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How much is too much when you're empathizing with a narcissist?
March 9, 2013 7:50 PM   Subscribe

My BFF and former FWB-type is most likely a narcissist (*My untrained diagnosis). With every argument, fight, or disagreement, I find myself resolving things on their terms, usually because I can empathize with their emotional state and/or their "situation." So I find the logic in their position, however skewed, and I stop being upset. Probably unhealthy? To a point? ... Where's the line?

This question isn't so much "What do I do with this person?" because honestly, I think that's basically out of my hands at this point. But I'm wondering in general -- how much empathy is too much empathy? Is there even such a thing as "too much empathy?" My thought is that one should never compromise oneself in the name of "empathy," but it seems that empathy, by its very nature, alters the emotional state of the empath. Am I wrong?

Without too much backstory -- Someone in my life that I care very deeply about and that I feel very close to (in some ways) is extremely selfish and exhibits some seriously messed up and at times just plain mean, narcissistic behavior. This is someone that I've had a very complicated relationship with, from a basic crush to casual friends with benefits, to BFFs w/o B, to essentially pulling back on all fronts (and everything in between)... They're in no position to be in a relationship right now, and our "relationship" crossed the line into that forbidden territory. I get that it's messed up, and really, I've accepted that there's nothing to fix, and it'll never really be "good" -- that part was never totally in my control, anyway.

But I have found that in this relationship, more than any other, I've been able to set aside some of my earlier relationship tendencies (that I determined to be selfish or unproductive or ego-driven) and really be the one who was the "bigger man" as much as possible. I have consistently been the person to reach out after a disagreement. I've been extremely understanding when this other person has been reactionary, abrasive, and defensive. I've taken deep breaths and set aside my immediate defensiveness in favor of a quicker resolution and finding common ground.

And in each individual circumstance -- this new M.O. has worked! I did find quicker resolutions and seemingly common ground at times. I was able to see past a lot of immature behavior because I could empathize with this person and feel like, "It's not personal / This isn't about me / They're being reactionary/defensive / They're going through a lot / I see where they're coming from / I feel for them." And so I've been able to reach out or pull back and do things on their terms, because their terms seemed "okay," even if not ideal.

I read that and think maybe there's some Stockholm Syndrome here. I care about this person who is emotionally reckless, and emotionally reckless with me. While I get that they're messed up, I still believe they deserve empathy. Don't we all?

How does one draw that line? How does an objective party draw that line? Can that line even been drawn objectively?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
Have empathy for yourself as well, and act in consideration of both your and your friend's interests. Subsuming entirely to someone else lacks self-empathy.
posted by u2604ab at 7:55 PM on March 9, 2013 [10 favorites]


It's not common ground if only one person is compromising.

extremely selfish and exhibits some seriously messed up and at times just plain mean, narcissistic behavior.

How much is too much? Putting up with "mean" is too much.

Having empathy means you get what's driving their behavior, it doesn't mean you have to take it. If this person is putting him/herself first, and you're putting him/herself first, who's putting you first?
posted by headnsouth at 7:56 PM on March 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


It's okay to care about someone who does bad things and treats you badly. Sometimes the people we care about do that stuff for a variety of reasons, some good, some bad. But this someone's presence in your life doesn't seem to be benefitting you at all, and it actually seems to be training you to TOLERATE and PERMIT bad behavior without ever giving you training on calling them on their shit, which I imagine is often sky high and daaaaaammnn smelly.

So, how do you draw the line? You draw the line by realizing you've been in a semi-codependent relationship for years and that you've really let it go on too long. You've learned how to the bigger man. Excellent. Move on and apply that to a more mutually satisfying, respectful, and productive relationship than this one -- and do not feel guilty about ditching the faux sunk value you may feel you've invested in what sounds to me like an exhausting and altogether extensive "training ground" relationship. Graduate. Seriously. Let this one go. Thrive elsewhere, without this person in your life.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:57 PM on March 9, 2013 [10 favorites]


You feel empathy and understanding for him such that you ENTIRELY understand this person is not able to ever ever ever treat you with human dignity (because they don't have that in them, and any overtures in that direction are temporary or an act of manipulation) and you stay the mother fuck away from this absolutely emotionally dangerous person forever and ever.

