept blame, so be mindful of this when you are communicating with them.

Do not expect them to take responsibility or apologize for poor behavior. If you point out any wrongdoing or flaws, you can expect that they will react badly – they might stonewall, insult, or threaten you, or play the victim.

Also, be mindful of their manipulation tactics. They will try to gaslight and control you so avoid getting caught up in that dynamic and stand firm in what you know and believe. Always try to remain calm and unemotional. 

Choose Your Battles

Arguing with a narcissistic person can be exhausting and their tactics and antagonism can wear you down over time– so choose your battles.

In some cases, it might be better to let it go and get on with your day instead of engaging in what will inevitably lead to conflict. Remember, most narcissists never tire of arguing. They thrive on it because they see it as a challenge to emerge as the “winner” and love being at the center of your attention.

Set Boundaries

Narcissists break people’s boundaries down as this makes them easier to control and manipulate. Therefore, when you are dealing with a narcissistic person, it’s vital to establish and maintain firm boundaries.

That means, placing limits on the kind of behavior and language you will tolerate. If a boundary has been crossed, it’s important that you take action (e.g., end the conversation or walk away) and stay consistent.

Focus on Self-Care

Dealing with narcissists can take a toll on your well-being, regardless of whether that’s at work or in your private relationships. Therefore, it’s important to make sure you are prioritizing yourself.

Do things that bring you joy and peace and seek professional help if you feel that’s appropriate for you. Stay connected with friends and family and focus on spending time with people who are good for you and genuinely have your best interests at heart.

Remember, it’s not your job to heal or “save” them. If they are suffering, they should get professional help. Your only responsibility is to yourself and keeping yourself healthy and mentally well.

Cognitive vs. Affective Empathy

An empathic narcissist is a person with high levels of narcissism who understands people and their emotions i.e., a narcissist with empathy. But narcissism is a condition that’s normally associated with low levels or a complete lack of empathy so how can that be explained?

There are different forms of empathy as it is both an emotional and cognitive construct. Narcissism is associated with low affective empathy, but their cognitive empathy is generally intact.

Affective empathy means you can feel other people’s emotions and therefore understand why they feel the way they do. It’s the result of emotional contagion (the subconscious transferal of feelings on a mental and physiological level), which allows you to respond appropriately to another person’s emotional state.

Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand other people’s mental and emotional states without experiencing their emotions. It’s related to theory of mind: “The ability to explain, predict, and interpret behavior by attributing mental states such as desires, beliefs, intentions and emotions to oneself and to other people”

That means you need cognitive empathy to have affective empathy, as cognition is the starting point – but you do not need affective empathy to have cognitive empathy.

So, narcissists generally do have cognitive empathy because, without it, they would not be able to manipulate and exploit other people. Many narcissists do not pretend to be able to feel the emotions of others.

But an empathic narcissist is a narcissist who outwardly acts as though they have affective empathy to manipulate and control.

Empathic narcissists are more aligned with the profile of vulnerable narcissists who hide their grandiosity and come across as shy and introverted

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Anna Drescher

Mental Health Writer

BSc (Hons), Psychology, Goldsmiths University, MSc in Psychotherapy, University of Queensland

Anna Drescher is a freelance writer and solution-focused hypnotherapist, specializing in CBT and meditation. Using insights from her experience working as an NHS Assistant Clinical Psychologist and Recovery Officer, along with her Master's degree in Psychotherapy, she lends deep empathy and profound understanding to her mental health and relationships writing.