The Three Strands of Empathy


The concept of empathy can be divided into three types. There are three identifiable strands.

First of all there is the idea of cognitive empathy whereby one can understand the point of view of another person, recognise and understand what the emotions of another person mean and what the accepted response should be. I am able to understand another person’s point of view but I will rarely accede to it, unless I see some ulterior gain to be obtained from expressing that I understand their point of view. Even where I explain I understand, I am still unlikely to accept it.

Of course, empathic individuals are experts at understanding another person’s point of view but they will go further than this. They will exhibit patience to allow that point of view to be articulated, they will ask questions to draw out this view and they will apply it to their own situation and experiences. Empathic individuals want to understand the other person’s point of view. They not only give it a platform to begin with, but they also allow it to be aired, expanded and applied. It is little wonder therefore that this cognitive empathy bleeds into the empathic traits of patience, needing to understand and needing to know the truth. Furthermore, having such cognitive empathy means that the empathic individual is far more susceptible to the word salad, circular conversations, lies and half-answers that our kind provide. The empathic individual endures these manipulations as he or she tries to wade through the quagmire in order to flex their cognitive empathy so that they understand the narcissist’s point of view. Of course, since our point of view operates from a completely distorted and different perspective, you have little hope of achieving it.

Greater Narcissists have substantial cognitive empathy. We understand the other person’s point of view and emotions. We also know how to respond so we can mimic the external indicators of those emotions which we do not possess (such as joy, happiness, sadness or concern) and thus we fit in with those around us with considerable ease. There is the slightest discernible delay as we rapidly recall what the appropriate response is and then ensure we arrange our features, language, tone and body language to match the emotion we wish to convey. We do not feel it.

Mid Range Narcissists has good cognitive empathy and therefore follow a similar path to that of the Greater Narcissist, however there may be more of a delay before the mimicked emotion is displayed. Sometimes the MRN will get it wrong and provide a response which is somewhat out of sync to what is required, or may come across as stiff and robotic, since they do not have the practised ease of the Greater in mimicking the acceptable response.

As for the Lesser Narcissist, they either have no cognitive empathy at all (Lower Lesser and Middle Lesser) or very limited cognitive empathy (Upper Lesser) accordingly you will be faced with someone staring at you as they are unable to comprehend what they should be doing. This coupled with their lack of awareness means they often have no idea that there is something wrong and similarly have no idea of what the appropriate response ought to be.

Secondly, there is also empathy concern or emotional empathy whereby one is able to instinctively feel the emotional state of another person, feel a need to address that emotional state and therefore show the appropriate concern for the individual usually through actions, as opposed to solely through words.

In all three schools of narcissism, our capacity with regard to emotional empathy is absent. We feel nothing for anybody else. Our cognitive empathy (where applicable) enables us to recognise something is wrong, what the response of the individual means (anger, hurt, upset, frustration etc) and therefore we can (should we deem it in our interests (calculated where Greater or instinct for the Mid Range Narcissist) to respond in a particular way, but we do not feel anything. There is no emotional response from us to your situation. We do not share your joy, we do not feel the need to comfort you because of your pain, we do not feel concern in our chests for your misfortune. We merely observe and intellectualise the response (where appropriate).

We feel nothing.

Unsurprisingly, the empathic individual has all three elements of this particular strand of empathy intact and in intense quantities. The empathic individual is able to recognise the emotional state of another with considerable ease, even if they are trying to mask it. They absolutely feel and recognise the need to do something when they see somebody else’s emotional reaction. This compulsion is almost irresistible for the empathic individual and they are also fully-acquainted with what they should do by way of response. They will share in the joy, congratulate when someone is happy through good news, console when someone is miserable and hold them when they are heart-broken. The empathic individual is no different with our kind and see our emotional response – albeit from a limited selection – feels the need to address it and also knows how to address it. Thus when we discharge our fury, our hatred, our envy and our antipathy, the empathic individual owing to this concern empathy is always galvanised into action, will rarely shirk the challenge and addresses the issue even at considerable cost to themselves.

Finally there comes the idea of the emotional contagion. This is a deep-seated and one may even regard it as a spiritual element of the empathic individual. This is not just about understanding a point of view or recognising an emotional need and response, this is about feeling the emotion just as somebody else does. Thus if a friend is upset over the death of a parent, the empathic individual is contaminated by this grief and experiences the same emotions as if they were grieving themselves. This not only means that they fountain with fuel which of course our kind will exploit but that they are powered into recognising the need and doing something about even more than would be afforded by the cognitive empathy and concern empathy. The emotional contagion exists in all empathic individuals but is more intense in certain people. Indeed, its intensity may even go beyond being proximate to the person experiencing the emotion. An element of the emotional contagion will watch a television programme and where the main character is frightened, they will feel that fear also. They will read a moving newspaper article about the plight of an orphan and they will feel that despair as well. It is an immensely powerful part of empathy and causes the empathic individual to have to respond to it. Those with a majority element of the emotional contagion (the Contagion Empath) experiences the positive and negative feelings or energy of others, even when distant and this feels uplifting possibly overpowering, or draining and indeed burdensome. Those with the majority element of the emotional contagion feel a deep-seated connection, they experience the ‘presence of others’ and find it necessary at times to remain away from people in order to divest themselves of the deleterious effects of being able to ‘feel’ so much.

