What to Do If You or a Loved One Lack Empathy

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Empathy involves the ability to understand what other people are experiencing. It plays an essential role in building social connections and promotes prosocial behaviors. 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 behavior 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.

Causes

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 socialization. 

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 behaviors.

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 behaviors: 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. This can result in uncompassionate care, worse health outcomes, and poor patient experiences.

How to Develop Empathy

Empathy was once believed to be an inborn trait that could not be learned, but some researchers believe that this is a quality that people can develop and strengthen.

Research suggests that while empathy has biological underpinnings, it is heavily influenced by both social and situational factors. So, while some people might naturally have higher empathy levels, you can become more empathetic with effort and practice.

Some strategies that can help you to become a more empathetic person include:

Observe

Spend time noticing what other people are doing and think about the emotions or thoughts that might be driving those actions. How would you feel if you were in the same situation? Are there aspects of the situation you haven’t considered? Are there things that you can do to help?

Thinking about other people in this way can be helpful for improving your cognitive empathy skills. Cognitive empathy refers to an intellectual awareness of what other people are feeling.

Listen

Make an intentional effort to listen to what other people are saying. The goal is to listen in order to understand. In addition to actively listening to what people are saying, pay attention to other cues that can tell you what people are feeling such as tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language.

Practice Identifying Emotions

Spend time identifying and labeling your emotional responses. It can be more challenging to understand what other people are feeling if you struggle to recognize the emotions that you are feeling and the effect they have on your behavior.

Practice showing yourself empathy may help you become better attuned to the emotional experiences of other people.

Work on Your Communication Skills

Interpersonal and communication skills play an important role in empathy. These abilities allow people to better engage with others and respond with supportive behaviors, which can help people to better experience and express empathy. 

In one longitudinal study of medical students in Japan, researchers found that targeted communication skills training helped increase empathy in the short term. Follow-up research, however, that these effects were not sustained years later.

This suggests that working on interpersonal and communication skills may help improve empathy. The effect, however, may require additional support or training to maintain empathetic behaviors over the long term. 

Be Open to Emotions

Feeling empathy for others involves allowing yourself to feel what other people are feeling. This means allowing yourself to be open and vulnerable.

While this often involves experiencing challenging emotions, learning how to tolerate even the more distressing ones can help you forge stronger connections with other people. Doing this also allows other people to empathize with you and offer the support you need.

Use Emotions to Help Guide Action

Empathy is about more than just feeling sorrow or sympathy for what other people are going through. Because empathy allows you to feel what others may be feeling, it can also give you the motivation and sense of empowerment to take action.

Prosocial behavior, which is focused on offering assistance in order to benefit others, is often driven by feelings of empathy. Use this understanding to do things that may help make things better.

How to Respond When People Lack Empathy

Frustrations and problems can also arise when people in your life seem to lack empathy. It can create challenges in your relationship if you feel like your loved one doesn’t empathize with your feelings. 

How should you respond to a loved one who lacks empathy?

  • Try not to take it personally: Remind yourself that it isn’t your fault—you aren’t responsible for other people's emotional reactions (or lack thereof). Lack of empathy on the other person’s part is often unintentional and may stem from their problems, traumas, or experiences.
  • Establish boundaries: If the other person responds in a cruel or hurtful way, make it clear that the behavior is unacceptable. Explain that if they cannot be supportive, they should refrain from commenting or remove themselves from the situation.
  • Nurture relationships with other people: Social support is critical to psychological well-being, so work on building healthy relationships with people who do have empathy.
  • Don’t seek emotional validation from that person: It’s important to feel seen, heard, and understood, but you’re never going to get those things from a person who lacks empathy. Instead, practice self-acceptance and find people who will validate your emotions without criticizing or minimizing what you are feeling.
  • Don’t expect them to change: People can build their empathetic skills, but you shouldn’t task yourself with making the other person change or waiting around for those things to happen. Instead, be supportive if they are making an effort, but don’t allow yourself to become responsible for “fixing” them.
  • Walk away if necessary: If a close relationship with a person who lacks empathy is causing you pain and distress, it’s important to assess whether the relationship is worth keeping. If the connection is unhealthy and not suitable for your well-being, it might be time to consider ending it.

Perhaps most importantly, don't let other people's lack of empathy curtail your ability to connect with other people's emotions. Some people won't show care and concern for you or for the plight of others who might be suffering.

Empathy fuels kindness and human connection. Allow yourself to empathize with other people and create boundaries to protect yourself from those who don't express that empathy in return.

A Word From Verywell

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.

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