Empathy involves the ability to understand what other people are experiencing. It plays an essential role in building social connections and promotes prosocial behaviours. However, not everyone experiences empathy for others in every situation, which can have a variety of individual and societal consequences.
What can you do if you or a loved one lack empathy? First, it’s important to understand what a lack of empathy might look like and then explore some ways to encourage this important emotional skill.
Signs of a lack of empathy
A lack of empathy isn’t always easy to detect, but there are a few signs that can help you determine if you or a loved one might not be empathetic:
- Being extremely critical of other people
- Blaming the victim
- Not forgiving people for making mistakes
- Feeling like other people are too sensitive
- Not listening to other people’s perspectives or opinions
- An inability to cope with emotional situations
- Lack of patience for other people’s emotional reactions
- Reacting with impatience or anger when frustrated with other people
- Feeling baffled by other people’s feelings
- Believing that negative things won’t happen to you
- Not thinking about or understanding how your behaviours affects other people
Empathy isn’t an all-or-nothing quality. Think of it as a continuum. Some people are naturally more empathetic, while others are less so. Other factors, including situational variables, can affect how much empathy people feel at any given time.
Factors that can impact how much empathy people feel for others include how well they know the other person, whether they like the individual, what they blame for the other person’s situation, past experiences, and expectations.
How empathetic are you?
Ask yourself the following questions to determine how empathetic you are:
- Do you have a hard time picking up on the emotions of people around you?
- Is it hard to imagine how you would feel if you were in someone else’s situation?
- Are you indifferent when you see other people experiencing hardships?
- Do you stop listening to other people if you don’t agree with them?
- Do you avoid helping people who are upset, hurt, or at a disadvantage?
If you answered yes to most of the above questions, there’s a strong chance that you struggle to feel empathy for others. While this can be problematic, there are things you can do to become more empathetic.
The exact causes of a lack of empathy aren’t entirely understood, but it is believed that a number of factors likely play a role. Empathy is believed to be largely influenced by genetics and socialidation.
Genetics play a part in the heritable aspects of personality and temperament. So some people are born with tendencies that make them more empathetic to others. However, experiences throughout life also play an important role. Parents, teachers, peers, society, and culture affect how people feel about kindness, empathy, compassion, and helping behaviours.
There is also some research suggesting that men and women tend to experience and express empathy in different ways. Women generally score higher on measures of empathy.
Some conditions may play a role in a lack of empathy such as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), antisocial personality disorder, and borderline personality disorder (BPD).
Effects Lack of empathy can have a number of effects. Some of these include:
- Problems with relationships: People who lack empathy are more likely to have problems in their relationships with other people. It can lead to arguments when other people feel that their feelings and needs are not understood. It can also make it more difficult to form bonds and decrease the likelihood that people receive meaningful help.
- Poor communication: Not being able to understand where other people are coming from can make communication much more difficult. A lack of empathy can also cause people to misinterpret what other people are trying to say, which can ultimately lead to miscommunication, conflict, and damaged relationships.
- Lack of helping behaviours: When people don’t feel empathy for others, they are less likely to engage in prosocial actions that might help people who need assistance. This can affect people on an individual level, but it can also have more systemic effects when groups, governments, or societies fail to show empathy toward people who need support.
Lack of empathy can also have consequences in healthcare settings. Research suggests that healthcare workers’ empathy declines as a result of medical training.2 This can result in uncompassionate care, worse health outcomes, and poor patient experiences.
A lack of empathy can create a wide variety of problems. It’s also a quality that varies depending on the situation, so even naturally empathetic people may experience a lack of empathy from time to time.
Being aware of situations where you feel emotionally uninvolved and disconnected may help you better consider some of the factors you might be missing. But if a lack of empathy is a deeper, more lasting problem that affects your communication and relationships, consider talking to a therapist.
A mental health professional can help you explore the cause of the problem and learn strategies that may help you better understand and empathize with what other people are going through.
Note: Personality disorders are very rarely treated with mediation unless there is a comorbidly diagnoses. Eg; Depression which is a mood disorder and can require short term medication.
Personality disorders are just that “Personality” which over time with help from a therapist can be changed resulting in a happier more fulfilling view of yourself, your relationship and the world.
Medically reviewed by Daniel B. Block, MD on September 26, 2021 If you believe you or a loved one might benefit from therapy, please have no hesitation to book an appointment with DIPAC and Associates.