The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.
Narcissists and empathy is always a hot topic. Do they have it or don't they? Many say definitely yes. Others say absolutely not. But maybe it's not an either-or situation. Perhaps the answer is somewhere in the middle.
People often ask why the knowledge that they are hurting people is not enough to make narcissists stop their behavior. They point out that narcissists often hide or deny their behavior, so they obviously know it's wrong. But this question assumes that the knowledge they are hurting someone would be enough to stop the behavior because it's coming from someone who already has normally-functioning empathy.
If a person has normally-functioning empathy, that is all it would take. The knowledge they are hurting another person would trigger an emotional reaction that would create a behavioral response:
This is hurting someone. I don't want to hurt anyone, so I won't do that.
This happens because that person has normally-functioning empathy, so the information that they are hurting another person has emotional meaning for them. If someone does not have normal empathy, that information often does not mean anything to them. Without empathy to give this information emotional meaning, it does not become understanding. It's just information with no emotional meaning or value. It will not create a reaction that pushes this person to stop their behavior. Just knowing you are hurting someone else is not enough. You have to actually care about that in order for this information to make you want to stop. Without empathy, you will not care and therefore, you will not stop unless you are forced to do so by some external reason.
If someone has dysfunctional empathy, their idea of "wrong" is not the same as other people see it. For example, when narcissistic people hide their abusive behavior, they are not hiding it because hurting others is wrong. If they thought that, they wouldn't be abusers. They are hiding the behavior because they don't want to be seen and therefore shamed for doing things others don't approve of. These are not the same thing. When small children are caught stealing cookies out of the cookie jar, they are not ashamed because stealing cookies or disobeying is wrong. They are ashamed because they were caught doing a bad thing and now they are in trouble or people are upset with them. It's not that they think the act itself was wrong. That doesn't even enter into the equation to be considered. It's that they were caught doing something others don't want them to do. This causes shame, which is the pathologically narcissistic person's mortal enemy.
This is made evident by the fact that abusive behavior is not the only thing narcissists hide. They hide, lie about, deny or defend anything they think will bring them shame, even little things no one cares about. The same reason they hide abusive behavior is the same reason they will lie and blame you for their getting the wrong kind of butter. They don't want to get caught messing up, and sadly, to them, these things seem to be about the same. Getting the wrong kind of butter or forgetting to pick up dry cleaning will often receive the same level of vehement denial and deflection that hurting others receives. To narcissistic people, it appears to be that these things are all the same level of wrong and all result in the same level of toxic shame.
It doesn't appear that narcissistic people have no empathy at all. Many do seem to have some level of empathy, and that makes sense because narcissism is a spectrum. But what empathy they do have is maladaptive and dysfunctional. It does not prevent them from hurting others, and many times, it does not seem to send up the internal "warning flags" the rest of us see if we are going to do something that would hurt another person.
This is likely because pathologically narcissistic people are in a constant state of survival mode. Empathy can actually be a detriment in survival mode. If you are in a fight for survival, empathy could result in you not getting what you need and therefore, not surviving. If you've been locked in a room with another person for weeks and suddenly a sandwich appears, identifying with that other person and having empathy for their hunger could result in your death. You need to get that sandwich and eat it. They are going to have to worry about themselves.
Many people might say, "I would share with the other person." Well, maybe you would, and maybe you wouldn't; it's one thing to imagine the situation and another to be in it, but either way, you're not a narcissist. It's a mistake to project your own experience or empathy onto another person, because not everyone reacts to everything the same way and not everyone has the same level of empathy. Narcissistic people are in survival mode; they have always been in survival mode and when you are in survival mode, you can't care about how other people feel or what will happen to them as a result of you getting what you need. That's not how you survive.
Many narcissists will even talk about this in a roundabout way, describing empathy or caring about others as "weak" and "being soft," or about their fear (often disguised as disgust or hatred) of appearing weak. Some may even say it flat out. That tells you everything you need to know. They are primitive-minded, arrested people stuck in a "survival of the fittest" mindset where the only way to make it is to get everyone else before they get you. There's no point in telling them that this is not how it is, because they see it everywhere they look and always have. Everything they see seems to reinforce their idea that there is nothing to be gained and everything to be lost by "going soft" and allowing others to live, too.
If there are 10 crackers and Bobby allows Jimmy to have half, that's five crackers Bobby doesn't have. What will he do when they are gone? If Bobby identifies with Jimmy, if he has empathy for Jimmy's situation, then Bobby loses something and his survival may now be in jeopardy. This can create a panic and Bobby may react with anger and violence toward Jimmy for daring to take some of them. Even worse is the situation when Jimmy has 10 crackers and Bobby has none.
This is probably why some narcissists can seem to have some empathy in situations where they don't stand to lose anything. If there is no threat, there is nothing lost by identifying with another person and whatever empathy they may possess is therefore "safe" to engage in. The problem is that they seem to see threats literally everywhere because of their overblown fears about survival. For whatever reason, they got the idea early on that their very survival is being threatened continuously; this mindset is extremely difficult to change because it validates itself constantly and anything can become a fight to the death because of it. They've got too much to lose, and anyone who has ever been in one of these situations with a narcissist can attest to the fact that they at least seem to sincerely believe that.
In the end, if you are expecting empathy from someone who believes you may get in the way of their survival, that's probably an unrealistic expectation. If you believe you will be able to convince this person that you are not doing that when they've likely spent their entire lives believing that about every situation they're in, that's probably unrealistic, too. The only thing you can do in this situation is realize the truth of the situation and accept it for what it is.