In short, you do folks like this no good by allowing them to harm you. You do them good by kicking them to the curb.

If they "get it" someday, meh. You'll be long gone.

If they come crawling back - RUN - because narcissistic types don't change down at their core without years and years of deep self-work, if ever.


You get over this by grieving them as though they died, because in part, this is true. Your vision of who they were (the better person) is dead, gone, never coming back.

I swear you can master this very important life skill. Don't be like me and wait 20 years to do this. Do it NOW.
posted by jbenben at 8:00 PM on March 9, 2013 [26 favorites]


It's hard to tell but it sounds like this person is a situational narcissist (something's happened to them and they're operating from a place of temporary suffering) and not actual narcissism. In the case of actual narcissism, all you can really do is completely cut off from them altogether.

But, basically, when it comes to empathy, I think you draw the line when you think that the person's trying to make you do things that will harm you; that they're trying to use your empathy against you in a manner that will hurt you.

If you acknowledge that they're going through a rough time and that that's the reason for their behaviour (not that they're deliberately being an arsehole who is trying to hurt you), then you can understand that maybe their behaviour will change at some point.

(But you don't have to be involved in making that happen for them - you can empathise but nonetheless not get involved - that has to be done by them and is their responsibility.)
posted by heyjude at 8:31 PM on March 9, 2013


You're investing a lot of emotional energy in a relationship in which you constantly give in and accept bad behavior. What would your life be like if instead you invested that energy in forming a new, healthy relationship -- or in starting a business, or going after that job you've wanted, or learning that great skill you admire?

I'd bet that every aspect of your life is suffering from the emotional drain caused by this person. When I dumped my narcissist my horizons expanded amazingly -- I wasn't even aware of how limited they had become.

For me the only way out was a clear, firm end to the relationship with no contact afterwards. I calmly and quickly ended everything with him, and then wrote myself a list of everything wrong with him and every way he caused me pain and every sign he showed that he would never change, and I read it every day until I didn't need to read it anymore.

I completely understand how you can get sucked in and start telling yourself things like you're improving your empathy skills, but the best thing for your life is to get out now, completely and cleanly. Our time here is limited. Get out now, and you'll soon see much more clearly and can use your new empathy skills in a relationship that benefits both participants and moves your life forward.
posted by ceiba at 8:32 PM on March 9, 2013 [14 favorites]


It's hard to tell but it sounds like this person is a situational narcissist (something's happened to them and they're operating from a place of temporary suffering) and not actual narcissism. In the case of actual narcissism, all you can really do is completely cut off from them altogether.

I am not aware of situational narcissism that is not acquired due to celebrity. It is also basically the same as narcissism presentation-wise, and like narcissism, it does not go away without lots of hard work.

So, here's the thing. In my experience with a narcissist, I let my empathy get the best of me. I poured empathy and care and love into my narcissist, and it was just like pouring it all down into a bottomless well. He was in a bad situation when we met - one I was entirely sympathetic to - but that bad situation was of his own making, and it was borne out of his narcissism.

I feel sorry for the man I'm talking about. I understand that he has a very hard road ahead of him, because his narcissism makes him unable to function in a mature, adult relationship. I believe that he will have to get help in order to be able to truly love another person. I am so sad that he may never be able to have a healthy relationship, because his relationships with other people are very important to him, and I know this. He feels deeply that he does not need help: he can't look in the mirror.

And to me, this is a tragedy. I don't want him to be unhappy, but I am deeply afraid that he will be. If he continues to treat women the way he treated me, this is going to be a lifelong problem for him.

