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How the Narcissist Hurts You Using Cognitive Empathy

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What if I told you that empathy could cause horrible – even unspeakable – physical and emotional pain?

“But Kim, isn’t empathy the glue that holds relationships together and creates a positive environment for communication?”

Yes, but not all empathy is equal.

In fact, the narcissist uses a very specific kind of empathy as a vessel to get into your head, manipulate your thoughts, and abuse you.

Here’s how it works and why the “narcissist lack of empathy” concept is a farce.

The Different Types of Empathy

Empathy itself can be good or bad – it depends on how the person experiences, interprets, and reacts.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the term as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

No, Merriam-Webster isn’t a psychology journal or expert in the field, but this definition is pretty spot-on.

Why?

It does not mention anything about experiencing compassion, remorse, or humanity. Here are the different types of empathy and how they play out in action.

Emotional Empathy

This is when you quite literally feel yourself in someone’s shoes. You cry with your friend who is experiencing hardship like the death of a loved one. You feel the same pain of those around you even though you aren’t experiencing the pain.

The problem here is that this feeling can almost immobilize a person. If you felt so distraught by a homeless person’s suffering that you gave away all your possessions and became homeless yourself, that doesn’t help the situation much, right?

Compassionate Empathy

This type can be empowering: you understand a person’s hardship but since you aren’t experiencing it yourself, you’re able to take action and improve the situation.

If someone is drowning, you shouldn’t jump into the river yourself because you’d both be stuck. Instead, you should stick out a branch or rope they can grab onto. That’s compassionate empathy.

Cognitive Empathy

This is where things start to get dark. Think of every sleazy lawyer, salesperson, or interrogator you’ve ever heard about or come across – they all utilize cognitive empathy.

This gives narcissists the ability to see things from your perspective and then act in a way that’s most beneficial to them. Cognitive empathy is still empathy – just not the kind most people are familiar with.

Why the Narcissist’s Lack of Empathy Concept is a Myth

Narcissists don’t lack empathy in the way we typically believe – they lack compassion, remorse, and regret.

We tend to confuse emotions like compassion with empathy, but as mentioned above, a person can understand what another person feels, thinks, and experiences without feeling the human emotions that go along with it.

That’s exactly why the narcissist’s lack of empathy concept is a farce – and a dangerous one at that.

It tends to let them off the hook for very hurtful behavior. The narcissist’s lack of empathy idea implies that their abusive behavior is completely unintentional.

In reality, it’s extremely manipulative and extremely intentional.

How the Narcissist Uses Cognitive Empathy to Hurt and Manipulate You

When you’re on the receiving end of a narcissist’s abuse, does it feel like you’re being tortured?

Well, that’s because you are.

In December of 2014, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report about the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” methods. The report details how the CIA cooperated with psychologists for years to develop a program that forces the subject into a state of learned helplessness.

When you’re in a state of learned helplessness, you have suffered so much torment from outside trauma that you essentially give up your own autonomy. Learned helplessness can lead to depression and other mental illness.

If an interrogator (or narcissist) wants to force their subject into learned helplessness, the first step is to establish a connection.

And what’s the narcissist’s tool for establishing connection? Cognitive empathy.

Using Cognitive Empathy to Get What They Want

As you can see, the narcissist’s lack of empathy is a myth because they need to use cognitive empathy to get what they want from those around them.

The interrogator wants to get information, the salesperson wants to sell a car, and the lawyer wants to win their case. In all of these situations, they need cognitive empathy to get into the subject’s head. They need to understand the subject’s feelings and thoughts which they can then manipulate into producing an outcome that’s most beneficial to them.

That’s why you’ve likely found yourself bouncing back and forth many times wondering “do they love me or hate me?” It’s a lot easier to believe this is not intentional and that the narcissist is not in control of their emotions and actions – but these actions are calculated.

Like the interrogator, narcissists interpret emotions like love, openness, kindness, and generosity as weaknesses. And if you give an inch, they’ll take a mile, back up, and drive the same mile over and over until you’re pulling your hair out.

How to Shield Yourself from Their Harmful Words or Actions

The first step is to recognize when the narcissist is utilizing cognitive empathy to achieve their goals. In the beginning, this isn’t easy because you’re human and apt to respond to perceived kindness with kindness.

But the narcissist’s false kindness does not come without a cost.

It’s also important to identify what the narcissist wants from you. This could be anything including money, housework, caring for the kids, or any obligations the narcissist feels are beneath them and must be cast upon someone less-than.

