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Why Appealing to a Narcissist’s Empathy Won’t Work

Why don’t you just talk to them? Has anyone ever said this to you when you were telling them about a difficult person in your life? Then you feel like the problem and way more frustrated.

Here's the real truth. Appealing to a narcissistic person’s empathy, to get them to care and finally see your side of things, won’t work.

You’ve probably tried already and you will try again. And people will keep telling you to try it again and again.

It’s a brick wall.

Being assertive and speaking up, explaining it in a new way, trying to help them get it… all of the things…. Is not likely going to work past a temporary time period. In fact, it might even make everything worse. They could explode, turn it around and blame you, or shut down completely for a very uncomfortable time period. They might pretend to understand then go back to doing the same thing again. They might twist and complicate things leaving you confused.

But if you are dealing with a narcissist, they won’t change.

That’s the unfortunate news. 

We know why many people keep trying to explain themselves. They think the narcissist’s framework is similar to their own framework. 

“I have empathy, therefore I assume they do as well. I just need to explain it better!”

However, what therapists have witnessed is explaining your needs to narcissistic people doesn’t work. The narcissist will deny, call you “too sensitive”, complicate, shut down, blame, deflect, say they “get it” then not create any new behaviors, explode, bad mouth you behind your back, follow you around wanting to talk and talk and talk as if they do care, but not actually create lasting change about the issue at hand.

Sometimes they blame it back on you very quickly. It’s like they were ready for you to confront them and have a quick answer. “And you don’t think you do that?” they say.

Sometimes they just look at you blankly. One person told us about her mother just not looking up at all, pretending she wasn’t there, whenever she asked for what she needed.

Sometimes they say really frustrating things like, “It’s not my job to take care of your feelings.” Or, “It’s not my job to be your entertainment.”

Sometimes when you explain your needs to them, it creates a situation where they now know what bothers you and they use it against you later to push your buttons. 

It’s like they are keeping track of ways to trigger you rather than trying to help you feel good.

Since a narcissist lacks empathy, it’s better to stay quiet. Assertiveness doesn't work.

This doesn’t mean you aren’t doing anything. You are taking mental notes. Or, better yet, take physical notes.

Make a list in your phone. Start tracking when they have empathy for the things you’ve previously brought up that bothered you.

1. He was nice to the person mowing our yard like I asked him to be. 2. She remembered to put things away after she messed up the kitchen 3. They didn’t respond to an ex that texted 4. They stood up for me when someone made fun of me. 5. They listened when I talked yesterday and didn’t blame it back on me instead. 6. They came home on time. 7. They didn’t make sarcastic comments during the concert I loved. 8. They didn’t flirt at the work party.

Or… they didn’t do those things. Track the lack of empathy, too. Just keep writing things down. Make sure you date your entries as it will help you later.

Most people have not only told the narcissist how they feel, they’ve told them numerous times, in numerous ways, in different tones, using books, words, videos, AA meetings, therapy sessions, even having the kids tell them their needs and nothing has changed.

If you think about it, the things the narcissist lacks empathy about are things for which empathy should come naturally. 

For example, empathic people don’t yell at their hairdressers (or you), they aren’t consistently two hours late for important things, they don’t get upset about not getting the best parking spot or the best room at the hotel or having a change of plans or when they get feedback about their behavior.

They don’t complain about little things repeatedly during a meal, or on a vacation, or during a situation that’s supposed to be enjoyable like looking out at a pretty vista or during a fun event or having to do chores or help or get up on time to get the kids on the bus.

Empathic people aren’t too harsh with a child because they have too high of expectations or an animal who makes a mistake. Empathic people know to stand up for you when someone else isn’t nice to you (like their mother). They don’t bad mouth you as soon as you walk out of the room (anyone worked in a place like this?) They know that texting their previous relationship partners is upsetting and they don’t want to do it – because they have empathy.

Empathic people don’t respond by exploding the minute something doesn’t go their way. They don’t answer a request by blaming someone else or giving a winding, complicated response. They don’t ignore people for hours or days. They don’t throw fits in order to get their way or every time you ask them for help. They don’t create unrealistic expectations for the people around them and then chide them when they don’t meet them.

Empathic people know they need to help you when you are sick or even, just because you need help!

Empathic people, in fact, would even feel so horrible about any of the above things that they wouldn’t be able to live with themselves if they did them.

That’s what creates the change. If they do make a mistake, they don’t make it again because THEY FEEL SO BAD. 

Narcissists, though, don’t feel that bad and they don’t reflect. So they don’t change unless it’s a good chess move for them. The change isn’t likely to last very long or be a genuine change. They aren’t even going to see they need to change because they live for themselves and no one else.

Take notice. Did it help when you talked to them about your feelings or your needs?

Here are some books and resources to help.

It’s Not You: Identifying and Healing from Narcissistic People by Dr. Ramani

The Human Magnet Syndrome by Ross Rosenberg (a book about why empaths and narcissists attract)

Chump Lady blog (a blog for people who’ve suffered from infidelity)

Codependent No More by Melody Beattie (a classic)


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Free Clear Mind Therapy provides in-person therapy in Fishers & Indianapolis and online therapy across Indiana. Specializing in anxiety therapy for teens, adults, and kids.

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