While HSPs are known for their empathy, narcissists are known for their lack of it — which makes a relationship with them impossible to sustain.
A highly sensitive person (HSP) has unique and powerful personality traits that include processing things deeply, the ability to empathize with others, and being more sensitive to subtleties. For as long as I can remember, my high level of empathy has often been coupled with a deep desire to heal those around me — which is common among us sensitive types. This is the main reason I stayed in a psychologically abusive relationship, along with my belief that my partner and I could “save” the relationship. I knew I couldn’t save it alone, but I truly believed that we could, based on our open communication and self-awareness.
The thing is, he was a narcissist, which affected every facet of our relationship.
What is Narcissism?
When someone is a narcissist, it may be so extreme that they have narcissistic personality disorder, which involves having an exaggerated sense of self-importance, loving attention, and lacking empathy when it comes to others. You may know people like this, whether they’re friends, coworkers, family members, or romantic partners. Although they give off an aura of self-confidence, beneath the surface, they are very sensitive to criticism or judgment.
There are many schools of thought on narcissism, but it seems widely understood that it falls on a spectrum or can be classified in varying degrees. The spectrum itself involves the individual’s emotional empathy, which is different from intellectual empathy. In other words, according to Elinor Greenberg Ph.D., a researcher and therapist who specializes in narcissism, a narcissist “can understand that they may be causing someone pain, but they have less motivation to care because they are not feeling anything negative themselves.”
On the severe end of the spectrum, individuals with narcissistic personality disorder are not able to truly feel love. But for those who fall somewhere else on the spectrum, I wholeheartedly believe they can. I believed that my ex-partner could.
Using ‘Empathy Prompts’ as a Catalyst for Change
Before reading Dr. Craig Malkin’s book Rethinking Narcissism, I often used “empathy prompts” with my ex-partner. As a sensitive soul, they came to me naturally. According to Dr. Malkin, prompting involves “voicing the importance of your relationship and revealing your own feelings[,]” such that you can “distinguish between people who can change — and those who can’t.” Failure to respond positively could include the narcissist feeling attacked or criticized, becoming defensive, hijacking the conversation, or blaming — which, all too often, when directed at an HSP, can take the form of the comment “you’re being too sensitive,” a phrase which should be retired. Successful responses, on the other hand, may include sharing affirmations, asking for clarifying information, apologizing, or offering validations.
Almost every time I inadvertently used “empathy prompts” with my ex-partner, I discovered his capacity for change. We would share articles on the subject of narcissism and he would admit that he felt pained because they contained descriptions of his behaviors and explanations and examples of the things he did and felt, but could never figure out. It was this acknowledgement that I found endearing and hopeful. The hope being that there would be some sort of follow through — after all, as an HSP, I couldn’t fathom how someone would recognize something so profound and not be motivated to do or be better.
Because his capacity for change was rarely or inconsistently engaged, the abuse was ongoing. The perplexity of every single event that happened in our relationship can be explained via a narcissistic behavior: triangulation, gaslighting, protective amnesia, stonewalling, projecting, blame-shifting, narcissistic injury and rage, and lack of accountability. I can pinpoint — with painful accuracy — every stage of idealization, devaluing, and discard. He continued “hoovering” his ex-fiancée during the initial stages of our relationship, mentioning her by name and talking about their shared interests. At this stage, he also strangely noted that my only “flaw” was my lactose intolerance because I would not be able to cook him meals that he enjoyed.
Then, at the low points of our relationship, my “flaws” were too many to count. I was the reason the movers lost his belongings for several weeks. I was the one who was not patient or understanding enough about his anxiety and new job. Rather than encounter his narcissistic injury and rage, there were many times I chose to write him letters. In the end, my last letter went completely unacknowledged — being “discarded” felt like an understatement.
I wish that having the explanations behind his words and behaviors was the simple key to healing. But as an HSP, it’s not that easy since we feel things so deeply.
