cognitive empathy

How the Narcissist Hurts You Using Cognitive Empathy

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.


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.

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  1. An

    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

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  5. Shannon Morris

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

  6. Echo

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

    1. Kim Saeed

      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!


  7. Tanya DeHaas

    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

    1. Kim Saeed

      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.


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