Clinicians are increasingly coming to the view that a lack of empathy means some narcissists find it difficult if not impossible to be genuinely remorseful.
As I’ve mentioned before, there are really two types of narcissists: a more insecure, compensatory, or “neurotic” type and a more purely egomaniacal, character-disturbed type. I realized this fact early in my professional career, and I also came to realize how very different these two types of narcissists are both to live with and to deal with in a therapeutic setting. In recent years, empirical research has come to affirm this view, although most researchers seem to prefer the labels “vulnerable” and “grandiose” as opposed to the neurotic vs. character disturbed distinction I have long employed. But regardless of how we choose to label them, the two types of narcissists are very different from one another on many dimensions, including their capacity for making genuine amends. In a prior article (““Vulnerable” Narcissism and Making Amends”) I presented an example of a vulnerable narcissist who faced the task of making amends for a major transgression against his relationship partner. While it’s always difficult for a narcissist to truly feel sorry for what they’ve done to hurt another and to make genuine efforts to repair the damage they’ve caused, things become particularly challenging in the case of a grandiose narcissist. Character impaired individuals think far too much of themselves and far too little of others to really put their hearts into the process of making amends. Besides, to really have the motivation to make right the things you’ve messed up in a relationship, you have to really care about the welfare of the person you’ve injured, and as we’re so painfully learning about some narcissists, their capacity for empathy is often very lacking, which makes it difficult if not impossible for them to be genuinely remorseful. The vignette below illustrates that fact (with potentially identifying details and circumstances altered so as to ensure anonymity).
Robert was a self-made man. He’d risen quickly in the ranks of the company that nurtured his finance career and in short order struck out on his own. In a relatively short time, he’d managed to build a thriving enterprise and also make a small fortune. He had everything a person could possibly ask for: a spectacular home, prestige in his community, and a beautiful and devoted wife, Dottie — a woman with so many desirable qualities that during their courtship days it took all the charm Robert could muster to lure her away from her many suitors. Many would wonder why on earth he would ever do anything to possibly jeopardize his marriage. But that’s probably because they didn’t really know who Robert was in terms of character.
Robert had an insatiable appetite for conquest. This drove him to grow his business, buying out competitors and merging their assets with his. To him, every successful conquest only provided proof of his “superiority” over the common lot. He felt sorry for the less well endowed in intellect, talent, and attractiveness. And hey, why shouldn’t someone who has it all going for him use it to his advantage? Robert knew he was “special,” and he felt it was truly his destiny to “have it all.” Unfortunately for Dottie, his appetite for conquest included other women. But she had no idea how many such conquests he’d made over the years — she actually had no idea he’d ever been unfaithful at all — until that fateful evening when one of his more recent conquests appeared on the scene at an upscale restaurant where they were dining and created a most embarrassing moment. Dottie was in shock. She was taken completely by surprise, and the humiliation of it all only compounded the injury.
Robert, of course, would say he was “sorry” many times before the evening was over. But the question in Dottie’s mind was what he might be sorry for. Was he sorry for trampling his vows? Was he sorry for ripping out her heart? Or was he merely sorry for getting caught and showing his true colors? That answer would become more painfully evident in the ensuing weeks with his pathetic attempts to make amends. His first stab at “smoothing things over” was to get her the new car she’d had her eye on for several months. But Dottie only felt more hurt by what seemed a feeble attempt to buy her forgiveness. Her hurt was further compounded when she confronted him on it. She didn’t want money or gestures. She wanted his acknowledgment of the hurt he’d caused and some sign from him that he was not of a mind to betray her again. Instead, what she got was a lecture on how ungrateful she was and what an “overly big deal” she was making out of the whole affair. According to Robert, she had everything she could possibly want and was about to “blow it over nothing” other than “a little harmless sex.” That’s when Dottie came out of her denial about Robert and the nature of their relationship. As painful as it was, it was also the beginning of a new life for her. She would not be just one of his many conquests, used for a time and for his purposes and then discarded. She would be her own person and would settle for nothing less than someone who truly cared.
Narcissists like Robert can’t experience genuine remorse because they lack true empathy for others. It’s the “malignant” nature of their narcissism (see “Narcissism: Pathological Self-Love”) and the extent to which they have this malignancy that determines how serious their character pathology is. Fortunately, most narcissists aren’t so severely disordered in character. While many like distinct categories like “vulnerable” and “grandiose,” we’re coming to realize that most pathologies exist along a continuum. The area where a person with narcissistic traits is situated on the continuum of neurosis vs. character disturbance makes all the difference in the world as far as their capacity to genuinely care, genuinely love, and experience genuine empathy and remorse when they hurt someone. Most narcissists are not so totally devoid of empathy that they simply cannot really love. But some are, and the more “grandiose” a narcissist is, the less likely they are to truly care about others and to make genuine amends when they inflict injury.
There are several articles on this site on how to judge genuine remorse and contrition. It’s also a topic I discuss at length in my new book How Did We End Up Here? [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?), and for more on narcissism and character disturbance, see my earlier books:
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