There are many similarities between these two and it cannot be denied that narcissists have some type of emotional empathy, otherwise they would not be able to zero in on the weakness of their victims so easily and with such deadly accuracy. So what's the difference?
The biggest difference seems to be that whereas empaths use their empathy and the resulting knowledge to help others in altruistic (meaning unselfish) endeavors, narcissists use this information for personal gain or specifically to hurt other people.
No one really knows how empaths and narcissists are created, if indeed they are. There is some evidence showing a correlation between childhood trauma and both things, but there is no definitive evidence either way and of course, correlation is not causation. That means that just because there's a link, it doesn't prove anything. Lots of people experience childhood trauma. (It's very important not to confuse empaths with codependents here, by the way. They are not the same.) It would not be remiss to suggest that it is a possibly contributing factor to the development of the empath though, and we already know it is one for the narcissist.
It is generally believed that empaths are born, not created and it may be that narcissists are the same. I personally am of the mind that it is nature and nurture in both cases. That is to say, I believe a person has a predisposition either way when they are born and their environment and personal makeup contribute to whether or not the "condition" develops. This is why you will have families where two children receive the same treatment by the parents, yet one is a narcissist and the other is an empath. One was predisposed to being a narcissist and the other was predisposed to becoming an empath. There are narcissists and empaths who faced no childhood trauma, and of course, there are some people who are neither empath nor narcissist despite facing a lot of childhood trauma.
As to why this predisposition is present in some people and not others or why some people are predisposed to one and not the other, that's an interesting question. It may be like any other trait. It may run in families, it may be the result of some type of mutation or any number of things. It may even be that it's the same predisposition or talent in both the narcissist and the empath but somewhere along the way it gets corrupted.
Both spiritually and psychologically speaking, empaths are generally very mature. They are what you sometimes hear people call old souls. The narcissist in contrast is generally very immature and underdeveloped, both spiritually and psychologically. It may be that empathy for healing is a gift that can only be realized with maturity. The immature human is very selfish and so is the narcissist. If it were the same talent in both people, this theory could explain why one person develops into an empath while the other does not.
Strictly spiritually speaking, we could perhaps say that the empath was touched by God and the narcissist touched by something quite a bit darker. There is a question about whether narcissists could be under a negative spiritual influence. It would certainly explain many things about their behavior and the feeling people often get from them. In fact, the underdeveloped spirituality of the narcissist, the emptiness and the absence of identity coupled with low impulse control, low insight and inability to control or even face their emotions makes them a perfect Target. They are also generally obsessed with power and this leaves them very open to temptation of many kinds. Of course, this doesn't mean all narcissists are "possessed by demons," but it does mean that they are generally susceptible to negative influences of all types, whether spiritual or psychological. The empath has learned restraint and caution through maturity; restraint that the narcissist in their immaturity does not have.
The Little Shaman (author) from Macon, GA on July 28, 2017:
"Empathy is recognizing the emotional needs of others and being able to cater for them."
No, it isn't. Empathy is recognizing emotions in others. That's all. To put it simply, it's basic definition is "the experience of understanding another person's condition from their perspective." It does not imply any caring or reciprocation at all, nor does it refer to "catering" to other people's emotions. A broader definition may, but empathy at it's core is simply recognizing emotions in others. Narcissists are emotional manipulators. They zero in on people's emotional vulnerabilities. They pick apart people's insecurities, their hopes, wishes, dreams, goals, emotional defenses. They become a specialized emotional wrecking ball. This does not happen by accident. In order to do any of these things, the narcissist has to have some understanding of emotions and how to make certain people feel certain ways. There is no other way to do it. Narcissists are thought to have something called "cold empathy" or "cognitive empathy," which is where they intellectually recognize the emotions of others and use this information to manipulate them. This is opposed to emotional empathy, or the "regular" type most people think of when they hear that word. To assume narcissists cannot read or understand others' emotions is to gravely underestimate them and the damage they are able to cause.
Marc Hubs from United Kingdom on February 15, 2017:
I think you misunderstand. You certainly do not need empathy to be able to manipulate someone, that's a misconception. Quite the contrary. Empathy is recognizing the emotional needs of others and being able to cater for them. Studies have already shown that there is little-to-no activity in the brain regions associated with empathy in narcissists. Narcissism is the exact opposite of empathy, they are at opposing ends of the spectrum. Narcissists suck on the empathy of others because they do not have any empathy of their own, which is also why they are referred to as emotional vampires. Saying that narcissism is created by empathy and that they need some to be able to manipulate others makes no sense.
The Little Shaman (author) from Macon, GA on February 14, 2017:
@sparkster: I'm actually speaking more to what is the initial thing that narcissism is created from. As I stated in the article, all narcissists have some empathy. If they did not, they would not be able to manipulate others as well as they do. Empathy is simply the ability to recognize emotion in others. It usually has warm or pleasant positive connotations added to it, but at its basic definition, that's all it is. Narcissists and psychopaths both have this ability to some degree. There is a disconnect between what they recognize and what they do with it, when compared to the "normal" actions of other people. This article explores the reasons why they might do that.
Marc Hubs from United Kingdom on February 12, 2017:
I think you seem to be focusing on inverted narcissists in this article, who may otherwise be known as empaths. Empaths are the least evil people of all but can be self-sabotaging.
Narcissists do not have empathy, they have a serious lack of it or none at all - having no empathy is what makes them a narcissist. Narcissism (service to self) is the exact opposite of empathy (service to others).
Inverted narcissists, on the other hand, shouldn't be labelled as narcissists because they are the opposite - they are malignant empaths. There's a big difference and it's pretty clear that most people's understanding of "inverted narcissists" has come from Sam Vaknin who has purposely tried to confuse the issue.
He has also confused covert narcissism with inverted narcissism (empathy) which are not the same thing. I think another important thing to note is that is has been discovered that psychopaths are capable of "switching on" or "switching off" their empathy at will, whenever they feel like it.
anonymous on November 21, 2016:
I am both. I am who I need to be, for others and myself.
Mark on October 11, 2016:
Very intresting I'm def empath