By Rachel Negar Partiali, Ph.D.
The dance between the narcissist and the empath resembles a parasitic relationship. Motivated by the desire to seek love and to heal the wounded narcissist, the empath becomes the perfect host to the parasitic narcissist. Being preoccupied with emotionally feeding off of others to supply his/her egotistical needs, the narcissist uses tactics of manipulation and control in the relationship. Often times, the narcissist remains in power and the empath feels victimized and powerless. Once the parasite has used up all the resources from the host, it moves on to a new host.
Yet, the empath and narcissist dyad exists within a dialectic, each needing the other for the dysfunctional relationship to remain intact. Both partners are equally responsible for the imbalance created. While an empath may feel powerless in the relationship, it is important to keep in mind that a narcissist cannot exist within the relationship without the engagement of the well-intentioned empath. If an empath sets boundaries and walks away, refusing to internalize the projected feelings of the narcissist (i.e., the narcissist projecting their own worthlessness onto the empath), then the abusive dynamic would cease to exist.
What is a narcissist?
The term, “narcissist” is thrown around quite often, and can be misused. One of the defining characteristics of a narcissist is an individual who views others as objects, rather than as people. People are seen as sources that supply the narcissist with attention, admiration, and idealization to maintain a concealed fragile sense of self. Narcissism exist on a continuum, with hallmarks of the disorder including, but not limited to, a lack of empathy, inflated sense of self-importance, sense of entitlement, and a need for admiration. Such characteristics start in early adulthood and occur in a range of situations. Narcissists have difficulty feeling their pain, so they project their feelings onto their partner. For instance, instead of owning their own feelings of worthlessness and shame, they treat their partners in such a way that the partners feel worthless and ashamed.
Due to their inability to relate to others as more than mere objects, narcissists lack the ability to love their partner. When seeing that their partner has withdrawn their love and care, the narcissist will know how to manipulatively regain the love of the empath by providing what feels like authentic love and connection. It can be confusing for an empath, who feels heightened levels of bonding and “love” from the narcissist at times. The narcissist acts like a slot machine. Every once in a while, the slot machine will yield out treasures, but the majority of the time the empath is left deprived of love. Often times, empaths proclaim that their partner can either be “really amazing or just awful.” This stark contrast in character leaves the empath always longing for the amazing part of their partner to shine forth.
What is an empath?
Empaths are individuals who are highly sensitive and are able to feel the emotional needs of others, and often put the needs of others before their own. Their acute sensitivity allows them to truly feel, and even absorb, another’s pain. They are driven by a need to help and heal others. Empaths’ hyper awareness of their partner’s feelings often lead them to hold their partner’s feelings, allowing their narcissistic partner to not have to feel the painful emotions themselves.
So, why is there such a strong attraction between a narcissist and an empath?
The empath is hoping to be truly seen and loved by the narcissist. In fact, their sense of worth is tied to being loved by their narcissistic partner. An unconscious thought process is taking place, whereby the empath believes that, if they can overcome the challenge of getting the narcissist to love them, then their worth will be validated. In other words, if they can make the person who is incapable of love, love them, then they are truly worthy of love. They try to heal the wounded narcissist, hoping that once healed, they in turn will provide the empath the love and validation they so desperately desire.
Underlying their unconscious desire to seek love from the unloving narcissist is an acting out of a childhood relationship dynamic where they have felt unlovable or rejected by a primary caregiver. The empath was unable to receive the unconditional love that every child needs. This could have occurred as a result of having a narcissistic parent(s), or having parent(s) who were unavailable to their emotional needs (i.e., need to be noticed, need to be acknowledged for one’s strengths, need to be accepted and loved). Now in their adulthood, the empath is trying to seek validation and feel the worth they did not feel as a child. But now the stakes are higher. Receiving love from just anyone would not repair their low self-worth. In their mind, it is only by turning the unloving narcissist into the loving and accepting “parent” can their self-worth be restored.
