Before it got bad, it was not only good — it was amazing. It was everything I have ever wanted, everything I have ever wished for, and so many things I have never even dreamt to ask for. It was love, pure and raw and earthmoving love — that changes you and changes how you see the world. I loved so fiercely and wildly that I failed to see that behind the mask of this bird with a broken wing whom I wanted to save so much, lied a vulture who was hungry for my soul and energy.
When it was over, and my heart was shattered and I couldn’t even bother to try and pick up the pieces, the worst was yet to come: the realisation that this love — so pure and raw — only existed in my mind and what I believed to be the greatest love on earth was nothing but fuelling someone’s unrequited self-love.
I thought narcissism was about self-love till someone told me there is a flip side to it. It is actually drearier than self-love; it is unrequited self-love. — Emily Levine
I am an Empath. And I fell in love with a Narcissist. And in a way, he fell in love with me, too. But this way was a destructive, fatal way.
There are very few things that are more dangerous and harmful than to be in a relationship with a narcissist. Think about every kind of abuse, physical, verbal, mental, emotional or financial. Think about manipulation and exploitation. Think about gaslighting, humiliation and disrespect. And imagine it multiplied by a thousand. Yes, you are getting close.
In a disproportionate number of cases Empaths will find themselves involved with a Narcissist, and as impossible their attraction seems, these completely opposite personalities are drawn to each other like moths to the flame, their collision being fatal and inevitable — for the Empath.
What is behind these dynamics? Let’s take an Empath. And then let’s take a Narcissist. And between them, the seemingly inexplicable attraction.
For the sake of the easier flow of this read, based on my own personal experience, I will refer to the Narcissist as he, and the Empath as she — but it can be the other way round too.
Who is the Empath?
Empaths are those highly sensitive individuals who are uniquely tuned in to the emotions of people surrounding them, with the ability to sense what others are thinking and feeling. They are sensitive, kind, nurturing, big-hearted and very generous. They are very intuitive and have exceptionally high emotional intelligence. They are the perfect friends, the ones who will always be there for you, who will always listen, who will always care.
However, these qualities can be hard on the empaths themselves. They are feeling what others are feeling, they feel the suffering, they take on the pain, anxiety or anger of their friends and loved ones. They have a hard time with setting healthy boundaries for themselves, they are very bad at saying “no”, and they are loyal to a fault, always placing others’ needs before their own.
One possible scientific explanation for why Empaths are so receptive is the discovery of mirror neurons. We all have a set of neurons in our brains that fire up whenever we witness something that another person feels or experiences. These mirror neurons help us to learn through imitation. When we are young, for example, we learn to speak and behave through the imitation of our parents and siblings. As we age, the number of mirror neurons slowly decrease as their presence is needed most for our survival through growth. Not with the Empaths — who keep their mirror neurons active well into their adult lives.
The discovery of mirror neurons reveals why Empaths feel extreme disgust, pain, and horror when watching acts of violence whether in real life or on the internet. Mirror neurons also hint at why Empaths carry so much emotional deadweight from others.
Who is the Narcissist?
The lion is most handsome when looking for food. — Rumi
Narcissism is one of the personality disorders categorized as Cluster B — according to the DSM-IV and DSM-5. It is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a complete lack of empathy for others. Behind the mask of extreme confidence, there is a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.
The disorder can stem from various traumas, childhood abuse, neglect and even genetic predisposition. Narcissism, just as most of the mental health issues is not black or white, the individuals suffering from it can showcase its features on a scale. There is even a term for healthy narcissism which is the necessary amount of self-love and selfishness to be able to live life to the fullest, without being a people pleaser.
On the lower end of the scale what we can find is a selfish, entitled individual — who is usually just your average garden-variety jerk. On the far end, where we are talking about Narcissistic Personality Disorder there is an emotionally and morally flawed individual who is self-centred, deeply uncaring and cruel, incapable of empathy for others, yet who hides behind the facade of a charming and attractive man.
It doesn’t seem to make sense that two such people would be even remotely attracted to each other. Yet it still happens.
Why is he attracted to her?
It is easy to understand from the Narcissist point of view why he finds the Empath so attractive: the Empath is everything that he will never become — kind, caring, supportive, stable. The Empath listens, the Empath understands, the Empath is emotionally available. This is heaven for the Narcissist. It’s like winning the lottery: an Empath has a lot of love, she cares, she wants to help, she wants to give and give and give — because this is what makes her happy. And this is what the Narcissist wants: to be loved, to be cared for, to be helped, to take and take and take. The void in him is so crippling that he needs to go at extreme lengths to fill it.
The attraction is about filling the void.
But why is she attracted to him?
There are two layers to this:
1 The Narcissist, in the beginning, is caring, funny and irresistible, he has an overwhelming charm — he has a powerful vibe. He is very intense — on every level. He is showcasing his own irresistibility, telling at every corner how wonderful he is, and also telling how wonderful she is.
