There is some good news about narcissists.
One of the main reasons people come to see me is because of difficulties they are having with someone else. A selfish spouse, a bragging colleague, a manipulative friend, or an arrogant boss is making their life hell. Oftentimes, the problem turns out to be that they are dealing with a narcissist. In the past, I would do my best to educate them about what narcissism is and how they could best protect themselves from this toxic person. By definition, narcissists are self-centered, entitled and exploitive. If the narcissist didn’t express interest in changing their behavior, there wasn’t much else I could do.
A 2014 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin changed the way I think about narcissists. When I was training to become a psychiatrist, I had learned that narcissists lack empathy—the ability to vicariously experience another person’s emotions or perspective. This study by researchers at the University of Surrey and University of Southampton suggests otherwise. Participants with narcissistic traits were asked to watch a video about a woman’s experience with domestic violence. Some were asked to put themselves in the woman’s shoes. The instructions were: “imagine how Susan feels. Try to take her perspective in the video, imagining how she is feeling about what is happening…” Others were just told to watch the clip. Those who were asked to take the woman’s perspective reported significantly more empathy for the woman.
To test whether narcissists could actually be moved by someone else’s suffering and were not faking empathy, the researchers tested the narcissists for physical changes. Previous research has shown that an increase in heart rate indicates an empathetic response to someone else’s distress. In this case, they were asked to listen to a five minute recording of a heartbroken woman named Jenny who talks about a recent painful breakup. She is tearful as she describes the upheaval in her life and feeling lost. Those who were not asked to take Jenny’s perspective seemed unmoved by her suffering. Their heart rate did not increase. But those who were asked to take Jenny’s perspective showed an increase in heart rate similar to people low in narcissism. These findings suggest that narcissists do, in fact, have the capacity to empathize.
“If we encourage narcissists to consider the situation from their teammate or friend’s point of view, they are likely to respond in a much more considerate or sympathetic way,” says lead researcher Dr. Erica Hepper. For anyone who lives or works with a narcissist, this is good news. This insight has been helpful for my patients have a narcissist in their life. A young woman with a narcissistic father recently shared a heartening story: “We were sitting in a restaurant and a waiter spilled a tiny amount of water on his sleeve. He berated him loudly and told him he was an idiot. The poor guy was mortified. I was too. But then I remembered what you said about perspective-taking. So instead of getting mad at him, in a calm voice, I asked him to think about how he would feel if he were the waiter and I reminded him how he used to work bussing tables in college. My dad was silent for a moment and then did the unthinkable. He actually called the young man over to apologize. I have never seen him apologize in his life.”