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  • Empaths and Narcissists

    Can an Empath and Narcissist Be in a Relationship Together?

    Stuck between a rock and a soft place

    By Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP Published on March 13, 2024 Reviewed by Ivy Kwong, LMFTPrint Table of Contents

    In a healthy relationship, both people give and take. But what if one person does all the giving and the other only takes? This might be a case where an empath and a narcissist are in a relationship together.

    That may sound like a complicated relationship dynamic—and you’d most likely be right. This could be a recipe for a very one-sided relationship where one partner is taking advantage of the other. That is not a true partnership, and would be doomed to failure if both partners are not consistently able to meet the needs of the other.

    What It Means To Be An Empath 

    Can you easily pick up what others are feeling? Do you get overwhelmed when you are surrounded by others who are stressed? Do you get upset watching the news or violent movies? Do your friends and family tend to confide in you with all their problems? You might be an empath.

    Empaths are deep feelers who have a strong sense of intuition. They can read people like books and know who is faking and who is being authentic. They’re the ones who can tell you’re having a bad day just by being around you. And they’re the one who is the best listener in your group of friends.

    The current research isn’t clear on whether real empaths exist, at least in the sense of truly being wired differently for empathy. However, research has shown that there are specialized brain cells called “mirror neurons” that “mirror” the feelings of those around us. Some people have more of these neurons than others which may make them empaths.1

    What It Means To Be A Narcissist

    Have you ever met someone who loves being the center of attention? They’re constantly craving praise and validation. They get high on their narcissistic supply. They have trouble empathizing and struggle to meet the needs of others.2

    Narcissists are always looking out for themselves since they tend to have an inflated sense of self-importance. They manipulate others to get what they want and don’t feel bad doing it.

    Under certain specific criteria found in the DSM, a person with narcissistic traits may actually have a clinically diagnosable personality disorder, but one that is very difficult to treat. A narcissist is unlikely to admit to being a narcissist.

    According to the DSM, the diagnostic handbook used by healthcare professionals in the United States, an individual may be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder if five of the following nine criteria are met:

    • Grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievement and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
    • Fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
    • Belief in being “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should be associated with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
    • Requires excessive admiration
    • Sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
    • Interpersonally exploitive, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his/her own ends
    • Lacks empathy; is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
    • Envious of others or believes that others are envious of him/her
    • Arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

    Empath and Narcissist Traits and Behaviors

    Empaths and narcissists are two contrasting personality types. Each is characterized by polarizing traits and behaviors. Aside from your classic “opposites attract” framework, these are traits that don’t seem to mesh well with each other.

    Empath Traits

    • Highly sensitive

    • Compassionate

    • Caring

    • Good listener

    • Reads people well

    • Overwhelmed by others’ stress

    Narcissist Traits

    • Lacking empathy

    • Self-centered

    • Invalidates others’ feelings

    • Craves attention and admiration

    • Sense of entitlement

    • Takes advantage of others

    The Dynamics Between Empaths and Narcissists

    The stereotypical dynamic between an empath and a narcissist tends to be one-sided. Empaths constantly give and narcissists constantly take while exploiting their partner’s empathy.

    Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist, professor, and writer in New York City explained that the dynamic between an empath and a narcissist is a perfect symbiotic pair since they are comfortable in their polarized roles. Both empaths and narcissists are skilled in emotional intelligence; however, they use it differently.

    “Empaths tend to feel a sense of responsibility to take care of the other and work hard to meet the narcissist’s needs,” Dr. Romanoff says. “On the other hand, the narcissist feels entitled to be given to, and accepts the gifts of the empath such as time, energy, acts of service, presents, and words of validation, without much reciprocation.”

    Ricki Romm, LCSW, a psychotherapist who helps individuals and couples strengthen relationships gave an example of how the dynamic between an empath and narcissist could play out. In this case, Riley is the empath and Jordan is the narcissist.

    When Riley and Jordan meet, Riley is charmed by Jordan’s confidence and humor. But over time, as Jordan’s insecurity and need for validation become apparent, Riley faces increasing criticism and demands. Even though Riley recognizes that something is wrong, being hyper-aware of Jordan’s emotional state makes it hard to set boundaries or end the relationship.

