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.
As a native New Yorker, I have had many near death, and dangerous experiences that could have went far worse. I am a person of faith and have always been taught to honor that still, small voice within me that tells me to go left when logic, or others were saying go right.
I wish I had a nickle for each time a friend told me, “it happened just after you just left.” Or after an unfortunate event, “I wish I would’ve left when you told me to.”
I don’t need proof of danger. If something tells me to run or proceed no further, I don’t. We are all stewards of our well being, and no explanation is needed. If you sense danger heed that.
Please also discuss details of shy, introverted, or closet narcissists. They are a different breed and because they are harder to identify and as such, they are more dangerous to HSPs. I was in a relationship with an introverted narcissist for 14 years and finally escaped. But the experience left me physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted because I could not identify the problem.
I’ve recently left a relationship where the lady I was seeing was separated from (but still married to) a covert narcissist. It’s a very long story lasting only 8 months but just quickly I can tell you he secretly recorded two conversations we had, tried to intimidate me with the (true) story of how his brother killed a man, eventually started to threaten my life, tried to have me deported for operating a business without a license (which is true, I worked briefly helping my new girlfriend in her third-world country because the Govt. website didn’t explain what credentials I needed), destroyed $3,500 worth of property I had invested in her business, spied on her with a GPS unit on her car, paid someone to hack her Facebook so he could read her Messenger, hacked her gmail, took money from her bank account, bullied and threatened and sweet talked and begged at every opportunity, etc, etc. She had left him because he had beat her one time too many but was too cowardly to try to hit me. He accepts zero responsibility for anything he does. You cannot reason with him. Even if he agrees to something that will be forgotten 2 days later and it is all your fault again. It was me who researched and figured out what he was. She is a very caring person and was “feeding” him without realising it.
Her issues after being with him for 27 years started to pile up as well. A narcissist will only give up on someone when ‘they’ decide to move on. You can’t really leave a narcissist without their assent. So my best advise to anyone here is if you know a narcissist, run. If you can’t run then sneak away as quickly as you can. You may have to break off contact with many people to do this successfully. Just moving to another country is not enough. The narcissist will come after you. You need to disappear long enough for them to move onto some other poor unfortunate person. Seriously.
Where are the best resources with which to start? There’s so much help and there’s so much information out there for you.” My first step is to get a therapist to talk to face to face. Then I need to learn how to deal with my narcissistic guy who’s behaving badly. Married less than 2 years. Although I’ve tried, I truly give up on talking to him until I learn some new skills. I recognize that I have a history of providing narcissistic supply. Typically I move on myself (after putting up with too much for too long.) This time, I’m seeing things more clearly. And I feel trapped.
You can start with the website loveisrespect.org they have counselors you can chat online with. They are great, please check them out.
I hate small talk & talking about myself. I know all about me. But I find other people interesting. And they help me forget about my life for a time. Narcissists love talking about themselves, and many times are interesting. They love the attention we “lavish” on them. It doesn’t last long, usually. The older I get, the much less interesting they or anyone is. Since I now feel like I don’t get the value I used to for the attention paid, they’re much less of a prob.
“Take the example of serial killers (who are all sociopaths or narcissists).” No, wrong, this is false and prejudicial.
Please don’t demonize and mischaracterize mental illness like this.
Hi Jocelyn, thanks for your comment. I don’t see how this is prejudicial if it is true? This doesn’t mean all narcissists or sociopaths are killers, of course. Perhaps a more complete statement would also include “psychopath”. To be able to kill lots of people, a person must be missing empathy and/or have a distorted sense of reality (among other things, of course). I’ll change the wording to make it a bit softer if that’s better.
It is not the delivery. It is simply not true that all serial killers are sociopaths or narcissists. Or psychopaths for that matter.
Or even that empathy has no connection to violence. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2015/09/the-violence-of-empathy/407155/
The wording of this idea is too ambiguous to be a useful definition:
“A sociopathic antisocial personality is someone who goes against the 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.”
If it were true, then I am a sociopath, lumped in with all other actively malicious personality types. The point forgotten is that cultures can be hostile to the people within them – as you point out on other blog entries about the workplace. My culture is hostile to the person I am – by your definition, an HSP. So if I stop participating or flattering the activities and values of the culture that I know is destructive to me, I’m the dangerous sociopath? I don’t respect racists, mysogynists, bullies and abusers of all kinds… traits all commonly supported and created as paths to success in my culture, and they sure don’t respect me, but it doesn’t mean I’m out to hunt them down and erradicate them like they want to do to me. I just want to be left alone.
