Do empaths and sensitive people “attract” narcissists? This is something I have been thinking about a lot. As a sensitive person, I have had many encounters with narcissistic people myself, and I know it’s the same for many other sensitives. At some point in our lives, we seem to have one entanglement after another with one energy-sucking person after another.
There are reams and reams of articles on this topic and plenty of YouTube videos around it. We all seem to be looking for answers for why we got caught up in this empath-narcissist dynamic in the first place.
Somewhere, in all of this, there is this implied, unsaid feeling that narcissists are almost “attracted” to sensitive people.
It has definitely felt like that to me at times.
Questioning The Dynamic With Narcissists
But as I have taken my power back, I have started to question this. Is this dynamic just a given? Do all empaths attract narcissists and boundary-breakers? Or is this just the experience of some empaths and HSPs?
As I have been thinking about this, I have come across some interesting viewpoints around this.
Recently, I came across a post on fellow empath Jennifer Soldner’s blog in which she talked about how it’s not empaths that “attract” narcissists, it’s people with poor personal boundaries who do. This is what she says, and as an empath, this might feel radical to you:
“I know, I know. There are a ton of articles that explain all the reasons why empaths and highly sensitive people (HSPs) are magnets for those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and many of their points make a great deal of sense. Those who have been subject to narcissistic abuse find great comfort in them, seeing their life spoken by another and finally feeling validated in their experiences. I love that many empaths and HSPs have come across these articles and used them to empower themselves out of the abusive cycle.
But the flip side is that these articles are only giving a portion of the truth, leading us to believe that by being an empath or HSP that we are destined to attract toxic people for the remainder of our days, which simply isn’t true. These articles continue to perpetuate the deeply held belief that puts us at the mercy of toxic relationships which is that we have no control.”
Jennifer goes on to discuss the people she knows in her life and their experiences with narcissists. She says that being an empath is not the deciding factor for whether a shark-like narcissist will smell blood and use you as a food source. There are empaths with good boundaries and a strong sense of self who do not attract narcissists. There are also non-empaths with poor boundaries who do end up getting hurt and mistreated by narcissists.
Why I Think (Mostly) That Empaths Do Not Attract Narcissists.
I have thought about what Jennifer says over the last few months. I have to say that in many ways, I agree with Jennifer. This is even though, like other sensitive people, I have had my fair share of encounters with narcissists (or suspected narcissists since there was no way of diagnosing them.)
Like other sensitives, I have walked into one unhealthy interaction after another at one point in my life, so I also understand why it feels like we “attract narcissists.” I understand why this belief has resonance. Our experience does seem to validate it at times. We see how people who are not as empathic steer right clear of narcissistic people, while we become the ones who get taken advantage of.
Even our very qualities, such as being flexible, being able to give people a second chance, being compassionate – seem to be conspiring against us when they let the wrong people in. But is our empathy the problem? Or is it the fact that a deadly cocktail is created when we are both sensitive and also don’t have good boundaries?
I believe being sensitive does complicate relationships. It does mean that we are more focused on helping people than considering that we might need to be self-protective. There is such a thing as altruism and personalities that are more altruistic than others, and it’s easy to see why people who might put others first can get caught up in unhealthy situations.
But at the same time, I also don’t think narcissists are “attracted” to us like moths to a flame, as if we are fated to find each other. Even if we are empaths, if we also have a strong sense of self and clearer boundaries, we can steer clear of narcissists.
Are We Doomed To Repeat A Pattern?
I have seen this in my own life. There was a time when I felt as if I was beating my head against the proverbial rock. I always found people who were demanding or needy. I was always attracting (or so it felt like to me) people who just needed someone to listen to them while they vented.
Quickly, friendships would become “one-way streets” and I would become the assigned “listener.” Soon, a time would come when I just seethed in resentment as the balance shifted and I felt my heart closing up and draining of all joy.
What was happening? Why was I beating my head against one rock, then another?
But over time, with deep hurt and a lot of falling and getting up again, I started seeing that I was the common denominator in my experiences. I couldn’t blame it all on being empathic. Some of it definitely had to do with my people-pleasing tendencies. This was a learned part of me, not some intrinsic essence that was tripping me up.
The truth is, if anyone of us goes out into the world, we will meet all sorts of people. We will meet healthy people and unhealthy ones. We will find giving people and we’ll find selfish ones. That’s just how it is.
Think back to a time when you were dating (or maybe, you are dating now). You will meet all sorts of people. But while some women simply move on when they see red flags, some other women stay with and get entangled with unhealthy men.