Furthermore, the empath, due to early misattunment and/or emotional unavailability from primary attachment figure(s), has learned to associate love with pain. Therefore, they become tolerant of being mistreated by their narcissistic partner. The empath pours all of his/her energy into the relationship with the narcissist, often tolerating high levels of mistreatment, hoping they can receive the love they desperately want and need. The empath is barking up the wrong tree! Trying to remake a narcissist into an emotionally available and loving partner is not possible. The narcissist needs to decide to change. As long as the empath is holding the narcissist’s disavowed feelings, the narcissist will not need to feel their own feelings. Without feeling the depth of their own feelings, they cannot change. Instead of changing, the narcissist will most likely find another empath to use for his/her survival.
Empaths thrive on helping people and giving to others, but problems arise when the empath ignores his/her own needs in the process. Often, empaths can be more aware of the feelings of others and what is going on in their environment, than they are of their own internal state. This pattern leads to the suppression of painful feelings, and a lack of awareness about how to protect themselves from others. The more disconnected the empath is from his/her own feelings, the more likely it is that s/he will pour all of their love and attention into the relationship and try to fix his/her partner. The more love and care the empath provides in the relationship, the more controlling and powerful the narcissist will become, intensifying the abusive dynamic. This leads to a vicious cycle of the demoralization of the empath by the narcissist, furthering the sense of victimhood the empath already feels. In this downward spiral, the empath is not only blamed for the dysfunction of the relationship by the narcissist, but s/he also turns his/her anger inward and blames him/herself.
An empath has a choice-- to maintain the status quo and remain in the abusive dynamic with the narcissist, or to take responsibility for their contribution to the dysfunctional relationship and to focus all the attention and focus they placed on “fixing” the narcissist on healing their own inner wounds.
In order for an empath to no longer be available for invasion by a narcissist, s/he has to fully inhabit him/herself.
As Carl Jung states, “one does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” The empath must create a relationship with the pain within him/herself that s/he has not embraced. It is only through making the hidden, and previously ignored pain within her conscious that she can process her own wounds and begin the healing process.
Although the empath can clearly see that the narcissist is wounded, they often have difficulty connecting to their own darkness. An empath may even be dismissive of his/her psychic pain, minimizing his/her feelings and wanting to overlook the impact of early traumatic experiences in his/her life. Coming from an abusive dynamic with a narcissist, empaths have probably learned to blame themselves incessantly, thereby misdirecting their anger. The first stages of healing require that the empath understand their role in the relationship with the narcissist, and aim to seek self-awareness. From a place of self-compassion, asking the following questions can help an empath move away from victimhood into a stance of self-exploration and healing:
- What emotional void was I trying to fill in my relationship?
- How was I trying to gain love and approval from my emotionally unavailable partner?
- Which feelings within myself do I push away?
- Where do the emotions reside in my body?
- Where do my feelings of rejection/fear of abandonment/unworthiness stem from?
- How were my emotional needs not met in childhood?
Along with exploring their emotions, the empath can develop their sense of self, or their individuality. Perhaps the abusive relationship with a narcissist preoccupied them and left no space for the empath to explore their desires, their strength, and their abilities. Empaths have the potential to flourish and deeply transform from their dysfunctional relationship with a narcissist. As beautifully stated by Kim Saeed,
“When the empath and narcissist enter into a relationship together, it creates a magnetic, yet dysfunctional union because the empath gives to the point of complete and utter exhaustion. Profoundly disoriented, the empath is often destroyed by the relationship. This experience is painful and overwhelming but ultimately, the empath undergoes a soul awakening. The narcissist remains the same.”
Although breaking away from a narcissist will bring tremendous pain and reveal deep longings; one day the empath will look back and question how s/he ever tolerated being in a relationship with a narcissist. As empath inhabit themselves and strengthen their sense of self, a sense of healthy boundaries will develop. This emerging sense of self will be protective of their old self, placing strong boundaries that will prevent future parasitic relationships with narcissists.