2 The Empaths are sensing some kind of disturbance, the vibes they are getting are not clear, there is something off — it’s like when you can’t tune to a radio station and beyond the music, you are hearing some kind of crackling and white noise. The Empath sees a challenge here: she needs to figure this one out. She senses some great tunes but also has a feeling that the other is somehow flawed and hurt. The Narcissist is very good at appearing helpless, lost and broken — and this is an open invitation for the Empath. Like a flashing neon sign: come and help me, come and save me. He is openly admitting how wounded he is, and this is not an act, he really is broken inside. This triggers the empath to get into saviour mode. He is adept at making her believe she is the only one who can help him, or that she already has helped him.
The attraction is about wanting to save him.
It is her fatal blind spot, because the Narcissist cannot be helped and more importantly, he does not want help. It is a dangerously codependent relationship which revolves around superficially fulfilling the needs of only one person who can be neither satisfied nor happy. The Narcissist is like a leaky bucket: no matter how much you pour into it, it never fills up, it is never enough.
The Narcissist cannot and will not change. He is not capable of the type of emotion, empathy and compassion that is needed to become a fair, loving, and caring partner — and he can never learn. He cannot learn how to be a “real” person. This ability is learned in the first few years of life. By the time the Empath meets the Narcissist, it is already far, far too late. He cannot be helped.
It’s hard to avoid the charisma of the narcissist, and sometimes even hard to spot them; they’re social chameleons. They know exactly what to say and do to make you feel however they want you to feel.
What to do, if you are an empath?
If you’re an empath, you need to develop a strong sense of self, to be able to fend off people who would feed off you and take you for granted. You need to understand that having boundaries is not rude, but necessary; that sacrificing yourself will not bring you happiness; and that co-dependency is not a healthy type of attachment.
Since it is unrealistic to expect that the Narcissist will ever recognise his problems, it is up to the Empath to recognise the situation and resolve it. The first thing you must realise is that the only way to resolve the situation is to get out of it. That is a very hard truth to face. It is terrible to believe and admit that you have wasted months or years or even decades of your life on someone who does not care or appreciate it at all. This is especially hard when dealing with a Narcissist who swears this is not the case.
Don’t take responsibility for other people’s hurt
You need to remind yourself constantly that you have one responsibility: your own life and happiness. You feel their pain, you feel their struggle and you want to help, but there is only so much you can do. You can help and guide them, you can be there for them, but at the end of the day, you can only help someone who is willing to help themselves too. Their hurt and their healing are not in your hands. You need to recognise that there are a lot of people who don’t want to be fixed because being in pain or in misery is safe and comfortable.
Set clear boundaries
You need to learn to set clear boundaries. You need to identify the fine line where you are being helpful and where it is already sucking the life out of you. You need to learn to be selfish — in the most positive sense of the word — in order that you can practice self-care. You need to learn to say “no” if something doesn’t fit your schedule, your own needs, your expectations. Saying “no” is not being rude, it’s teaching others about your needs and boundaries, it is about telling them how to treat you — and in case they take it the wrong way, the problem lies with them, not you. You are entitled to say “no” to others who are using you or your help or time or energy — without getting anything in return.
Trust your instincts
The weirdest thing about Empaths is that they have exceptional capabilities in terms of gut feelings. They sense other people, they sense situations — yet they are quick to ignore red flags when it comes to helping others. The Empath usually knows that there is something off with the narcissist, she sees it and feels it. But the discomfort of the blurry picture is washed away by her wish to help.
You need to trust your instinct a lot more. You need to give yourself more credit for your own feelings and suspicions. Think back on it: how many times did your gut feeling fail you? How many times did you need to convince yourself against your instinct, because you thought that was expected of you — to be kind and nice and caring to a fault? Your instincts are there for a very good reason. It is to save you — even from yourself. Listen to it. Practice it, tune in to yourself, and believe in yourself — no second-guessing please, you are way better than that!
Watch out for red flags
When it comes to others’ lives, you know what to watch out for. When you need to give advice to your friends, there is no one else who could guide them in a more insightful and spot-on way but you. Remind yourself, that the red flags are the same for you as well. You can’t decide to not see them, just because they are so close that they are covering everything else from your vision. You need to take one step back and observe your own life from a distance — use your highly developed empathy, and ask yourself what would you suggest if it wasn’t you, but a friend? You would watch out for them. Try to protect them. Try to save them from any harm.
Be your own best friend, and listen to your invaluable advice.
Learn to walk away
The hardest part is to walk away from toxic situations. And it is not because of your ego or dignity. It is because you feel that you have failed. You failed to help them, you failed to save them, you failed to keep your promises. Walking away is the second-best thing you can do. The first is not walking in such a situation — but for that, you need to learn a lot, to work on your self-esteem and your boundaries. You need to know that your worth is not linked to your capability of helping and saving others. Your gift is your compassion, not your unilateral struggle to save someone who refuses to be saved anyway.
Being in tune with others’ emotions is a gift, and you should see it as something that makes you an amazing, giving person. Trust your gut. Take time to listen to your feelings and intuition. Know and recognise the red flags. And if you find yourself stuck in a toxic relationship, just get up and leave!
Remember this: It’s not your job to fix people.