    What Happens When An Empath Wants To Leave A Narcissist

    Dr. Romanoff shares that it can be difficult for empaths to own their needs and see them as valid. They tend to be gaslit in relationships with narcissists who convince them they are too much and do not deserve to ask for that much.

    Empaths tend to be drawn to narcissistic partners because they resemble early caregivers. They are drawn to the opportunity to have a corrective emotional experience with people who they could finally earn love from. This usually ends in frustration and is a futile effort.

    Dr. Romanoff explains that empaths can learn to validate their emotions by keeping a log of the times they felt starved in the relationship. For example, times when they were lacking in love, quality time, words of validation and/or acts of service. Doing this exercise can help empaths recognize that the relationship is hurting them more than it is giving.

    It is important for empaths to realize their needs are valid and worthy of being heard and met. Empaths can take care of themselves by identifying their needs and setting boundaries.

    If a partner can’t or won’t meet their needs, an empath can attempt to meet their needs on their own, seek additional sources such as friends for their needs, or choose to end the relationship if it is important for their needs to be met by a partner in relationship.

    It’s important to remember that having empathy for another person and feeling their pain is not a mandate to prioritize or try to manage their feelings. You are also a person who deserves safety and mutual respect.


    How Can Empaths Protect Themselves From Narcissists?

    There are several ways empaths can protect themselves from narcissists:

    Don’t Give More Than You Are Comfortable With

    Dr. Romanoff explains that many empaths give the love and effort they hope to receive from the narcissist. This usually ends up failing because the narcissist feels they deserve this level of treatment and do not need to take care of them in return.

    Empaths may become drained continually giving to a narcissist without receiving anything in return. It is important for empaths to set boundaries for themselves to give what they are wanting and able to without draining, exhausting, and overextending themselves.

    Efforts may be made to communicate an empath’s needs and requests but if a partner is narcissistic, there is a high likelihood those needs will be dismissed, ignored, minimized, or even criticized. In this case, the empath will have to decide how long they are willing to accept and continue engaging in this dynamic.

    Recognize And Communicate Your Needs

    Dr. Romanoff says that empaths need to understand whether the other person is truly capable of meeting their needs.

    Empaths often assume the burden of badness by believing their needs are too great or unreasonable for the narcissist to meet. To avoid this , they could communicate clearly what they need from the other person and give them the chance to show up for them.


    Trust Your Intuition

    If you’re an empath, another way you can protect yourself is to reconnect with, listen to, and trust your intuition. Romm shares that many deep feelers are used to being told they are too sensitive or making things up.

    If you are an empath, practice rebuilding your trust with yourself. Notice when your intuition is picking up yellow or red flags of manipulation by someone who is trying to gaslight you, control you, or convince you that what you’re feeling isn’t real.

    Pay attention to what you are feeling and listen to the wisdom of your intuition and emotions.

    Maintain A Strong Sense of Self

    Romm advises empaths not to get sucked into another person’s orbit and instead, maintain a strong sense of self.

    This means continuing to invest in your social network and support systems, engaging in the activities and hobbies that you enjoyed before entering the relationship, and practicing self-care. 

    The bonus is that doing these requires the empath to set boundaries that can further help to establish a healthy distance.

    Keep in Mind

    Empaths and narcissists may be drawn to each other, but this is not necessarily a good foundation for a loving, nourishing, and healthy relationship. If the empath becomes more and more drained, and the narcissist has no interesting in acknowledging, addressing, and healing their narcissistic traits, this will not be a sustainable partnership.

    A relationship based on interdependence means both partners having their needs met, being there for one another, and fostering behaviors that make the other happy and fulfilled in the relationship. Recognizing where you or your partner may be falling short is the first step toward determining if the relationship is worth continuing.

    2 Sources

    By Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMPKatharine is the author of three books (How To Deal With Asian Parents, A Brutally Honest Dating Guide and A Straight Up Guide to a Happy and Healthy Marriage) and the creator of 60 Feelings To Feel: A Journal To Identify Your Emotions. She has over 15 years of experience working in British Columbia’s healthcare system

    Email me if you feel you might be in a relationship and need help navigating this kind of dynamic. [email protected]