In other cases, the narcissist may just want a proverbial punching bag to blame for their problems or unleash their emotional (and sometimes physical) abuse.

But responding to their false kindness and compassion by returning the favor won’t get you anything but further abuse.

Narcissists cannot be reasoned with.

That’s why you need to do everything in your power to avoid the narcissist and cut them out of your life at all costs. Otherwise, the narcissist will use cognitive empathy indefinitely to take advantage of you and destroy you.

They won’t respond well – far from it – but it’s the only solution.

Grab your Beginner’s Healing Toolkit below and stop being the recipient of the narcissist’s abuse and torture!

What to do next to start your journey of Narcissistic Abuse Recovery

If you’ve already downloaded the Free Beginner’s Healing Toolkit, your next step would be to consider joining me and my Inner Warrior Tribe inside The Essential Break Free Bootcamp, where you’ll learn everything you need to get through your first weeks of breaking free and receive support and encouragement from us each step of the way.

Support groups can be extremely helpful in dealing with emotional pain.  Our Inner Warrior Circle includes a private Facebook group specifically for individuals who are on their own healing journeys.  Discover the strength inside you to overcome crippling emotional pain, defeat helplessness, and create a meaningful, fulfilling life.

Your healed life starts with one step...

Join thousands of others who have signed up for the free Email Recovery Course and Healing Roadmap. Includes expert advice and tips for encouragement and support. * Seating in my masterclass: 7 Proven Steps to Defeat Narcissistic Abuse PLUS +* How to Ease Anxiety * 16 Empowering Beliefs to Live By + more!

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45 comments
5 Tips to Avoid Users When Dating After Narcissistic Abuse - Kim Saeed: Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Program says September 1, 2019

[…] Read:  How the Narcissist Hurts You Using Cognitive Empathy […]

Reply
Josée Noël says August 26, 2019

Thank you, seems like I only need to be taking a breath during a telephone conversation with covert mom for her to get a jab in… They don’t seem to be ‘staged or pre-meditated’, she comes at from from all angles. That makes her 100% narc and looking for any opportunity.

Reply
Are You Dealing With a 100% Narcissist? - Kim Saeed: Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Program says August 22, 2019

[…] talking about cognitive empathy, or maybe you’ve read one of my articles that I wrote on it, cognitive empathy is a very dangerous kind of empathy that narcissists use to get inside your head, …ind out what your deepest dreams, desires, and also your deepest fears are –  your deepest […]

Reply
Tracy b says August 19, 2019

I’ve been living with a narcissist for almost eleven years. I didn’t know anything about them. I read my first article and it was like they knew him personally. He had destroyed me mentally and I have no relationship with my kids offer family because of him. I feel like I’m stuck on fly paper and can’t move. He controls all the money. He had given nee things then taken them back over and over again. He has made me go hungry, shut off my phone, called me every name possible and I feel trapped. I want to leave but don’t know how.

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Lori McKinney says August 18, 2019

my computer is hacked yet again … not sure if you sent e-mail this morning or not … if not, it’s all good .. I’ve really looked forward to them … when my narc began the abuse process on-line … it appeared to others that I was trauma-bonded … it was a wrong assumption … my childhood abusers have vowed to make me miserable and prevent me from having love for the rest of my life .. being an empath, I find myself targeted from time to time … when they wear masks (fake profiles) it’s hard to distinguish truth … I’ve been intentionally fed so much untruth over time … authentic profiles of friends have become unreliable … I have taken myself off of social media for my own best interest .. I’ve moved on and am positive about the future … just a bit irritated that they won’t leave me alone … boot camp sounds wonderful … I just need a bit more time … thanks for all that you do .. please continue with the e-mails … I’ve appreciated your insights so much … have a great day

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Reshma Abraz says August 14, 2019

I’ve been married to narcissist for 29years and tolerated his harsh n hurtful words n treatment but this time I really need to walk away from him for good and my children supported me all along…I’ve wasted half of my life serving this abuser…he always uses the children to get back at me but now the children has grown up and he has no excuse already…I feel more peaceful now.

