My previous blog When Leaders Are Too Empathic examined what happens when leaders take empathy too far. Now, I ask, ‘What do empaths and narcissists have in common?’

What if I told you that narcissistic behaviour and exaggerated empathy are merely different forms of the same root problem? On the surface, this seems highly unlikely, even impossible. Empaths are kind, narcissists are not. Empaths care deeply about the predicament of others, narcissists care only in order to further their personal ambitions. Empaths are yielding, narcissists are dominating.

Narcissism in its developed forms (such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder), has many causes. The same could be said for those who are excessively empathic. Psychologists are still figuring it out. But, as is often the case, the fruit reveals the root.

Narcissists present as confident persons – too confident in fact. They see themselves as highly competent and intelligent people, vastly superior to others. They are quick-witted, always ready with a cutting retort or a gas-lighting response. Their instant responses are effective in wrong-footing their opponents and demolishing those who are less ruthless, more self-reflective and just not so nasty.

Highly-developed empaths, on the other hand, lack confidence and are inclined to give others the benefit of the doubt to the detriment of themselves. What others say is more important than their own opinions. All this makes those with strong empathic traits easy prey for narcissistic snares.
Take a look at the following conversation between a narcissist and an empath in a conflict situation.

NARCISSCIST – “What you’re saying is just wrong. You’re accusations are false.”
EMPATH – “I’m not accusing you. I’m just saying that you’re actions seem to me to be unreasonable.”
NARCISSCIST – “I’m not responsible for what you’re thinking. That’s down to you.”

What is happening here? The empath is trying to confront unacceptable behaviour coming from the narcissist. The response is not fair or rational. The narcissist is right and no other version of events is worth considering.

The empath is being gentle and reasonable. But, rather than responding in an equally reasonable way, the narcissist exploits this as a weakness. The narcissist has the facts and cannot be contradicted. Any other point of view is just subjective opinion. After all, the narcissist can never be wrong. To be wrong is to risk an existential crisis. That’s why narcissists must win every argument and are totally unscrupulous in debate. Those who threaten their supremacy are immediately repudiated and their arguments scornfully dismissed.

Narcissists have a wide range of other ready-made and equally gas-lighting responses. What’s more, they relish interaction with empaths. They view them as psychological snack food, a cheap source of energy for an instant ego boost.

Above-the-surface we observe two entirely different patterns of behaviour coming from two distinctive personalities. But when we look more deeply, we begin to see a striking similarity.

The roots of both narcissistic and exaggerated empathic behaviours are exactly the same. It has to do with fear. The deeply-held fear or suspicion of being personally unlovable and/or incompetent. How this fundamental fear is dealt with practically, determines either narcissistic or empathic patterns of behaviour. At both ends of the spectrum we find people with serious relational problems.

The empath’s fear of having no real worth as a person leads to a life of excessive niceness and consideration of others. He or she is trying to find self-worth by being affirmed by others. On the other hand, the narcissist deals with the same fear by hiding behind a bold exterior front framed by excessive self-confidence and self-belief. The fear is denied and therefore never faced.

Both narcissism and excessive empathy are learned strategies of psychological compensation, never dealing with the fundamental fear of lack of self-worth.

We all have the same propensity to love and defend our ‘self-life’. This is obvious in narcissism. But the irony is that a person who exhibits excessive empathy may be as self-obsessed as the proverbial narcissist.

This presents particular problems for leaders in a church setting. How do we deal with the problem of narcissism in the pulpit? How do we help those on the other side of the coin who are slaves of niceness?

Self-evidently, we must be on our guard against narcissism. This form of ambition, not to mention ruthlessness, often leads to outward success, provided the public presentations skillfully cover the real personality lurking beneath. But not all successful church leaders are of the narcissistic type. Many advance by being empathic and shining as beacons of compassion, despite the underlying selfish motivation.

A person who exhibits excessive empathy may be as self-obsessed as the proverbial narcissist.

Tackling these problems in church leadership begins with selection and training, which must be based in radical discipleship. I contend that more inner work is needed from the very beginning of the discipleship process. It calls for insightful analysis and healthy soul-searching in the context of a biblical understanding of human personality.

Jesus, the supreme wisdom teacher in the Bible says,

“Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24, ESV).

Jesus calls his followers to a God-centred rather than a self-centred orientation in life. It can only happen from the inside out, from the transformation of our inner selves. Quite simply, we must lose our old selves and embrace our new selves, the selves we were originally created to be, which have now been recreated in Christ. All the ethical requirements of New Testament Christianity depend on this prior act of God’s inner recreation. Working this out in personality growth and behavioural change is a life-long agenda, but it begins the day we yield to Christ as Saviour and Lord.

Both narcissists and empaths need to renounce the self in a way they have never done before. Superficial conversion does not reach as deep as that, but this is where everything begins. We face the fact that we can do nothing to deserve God’s love or merit his acceptance. Rather than finding ways of compensating for this realisation, we must flee to Christ in whose eyes we are people of inestimable value and worth and, as new creations in Christ, empowered to live impactful lives. These biblical revelations must become deeply lodged in our hearts in life-changing and personality-transforming ways.

This does not mean we live without struggles. Profound personality issues are not easily resolved. But, once we see ourselves in Christ, we overcome our fear and can begin to reflect this reality beginning first with how we see God, then how we see ourselves and, finally, how we see others. We are set free from self-obsession and are ready to face life without the self aggrandisement of a narcissist or the self-suffocation that comes through adopting a life of exaggerated empathy.

Church Matters Series


Empathy is a good thing – the capacity to see and understand the perspective of another person. That is something I, for one, would like to see in a Christian leader.

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Narcissistic spiritual leaders hold their followers captive. Masking their own inner fears, they are powered by overblown egos and become tyrants of domination and control.


All confusion and division in church life is almost certainly the result of false and demonically-motived wisdom.

Church is people

Today, society is being divided into ever-increasing numbers of identity groups. This is part of a greater political agenda to sow seeds of discord and discontent in order to impose politically-correct agendas on us all.


God pours his abundant blessing upon his children even beyond their capacity to receive. For me, this is a reminder that I should do everything I can to enlarge my personal capacity and be trusted by God for what I do receive.


Colin is always on the move, so keep up to date, interact with him and pray for him.