But you know what? He's going to have this problem whether or not I'm there, because he is not going to fix it. He'll make cursory efforts to fix it, and he'll really want to fix it, but he just isn't going to. My presence in his life does nothing except for to cause me misery. I'm throwing my love down a well, and it's not going anywhere.

I am deeply sorry for him.

And in each individual circumstance -- this new M.O. has worked! I did find quicker resolutions and seemingly common ground at times. I was able to see past a lot of immature behavior because I could empathize with this person and feel like, "It's not personal / This isn't about me

At some point, it does become about you. Your life is about you. Your empathy is not free. You pay a price for throwing your love at this person.

One day, I looked up, and realized: I have lost myself. I felt like I was giving up little things in order to meet common ground and to quickly resolve disagreements, but one day all those little things added up to a very big thing. It's like the Sorites paradox; instead of grains of sand, I was paying with grains of me.

I shrunk to fit into the space that was allowed for me in the relationship, and it was very, very small.

What I am trying to say is this: I am sorry for this man, but I am sorry for myself, too. I deserve empathy. In my relationship with my significant other and in my relationships with friends there should be a give and take. I am not going to throw parts of me, my love and care, down into wells anymore.
posted by sockermom at 9:14 PM on March 9, 2013 [22 favorites]


I am not aware of situational narcissism that is not acquired due to celebrity. It is also basically the same as narcissism presentation-wise, and like narcissism, it does not go away without lots of hard work.

Extreme selfishness that is a reaction to a traumatic event or similar that is not indicative of the person's normal personality.
posted by heyjude at 9:28 PM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have consistently been the person to reach out after a disagreement.

Repeatedly looking for self abuse isn't empathy, it's self abuse and enabling behavior. That's how much is too much when you're empathizing with a narcissist.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:37 PM on March 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


I agree narcissism, and it's sister, borderline personality disorder, are usually born of trauma.

This does not excuse the subject of self-agency, their ability to change their way of fundamentally interacting with intimates, and society at large.

Boo for them.

Trauma in these types of situations is usually from extremely abusive family situations, typically that pass on generation through generation.

My mom (and dad) essentially "passed on" their childhood abuse on to me and my brother. He succumbed, I did not.

My son will NOT have anything like my childhood.

See? Self-agency!

Either you see the pattern for yourself and actively improve your situation - or you do not.

That is work no one can do for you. OP, you can NOT do this self-work for your former friend.

I know this, because I tried arguing for "a better outcome" with my narcissistic BFF/BF for 20 years - it only got worse because at the core, he never believed there was recovery and improvement available - and I did believe.

I'm now happily married with a son and a successful business. Back in the day, his narcissism propelled him to great heights he could not sustain...and now he has nothing and no one. He kinda sucked the life out of me before, but I am much much better off now.

OP, this situation is not that complicated, just unknown to you.

Ditch this guy. Retain your lessons of empathy, but ditch this guy, and anyone like him, that you meet in the future.

It really is this simple.
posted by jbenben at 9:53 PM on March 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


it is one thing to be understanding of another's poor behavior--it is a whole 'nuther thing to tolerate it. try not to conflate the two. i.e. show compassion but don't neglect to set your boundaries. don't tolerate abusive behavior. that is enabling--not empathy.
posted by wildflower at 9:54 PM on March 9, 2013 [17 favorites]


I think you need to wonder what you have gotten out of this. The narcissists I have known were very intelligent and competent. So it was actually worth putting up with more crap from them than average. It made it very hard to determine how much was too much because giving to these people got me benefits I could not find elsewhere.

Perhaps your situation is more cut and dried than mine was. But I am inclined to think not, given that you have to ask. These days, I am very, very clear that no one can take advantage of me long term without my agreement and cooperation. I keep a close eye on "What's my motivation?" If someone is still jerking my chain, it is usually rooted in me still wanting something from them that I do not think I can get anywhere else.