Learning to Listen to my Highly Sensitive Intuition
I wish so badly that I could call my ex-partner a malignant or covert narcissist and toss him to the wind as a completely evil monster. But I can’t; that’s not how my mind works, even on its worst days. Those days used to involve believing that he was completely incapable of love and what we had wasn’t real. But it was never long before my intuition — an HSP strength — helped me realize that simply wasn’t the truth.
My intuition tells me, plainly, that what we went through was more complicated than the black-and-white analysis that can be offered by viewing all narcissists in their extreme forms. My intuition reminds me that what I experienced was real, and so was my narcissist’s capacity for change. My intuition knows we were opposite but complementary forces. I was radiant and empowering, like light, and he was closed off and resistant to his conscious evolution, like darkness. Each individual has positive and negative aspects within them. If I weren’t an HSP, I don’t think I could’ve successfully recognized or acknowledged the positive side of a narcissist.
For HSPs in Particular, It’s Hard to Let Go of a Narcissist
So, what about being an HSP makes it harder to let go of a narcissist? And what have I learned as I continue healing?
My depth of processing, the “D” in Dr. Elaine Aron’s D.O.E.S. acronym in her book The Highly Sensitive Person, was my initial motivator to try and make logical sense of everything that happened in my relationship. This included conducting copious amounts of research online, talking with my therapist, and sometimes reviewing old messages from my ex-partner. Personally, I find art therapy to be helpful, because it combines my deep appreciation for the arts with my own creativity (another great trait among highly sensitive types).
My therapist frequently helps me establish new thought processes that challenge my overly negative view of my high sensitivity, which happens when I’m feeling particularly vulnerable. She never discourages my deep processing, but instead, reminds me to find a balancing point before processing turns into ruminating. I think HSPs are astutely more capable of this — we don’t want to ignore the past or pretend like it didn’t happen. We want to face it, bravely.
Similarly, HSPs are seekers of the truth, so my research entailed understanding more about empaths, HSPs, and narcissists. I needed the complete picture, or full spectrum, if we consider where these individuals fall on the spectrum of exercising empathy. To a third-party observer, it may have seemed unfair or unwise to research him, when that time and energy could have been used to research anything else. As a lawyer and Libra, both of which are symbolically tied to scales, learning that I was an HSP was like the last puzzle piece of accepting that balance is an integral part of my healing.
I’ve learned that the mix of this depth of processing with narcissism is precisely what made that relationship impossible to sustain. It’s less about incompatibility and more about a mismatch in values. HSPs value the truth and authenticity, while narcissists value their façade, which is based in hiding — or hiding from — what’s real. When we were together, I was only ever trying to understand his contradictory words and behaviors, and he was usually trying to avoid answers. You simply can’t sustain a relationship where only one person is consistently attempting to understand and the other could care less.
My overstimulation, the “O” in the D.O.E.S. acronym, often comes in the form of gratitude. Nostalgia floods my senses, if I let it. Sweet memories don’t just include singing songs in the car, playing cornhole and Scrabble, or sneaking goofy screenshots in during FaceTimes. Good memories now include remembering moments when he was teaching me something valuable, like how to golf or use the Starbucks app. When I received poor grades after our first semester of law school, he looked at me in awe one day and said, “You’re so resilient.” I’m sure I’d heard the word before, but no one had directed it to me quite like he did in that moment. As HSPs, I think our tagline should be resilient pursuers of purpose, as we are continually able to stay strong and encourage ourselves in a society that undervalues and dismisses us. Although many experts might try to argue that this was a simple comment made in his idealization phase, and that may be true, it doesn’t make his observation any less accurate.
Perhaps paradoxically, my narcissist planted the seeds of thought that helped me learn everything I now know about myself. He’s also the first one to have planted the seed of understanding that I am an empath. After we both bought Dr. Malkin’s book, we discussed only one section, which was the myth of Narcissus from ancient Greece. One day, Narcissus meets Echo, who is described as another unrequited love. She follows him through the peaks and valleys of the forest, allowing only her passion and curiosity to drive her. When it comes time to reveal herself, she’s nothing but a mere mirror for Narcissus — a mere echo of his voice. My narcissist told me that I reminded him of Echo. It didn’t feel like an attack; it felt like a painful truth. I immediately felt embarrassed.