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Ignoring a Narcissist? You’re Probably Doing It Wrong - Kim Saeed: Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Program says August 8, 2019

[…] to popular belief, narcissists do have empathy. It’s just not the compassionate kind we normally associate with the term. This dangerous concept […]

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Matthew Gerome says August 6, 2019

Thank you for the clarification about empathy.
I found this article helpful and useful.Most things are far more nuanced and complicated than I initially realize.The details do matter.
I appreciate what you are doing in helping to develop a deeper understanding of this affliction .Thank you

Reply
Loss of Identity: Examples of Perspecticide from Narcissistic Abuse - Kim Saeed: Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Program says July 31, 2019

[…] Cognitive Empathy: Objectively empathizing with you for the sole purpose of manipulating your thoughts. This empathy without compassion is a prerequisite for torture. […]

Reply
Lily says June 18, 2019

Iv Been married to a narcisst for 6 years and i got thru all of this the bomb loving, gaslighting and discard but what hurts me the most that he using our kids each time he want to hoover me back.
Thats make me so sad and when i dont want him back he discard he’s kids its so crazy.

Reply
The Tragedy of Narcissistic Abuse: Hoovering, Love Bombing, and Cognitive Empathy - Kim Saeed: Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Program says May 28, 2019

[…] bombing refers to using flattery, compliments, and cognitive empathy to secure your trust and approval. When narcissists engage in love bombing, they attempt to seal […]

Reply
KMS says April 29, 2019

Wow
That information really was helpful ‘
Oh my god !
I always knew there was no giving unless there was benefit
This just took me to the next piece
The lie “ I could feel
I felt uncomfortable being treated ( at a drive thru )
God
I’m so blown away by this difference of empathy
I didn’t believe this person to be a liar

Reply
No, You’re Not as Evil as the Narcissist: It’s Righteous Anger - Kim Saeed: Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Program says February 12, 2019

[…] abuse long enough, you may have started to disassociate and drift into helpless apathy aka learned helplessness. In this case, you’ll need to find the strength in yourself to get angry again so you can realize […]

Reply
Karen says January 20, 2019

Today marks one week since we agreed to divorce after being together for 36 years and married for 32 years. We will be selling the house and going our separate ways. I’m an emotional mess and he seems fine and wantsti avt lie weare still friends but I can’t. I cant take it so 3 days ago I moved to a spare bedroom and I stay in here with the door closed and locked. Of course this made him angry. I told him I’m hurt and need to be alone. He replied in a combative tone “well I’m hurt too.” I did not respond, just walked away. It’s going to take months to get divorced and sale this house and I’m already emotionally drained and physically exhausted. I consulted with an attorney a couple days ago and I start seeing a therapust next week. I cried all day yesterday and the tears were back as soon as I opened my eyes this morning. One day at a time.

Reply
    Kim Saeed says January 21, 2019

    Hi Karen,

    I know you’re in a lot of pain right now, but please know this will not be the case always.

    If you need something to help you in between therapy sessions, I’d love for you to join us in my healing community. There’s no obligation, but you might find it helpful: http://bit.ly/StopHurtingStartHealing

    In addition to the program, we have a private group which has been the backbone for many people. They say it’s the best group out there for people like you. Either way, whether you join us or not, you have taken that first step and your future self will thank you for it.

    Kim XoXo

    Reply
Angel says January 18, 2019

Thank you for this clarification. As knowing that my sister has used cognitive empathy on me my entire life. Does not justify her cruel and manipulative actions. It means she just doesn’t care, because she see me as mean to an end. This makes me feel much better about going no contact with her.

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The Wounded Child: 7 Needs Narcissistic Parents Cannot Provide - Kim Saeed: Narcissistic Abuse Recovery & Personal Growth says January 16, 2019

[…] because narcissistic parents use a blend of cognitive empathy with aggression to communicate with their children. Regardless, children tend to experience this […]

Reply
Marina Sokolova says January 11, 2019

Thank you Tanya for sharing your story and thank you Kim for your insightful as ever reply. From what you shared, Tanya, your former husband does sound like a narcissist. Especially, if he tends to believe that he is entitled to your compassion and his taking chances with you or others. Also, if tends to blame all his problems on you without taking any responsibilty of his own for them. These people are emotionally immature. They only become mature if they sincerely take the responsibilty for their hurtful actions and really show – not just say that they will try- that they are willing to change. I knew a person like that for three years and who nearly ruined my life. For me, it’s also been difficult with my own husband (who has a drinking problem too), but one way or the other he does show that he wants to take care of the family. I guess we can’t expect perfect relationships and sometimes should choose the lesser evil if we can. Hope you will find a good way to solve it.

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CAROL says January 11, 2019

Pretend empathy is not true empathy and cognitive empathy is pretend. Webster agrees.

