Characteristics Of People Who Lack Empathy, And How To Protect Yourself
By: Nate Miller
Updated November 23, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Dawn Brown
We are social creatures, and all have an innate desire to be connected to other human beings. We connect by sharing our thoughts and ideas, bonding over activities, and overall bonding through being able to understand and appreciate one another.
One of the primary requirements for this type of connection is empathy. This is what allows us to understand the experiences of others on an emotional level. If you don’t experience empathy from others, you can feel isolated and confused. If you don’t experience empathy for others, you can feel frustrated and come across as uncaring.
No one can be perfectly empathetic all the time. While being empathetic does come naturally to almost everyone to some extent, it also takes conscious and unconscious effort. We all succeed in being fairly empathetic much of the time. However, some people for whom empathy is severely lacking, and even some people who are almost completely incapable of expressing it.
Interacting with people who do not have empathy can be painful or even risky. Their behavior can be very selfish and inconsiderate, and it’s important to communicate clearly with them and set strong boundaries. In this article, we’ll discuss what a lack of empathy looks like, the damage it can do, and how to keep yourself safe from it.
What Is Empathy
The definition of empathy is fairly well established, but there is some controversy. The usual definition is the ability to understand someone else’s emotional experience. For example, if I tell you I am sad because I had a bad day, you can understand what sad means and how that is affecting me right now. It may lead you to appropriate actions in response, such as encouraging me or giving me a shoulder to cry on.
This is different than sympathy in that sympathy is often defined as actually experiencing the emotions others describe or display. For example, if you don’t just try to help me feel better in response to my sadness, but remember, times you were sad and feel sad in response, you are exercising sympathy. Both empathy and sympathy have a similar result, i.e., you trying to help me feel better, but they have different experiences in your brain.
Some people define sympathy as merely a different type of empathy. For them, the definition above for sympathy is affective empathy, i.e., you are feeling, to some extent, what the other person is feeling. This is different from cognitive empathy, where you know what sadness is and understand your friend is feeling it, but don’t experience any sadness yourself.
Whatever definition you use, empathy is vital for connecting with other people. By putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes, we are more capable of becoming invested in the other person’s well-being. This is how friendships and relationships form.
It is also worth noting that empathy is a fundamental part of human psychology. It has been observed in rats and dogs, meaning it had existed in animal biology long before humans came along. It has even been tied to specific neurological pathways in the brain. Thus, it is nearly universal in humankind. It is something that can, to some extent, be measured and recorded in neurology, and why your biology at least partially determines your ability to empathize.
What Causes Empathy To Go Missing
To begin, we should be clear that empathy is a scale, not a binary issue. People can be more or less empathetic to one another, and people who struggle with it do not all struggle with it in the same way. You may be fairly empathetic much of the time but struggle to be patient in a particular area. For example, if doing complicated math equations comes naturally to you, it can be hard to work with others to take great effort patiently. However, not having empathy in this area does not mean you do not have empathy overall.
Just as there are different levels of empathy, there are different levels of lacking it. Some people may not have empathy in many areas but still have some in others. Imagine a coworker who has no patience for personal problems of any kind but expresses strong patience and understanding for professional issues. Some people may lack empathy across the board in a way that reduces the strength of their reaction, not their ability to react. If someone can be empathetic in almost all interactions but also come across as slightly distant, this may be because they lack strong empathy, but not all empathy.
Further complicating things, empathy is both an ingrained and learned behavior. As mentioned, because empathy has a neurological component, it may be a physical problem if it lacks someone. However, not having empathy can also develop as a defense mechanism. If someone grows up in a troubled home or has had a hard life, it may have been advantageous to be emotionally distant.
Even more confusing, unempathetic behavior may have started with that person having a lower capacity for empathy at all, then grown over time in response to hard situations. Imagine someone who has a weak empathetic capacity from birth, and then that person is raised in a troubled home. This is to say that there is no one way for someone to lack empathy; it occurs in many forms and has many different ways to treat or manage.
A minor caveat here: Not having empathy has many flavors, but being completely incapable of it is a distinct neurological condition. This condition also has degrees, but all of them are very challenging to manage. They are commonly known as a narcissistic personality disorder, sociopathy, and full-blown psychopathy.
