Is it really possible to spot a narcissist under fog of war? I.e., apart from the lenses of high conflict, is there any other major difference between an empath and a covert narcissist?

To the layman, ego is described as good or bad. The good ego is the empath who, through his own ideals, cares about others, and wants others to care too, even if that means isolating the "covert narcissists" for health reasons. The bad ego is the covert narcissist who pretends to care, but has no visible ideals other than winning by hurting others, and does not receive feedback.

I believed all this until I read High Conflict by Amanda Ripley. From the publisher:

When we are baffled by the insanity of the “other side”—in our politics, at work, or at home—it’s because we aren’t seeing how the conflict itself has taken over.

That’s what “high conflict” does. It’s the invisible hand of our time. And it’s different from the useful friction of healthy conflict. That’s good conflict, and it’s a necessary force that pushes us to be better people.

High conflict, by contrast, is what happens when discord distills into a good-versus-evil kind of feud, the kind with an us and a them. In this state, the normal rules of engagement no longer apply. The brain behaves differently. We feel increasingly certain of our own superiority and, at the same time, more and more mystified by the other side.

Now I reread the preceding paragraph and see no difference apart from the lenses of high conflict: one side has ideals and the other doesn't. One side listens and the other doesn't. But over time, I and the subjects in AR's book have found that solving the high conflict gets us to listen to the other side and see their ideals (curing the pathology without bothering to agree on the specific ideals underlying high conflict). High conflict seems to explain common psychological disagreements, for example each side sees their own rage as empathic but the other side's rage as narcissistic. Same pathology, different lens.

So, I am starting to wonder: apart from high conflict, is there really any major difference between an empath and a covert narcissist, and, if so, how common is that difference?

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Psychology.SE. As I haven't read the book I had to do some digging on the definition used in the book of "high conflict" and trying to relate the whole concept to your ego models may have confused things. Remember that the central ego of a person is not strictly dichotomous. There are the areas in between good and evil as we all can share some bad traits. I think that if you want to really examine this, you need to go back to the basics. Look at what it is to be empathic. Are you being empathic if you are attacking the other person without seeing their point of view?.... $\endgroup$ Dec 5, 2021 at 6:27
  • $\begingroup$ If I get the chance I will try and put a full answer together but it may take time. This was just to try and put you on the path to working it out. The way I see it at the moment (before fully researching it) both sides of high conflict situations are behaving narcissistically to get what they want out of the conflict. $\endgroup$ Dec 5, 2021 at 6:30
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    $\begingroup$ which psychological theory (or related field) is Amanda Ripley's approach to "high conflict" grounded in? If its not, can you elaborate on how this "high conflict" approach is linked to ego psychology/ or narcissism. Moreover, there are many approaches to the ego, and narcissism; which theory are you speaking to (for example in psychoanalysis alone, there is ego psychology, relational psychoanalysis, traditional freudian, and more...)? $\endgroup$ Dec 6, 2021 at 7:42
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    $\begingroup$ @studentsephan Good questions -- you are right, I may need to untangle some of this. I think AR's approach is mainly investigative journalism. She uses psych concepts like contagious emotions but not any kind of specialized ego theory that I can see. What I mean is good/bad ego as commonly used in conflict: standing up for a good cause vs. just trying to win an argument to look smart. And then people (who are not psychologists) start attaching terms like "narcissist" to the egos they don't like. And that's where my question comes in - what does/should narcissist really mean in this context? $\endgroup$ Dec 7, 2021 at 1:20
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    $\begingroup$ Reading the comments from @studentstephan I thought it helpful to add a description of "high conflict" in the context the author was putting across. Feel free to roll the edit back or edit my edit $\endgroup$ Dec 7, 2021 at 11:31

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The differences between narcissist and empath definitely go beyond any broader conflict. A narcissist is self-aggrandizing, envious, always worried about how others perceive him, feeds off others' praise, takes credit for other people's work, has poor interpersonal boundaries, and always wants to be the one hitting the ball. An empath would be more of a collegial team player.

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    $\begingroup$ Do you have references to support your answer, could you also make it clear how this answers the question, particularly how it might relate to a "covert narcissist"? Can you edit to clarify. $\endgroup$ Dec 7, 2021 at 0:56
  • $\begingroup$ @A Rogue Ant. Good points. I added a reference for some of the narcissist qualities. I may be misunderstanding what a "covert narcissist" is, but I think of it as a narcissist who is a bit subtle, faking empathy and civility, using lies of omission rather than outright lies, etc. Essentially, a narcissist who generally gets along with others professionally and in business. But still having the core narcissist traits I mention in this answer. $\endgroup$ Dec 7, 2021 at 1:01
  • $\begingroup$ What you're saying makes perfect sense to me. Part of the issue is the lack of sound references in the question to really base an answer on, we can't help but grope in the dark for meaning here. $\endgroup$ Dec 7, 2021 at 1:13
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    $\begingroup$ @A Rogue Ant. Yes, that's a fair criticism. I guess I'm trying to tease out which narcissist qualities are potentially attributable to a surrounding conflict, and which are inherent, so that we could see a narcissist under fog of war and still be sure we have a narcissist. But I'm having a hard time backing that with references. Let me know if you have any suggestions for references. $\endgroup$ Dec 7, 2021 at 1:32

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