Guest Author Sam Vaknin
Cold Empathy: The Narcissist as Predator

"Audacity" by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Audacity” by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Guest Author Sam Vaknin writes:

The narcissist is cursed – or blessed – with mental X-ray vision. He sees through people’s emotional shields, their petty lies, their pitiable defences, their grandiose fantasies. He knows when they deviate from the truth and by how much. He intuitively grasps their self-interested goals and accurately predicts the strategy and tactics they will adopt in order to achieve them.

The narcissist cannot stand self-important, self-inflated, pompous, bigoted, self-righteous, and hypocritical people. He rages at the inefficient, the lazy, the hapless and the weak.

Perhaps this is because the narcissist recognize himself in them. He tries to break the painful reflection of his own flaws in theirs.

The narcissist homes in on the chinks in their laboriously constructed armours. He spots their Achilles heel and attaches to it. He pricks the gasbags that most people are. He deflates them. He forces them to confront their finiteness and helplessness and mediocrity. He negates their sense of uniqueness. He reduces them to size and to proportion and he provides them with a perspective. The narcissist does all this cruelly and abrasively and sadistically and lethally efficiently. He has no compassion or compunction. And he preys on their vulnerabilities, however microscopic, however well-concealed.

The narcissist exposes their double-talk and derides their double standards. He refuses to play their games of prestige and status and hierarchy. He draws them out of their shelters. He destabilizes them. He deconstructs their narratives, their myths, their superstitions, their hidden assumptions, their polluted language. He calls a spade a spade.

The narcissist forces them to react and, by reacting, to confront their true, dilapidated selves, their dead end careers, their mundane lives, the death of their hopes and wishes and their shattered dreams. And all the time he observes them with the passionate hatred of the outcast and the dispossessed.

The truths about them, the ones they are trying so desperately to conceal, especially from themselves. The facts denied, so ugly and uncomfortable. Those things that never get mentioned in proper company, the politically incorrect, the personally hurtful, the dark, ignored, and hidden secrets, the tumbling skeletons, the taboos, the fears, the atavistic urges, the pretensions, the social lies, the distorted narratives of life – piercing, bloodied and ruthless – these are the narcissist’s revenge, the settling of scores, the leveling of the battlefield.

The narcissist lances them – the high and mighty and successful and the happy people, those who possess what he deserves and never had, the object of his green eyed monsters. The narcissist inconveniences them, makes them think, reflect on their own misery and wallow in its rancid outcomes. He coerces them to confront their zombie state, their own sadism, their unforgivable deeds and unforgettable omissions. He dredges the sewer that is their mind, forcing to the surface long repressed emotions, oft suppressed pains, their nightmares and their fears.

And he pretends to do so selflessly, “for their own good”. The narcissist preaches and hectors and pours forth vitriolic diatribes and exposes and imposes and writhes and foams in the proverbial mouth – all for the greater good. He is so righteous, so true, so geared to help, so meritorious. His motives are unassailable. He is always so chillingly reasoned, so algorithmically precise. The narcissist is frozen wrath. He plays their alien game by their very own rules. But he is so foreign to them, that he is unbeatable. Only they do not realize it yet.

Afterword: Cold Empathy

The narcissist’s ability to penetrate the defenses of his victims is instinctual and intuitive, not the outcome of deliberative analysis. He homes in on other people’s vulnerabilities as a tiger mauls a straying, weakened gazelle ; he leverages his target’s fears and neediness the way a virus breaches cellular defenses and then uses the cell’s machinery to replicate; and he taunts, abuses, torments, harasses, and stalks his prey because it’s fun and imbues him with a sense of pleasurable omnipotence. Acting this way is in the narcissist’s nature, it’s an integral and crucial part of who he is.

The narcissist’s “x-ray vision” is strictly limited to the traits, qualities, and behaviors of his would-be and actual victims that are useful in subjugating them and converting them into sources of narcissistic supply. The narcissist’s arrested personal development, his massive psychological defenses, his poor reality test (his grandiose and persecutory fantasies), and his cognitive deficits render him incapable of true, profound, and comprehensive insight into others and into the human condition.

Contrary to widely held views, Narcissists and Psychopaths may actually possess empathy. They may even be hyper-empathic, attuned to the minutest signals emitted by their victims and endowed with a penetrating “X-ray vision“. They tend to abuse their empathic skills by employing them exclusively for personal gain, the extraction of narcissistic supply, or in the pursuit of antisocial and sadistic goals. They regard their ability to empathize as another weapon in their arsenal. There are two possible pathological reactions to childhood abuse and trauma: codependence and narcissism. They both involve fantasy as a defense mechanism: the codependent has a pretty realistic assessment of herself, but her view of others is fantastic; the narcissist’s self-image and self-perception are delusional and grandiose, but his penetrating view of others is bloodcurdlingly accurate.