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Using Empathy to Understand Our Core Differences
A few years later, when I first learned about HSPs and empaths, I recognized immediately that Echo is likely empathic. She absorbs the thoughts and feelings of Narcissus and never experiences her own. She understands him so deeply that he never has to explain himself or apologize. I, too, lost my voice so many times in my relationship with the narcissist. I spent so many nights writing letters to him, unable to find the “right” words. Only recently have I understood that no words will ever be good enough for a narcissist. It was never about me failing in my attempts; my narcissist was failing in his responses.
What I’ve learned is that everyone has something to teach us. One of my favorite poets, Yung Pueblo, says “Everyone is a teacher… just because someone was wrong once, it doesn’t mean they are going to be wrong forever.” But, rather than becoming overwhelmed with gratitude for the lessons my narcissist taught me, I think it’s important to acknowledge that he merely planted the seeds. I cultivated and grew them into the saplings they are now. And that’s an empowering distinction.
Because of our high degree of empathy (and emotional reactivity), the “E” in the D.O.E.S. acronym, HSPs are prone to engage with someone’s potentiality and not their actuality. I can say with certainty I was even more susceptible because of my ex-partner’s demonstrated capacity for change. Anytime he acknowledged his shortcomings, he’d say he was determined to find a therapist. Then, weeks and months would go by and no calls were ever made. He’d promised to change his condescending tone in conversations but continued cursing, calling me names, and attributing this lack of development to his “passionate” communication style. He’d frequently tell me “everything is going to be okay,” but anytime I asked what actions he was taking to ensure that, he’d come up empty-handed.
I’d frequently sense the subtle meaning behind his toxic contradictory words and behaviors — the “S” in the D.O.E.S. acronym. Dr. Aron describes this ability simply as “the little things we notice that others miss.” From a neuroscience perspective, Dr. Aron confirms that the brain areas responsible for complex processing of sensory information are more active when HSPs perceive. She describes these areas as, in part, where we “catch the subtle meaning of words.”
My narcissist called it “putting him under a microscope.” But in the end, doing so was the reason I could walk away.”
And this is exactly what may be required in the long journey of healing. As Dr. Malkin advises in his book, “Some narcissists can — and do — get better with the right professional help. And if they’re resilient enough to acknowledge their problems, you have a fighting chance. But you don’t have to stick around for them to finish the work if you’re exhausted from trying.”
Over-empathizing is incredibly exhausting, especially when it’s met with little-to-no reciprocal empathy. For HSPs, over-empathizing can become dangerous and can lead to losing our voices, like Echo.
What I’ve learned is that the capacity for change is just that — a mere capacity. Until any change actually does occur, capacity sits on the sidelines, unfulfilled. Like wasted potential. It’s the same way that awareness (or no longer denying) is only the beginning of addressing a mental illness. The longer such an illness goes unaddressed, the more consuming it can become. In my case, he was so consumed that at one point, his narcissistic rage manifested as him strangling me with his bare hands. In what can only be described as tragically poetic, my narcissist wanted me to lose my voice — literally.
I have also learned to transition from over-empathizing to using my “wise mind.” My therapist first introduced me to this cognitive strategy involving the overlap between our emotion-driven mind and our logic-driven mind. A balance of the two is “wise mind,” where the goal is to recognize our emotions and validate our feelings, while also responding to them logically. At this stage in my healing journey, it looks like the following affirmations: “I can love someone deeply and still keep them at a healthy distance” and “I can let go and still wish things were different.”
We often read or hear that it could take years to recover from the effects of narcissistic abuse, but rarely do we hear from people who are only a few years into that recovery. I hope that sharing my story now helps someone in the same position, or someone who can’t ever see themselves reaching this point. Leaving my toxic narcissistic relationship was one of the best things I’ve done for my highly sensitive well-being and peace of mind, and I hope you can find the courage to leave yours, too.
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