This is not to blame these women. I know exactly why it can happen. You know too.
It’s because we might have never been treated well growing up and actually don’t know what good behavior looks like. It might be because we really are lonely at the time and get caught up in wishful thinking.
The reasons can be as many and as diverse because after all, we are human. We make mistakes. We hope. We get tired and exhausted.
Owning Our Stuff
But at some point, just like in a dating situation, we have to see that we are part of the dance. Why have we again “attracted” the same old, same old? Why don’t we just stop dancing and bow out?
For myself, I realized that it wasn’t only being an empath that led to my problems. Yes, it complicated things, no doubt. But it wasn’t the only thing. The real problems happen when empaths with bad boundaries meet narcissists.
The real issue was that I hadn’t learned good boundaries. I had beliefs about how it was “not good to judge people” and I was unconsciously taking these to the extreme so that I never judged people. So, I was completely undiscerning.
I was also so used to identifying with “being nice” that I didn’t let myself express the natural anger that rose up whenever a boundary was crossed. And when I did realize I was angry, I didn’t quite know what to do with my anger. As I started understanding this and started putting all these different pieces in place, my enmeshments with narcissistic people and other boundary-breakers went down sharply.
No longer was I available to be taken advantage of. No longer was I naive and idealistic. No longer did I believe that a good person had to keep on giving regardless of what they were given to. That’s a killer belief. Energy needs to be reciprocal. Not transactional. Not always 50-50. But if someone treats you badly while you are treating them well or more than well, then they are telling you something.
They are telling you, you’re not important.
Once I started weeding out my beliefs, I also started following my intuition and gave credence to what I saw early on. If I saw a red flag, I didn’t pretend that I didn’t see it. I paid attention to behavior. This helped me steer clear of wrong people early on, like a boat that goes around rocks. I let myself judge, in a positive way, who was good for me and who wasn’t. I let myself be discerning.
So, now I think, having good boundaries does keep narcissists at bay. As an empath, I am not doomed to keep attracting the same pattern again and again. That’s amazing. That’s such a relief! There is nothing intrinsic about me that is pulling unhealthy people towards me.
At the same time, I also do understand why having boundaries, in the first place, can feel so very hard for so many of us. When strong, self-protective boundaries haven’t been modeled for us and when many of us have, in fact, also had our boundaries terribly violated in our lives, just understanding boundaries and building them from the ground level up takes a huge amount of effort.
I have been there. I have done that. In fact, I know I will keep working on this for a long time. I know how it happens. We try our best. But then, we run against, first some unhealthy belief, then another. We might spend a lot of time weeding out one belief and feel like we’ve solved all our issues, but then some other old belief rears its ugly head. It can feel like an uphill task, a fight where we’ve gotten punched in the gut once again.
So, building boundaries or understanding what they are for us does take a lot of effort, time, and trial and error. It’s an ongoing process. It’s something we have to be aware of. It’s something where we need to learn how to show ourselves compassion because really, it’s not some moral failing if you haven’t learned good boundaries. In fact, it’s probably the opposite. You’ve probably been wounded in someplace and that place has grown weaker.
So, we do need to have compassion for ourselves.
Better Boundaries Helps
But if we can just keep going, there is also the other side. Setting boundaries is just like any other skill. We get better when we practice.
So, if you have struggled with a narcissist or are still struggling with them, have compassion for yourself. You don’t think like them. It’s not a zero-sum game for you. There’s probably also a history for why holding boundaries is so hard for you.
Please know that you can learn about better boundaries. You are not doomed to finding the wrong people. You can build better a stronger protective field around you as a sensitive person or an empath.
But to do that, we have to give up those beliefs that tell us that giving at a cost to ourselves is what makes us good and kind. No. Giving at a cost to our very essence doesn’t make us good. It makes us resentful. It makes us fodder for the wrong people.
Now, I think, thinking in terms of win-win is very important for empaths and sensitives. Yes, we might have a need to serve. Many of us might also have the archetype of the Healer inside us. But healing requires the participation of two people, a person who can help and facilitate and a person who has the courage and the willingness to do the work.
We can’t go on willy-nilly healing everybody.
Look for the win-win. This is how we both take care of ourselves, take care of the sensitive essence within, and also channel our gifts so they actually create something of value in the world.
Don’t we all want to leave behind some metaphorical tree we have planted, that can grow and grow and become a towering strength as well as a shelter? Don’t we deserve better than to have our very best selves mangled and torn apart just because someone’s inner hunger doesn’t get sated?
We are not here to fill that hunger. We are here to grow those trees.