I think you need to take a good, hard look and determine if that is why you stay. And then try to assess realistically whether or not he is really going to give you what you want. If the answer is "no," then you need to move on.
posted by Michele in California at 10:26 PM on March 9, 2013 [14 favorites]


I've been in situations like the one you describe. More than once, unfortunately. In all cases, my deepest regret has been not getting the person in question out of my life sooner.

Yes, even messed-up people deserve empathy. What they don't deserve is a free pass to treat other people badly because of their own issues. Nthing all the people here who are telling you not to confuse the two.

The best thing you can do with people like this is feel empathy for them from as great a distance as you can manage - both emotionally and physically.
posted by Broseph at 1:50 AM on March 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


Oh, and one other thing:

And in each individual circumstance -- this new M.O. has worked!

Okay - and after the dust has settled, has this person continued to act in the same mean, narcissistic ways mentioned in your post? Have they continued to be emotionally reckless with you like before? Maybe right away, or maybe after a brief period of being on "good behavior"?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then I would suggest that this new M.O. isn't working as well as you think.
posted by Broseph at 1:55 AM on March 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


This is a clunky site, but provided me with some good insights about what being around a narcissist does to one's sense of self; how it engages us as co-dependents in a highly addictive interpersonal dynamic.
posted by honey-barbara at 3:12 AM on March 10, 2013


Having to develop a strategy for dealing with someone is a good sign that it's not worth keeping that person in your life.
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:10 AM on March 10, 2013 [8 favorites]


The line is when they are hurting themselves or others. The problems arise when someone uses emotional manipulation to distract you from your feelings/concerns about something. This is usually temporary and at the time you will agree with them, then later the same concerns or issues will surface in your mind.

You will go in a circle like this until you've had enough. The narcissist just wants to keep you for their own selfish needs, not in a give and take healthy relationship.
posted by abirdinthehand at 8:22 AM on March 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


if you must continue to be friends with this person, you could try saying in a polite way, "I don't think we disagree" and then point out the common ground that you do have.

It's awfully stressful to constantly put up with the defensive freakouts beforehand, though. I had to do this with someone in my social circle, whenever our crowd got together, and this person would subsequently give me the silent treatment for a good hour or two. The other thing I had to do was just let them, and resist the urge to fall all over myself apologizing (for doing nothing wrong..) in order to draw them back into communicating again. Nope, not my fault - let them sulk until they get over it and behave in a civil manner. Doing this really did stress me and I ultimately decided it wasn't worth trying to talk to them at all, though.
posted by citron at 8:37 AM on March 10, 2013


Read Barb Oakley's book, Cold-Blooded Kindness about empathy that goes way too far.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:38 AM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Remember the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Ask yourself "would I want my friend to take this particular behaviour from me?" If not, you are also not doing them a kindness by tolerating it from them.

Another good rule of thumb came from Nattie, who once said she had a rule about tolerating whatever isn't malicious.

Other than that, I think you're morally justified in putting up with whatever you want, really. You may get a lot of DTMFA but you don't have to hold your friendships up to third-party standards as long as they're working for you.

The danger, though, as others have said, is that you are allowing yourself to be trained to cater to a narcissist. This has implications beyond this one friendship. The conditioning is powerful and any amount of it is blood in the water for more narcissists, who know how to get in through the tiniest gap in your boundaries and make those gaps wide enough to drive a train through before you even know there's a problem. This can set you up to live most of your life in one bad situation after another dominated by one narcissist or bully after another, and I only wish I were exaggerating. Please be aware that it's not just this one friendship but most likely a life pattern that you're establishing here.

Also, if this guy is a true narcissist then I'm sad to say it's only a matter of time before he does you serious damage, as in job loss or financial catastrophe because of his actions, usually rejecting you in the process. The other possibility is that he is just careful enough not to push you too far for a long time, maybe ever, because you're just too useful a resource. Meanwhile your life and opportunities get smaller and smaller, unbeknownst to you, as you are tainted by association with the narcissist in ways you're unaware of because you won't know about this person's reputation at large while you're in their inner circle.

