The narcissist exhibits an intuitive, almost preternatural awareness of who we are and what buttons to push in order to elicit the responses they want. Sam Vaknin, author of Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited and diagnosed NPD, labels this sense “cold empathy” — that is to say, a dispassionate, more strictly cognitive form of empathy. But I don’t think it’s any kind of empathy.
Empathy is the ability to imagine ourselves in place of another person, experiencing their circumstances, thoughts and feelings as though they were our own. This is different from sympathy in which we happen to share in circumstances, thoughts and feelings that are our own with others. For instance, we can feel generally upbeat whilst simultaneously empathizing with the sadness of another which may motivate us to attempt to comfort them as we would like to be comforted were we so sad.
The narcissist cannot do this, not even dispassionately, for empathy requires introspection enough to know one’s self, to experience one’s own thoughts and feelings before one can begin to imagine what it is to be, think and feel like someone else. They are a failed child stuck in that early stage of emotional development, their needs unmet and thus coping by dissociating from their stunted, inner true self in favor of an impervious, outer false self fabricated from and reflecting the outside world. Being detached from themselves, the narcissist is consequently detached from others as well; ergo, lacking in empathy.
However, as a blind person might compensate for their lack of sight with better hearing, the narcissist does possess an enhanced extrospective awareness of the world outside of and including themselves — what I’m calling comprehension, for lack of a better term.
Comprehension is the ability to imagine ourselves and the world we’re in from an outside, incorporeal third person perspective. It complements our first and second person perspectives of sympathy and empathy. Comprehension is how we might recognize when we’re behaving in a socially unacceptable manner, for instance.
Compensating for their empathy deficit with a hyper-comprehensive sense, the narcissist picks up on subtle cues that most of us aren’t consciously aware of and from this information develop a kind of behavioral inventory generally and psychological profile of us specifically — an inventory and profile that they use to probe, poke and prod us for yet more information in order to extract, maximize and sustain narcissistic supply from us. What Sam Vaknin is calling cold empathy is actually more like cold reading. The narcissist doesn’t actually know us any better than what we’ve already given them that we might not be cognizant of — it only seems like they do.
As such, this is why responses that deprive the narcissist of further input – like Grey Rock or No Contact – effectively leave them flailing in the dark. And why they’ll always go back to the last scrap of information they have on file for us, no matter how outdated it may be. The narcissist does not grow nor change and so it simply doesn’t occur to them – as it does with those of us who can empathize – that we might grow and change when they’re not observing us.
Sam Vaknin describes the concept of cold empathy.
The narcissist experiences emotions – they’re not machines – they’re just not the same emotions that we feel. And they may not be able (or care) to imagine how we feel but they do comprehend that they emote differently than us, that we’re as repulsed by their true self as they are, and that to be close enough to get what they need from us that they must pretend to be more like us.
From their comprehensive behavioral inventory, the narcissist learns to emulate emotional appearances — not actual emotions. If they’re skilled, these may be Oscar worthy performances indistinguishable from genuine emotions. If they’re not so much, the affect may come off creepily too perfect or awkwardly out of place – like how imitation grape flavoring tastes more like the color purple than actual grapes – resulting in painfully obvious play acting, crocodile tears and other odd histrionics. Regardless, these emotional emulations are scripted programmes, scenes and personas that are repeatedly played on cue and, when the narcissist is observed long enough, begin to betray them as the frauds they are.
The narcissist, having never developed the means to maintain their own emotional well-being, is a predator by consequence — and we are the prey. They use their keen comprehensive sense to survey their environment for easy sources of supply the way a lion on the African steppes scans herds of wildebeest, selecting the young, old and infirm to hunt down and feed upon. The echoist (aka. codependent) on the opposite end of the narcissistic spectrum (hyper-empathetic, lacking comprehension) is the narcissist’s preferred target but anyone who happens to let them into their lives will do.
Once a suitably assailable target has been sized up, the narcissist moves in for the take down. Like a child testing a parents’ limits, they produce a series of behaviors from their inventory, carefully analyzing our responses, comprehending and reflecting back at us our own desires until they discover what we need them to be, that we’ll open ourselves to, and they seize upon it. Seduced by our own reflection in the narcissist, we’re easily swept off our feet, intoxicated by someone so perfect with whom we identify so closely with.
This manipulation is most apparent when the narcissist comprehends that we begin to notice odd inconsistencies in their facade and withdraw from them, this glamor they’ve enamored us with, and begin flipping through their inventory from one persona to another, one tactic to another, like a shape shifter looking for another form with which to beguile us again.
When seduction fails to retain and maintain captured sources of narcissistic supply, the narcissist turns to sadism. Now, every weakness, every fear, every vulnerability they comprehended in us during the idealization, love bombing phase that drew us in close to them and every intimate secret and resource we entrusted in their confidence since is mercilessly exploited to subjugate us.
The narcissist’s reliance on external validation for their perception of reality leaves them vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation themselves by those with greater comprehensive ability who deliberately supply them with false feedback — including other narcissists. Unless they have trusted sources enabled to provide them additional feedback regarding veracity of the information they’re receiving, the narcissist is an easy victim to a superior, hungrier player of the same game.
Comprehension with no feedback can result in hypervigilance. If they have no sources of supply to provide input about the world and themselves or have come to distrust the input from the sources they do have then the narcissist is left to their own devices to process input themselves directly. But their inner, true self, covered over and hidden under all the callous layers of borrowed bluster, forever remains a dysfunctional, underdeveloped child, seething with primal emotions like fear, rage, envy and shame. Unchecked and bereft of supply, the narcissist perceives others as imminent threats, becoming increasingly paranoid, controlling, even violent.
Healthy people exercise a relative balance of empathy and comprehension. Developing our own comprehensive ability, being mindful of our potential weaknesses, practicing critical thinking, trusting our gut instincts and, of course, enforcing healthy boundaries makes us more difficult, less savory targets for the narcissist — or any other scam, for that matter.