Can Narcissists, Sociopaths, and Psychopaths Feel Empathy, Sadness, or Remorse?
People often speculate whether persons with strong narcissistic, sociopathic, or psychopathic tendencies feel normal human emotions such as sadness, joy, love, remorse, and empathy. It is definitely interesting to look at such people’s emotional life, or lack thereof.
But first, let’s quickly define the terms used here.
The concepts of narcissism, sociopathy, and psychopathy
It is worth noting that, oftentimes, there is no clear distinction between all three terms—narcissism, sociopathy, and psychopathy. The classification depends on the people who use these terms. Sometimes they even contradict each other. It is widely agreed, however, that all three share many similarities, and can even be used interchangeably (especially sociopathy and psychopathy).
If we agree that there are some differences among all three, then a suggested model could be the following. People with strong narcissistic, sociopathic, and psychopathic tendencies can be seen as being on a spectrum, based on the severity of their dysfunctional behavior and emotional incapability: narcissism <—> sociopathy <—> psychopathy.
The most commonly suggested characteristics for all three, most of which are antisocial, are as follows:
- Lying and deceiving
- A lack of care and concern for others (and/or self)
- A severely limited emotional intelligence
- A lack of remorse or guilt
- Aggressiveness (active or passive)
- Narcissistic tendencies: charm, grandiosity, exaggeration of one’s own good qualities and achievements, seeing others as objects, a sense of entitlement and feeling special, exploiting and hurting others, black and white thinking, heavy projection, and a few others
Narcissism is the mildest dysfunction out of those three. A narcissist’s dominating emotional states are shame and insecurity (which is often followed by anger, fear, loneliness, and emptiness), and this causes them to be preoccupied with other people’s perception of them. Their identity is defined by other people’s perception of them. As a result, they feel a need to constantly regulate their fragile sense of self-esteem.
Sociopathy is sometimes defined as a milder form of psychopathy, where the person’s tendencies are much stronger and the emotional life is poorer compared to narcissism.
Psychopathy can be seen as the most severe condition. Here, the person is callous and emotionless in their hurtful and destructive behavior.
A sociopath might still care about hurting those they have a bond with and they may still experience various emotional reactions (irritation, anger, nervousness) which makes their abusive behavior more erratic, whereas a psychopath is more collected and organized in their thought and behavior and usually doesn’t feel any interpersonal attachment.
All three can learn to mimic a wide range of emotions and exhibit socially desirable, acceptable, and rewardable behaviors to get what they want or to blend in. That’s why a lot of people like that are called high-functioning. They can be extremely manipulative, and are often motivated by a sense of power and control.
Many perpetrators go unidentified, however, because they have learned to socially camouflage themselves or because they are in a secure enough situation. Many who fit here are described by others as charming, or normal, or respectable, or family-oriented, or hard working, or intelligent, or kind, or successful, or amazing people. People like that learn how they should feel and act to get what they want without negative consequences. It’s all about personal gain, at the expense of hurting others.
Empathy and hurting others
Empathy is a fundamental factor to consider and evaluate when trying to understanding how these conditions manifest, because empathy is the ability to understand how the other person feels and thinks, and why. The ability to feel empathy and to act compassionately is usually underdeveloped or even completely lacking among people with narcissistic, sociopathic, and psychopathic traits.
A healthier person doesn’t aggress against others because they empathize with the other person’s pain and don’t like it. People with stronger narcissistic, sociopathic, and psychopathic traits either don’t care if they hurt others, or they actually want to hurt others. The fact that they hurt others is not a bother to them (either because of denial, delusion, or a lack of consideration).
Some justify it by saying, “they deserve it,” or “they asked for it,” or “it’s their fault,” et cetera, but that is just blaming the victim. There are many documented cases of, for example, rapists or extreme child abusers stating that the person they had clearly abused wanted it or deserved it. Others simply respond with, “Yes, I did hurt them, so what?” or “It’s not that bad.”
Since one of the tendencies here is black and white thinking, it is easy for such a person to behave so unempathetically because they see the world as I or us versus them, or good (me) versus evil (the victim), or right (me) versus wrong (the victim). And so if it’s “them” that they aggress against, then it’s not an issue—and sometimes it’s even a “noble” goal.
Compassion? Bonding? Remorse? Sadness?