I suggest to label the narcissistic psychopath’s version of empathy: “cold empathy”, akin to the “cold emotions” felt by psychopaths. The cognitive element of empathy is there, but not so its emotional correlate. It is, consequently, a barren, detached, and cerebral kind of intrusive gaze, devoid of compassion and a feeling of affinity with one’s fellow humans.

Narcissists and psychopaths also appear to be “empathizing” with their possessions: objects, pets, and their sources of narcissistic supply or material benefits (often their nearest and dearest, significant others, or “friends” and associates). But this is not real empathy: it is a mere projection of the narcissist’s or psychopath’s own insecurities and fears, needs and wishes, fantasies and priorities. This kind of displayed “empathy” usually vanishes the minute its subject ceases to play a role in the narcissist’s or psychopath’s life and his psychodynamic processes.

Cold Empathy evokes the concept of “Uncanny Valley”, coined in 1970 by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. Mori suggested that people react positively to androids (humanlike robots) for as long as they differ from real humans in meaningful and discernible ways. But the minute these contraptions come to resemble humans uncannily, though imperfectly, human observers tend to experience repulsion, revulsion, and other negative emotions, including fear.

The same applies to psychopathic narcissists: they are near-perfect imitations of humans, but, lacking empathy and emotions, they are not exactly there. Psychopaths and narcissists strike their interlocutors as being some kind of “alien life-forms” or “artificial intelligence”, in short: akin to humanoid robots, or androids. When people come across narcissists or psychopaths the Uncanny Valley reaction kicks in: people feel revolted, scared, and repelled. They can’t put the finger on what it is that provokes these negative reactions, but, after a few initial encounters, they tend to keep their distance.


Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain – How the West Lost the East, as well as many other books and ebooks about topics in psychology, relationships, philosophy, economics, international affairs, and award-winning short fiction.

He is the Editor-in-Chief of Global Politician and served as a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, eBookWeb , and Bellaonline, and as a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent. He was the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101.

Visit Sam’s Web site.

Read “Narcissism” by Alison Poulsen

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6 thoughts on “Guest Author Sam Vaknin
Cold Empathy: The Narcissist as Predator

  1. Jim

    Alison, Thanks so much for your articles. I think I am a recovering Narcissist. Reading your articles have really helped. I have gone through extensive counseling and forgiveness. I am currently trying to help a fellow Narcissist, but he does no know he is one. I would to engage more to help me so I can help him. I am going to recommend professional counseling. I’m not sure how well that will be received. He is currently separated from his wife with 3 kids. My wife has been meeting with his wife and she is on a very healthy path. He is in shock and does not know what to do.
    Thanks, J

    1. Alison Post author

      Hi J,
      Thank you for your comment. I’m glad that reading, counseling, and forgiveness have helped. That is wonderful.
      It might be helpful for you to tell your friend your story and how much and in what way counseling was able to help you. Narcissists, as well as many others, tend to become defensive when you say “you need counseling!” Say instead that with the right counselor he will be able to improve his life, and who knows, perhaps make it work with his wife, and definitely improve the situation with his kids. If you see similar traits in him as you had in the past, you may be in a good position to motivate him to get help.
      Good luck!

  2. Lee

    Would this be the reason a narcissist occasionally makes unexpected, shocking, hurtful, out-of-context statements to a family member, with absolutely no expression of emotion, and no hint of apology? For all these years I have been unable to reconcile this behavior, and so for lack of a better way to cope, I have literally convinced myself that I dreamt of the incidents, and then confused them with reality. This article has helped. Please tell me more.

    1. Alison Post author

      Yes. You obviously have a healthy amount of empathy, as you imagine that the person saying shocking, hurtful statements has to feel sorry about hurting others. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. At least it’s nice to know that it is not about you.

      1. Lee

        I am still confused. I don’t see any sign that my sister-in-law has any sense of remorse when she says these things. It appears that she throws the statements out there, and then sits back to gauge my reaction. This behavior is sporadic and occurs during normal conversation. It is always shocking. Given the fact that I cannot identify with her or explain her actions, I have often convinced myself that I imagined or dreamt of the incidents, in order to preserve my relationship with her.
        Thank you for responding. Please elaborate. I need to know what’s going on.

        1. Alison Post author

          Hi again,

          Unfortunately some people who lack both empathy and a sense of self-worth can only feel a sense of self-empowerment through abusing other people. They find a sense of power through being able to cause negative reactions in other people.

          It is hard to imagine what it is like to have no empathy. Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and to imagine how he or she is feeling. Experiencing trauma, brutality, abuse, neglect or volatility, can stunt a person’s development of empathy. Children mirror their caregivers. They need to experience some form of consistency and empathy from a caregiver in infancy and early childhood in order to develop empathy for others themselves.

          Here is more on lacking empathy:

          My article:
          Sam Vaknin:

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