Be careful.
posted by tel3path at 9:46 AM on March 10, 2013 [8 favorites]


The danger, though, as others have said, is that you are allowing yourself to be trained to cater to a narcissist. This has implications beyond this one friendship. The conditioning is powerful and any amount of it is blood in the water for more narcissists, who know how to get in through the tiniest gap in your boundaries and make those gaps wide enough to drive a train through before you even know there's a problem.

This, a million times over. The deeper you let this person mark you, the more people like them you'll attract -- for decades, in my case. Don't let this happen.
posted by ceiba at 9:57 AM on March 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


Oh and you know what else the Bible tells us, besides the Golden Rule?

Not to give what is holy to dogs, or cast your pearls before swine.

Make sure that's not what you're doing.
posted by tel3path at 10:00 AM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Some years ago, I took up with a narcissist. Believing myself to be more emotionally mature and the "bigger man," I attempted exactly what you are describing. Now I recognize that I was not emotionally mature. My own terrible self-esteem and lack of modelling of healthy relationships were in play. I regret very much that I ever let this person into my life. Nowadays, I look at my old self -- the one who would even consider a relationship with someone "reactionary, abrasive, and defensive" -- with pity and regret. I would not dream of letting someone like that into my life again, and I don't have to -- my relationships now are mutually enriching or I don't enter into them. Please understand that in engaging with a narcissist, you are not being a "bigger man." Narcissists seek out people with a poor sense of boundaries so that they can continue their destructive and unhealthy behaviors. By allowing these behaviors to continue, you are reinforcing them and teaching the narcissist that they are acceptable. That's not empathy. It's mutually destructive. I suspect that you have some deep healing to do. You cannot do it with this person in your life. The kindest thing for both of you is to disengage.
posted by summer sock at 11:00 AM on March 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


"I've been able to set aside some of my earlier relationship tendencies (that I determined to be selfish or unproductive or ego-driven) and really be the one who was the "bigger man" as much as possible. I have consistently been the person to reach out after a disagreement."

These are all great skills to foster -- skills for healthy, reciprocal relationships with people who also try to understand others to their own best abilities. It is super common to overcorrect when trying new skills (and then to overcorrect again by giving up entirely when that inevitably fails). Your FWB guy is not the person to practice these skills on. People who consistently push boundaries need 1) clearly stated boundaries and 2) tangible consequences for breaking them, such as loss of time together or loss of friendship.

Don't confuse co-dependence for empathy. From the professional communication facilitators I've been lucky to be able to learn from, they say this: Sympathy is better than empathy. Empathy is self-centered -- literally taking ownership of someone else's emotions to feel them yourself. Sympathy is acknowledging someone else's emotions and offering your own strength or your own understanding as appropriate. I might argue that empathy is inevitable in closely loving relationships, and sometimes preferable, but the lesson is the same: Never steal ownership of another person's emotions. Feel your own emotions. Handle your own emotions. Mature adults are required to handle their own feelings and anyone who reaches adulthood without those tools will only be harmed by being humored. (With the exception of people with significant disabilities, which is not the case here.)

You're absolutely right that constant capitulation will lead you to loss of self. A variation of this is called the "Ben Franklin effect" and is backed up by research: When you do a favor for someone, you subconsciously justify that to yourself by liking that person more. This can be a really great thing if you do the right things for the right reasons and reenforce healthy bonds, but it can also reenforce unhealthy relationships like co-dependence.

(Note: Co-dependence can be a one-way street usually where one person is reenforcing good intentions with the outcome that the other person is reenforced in their asshattery.)
posted by Skwirl at 12:37 PM on March 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


Some thoughts on drawing the line:
A couple of years back, I was contacted by someone. I was working fulltime while very ill. I often spoke with this person at 3:00am when I had insomnia and wasn't going to get anything else constructive done anyway.

