Agenda-Driven Empathy: How Narcissists Fool You Into Thinking They Care

Written by Angela Atkinson

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Narcissism, Lack of Empathy and Self-Awareness

I’ve often discussed the fact that the defining quality of a narcissist is the lack of empathy. Not only is this the one quality shared by all toxic narcissists, but it is also the “tipping point” into the “toxic” side of narcissism.

The fact is that narcissists cannot put themselves into your shoes, and they cannot understand any type of pain you feel because they are not capable of it on an emotional level. But this explanation isn’t quite thorough enough because it leaves so many of us wondering, “but what about all those times they did seem to be empathetic?”

For example, if your ex is a narcissist, they probably seemed to be fully aware of your feelings when you first started dating. After all, they very clearly knew what you liked. They made sure to give you what you liked, and they did their best to steer clear of what you didn’t like.  This is one of those little things that made you feel like you’d finally found your soulmate – at least, at first.

Narcissists Can Access This One Type of Empathy

So, I know what you’re thinking. If narcissists are not empathetic, then how could they ever fool you? After all, you’re pretty good at reading people and figuring out how sincere they may or may not be.

And isn’t this how empathy works? To be aware of and to choose your actions based on someone else’s feelings? Well, yes, and no.

Before we get into how narcissists are able to show empathy when it’s convenient for them, it’s important to understand what “real” empathy is, so let me define it for you.

What is ‘Real’ Empathy?

My shorthand definition is that empathy is the ability to feel and care about how other people feel and to act from that perspective. To be a little more clear, real empathy is the ability to sense, understand, and feel someone else’s emotions, even if you haven’t had an identical experience.

It means being able to put yourself into someone else’s shoes. You can feel what they are feeling even if you cannot relate to what they are going through directly because you can sort of imagine how they must feel.

You feel compassion for them and care about their feelings because of this – and then you act accordingly.

What is False Empathy?

Narcissists sadly use false empathy as a manipulation tactic when they want something from you. Since you value connection and empathy, as most non-narcissists do, the narcissist knows it will help them get what they want from you.

So they pretend to care how you feel. See, when it comes to narcissists, they are unable to feel emotional and compassionate empathy.

But at the same time, they are well aware of the fact that other people value empathy, and because of that, they might demonstrate false empathy.

This is why detecting a narcissist early in a relationship is so confusing and difficult.

False Empathy: Understanding the Narcissist’s Empathy Deficit

Here’s the thing. When we say “narcissists have no empathy,” we don’t necessarily mean that they’re not capable of figuring out what you’re feeling. What we mean is that narcissists don’t FEEL empathy in the same way as most people do. As in:

  • They have no compassion, no remorse, and they don’t feel regret – unless they regret a choice they made because it negatively affected them directly.
  • To put it more specifically, when someone feels compassion, it means they are sympathetic toward someone’s situation and feel compelled to help that person fix whatever is wrong or at least not make anything more difficult for that person.
  • When someone feels remorse, it means that they feel really guilty about something they did that they see as wrong.
  • And when someone feels regret, it means they recognize that they made a choice or took an action that led to a negative consequence, and they wish they hadn’t done it or even that they could go back and change what they did.

So, in other words, the narcissist is capable of understanding exactly what you think or feel on a cognitive level, but not on an emotional one.

They can “think about” what someone else is feeling, but it doesn’t affect their emotional state directly, nor does it play a part in how they treat the other person.

The exception is when the narcissist thinks someone has negative feelings about them. This situation will make them angry, offended, and generally upset, which manifests in narcissistic rage and/or injury.

The truth is that while narcissists find it easy to learn the motions of how to appear to be empathetic, they are usually just imitating what they’ve seen others doing – and that is when they use false empathy. 

Yes, it really is all part of the narcissist’s cycle of abuse. 

What is the cycle of narcissistic abuse?

The cycle of narcissistic abuse is a pattern used by a narcissistic personality disorder, psychopathic, or sociopathic person to entrap their victims. For the most part, victims will experience four main phases, including the idealization phase, also known as love bombing, followed by the devaluation and discard phases.

After that, the narcissist will often try to bring you back into the relationship, or at least into their “circle of supply,” through a hoover maneuver tactic. The hoover maneuver can involve several different manipulative behaviors designed to get your attention. This cycle will repeat throughout the relationship, whether or not it’s ever officially ended. In

many cases, the “final discard” only happens when you choose to end it yourself. This is because the narcissist will continue to use you for narcissistic supply as long as you allow it in most cases.

What are the effects of narcissistic abuse on the victim?