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Shirley says January 10, 2019

A lot of information on empathy that I did not know. Thanks for sharing Kim. This is a lot to deal with but deal with it I must in order to heal.

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Sonja Rodney says January 10, 2019

I’ve registered for your 7 steps webinar 4 times now and each time I press play and up comes a thank you for watching and star rating! No video. No more time to give to waiting for it to work, sadly.

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sylvie says January 10, 2019

Great Article, I couldn’t understand when others say lack of empathy because in both my cases, I saw empathy, this makes all the sense now.

Reply
An says August 22, 2018

Hallo Kim, good article.
I still find it difficult to see what seems real empathy or is it manipulation.
I have send my friend a message that i don’t want to have contact for a while because i want to look after my Sons etc. And that he did something that cost me negatieve energy and i dont want that. He reacted that he has a difficult time, recieved letters from tax en other things . And that he stands totally alone for everything. (He has a girlfriend with 3 kids but he shares nothing of his money/gambling problems with her. )
He said good that you say that you don’t want to have contact.
If there is something you know how to contact me.
About negative energy, everything in my live is negative. And im standing totally alone. Contact with me can in different ways but you don’t choose that.
Despite of your message you stand still very close to me.
This he send. And i find it difficult , is it pure manipulation or does he mean it. He has a lot of trouble thats true. I hope you will give me Some advice. I think a lot about him

Reply
An says August 22, 2018

Hallo Kim,

Reply
Loss of Identity: Examples of Perspecticide from Narcissistic Abuse - Let Me Reach with Kim Saeed says August 16, 2018

[…] Cognitive Empathy: Objectively empathizing with you for the sole purpose of manipulating your thoughts. This empathy without compassion is a prerequisite for torture. […]

Reply
Healing from Identity Loss After Narcissistic Abuse says July 11, 2018

[…] isolation (and employing other tactics akin to torture), the narcissist puts you in a state of learned helplessness where they have complete […]

Reply
Kimberly Samuel says June 23, 2018

How can I cut out my ex husband who is a covert narcissist, when we have kids together? There is no sign of abuse towards the kids (yet), and in my state there is no “custody” only “parental rights”?

Reply
Christine says June 23, 2018

Kim,
How do I get over the overwhelming anxiety I experience when dealing with my ex fiancé? I got engaged to him 5 yrs ago, he convinced me to quit my long term employment, move across the state away from family and friends to start a life together. We lived together bought a home in my name, sold that bought another one his name only (he was very smart, conniving believable the way he did it) within 3 1/2 yrs. At first everything was fine with our relationship, he loved me and wanted to take care of me, make me feel safe and secure, promised everything you want to hear. You don’t see it at first but then came the emotional abuse, gas-lighting, isolation, emotional blackmailing and physical abuse. The last straw was he was getting physical with me I called police and by the time they got there he scratched his face with a fork told them I did it. He still tried all his power to win me back. I left with the clothes on my back, have a protection order on him and trying legally to get back some of the debt he left me with along with some equity in my house. This has been ongoing for over 1 1/2 yrs. (he is the one continuing everything). So how do you let the overwhelming anxiety go when I see his name or have to deal with anything about him?
Thanks,
Christine

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Marina says June 17, 2018

What if the narcissist is your own child who is a capable and smart adult who bullies you and when you try to stand up for yourself – they accuse you of manipulating and hurting them?

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Anonymous says June 15, 2018

This message belongs on a billboard. Thank you!

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Ann says June 13, 2018

Thank you, Kim, for affirming my vibration, and continually adding value to the hard lessons of recovery. This piece resonated deeply in my core. Gave me insight to my own reaction to being played by a npd at the outset. I can install a new boundary there.

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Mgp says June 12, 2018

This is one of the most important articles I have read about narcissistic abuse. It explains so well how they keep their target confused and continually vascillatung mentally, emotionally, and physically between two opposing realities.
Until I finally understood that it was “fake” empathy, I couldn’t move forward.
This article will help so many people. .

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Jo says June 11, 2018

You said when it feels like they made a connection with us, they used cognitive empathy. I still don’t get it so pls help me understand. The article explains all around it, but I feel you need more explanatuon and examples of what it specifically is. I understand that it’s bad but what exactly is it so we can recognize it? How exactly is that cognative empathy when they seem to make a connection? Can you please, please explain it more and give examples?
Thank you so much!!

