You may have heard that HSPs attract narcissists. But the term “narcissist” gets thrown around a lot–what does it actually mean? And why are sensitive people (and empaths) drawn to them (and vice versa)?
To answer these questions, I interviewed Nikki Eisenhauer, a licensed professional counselor, life coach, and Highly Sensitive Person. (The information here is a summary of this podcast episode about narcissists, and we touch on sociopaths. too.)
Before we get into it, a note:
People are multi-dimensional and complex. There are people who completely fit the narcissistic personality type or sociopathic antisocial personality type, but there are plenty who fit on a continuum. They might not fit 100% of the personality disorder, but they have a lot of the traits. I’d be easy if we could simplify someone as being “bad” or “good”, but that’s not the way it works.
What is a narcissist?
According to Mayo Clinic, a narcissist may:
- come across as conceited, boastful or pretentious.
- monopolize conversations.
- belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior.
- feel a sense of entitlement. When they don’t receive special treatment, they may become impatient or angry.
- insist on having “the best” of everything — for instance, the best car, athletic club, or medical care.
- have trouble handling anything that may be perceived as criticism.
- have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation. To feel better, they may react with rage or contempt and try to belittle other people to make yourself appear superior.
Sociopaths are often talked about in conjunction with narcissists. A sociopathic antisocial personality is someone who goes against the basic norms of our culture, hence, antisocial. To be social—part of a thriving, social society, means that we need to respect each other. So, an anti-social sociopathic personality does not respect the other people in the tribe. (Note: This is not meant to be an exhaustive definition of sociopaths. Read the DSM-5 definition.)
This is a great little video explaining narcissism.
Narcissists are charming and charismatic. They have a lot of grandiose ideas and big visions–they like to take credit for work. They tend to be very self-serving and lack empathy.
You may realize that this sounds like the opposite of a highly sensitive person. This may be exactly why HSPs and narcissists are attracted to each other. HSPs, who feel so much empathy, might be the opposites for narcissistic personality, who don’t feel empathy.
Narcissists are all about themselves. If they think of themselves as all-knowing, then they don’t need self-reflection. It’s also why they often don’t seek therapy or counseling, even if they have a lot of interpersonal issues, because they don’t think they are the problem–everyone else is the problem. In their mind, they’re absolutely fine the way they are.
Also, not every sociopath is a narcissist. Not every narcissist is a sociopath.
The difference between narcissists and sociopaths
One of the main differences between narcissists and sociopaths is that, for the most part, a sociopath is more manipulative. A narcissist is unaware of their effect on others; they’re so self-absorbed that they don’t really pay attention to the fact that their behavior is having an effect on other people. The sociopath will engage you to talk about you; they’re more skilled at manipulating.
Take the example of serial killers (most of whom are sociopaths or narcissists). Without the “charm” that makes people comfortable at first, they can’t to do the harm they have planned. Now, a serial killer is way far on the extreme–it’s as extreme as you can get on the scale–but there are lots of different ways that this shows up in a non-violent way.
If you make a narcissist or sociopath angry–and by setting boundaries, you probably will–the narcissist might lash out at you and bully you, but a sociopath might play the long game. That’s creepy and scary, but something to be aware of. If you sense that a person is doing that to you, it can feel crazy. We don’t want to think that someone is manipulating us on such a grand scale, but it happens all the time. So, just know that if you’re sensing that, it really may be happening. You might not ever be able to put your finger on it, you might never be able to get the evidence that tells you that it’s really happening–but consider that your intuition might be the most information and evidence that you need.
Why do HSPs and narcissists attract each other?
Highly sensitive people and empaths offer what is called “narcissistic supply”. A narcissist craves being perceived highly by others. And HSPs have so much empathy that they can give a lot of space to the narcissistic personality, without realizing it. HSPs may accept a narcissist’s behavior and be less critical of it than others might.
It’s part of the human condition that we project what we want onto other people. For example, HSPs crave understanding, so we give it to others. We would hate for someone to not listen to us, or not understand us, so we take care to listen and understand others.
So the HSP is trying really hard to understand the narcissist—their perspective and what they’re going through–whereas the narcissist is not doing that for the HSP. It’s an anti-reciprocal relationship. Sensitives can get into a hole of giving and giving and giving, and a narcissist is completely comfortable taking and taking and taking.
You can see how these personalities kind of link together, like unfortunate puzzle pieces.
As HSPs, we might even feel bad for narcissists because we know the narcissist can’t help being that way!
But that’s what keeps HSPs in some dysfunctional relationships much longer. To sensitive people, pulling back our empathy feels wrong and even cruel. Being so empathic is what makes us so vulnerable to these personalities that use us.
How can you spot a narcissist?
To manage this dynamic, highly sensitive people have to be able to take a step back and acknowledge, “I’m participating in allowing other people to use me. I have to learn how to stop that.”
Many HSPs have moments where their intuition tries to warn them. It says, “something is off here.”
It can be difficult to trust your intuition. We want evidence—what is the proof that this person is a narcissist and is using me? Well, there isn’t solid proof, you just have to believe your intuition. And HSPs have excellent intuition—it’s one of the benefits of the trait. We observe and process every little thing, all the nuances of tone and body language, and this allows us to come to insightful conclusions about the world around us.
If you’ve noticed you have a pattern of attracting narcissists or sociopaths in your life, managing it means coming back to yourself and trusting your intuition. It’s repairing a lifetime of millions of messages of, “You’re too sensitive, you’re overreacting. Why do you think that? That’s not real.”
Learning to trust your intuition can take time. A big piece of learning how to manage this is actually figuring out the difference between anxiety and intuition.
Coach yourself by giving yourself permission: “I might be wrong, but my intuition is waving a red flag, so I’m gonna back away from this situation/person.”
The importance of intuition
Gavin de Becker wrote a book called the Gift of Fear. He interviewed people who escaped serial killers and one thing almost all had in common was that their intuition had told them something was wrong. They said things like, “I knew something bad was going to happen that day. I knew the guy that offered to put my groceries into my car was creepy.”
So, de Becker thought, “If everyone had this intuitive sense, why didn’t anybody trust it and act on it?”
A big part of not trusting our intuition is politeness. It’s simply a fear of looking rude, or, for assertive women, a fear of looking “bitchy”.
“I’m in a relationship with a narcissist, what do I do?”
It’s not always possible to run away. Life is complex–we have children, we have bank accounts, we own homes together–it’s just not that simple.
Firstly, you need support. Narcissists and sociopaths are good at getting inside our heads. If you’ve been in a relationship with one–especially a romantic relationship–for years, there’s a lot to untangle and disconnect from. You need healthy support. If you don’t have that, figure out where to get it. Find a therapist that understands highly sensitive people and narcissism–not every therapist does.
Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself as an HSP. Every therapist should understand what it is, but they don’t (yet).
If you’ve been with the person for years, then you might be internalizing and taking the blame–because narcissists and sociopaths don’t take responsibility. Sensitive people can be so overly responsible that we can accept blame and work really hard trying to fix things, but we can’t make it work. It takes two people to make something work.
If you’re realizing you’re with a narcissist and it’s freaking you out, take a deep breath and know that nothing’s changed. Now that you have awareness about this dynamic, you can start to sort it out. You can get the help that you need–and people do it every single day. There’s so much help and there’s so much information out there for you.
Learn to trust your intuition so you can avoid becoming prey for these personalities that want to have sensitives offer a narcissistic supply.
Want to learn more about narcissists?
The book “In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People“ is highly recommended!!
Thank you to Nikki Eisenhauer for allowing me to interview her and product this article. If you’d like to work with Nikki, contact her here.