It’s a common red-flag symptom of NPD abuse, and it’s one that many victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse and gaslighting in relationships report: they feel like they don’t matter. They feel like the narcissist made it clear that they aren’t good enough, or at least that they’re not as good as the narcissist.

What Are the Different Types of Empathy?

A lot of people don’t realize that there are different types of empathy as defined by psychologists, including cognitive, emotional, and compassionate empathy.

And what is even more perplexing for a lot of us is that it is totally possible to demonstrate one or more of these types of empathy without actually caring on an emotional level what someone is feeling or going through.

Cognitive Empathy

As defined by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence, cognitive empathy is “simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking.”

He adds that cognitive empathy is also sometimes called “perspective-taking.” In other words, it means being aware on an intellectual level of someone’s emotions and likely thoughts about any given topic or situation.

Cognitive Empathy Example: Your Co-Worker’s Grandma

It’s like understanding that a coworker is sad that their grandma died, but since you didn’t know her, you might not feel personally sad about it.

You tell them you’re sorry for their loss and offer to help them keep up on their workload while they attend the out-of-town funeral, but you don’t necessarily go home and cry about it.

Now, this kind of cognitive empathy is pretty common for most people.

But narcissists actually experience and use cognitive empathy in a toxic, manipulative way that can be anything from mildly annoying to devastating. It all starts when they listen closely to you in the beginning, during the love bombing phase

That’s when they gather a lot of the ‘weapons’ they’ll use against you later. Here’s what happens:

You’ll meet a really cool or otherwise pleasant person who seems to be exactly what you’ve always wanted.

You’ll share all of your trauma and your triggers early in the relationship while you feel safe – like you’ve met your soulmate.

Before you know it, the devalue phase comes. This person will become disillusioned with you a few days/weeks/months later. It’ll seem like they’ve flipped a switch and lost their love for you.

They might just be plain rude and disrespectful. They will actively pick at everything you’re associated with and be so judgmental that you’ll feel like they’re actively destroying you.

They’ll rudely and blatantly criticize you.

That’s about the time you’ll try to figure out what YOU did wrong or why they stopped liking you – and then you’ll begin to change yourself accordingly. 

This will begin an ongoing cycle of intermittent reinforcement that will make you feel literally addicted to the narcissist, and they’ve got you under control.

At least, that is, until you recognize that you’re dealing with a narcissist and have been repeating the same patterns for as long as you’ve been together.

That cycle is the cycle of narcissistic abuse, as described above.

Cognitive Empathy Example: The Car Salesperson’s Go-To Sales Tool

Narcissists will use cognitive empathy as a way to manipulate you in the same way that a used car dealer would try to get you to buy an over-priced, underperforming vehicle. The salesperson doesn’t really care about the fact that you’ve got kids or that your budget is stretched. They’re more concerned about moving inventory and getting paid.

Yet, on an intellectual level, they can read you well enough to understand your thought process and what you’re looking for in a vehicle. And they can gather that you’re emotionally tied to this decision in some way, whether it’s due to a desire for a safe, dependable vehicle, or a desire for a pretty and stylish vehicle, or one that is super extra fast and powerful.

If they don’t have something in stock that fits your needs perfectly, the ethical thing to do would be to say so and possibly recommend another car lot. But they aim to move their own inventory and make money, so they’ll do what they need to to make something they have work for you.

And while the car they ultimately talk you into buying may or may not be right for you, they will use this understanding of what you want to make it seem like exactly what you need.

Sure, maybe it’ll cost way more than you can afford, or maybe it’ll have 300k miles on it – but these things aren’t a concern for the salesperson. They just want to sell you a dang car so they can go out to lunch, or buy that boat they’ve had their eye on, or whatever.

Narcissists use cognitive empathy as a tool.

The car salesman’s approach offers a glimpse into the psychology of the narcissist. See, while they can see things from your perspective, a narcissist will always act in a way they will benefit the most.

In other words, they use cognitive empathy to get what they want by understanding what is important to you or what your perspective happens to be.

In fact, Daniel Goleman also notes that this is the kind of empathy used by people who use torture tactics. It allows them to understand what makes a person tick without feeling any sympathy toward them.

So, narcissists can and will use cognitive empathy to get what they want. But it doesn’t mean they can feel anything you feel; you feel me?

Example: Agenda-Driven Empathy

A twist on cognitive empathy is “agenda-driven” empathy. See, when the narcissist is getting what they want from you, they will pretend to know that you are making sacrifices for them.

And they think they can convince you to be more willing to give up what you want for them by acknowledging that. For example, let’s say you’re excited about your upcoming friends’ night out. You’re going to see a movie you’ve been DYING to see.