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Ron Sitts says June 11, 2018

When you say they see it as weakness should we also assume they see it as opportunity and can you give more examples of how we can identify if we’re in a relationship like this because I think they disguise it very well.

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Leslie says June 10, 2018

So true!

Finally, some intelligent explanation for this very real and damaging situation that no one understands or believes.

I feel like I’m being “framed” by my husband the narcissist. This article gives me my power back that I am not permanently damaged, rather, I am seeing the light that is empowering me to escape and run for my life.

Thank you, Kim.

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Lin says June 10, 2018

Thanks much, Kim. This is an excellent post. It gives a clear picture of something I had sensed and was wondering about, but needed someone (you) to explain. Thank you for the clarity.

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Shannon Morris says June 10, 2018

Excellent article explains how the narcissist gets into your head. Try’s to act like the good guy .

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Donia says June 10, 2018

Brilliant…..good to have a different perspective on this. Your book on no contact was eye opening . Read it in 2016 but it was too late but it did keep me from making other mistakes and confirmed I was with an NPD. Than you!

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Eboli Coward says June 10, 2018

This article was right on time today Kim. I do not communicate with my seperated spouse at all now. I “know” he does not care & will not change. I also “KNOW” it’s best for me to divorce him. Still my emotions get the better of me at times & I get lonely. I am being proactive & making new healthy platonic relationships. Thank you again. Kim.

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Echo says June 10, 2018

It would be helpful to add examples of this strategy and tips on how one can recognize it. Great article!

Reply
    Kim Saeed says June 10, 2018

    Hi Echo,

    If you have reason to believe you are with a narcissist, then any time you feel the narcissist “understands you” or they are mirroring your feelings, they are using cognitive empathy. If your relationship is strife with periods where you feel deeply connected to them, contrasted with periods where it feels like they despise or hate you, they have used cognitive empathy.

    You can find examples of this strategy in my workshop, where I talk about it in depth. You can register here, if you are curious: 7 Proven Strategies to Defeat Narcissistic Abuse.

    Hope that helps!

    Kim

    Reply
Tanya DeHaas says June 10, 2018

HI Kim

I have been reading your posts. I have been married to a narcissist for 6 years. I left two years because of the alcohol and the monster he was. Three months after I left, I briefly started seeing someone but I could not connect emotionally so I broke it off. Me and the husband would hang out from time to time and tried a few times to be together again but I could not take the alcohol and he was jealous of my family and how busy I was with work and school. He eventually started dating someone that it only lasted 6 weeks. About 5 months ago, he started dating someone else that it only lasted four months and he walked away because she did not have time for him. About three weeks ago, he reached out to me and asked if I would pick him up so we could talk. He’s been with me ever since. He says he is here to see if there is anything between me and him. This is a trial and error period. Everytime I touch him he pulls away from me. He told me to stop telling him I love you because he is not ready for it, so I stopped but now he is telling me he loves me. He has been here three weeks and we have not been intimante. He stated that he is not ready to allow me to cross his wall yet. He was a lot of resentment towards me for being with someone else and for degrading him to others, which I did at one time but not any more. It is killing me inside but he keeps telling to give him the time to work through the resentment and just to let this unfold and let things happen. Part of me is saying that he is just using me because he needed to get away, so here he is and the other half is stating that it is GOD’s will that he is back and my story with him is not over yet and that he does love me. I have read all the books. I used to work as a counselor but walked away because of how messed up this has me. Any help you can provide would be great. Thanks

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    Kim Saeed says June 10, 2018

    Hi Tanya,

    From what you have shared, it seems your relationship with your husband has chronic, ongoing patterns of dysfunction and emotional unavailability. When it comes to gaining clarity in these situations, it’s important not to focus on words as much as actions. He obviously has double-standards since he is resentful that you started a new relationship, yet he felt he had the right to do so, twice – that you know of. Also, your sharing your negative experiences with other people about your marriage would not have happened had he not treated you badly, so it’s a bit hypocritical of him to be mad at you for doing that.

    What you have described sounds exactly like the narcissistic cycle of abuse, you finally breaking it off, his reaching out after some time has passed because none of his other attempts at finding suitable supply has worked out, and now he’s dangling carrots in front of you and future-faking until he can find something more suitable to his needs.

    The so-called trial-and-error period will last long enough for him to find someone else and then he’ll be gone again.

    It probably is God’s Will…likely in the form of a painful lesson that you should not have let him back in your life. At any rate, I hope you can get through this with reasonably bearable discord.

    Kim

    Reply
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