I knew from the get go I was very likely to be used and ditched. I was okay with that. They were in an abusive situation. They needed help. I was willing to help and I felt it didn't really cost me anything to talk to them. It did end up costing me more than I anticipated but I don't regret the choice I made. I wouldn't do anything different.

I was willing to give my time in part because they were contacting me at 3:00am. I wasn't going to do anything "better" with my time when I had insomnia and felt like crap. So they were not taking time away from anything I valued. I was lonely. It was someone to talk to. I appreciated that. So I was clear I got something out of it, even though they got a lot more.

This person frequently spoke of wanting to live with me. I consistently said that was highly unlikely to happen. I was willing to support their attempts to plan a move elsewhere but this was not realistic. They knew a lot of people with power and money and influence and this got them lots of practical support, including well paid work. For a time, I halfway hoped that would lead to good things for me. But it became pretty apparent they viewed me as a mother figure in the sickest, most abusive, most "Giving Tree"/masochistic fashion possible. Their connections were never going to help me in any way. I was treated like an incompetent idiot whose work was worthless even though my writing was life-changing for them. That would never change.

It came to a head because they would spend hours talking to me, trying to plan a future where we lived together, then turn around and talk to a dozen other people about how to solve their problems and plan their future and never tell these other folks that they wished to live with me. So I was basically being jerked around. They had some emotional need to feel accepted by me and wanted me to put my life on hold and arrange my life such that they could show up if they wanted to, while doing nothing to make that happen. Nor would they let go of talking endlessly about desperately wanting to live with me.

So I said "Ok. You want to live with me. Here is an outline for trying to make that happen. Can I start talking to x, y, and z people and give them blah information about you so we can try to make this happen?" Instead of admitting I had been right all along and living with me was just not realistic, they compared me to the mafia and promptly booted me from their life. That hurt and given their influential connections it probably slammed doors shut for me. But being their Bitch was never going to open any of those doors. It was going to keep them shut for some other reason. So not sure I really lost anything, even though I am pretty sure they remain an obstacle for me in certain circles.

So I had some clear parameters for what and how much I was willing to give. When they wanted more than I was willing or able to give, I did a social equivalent of requiring a "security deposit" to hold the place open for them. I made it clear that if they wanted more commitment from me, that had to run both ways. I sent a message to the effect of: "If you aren't taking action in the here and now to make this move happen, you can quit jerking my chain and telling me how much I matter to you. I don't want to hear it." They promptly bailed. I heard from them briefly a couple more times, a few months later.

I have no regrets. I got to do the humane thing for someone who had been treated so badly that a sociopath I know said, in essence, "That ain't right!" I think they are better off for it. I am mostly okay with the price I paid. I drew a very clear line in the sand when things were threatening to cost me too much, distort the hell out of my life, etc. I never really had to tell them to get lost. Simply requiring them to treat this commitment of living together as a serious commitment which ran both ways was enough to run them off.

If you are very clear how much you are willing and able to give while expecting nothing back, you can, for a short time, play patron saint to a narcissist and try to make the world a better place. If you don't know how or where to draw that line, you are probably better off just saying "no." If you need some kind of personal experience telling you that you are a good soul, go do volunteer work at a homeless shelter or children's hospital or the like instead of this.

I agree with all the prior suggestions that being someone's Bitch doesn't make them a better person. It just makes them feel like abusive asshattery works. I have come to believe that if you really love someone, you will not help train them to be an asshole and abuser. Saying "no" is kinder. I often turn the other cheek, try to be generous and understanding, and so on. Those things can do a lot of good in the world. So there isn't really a simple answer. But being a doormat really isn't the right way to improve the world.

I hope that helps you think this through.
posted by Michele in California at 2:59 PM on March 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


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