At the last minute, the narcissist you work with asks you to fill in for them the same evening, even though they were well aware that you wanted to go. They will say, “Oh, I know you were looking forward to this but if you do this favor for me I will be forever grateful.” How can you turn that down?

Emotional Empathy 

Emotional empathy is the type of empathy most of us think of when we call ourselves empaths. It means that you can sense and in some ways, actually feel what other people around you are feeling, even when they’re a stranger. Interestingly, emotional empathy can be seen in most humans as early as two months old, when a baby will smile back at their mother smiling at them or when the baby will cry when hearing another baby cry.

Examples of Emotional Empathy

  • For one example of emotional empathy, if you watch someone on television stub their toe or get kicked in the shin, you sort of “feel” it along with them.
  • Emotional empathy is what makes us cry at movies and what makes us feel sad when someone we love is sad. It’s sort of like other people’s feelings become almost contagious for you.

Narcissists do not feel emotional empathy.

However, they might feel a sort of shallow empathy, which is when the narcissist shows a degree of softness for you. This happens most often early in a relationship during the love-bombing phase, and even then, if you look hard enough, you’ll see that they continue to show their true colors elsewhere.

And of course, they will show their true colors to you eventually. It’s like a doctor who has an amazing bedside manner but is a total jerk to his wife and kids. Same deal.

Compassionate Empathy

Compassionate empathy is exactly what it sounds like – being aware of and feeling for a person’s situation, and feeling moved to do something to help. It means keeping your head on straight but also caring about the other person’s feelings. It doesn’t necessarily involve being overly emotional, though you might be driven by emotion. It doesn’t necessarily involve being overly analytical or intellectual, though you might use your intellect to help them solve the problem.

It simply means you understand what someone is experiencing, and you might help them take action to resolve the issue.

Narcissists do not feel compassionate empathy.

Narcissists do not generally have compassionate empathy, though they can be good at faking it when it helps them get what they want from you. This will throw their romantic targets and non-family sources of narcissistic supply into a tailspin when they begin to demonstrate this earlier in the relationships.

Does the show of empathy mean the person isn’t a narcissist? 

Not necessarily. Let me explain. 

So many people ask why the narcissist in their lives seem to show empathy. The obvious answer is the one you’ve already read – cognitive empathy.

That said, I have witnessed some people who have narcissistic tendencies but who have not been diagnosed with NPD and who appear to be “lower” on the spectrum of narcissists who can, under the right conditions, demonstrate both emotional and compassionate empathy. 

They need to be in the right frame of mind, of course, as well as to have some reason to show such empathy. If they are in any way upset or agitated, this ability would disappear.

The person they’d be showing some empathy would be a key player in their circle, but almost never their partner or primary source of narcissistic supply.

Then again, in those who are higher on the cluster B spectrum, you’ll find a similar phenomenon – except its nearly always cognitive empathy – or false empathy. This is just one more reason narcissists are so confusing to the people in their lives. 

Question of the Day

 Have you experienced a narcissist who used false empathy? What was that like? And when did you recognize what was happening? Share your thoughts, share your ideas and share your experiences in the comments section below this video, and let’s talk about it.

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  • Angela Atkinson

    Angela Atkinson is a certified trauma counselor and the author of more than 20 books on narcissism, narcissistic abuse recovery, and related topics. A recognized expert on narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder who has studied and written extensively on narcissistic personality disorder and narcissistic abuse in toxic relationships since 2006, she has a popular narcissistic abuse recovery YouTube channel. Atkinson was inspired to begin her work as a result of having survived toxic relationships of her own. Atkinson offers trauma-informed narcissistic abuse recovery coaching and has certifications in trauma counseling, life coaching, level 2 therapeutic model, CBT coaching, integrative wellness coaching, and NLP. She is a certified trauma support coach and certified family trauma professional. She also has a professional PTSD counseling certification. Her mission is to help those who have experienced the emotional and mental devastation that comes with narcissistic abuse in these incredibly toxic relationships to (re)discover their true selves, stop the gaslighting and manipulation, and move forward into their genuine desires – into a life that is exactly what they choose for themselves. Along with her solution-focused life coaching experience, Atkinson’s previous career in journalism and research helps her to offer both accurate and understandable information for survivors of abuse in a simple-to-understand way that helps to increase awareness in the narcissistic abuse recovery community. Atkinson founded Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support, the SPANily Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support Groups and the Life Makeover Academy. She offers individual and group coaching for victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse here at and at NarcissisticAbuseRecovery.Online.

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