This is one of my favorite videos relating to mental health. I stumbled upon it myself several years ago, and have even had it shown to me a handful of times in workshops or employee trainings. If you haven't seen it, I'd really encourage you to take about three minutes to watch the clip below and learn about the differences between empathy and sympathy. Even if you have seen it, isn't it worth re-watching?!
No one's immune from experiencing challenging emotions; all of us can point to experiences in our lives where we've felt stuck and overwhelmed in that dark hole.
Similarly, my guess is that we've all experienced a very well-meaning friend or loved one who embodied the deer's response. What's even more uncomfortable is that we've all even been the deer before!
Dr. Brené Brown's explanation of empathy fueling connection and sympathy driving disconnection is such a fantastic way of describing the difference between them.
In a time when there are countless things we can point to in our daily lives that lead us to feel disconnected from one another, offering each other empathy is perhaps the most important (if not the most courageous) thing we can do.
Empathy While Growing Up in a Narcissistic Family System
Modern research is beginning to debunk the belief that "people with narcissistic traits can't experience empathy;" rather, it's more likely that they're withholding an empathic response.
Like Dr. Brown explained above, expressing empathy isn't easy and takes a tremendous amount of courage. It's a skill. It requires us to practice vulnerability.
"Well, okay..." you might be thinking, "How does this help?"
Great question! Two things.
First, being vulnerable means opening up oneself not only to joyous emotions, but also to challenging emotions like rejection or abandonment, which have direct ties to shame.
This knowledge can help us shift the perspective of a narcissistic person from someone who is "hollow and vindictive" toward others (e.g., not showing empathy), to someone who is protecting themselves from experiencing deep and pervasive shame (e.g., terrified of being vulnerable with others).
Acting on this perspective allows us to offer them the empathy and validation that they likely never received themselves, thus fostering connection rather than disconnection.
Second, if you grew up in a narcissistic family system it could help explain why you are so empathetic. You had to be in tune with others' emotions as a way to protect yourself.
Having been raised by a narcissistic parent may have meant that your needs were often second to theirs. If you had tried to ask for your needs to be met it could have been interpreted as a brutal hit to their ego, leading them to defend their image of themselves in a way you hadn't expected. Over time you had to learn to be on the lookout for shifts in their mood so that you could anticipate their acts of blaming and shaming as best as possible.
Whether you were raised in an environment where empathy was seen as a weakness, one in which empathy became a finely tuned skill, or anywhere in between, it is a skill nonetheless -- a skill that, if we all practiced, could lead to a wonderful world of change.