Thanks for the comment! It isn’t meant to be an exhaustive definition, but I should have made that clear. By “norms”, she meant very basic norms, like respecting personal space, not stealing, personal hygiene, and of course tons of examples. Eating with utensils. Not belching or passing gas loudly in public. Wearing clothing. Stuff like that. 🙂 Of course just one or some of these things doesn’t mean someone is a sociopath, but I’m trying to give examples of what a social norm might be. Thanks for the heads up, I’ve added a note that this is not an exhaustive definition.
I was married to a narcissist for nearly twenty years. It was awful. I realize now how he used my empathy against me. If you recognize one in your life, run! They don’t want help. They will feed off of you till there`s nothing left.Alexandra Nouri`s blog is helpful and funny.Very helpful,read it if this is where you are.
This episode was super helpful for me, thank you for doing the interview Kelly!
you’re welcome, so glad it was helpful to you!
The issue I’ve been having lately with the whole narcissism concept is that it gets thrown around way too much. Everyone has narcissistic traits, even us HSPs, that occur over a spectrum. I was in a relationship with another HSP and we both struggled with our own forms of narcissism too. Does that mean we should have run from each other or could we work on learning to have more empathy for each other? It’s just kind of become this fear-mongering concept in my opinion.
This! I am a hsp…. And I definitely have narcissistic traits. They come and go, and I’m often unaware of them, and I hate the fact I sometimes hurt the people close to me. But I’ve begun to realize… So does everyone else! We are all only human and all humans have narcissistic traits on a spectrum. What helps is to raise awareness and be mindful.
It’s funny this point is brought up in a blog about HSP! I mean that because I myself have questioned some narcissistic traits I have had. However a narcissist would never ever admit to having even a single trait of the disorder! They would much rather blame everything on someone else! So my point is leave it to us hsp’s to analyze ourselves so deeply that we would consider ourselves to possibly be semi narcissistic in nature! We are all human we all have negative traits however if u bring in to question if u may be narcissistic or accept responsibility for your own actions once so ever u are definitely NOT a narcissistic individual!
Thank you so much for this interview! I was married to a sociopath for 7 years. I didn’t put that together (or the fact that I’m an HSP) until part way through the long, drawn out divorce, when his manipulation techniques became more and more apparent. I came upon the finding innocently, as I was searching for more insight into controlling and manipulative behavior. It fit so perfectly – at last, I’d found all those missing pieces of the puzzle. It was incredibly difficult to realize and stomach the fact that I’d been manipulated and deceived my entire relationship. I then spent months devouring info on sociopaths. It’s such a misunderstood topic as the masses (as well as me, prior to this experience) just assume sociopath = serial killer. I was shocked at how prevalent sociopathy is – I’ve heard estimates from 2-5% of the population, which means we have all interacted with countless sociopaths. They’re typically not criminals and very charming, so we’d never suspect it. They wreak havoc in not just romantic relationships, but also within the work setting. And since they’re charming, manipulative and will typically stop at nothing when playing the “long game,” they’re incredibly dangerous, especially to HSPs.
Thank you for shedding some additional light on this misunderstood but very serious personality disorder. I’m hopeful this will help save other HSPs from being duped by these ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing.’
Thanks for this, great post. I was involved with a narassist for many years and it brought me to my knees… it was not easy to walk away but I did it if I didnt I’m not sure I would be alive to tell the tale… Narassists generally carry deep abandonment issues and typially project this onto other people by making sure they or you do not dig deep into true intimacy…so they can stay safe. I was scared of intmacy or commitment at the time as I had been SO betrayed previously so I can see now where my addiction to him served as a replacement for the love I felt starved of and on a subconsious level we had attracted each other in…he made me feel like the best thing since sliced bread. I was vulnerable, needy and on my back legs as my ex of many years had slept with my best friend and my confidence was at an all time low.
However I was very codependent in those days and too scared to speak up so I walked around on eggshells and those eggshells were the emotions I was too afraid to feel. He set the rules and pace of the game and I kept apologising to keep the peace and win back his love. I believed healing my wounds depended on him not abandoning me… and instead I abandoned myself.
I kept putting myself in places to be hurt for many years after I left him as I kept attracting in individuals who I felt I had to prove myself to as I thought that was the only way to be loved, validated and accepted… It feels like I am speaking about someone else I have changed so much since those days…my heart goes out to anyone caught up in a narcassistic relationship
My “best friend” of around 10 years turned out to be a narcissist the whole damn time. I lived with her for 3 of those years. I finally left and went to a healthier space a few months ago, but even then I still enabled and defended her. I didn’t know anything about narcissists or NPD, I’ve heard it of course but always thought it just meant a self-centered person.
The SECOND I finished reading this, a switch flipped. I had a revelation.
Now I am so relieved that I have a name to what was making my life an actual living hell.
It’s so important that this stuff is talked out openly. I might still have been agonizing and ruminating over that friendship if I hadn’t come across this, so thank you so much. Not to be dramatic but this post is a huge part in my healing.