Crying is one way people empathize and bond with others. If you’ve heard the myth that narcissists (or sociopaths) never cry, you might imagine this makes plenty of sense.
After all, if tears stem from empathy — the ability to understand and consider the feelings of others — it seems reasonable to assume people without empathy never cry.
While it’s true people with narcissism have lower empathy, low empathy doesn’t automatically mean no empathy.
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) occurs on a spectrum. People with narcissism can, in fact, show empathy and work to develop it further if they choose to do so.
Many myths about narcissism stem from the belief that all people with this condition are evil and incapable of change, but that just isn’t true.
Here’s a more nuanced look at the narcissism crying myth, along with a few others you might’ve come across.
The quick answer is yes, absolutely. As for the long answer, it depends.
People cry for plenty of reasons.
You might feel tears well up when you:
- feel frustrated and need a little help and support
- experience pain
- feel a sudden rush of anger, or any other emotion
- are moved by someone else’s distress
People might have trouble crying for any number of reasons, so tears aren’t a litmus test you can use to measure empathy (or a lack thereof).
Someone with narcissism could easily use tears to earn the sympathy and attention they need, but they can also cry for the same reasons anyone else would.
People with narcissism have an extreme vulnerability to real or imagined criticism. They typically can’t bear to consider a reality where they exist as a “normal” person.
From their perspective, “normal” might translate to inferior, average, or weak. In response, they construct a superior self-image to reflect a reality where they are special and deeply admired.
If anything challenges this sense of superiority and entitlement, they might experience:
- a loss of self-worth
Any of these circumstances might trigger genuine tears.
“People who seem to lack empathy for other humans in their lives can express enormous concern, compassion, and sympathy for animals,” explains Mary Lamia, a California psychologist, professor, and author.
“Someone with NPD, for example, may cry when their pet dies. If they read a news story about a child being hurt, they may express empathy or compassion because the situation does not directly affect or involve their own self-esteem,” she says.
Some people with narcissism may have very low (or nonexistent) empathy, or even take certain delight in the pain of others.
This doesn’t characterize the experience of every person with narcissism, however.
Narcissistic defenses are largely constructed to ward off shame, a self-directed emotion that often reflects an internal sense of unworthiness.
Guilt, on the other hand, involves accepting responsibility for wrongdoings, so it requires an honest look at specific actions and their consequences.
People who believe in their own perfection, specialness, and self-importance may have a tough time admitting to mistakes, much less showing regret. Still, that doesn’t mean they never experience guilt.
Once again, it comes back to empathy.
“People assume a hallmark of narcissism involves ‘lacking empathy,’ yet this isn’t necessarily true,” Lamia explains.
“They actually have a capacity for empathy, but their vulnerability necessitates consciously or unconsciously withholding it. Thus, they have an unwillingness to empathize rather than a lack of empathy.”
Plenty of people have a hard time with empathy, and for good reason:
- It requires vulnerability.
- It challenges you to consider the needs of others.
- It creates the possibility you might experience some distress yourself.
When you’ve made a mistake, empathy can also involve recognizing how your action affected others.
If you don’t spare much thought for how other people feel, you probably won’t spend much time considering how your behavior hurt them.
Narcissism typically involves an extreme degree of self-centeredness, so it may not even register to someone with narcissism that others don’t share their preoccupation with themselves.
That said, when people with narcissism can put on someone else’s shoes and consider things from their point of view, they can often begin to empathize with their distress.
When they realize their actions have prompted that distress, they might express regret with a gesture of apology, even if they don’t admit the mistake outright.
Some research suggests trust may lead to greater empathy in people with narcissism. This increased empathy may, in turn, boost the capacity to experience guilt and express remorse.
Yawns can be pretty contagious, as anyone who’s ever sat through a late-night study group or a long post-lunch meeting knows.
But there’s a common myth that people with narcissism are immune to this, leading some to claim that you can detect narcissism by checking whether someone yawns when you do.
Mirroring, or mimicking, someone’s body language helps you connect with them and build rapport. This natural social response increases your ability to empathize.
People with lower levels of empathy may not respond to body language in the same way.
Those scoring higher on the coldheartedness subscale (a measure of empathy) were much less likely to yawn in response to someone else’s yawn.
Narcissism and psychopathy aren’t the same thing, but empathy, once again, appears to serve as the deciding factor. Keep in mind, though, that study authors reported a reduced chance of yawning, not a complete inability to catch a yawn.
What’s more, not everyone with lower empathy has narcissism, or any other condition at all.
The idea that people with narcissism dislike kissing ties back, yet again, to a difficulty recognizing and identifying with the needs of others.
Sex, kissing, and cuddling can fulfill important physical needs, but they can also promote bonding and increase intimacy.
Someone who doesn’t feel the need to bond might not have much time for nonsexual affection like kissing or cuddling with the reasoning, “This doesn’t do much for me, so why bother?”
In the beginning of the relationship, they might pay a lot of attention to your needs. Later, sex might seem perfunctory or give you the idea they only care about their desires.
On the other hand, they could show a sincere dedication to being “the best you’ve ever had.” They might need plenty of approval from you, and you might get the impression they’re putting on a performance to earn your admiration.
If you happen to share their interests and have nothing but praise for their performance, you may not have many problems, but you probably won’t notice much bonding, either.
If they don’t feel the need to deepen your connection, physical affection will often lack the intimacy you’re seeking.
When you want to spend more time kissing and cuddling and they don’t, you may end up disappointed — unless they see kissing as another way to demonstrate their prowess and earn your admiration.
They might also show more willingness to engage if they see it as a way to get you to do something they want.
That said, therapy can often lead to improvement, so long as your partner isn’t abusive and is willing to put in the effort to make change (more on this below).
Experts have different opinions on whether people with narcissism can change.
But the consensus seems to be that they can — when they have a strong enough motivation driving that change. Someone who sees no need to change probably won’t put in the effort required.
Change requires an exploration of vulnerabilities and reflection on personal shortcomings. Most people find this at least a little challenging. For someone who can’t face their own imperfections, this might represent an almost impossible hurdle.
The key to change typically lies in developing whole object relations, or recognizing that everyone has a combination of negative and positive traits.
People with narcissism tend to have less willingness to exercise empathy, which means they’re less likely to cry, express remorse or apologize, or connect intimately.
Narcissism doesn’t make someone inhuman, though. People with this personality disorder can still experience emotions and empathy. They can still maintain relationships, though they often need some professional guidance.
A therapist trained to work with people who show signs of narcissism can offer essential validation and support with building empathy and learning to acknowledge the feelings of others.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.