Many people have difficulty coming to terms with what narcissism and empathy actually are and this is often a result of the way that they have been defined in society.
Narcissism is often described as self-love and therefore narcissists are often described as people who are in love with themselves and this gives the impression that they are just vain and egotistical people.
Whilst this may indeed be the case for those who are classic or elite narcissists, it's not the case for all of them and it's certainly not just about egomania.
Narcissism is more about being in tune with one's own emotions and being comfortable with one's self and this is an essential part of personality development whilst growing up. It's true that you need to be able to feel content and comfortable with yourself before you are capable of feeling content and comfortable with another person, hence the commonly expressed piece of advice; you need to learn how to love yourself first before you can go on to learn love of another - and this is why narcissism is referred to as self-love.
Such narcissism is, therefore, healthy and is a required trait. Healthy narcissism is a good thing whereas malignant narcissism is a bad thing.
Malignant Narcissism (The Narcissist)
Malignant narcissism describes the trait of a person who never makes it past the self-love development stage explained above. That is, their personality doesn't continue to develop and therefore they don't go on to learn how to love, or become emotionally attuned to, others.
That is, they may have gone on to learn self-love but then may have failed to continue to develop love of others, or they may have failed to have developed self-love properly. Either way, they will need to consistently seek reassurance, adulation and positive attention from others in order to regulate their levels of self-esteem and self-worth.
The easiest way of understanding malignant narcissism is how NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) describes it under the category of meta-positioning. Meta-positioning in NLP explains how it's important to be able to put yourself in someone else's shoes and to understand how things make them feel from their point of view. Not being able to do so appropriately leaves us self-absorbed and too wrapped up in our own world; we become narcissistic. Narcissists can therefore only understand things from their own point of view.
Whilst narcissism and empathy can be considered to be direct opposites, they are in fact both at opposite ends of the same spectrum. Narcissism is about relating to one's self and one's own emotions, whereas empathy is about relating to other people's emotions and understanding intuitively and instinctively how they feel.
That is, the more narcissistic you are the less empathic you are and the more empathic you are, the less narcissistic you are. You cannot be both a narcissist and an empath, you can only be either one or the other. Healthy levels of narcissism and empathy would be in the middle somewhere but can often be at one extreme or the other and would therefore be considered an impairment.
Without a healthy level of empathy, we would be unable to understand how something makes another person feel emotionally and we therefore wouldn't be able to respond accordingly. Without it we would, essentially, become emotionally dysfunctional.
Persistent Empathy (The Empath)
Malignant isn't really a word suited to describing people with consistently high levels of empathy (and therefore low levels of narcissism) and so, instead, I have labelled it as persistent empathy.
Whereas narcissists are never attuned to other people's emotions, empaths cannot help being in tune with them. This is not a supernatural or paranormal ability, as many people believe - empathy (or emotional telepathy) is very real.
Whilst narcissists always remain self-absorbed and stuck in their own worldview, empaths cannot help picking up on how things are affecting other people and may literally walk past people in the street and literally be able to feel other people's feelings. They recognize how those people are feeling and subconsciously invoke the same emotions in themselves.
Whilst such high levels of empathy can potentially have an adverse effect on the emotional and mental healths of empaths, perhaps causing some of them to go on to develop what is known as inverted narcissism, many empaths also learn how to deal with it appropriately and go on to live healthy and fulfilled lives.
[ Image: Johnhain at Pixabay - Public Domain - http://pixabay.com/en/love-empathy-openness-relax-hearth-482709/ ]