Three quarters of the miseries and misunderstandings in the world would finish if people were to put on the shoes of their adversaries and understood their points of view. Mahatma Gandhi
At my recent job interview, I was asked what I thought made me an outstanding teacher. I said that it was my personality that made me so because I am a very empathetic person. I work with a lot of asylum seekers and refugees as well as migrants in precarious situations. Many of my students have had traumatic experiences and consequently suffer from a variety of mental illnesses such as Generalised Anxiety Disorder or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which greatly affect their learning.
Empathy is extremely important in my job because I am able to put myself in my students’ shoes and try to look at things from their point of view and understand what life may be like for them, the pressure that they are under and the frustration that they sometimes feel when their progress is slow. This awareness of their thoughts and feelings means that I can then adapt my expectations and responses.
A lot of people believe that people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder have a complete lack of empathy and that this is the reason why they can abuse people so easily. Sam Vaknin, author of Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited, and a self-confessed narcissist himself, does not agree with this idea.
He believes that narcissists possess a truncated version of empathy that he calls cold empathy. Narcissists find it difficult to identify the needs and emotions of others but are very attuned to their reactions when they are relevant to the narcissists. If narcissist were completely devoid of empathy they would not resonate with other people. Their empathy exits but they can turn it on and off when they need to. So, while we possess something that I would call warm empathy, they are only able to practise cold empathy, a self-serving form of empathy.
This seems to make complete sense to me. If they did not understand how we feel, they would not be able to manipulate us the way they do. Without the ability to vicariously experience our thoughts and feelings, they would not be able to push our buttons so effectively. My ex-partner knew what would make me upset or jealous or insecure and he purposefully triggered these negative emotions in me. He was able to climb into my skin to get under my skin. “Narcissists damage and hurt but they do so offhandedly and naturally, as an afterthought. They are aware of what they are doing to others – but they do not care.” Sam Vaknin.
My empathetic nature is what attracted him to me. He then used my own empathy against me for his own gratification. Coming to realise this hurts terribly but I do understand why he did it. I know about the rejections, physical abuse, emotional neglect and invalidation that he suffered as a child. I can really feel his pain but there is nothing that I can do about it.
Having empathy towards him, does not mean that I condone his behaviour though. I understand how he thinks and how he feels, but I do not agree with the way that he acted towards me and continues to act towards other people. There is nothing that can justify abuse. Understanding is not accepting. I know where he comes from, but now he has the choice to choose where he wants to go.
After my experience with Narcissistic Abuse, I have learned to mitigate my empathy. It is a gift to be able to see through someone else’s eyes, but we must not forget to see through our own eyes too. I can walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, but I do not need to climb mount Everest in them.