We have no such emotional contagion. It is completely absent and therefore we have nothing which might cause us to feel something so we act upon it. There is nothing there. The plight of the orphan is not felt by us and we are utterly unmoved. The fear of the heroine on television is regarded with annoyance since our primary source seems more concerned about that person than us. The only time that we regard this emotional contagion as any use is when it serves our purposes when the empathic individual fountains with fuel because of it and directs their empathic traits towards us. We do not have this contagion and we do not feel anything in the way that you would do.

18 thoughts on “The Three Strands of Empathy

  1. Dolores Haze says:

    HG, would you say that a relationship with a Narc makes the Empath’s empathic traits flare up? Say, a person doesn’t walk around with a bubbling Codependent or Super Empathic cocktail bursting out of him, and it only manifests when interacting with a Narcissist?

  2. zielum says:


    I can really only feel empathy for “ideas” of things. So stories, movies, etc. I can–if they’re written well enough–be pretty moved. Or like, the “idea” of homelessness, the “idea” of minorities facing discrimination, etc–they get me. But when I’m faced with any of these things in person/real life: zero empathy, zero feelings.

    Also, sorta kinda with animals, I think? It would be cognitive, I guess. Although when I was younger, I used to be intensely empathetic to them in an emotional way. I grew out of that once I hit adulthood. Still love cats though <3

    I can't even imagine having contagion empathy. I've seen it happen with other people and in movies, like where best friends get super stoked for each other. My best friend in HS used to try it on me…I always sat there smiling nervously, having no clue what to do lol

    Good thing we do have empaths in the world though; you guys are probably the group that is most involved in activism, and we need that.

  3. Mercy says:

    Thank you HG. I don’t think I could pull off talking about a hypothetical friend. My luck, she would keep asking me how my friend is doing and I’d die of shame for lying. I did tell her about the problems my daughter is having hoping it would give her an opening to talk but it didn’t. I will give her her privacy for now.

    If I am right (I feel very strongly that I am), would this be considered emotional empathy, or contagion? Im not sure if I’m sensing her emotions or feeling them.

    1. HG Tudor says:

      From the brief description provided it presents as emotional empathy.

  4. Mercy says:

    I have a co-worker who has been “off” lately. It’s been about 2 weeks. She talks and laughs with us still, but I know something is wrong. The best way for me to explain it is that the air feels thick with worry and sadness when I’m around her. Nobody else in the office has indicated that they’ve noticed. It’s driving me nuts not to ask, but I don’t want to intrude.

    1. HG Tudor says:

      You might try to talk about the hypothetical friend of yours who is experiencing problems, with her, to see if it resonates and creates an opening for her to speak to you about her own issues. If she does not do so then either you have misjudged the situation (I suspect that is unlikely) or she is not willing to engage and that is a matter for her, not you.

    2. Notme! says:

      Hi Mercy
      You’re not mistaken, if something seems off it’s because it is. Don’t ask her, just tell her. ‘You can talk to me if you’d like’, ‘you seem ‘off’, ‘you look tired/sad/different’, ‘I’m worried about you’, ‘I care about you’ etc. just one sentence so she knows you’ve noticed, if she denies it, she doesn’t want to talk. More likely she’ll start to cry and either talk or not.

      1. Notme! says:

        Mercy, I agree that it sounds like emotional empathy. If YOU felt anxious, sad, frightened, hurt etc when you were with her and knew those weren’t related to what is going on in your life, that would be contagion. Contagion empathy usually takes me a little while to recognise. So it might take a few times of feeling something from the person that I realise ‘oh wait, that’s not mine, it hers/his’

  5. Liza says:

    is it possible to be incompetent in congnitif empathy, and have emotional empathy?

    1. HG Tudor says:


      1. Violetta says:

        Sounds like me.

      2. Violetta says:

        Oh dear, just took an online empathy test. 20-something out of 80. Apparently, I’m in Aspie territory.

    2. Liza says:

      so i’m not misreading my case.
      i can feel the emotions of others and see when there is a change in the mood, but i’m always clueless when it come to the “why”.

      1. Notme! says:

        I don’t think cognitive empathy necessarily tells us why a person is feeling something (although it might be obvious). Cognitive empathy is more about recognising signs and symptoms of emotions (like noticing her brow is knit and her hand goes to her mouth), rather than understanding and identifying with them – like ‘oh god, she must be worried sick whilst putting your hand to your mouth’

        1. Notme! says:

          If being in the worried persons vicinity causes your stomach to turn over, her heart rate to rise and you to feel prickles on your skin whether you know what is going for them or not – contagion. I think anyway

  6. ThePolicyOfTruth says:

    Do normals have much of these traits?

    1. HG Tudor says:

      Please see The Empathy Cake.

      1. ThePolicyOfTruth says:

        Noted, thank you.

Vent Your Spleen! (Please see the Rules in Formal Info)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.