It is often speculated how much emotion, or even what kinds of emotions, a highly narcissistic, sociopathic, or psychopathic person may feel, and how wide of an emotional spectrum they have.
Again, empathy and capacity for attachment play a vital role here. While some perpetrators, especially on the milder side of the spectrum, can feel various degrees of remorse, generally if a person severely lacks empathy, then they don’t feel compassion necessary to feel remorse. Especially if they are experts of rationalizing their dysfunctional behavior (“they deserve it,” “I’m right and they’re wrong,” “social rules don’t apply to me”).
A person feels empathy to the degree that they see others as people. And most narcissists, sociopaths, and especially psychopaths have severe problems perceiving others as people, empathizing with them, or feeling attachment. Such a person is severely detached from their inner world, so a lack of self-empathy results in a lack of empathy for others. This is one of the main reasons why they are unable to build or sustain real, healthy relationships outside of self-benefit.
However, sometimes people like that can feel emotionally bonded with a specific person. It’s not a healthy bond but a bond nonetheless, whether because they need them for something or they look up to them or share similar values. Consequently, they can feel some remorse and saddness when hurting them or losing them. However, usually there is no remorse for hurting a regular person because they see them as objects that only exist to serve their needs, not as people and sometimes not even as human.
Interestingly, severe abusers with strong narcissistic, sociopathic, and psychopathic tendencies can feel empathy for their victims… if you consider empathy as registering that the other person is feeling emotional pain (e.g., fear). In other words, they can recognize certain emotions in others and use them for personal gain.
That’s why some abuse others in the first place: to see the fear in another person’s eyes and feel in power (therefore safe and mighty versus weak, inadequate, disrespected, or hurt). It has been documented that crimes like rape are not always about sex but rather about power. People like that are capable of recognizing emotions in others, but they interpret these reactions in relation to themselves instead of the other person (“What does this experience of another mean in relation to me?”).
Sadness is also an interesting emotion in context of these conditions. Some people with severe narcissistic, sociopathic, and psychopathic tendencies can feel sadness or grief and can even cry. For example, if someone with whom they had a bond with dies. For others, an exposure to trauma can elicit certain emotions that were otherwise deeply repressed. Some are protective of the weak, like animals or children, and then have no problem severely hurting those who hurt the weak.
There are also those who cry when they are caught. Not necessarily because they feel remorse for their victims but because they are forced to face the reality of the consequences of their actions. They feel bad because bad things are happening to them, not because they hurt others.
Sources and references:
- Cikanavicius, D. (2017). Narcissism (Part 1): What It Is and Isn’t. Self-Archeology. Retrieved August 7, 2017, from http://blog.selfarcheology.com/2017/05/narcissism-what-it-is-and-isnt.html
- Bressert, S. (2016). Antisocial Personality Disorder Symptoms. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 7, 2017, from https://psychcentral.com/disorders/antisocial-personality-disorder-symptoms/
- Grohol, J. (2016). Differences Between a Psychopath vs Sociopath. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 4, 2017, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2015/02/12/differences-between-a-psychopath-vs-sociopath/
- McAleer, K. (2010). Sociopathy vs. Psychopathy. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/forensic-focus/2010/07/sociopathy-vs-psychopathy/
- Hill, T. (2017). 10 Signs of Psychopathy and Sociopathy. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/caregivers/2017/07/10-signs-of-psychopathy-and-sociopathy/
- Hare, R.D. (1993). Without conscience: The disturbing world of psychopaths among us. New York: Pocket Books.
- Stout, M. (2005). The sociopath next door: The ruthless versus the rest of us. New York: Broadway Books.
- MacKenzie, J. (2015). Psychopath Free: Recovering from Emotionally Abusive Relationships With Narcissists, Sociopaths, and Other Toxic People. Penguin Group (USA) LLC.
- Shao, M., & Lee, T.M.C. Are individuals with higher psychopathic traits better learners at lying? Behavioural and neural evidence. Translational Psychiatry. Retrieved on 25 July 2017, from http://www.nature.com/tp/journal/v7/n7/full/tp2017147a.html?foxtrotcallback=true
Photo by Matt McDaniel
Cikanavicius, D. (2017). Can Narcissists, Sociopaths, and Psychopaths Feel Empathy, Sadness, or Remorse?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 18, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/psychology-self/2017/08/psychopathy-and-feelings/