Problems Lacking Empathy Can Cause
If you understand that empathy is an important component of how we relate to and connect, you can understand why not having empathy can be destructive. Here are some of the many ways that not having empathy can create problems for people who have this issue. All of them are good reasons to want to address poor empathetic behavior.
Our ability to understand and perceive other’s emotional lives is how we understand some of the internal mental experiences of other people. On a subconscious level, this is vital to truly feel that you are not alone in the world, that other people are human beings with hopes, fears, and dreams just like you.
When that sense of understanding is gone, it’s profoundly isolating. If you lack empathy, it can seem like you are the only one with worthwhile emotional experiences. That makes it easy to feel that nothing and no one else matters. It can also feel like no one can truly understand and connect with you, leaving you feeling very alone.
Put, if you can’t understand other people, it becomes much harder to talk to them. Empathy is crucial to know what to say, when to say it, and how. If you can’t empathize with people, every social interaction becomes much more difficult.
Trouble At Work
Interpersonal abilities are important in making friends and falling in love. They are also extremely important for professional success and stability, but it can be surprising how important those skills are. Some research suggests that emotional intelligence is even more important than IQ in being successful in life. Empathy is a core component of emotional intelligence and thus to our careers.
Some may be surprised to learn that empathy is important for success. It can seem like some people achieve great personal success by acting with incredible selfishness. Indeed, some people learn to be selfish at work to get ahead. However, for the most part, self-absorbed people do not move ahead in their careers or personal relationships, and the success they do experience is superficial and easily undone.
Lower Physical Health
It will probably come as no great surprise that our need for belonging with others is more than just a feeling; it has physical origins. It is because it is such a deep part of who we are that not having it is damaging to more than just our feelings. Studies have shown that the issues of not having empathy can cause (poor communication, isolation) can lead to health problems.
How To Spot People Who Do Not Have Empathy
Empathy problems can be hard to identify confidently because of how complicated their source can be. However, some things people do can be clear indicators of not having empathy and can lead you to start exploring taking action.
- Blaming others for mistakes
- Saying others are overly sensitive: We all do this sometimes, but people who do not empathize do it far more of the time in more situations.
- Refusing to hear other’s points of view
- Argumentative attitude
- Seems to struggle to understand where other people are coming from
- Can’t handle emotional situations
- Surprisingly emotional reactions: Typically manifests as strong reactions of frustration or even anger, rooted in their incomprehension of and impatience with other people’s feelings
- Difficulty maintaining relationships
How To Respond To Lacking Empathy
If you believe someone you know struggles with not having empathy, it is definitely worth your time to start addressing the problem. The complexity and patience required will vary depending on the source. Dealing with coworkers or random social connections lacking empathy is easier than dealing with close friends or loved ones. Nevertheless, there are tools for all situations.
To begin, remember that the behavior is not necessarily based on evil intent. It may be born out of deep personal pain or trauma and addressing it will take patience and hard work on multiple levels. Making adjustments to emotional pathways takes weeks, if not months, instead of more surface-level behavior change.
Behaviors of not having empathy thrive in obscurity. If it’s something the person learned from a hard life, part of why it continues is because it is partly subconscious. There is also strong social pressure to ignore behaviors lacking in empathy. Many people worry about being too sensitive and say nothing even if their feelings are hurt. There is also a tendency to write off bad behavior as a quirky personality, e.g., He’s not rude, that’s just the way he is, don’t take it personally.
The solution to this is addressing it directly. If someone seems distant or even cold, speak up about it to the person. If they hurt your feelings, you have every right to let them know. The goal is not to make the other person feel bad. The goal is to assert the validity of your experience and work to find solutions.
As stated, the origins of this behavior are complicated, the source can be partly unconscious, and it takes practice to overcome. All of this means that even once you start calling people out for being unempathetic, you will have to give them time to adjust. It can take weeks or even months to make these changes, and they will likely never be as good at it as you imagine they should be.
How patient you should depend on the nature of your relationship. With a coworker, you can be direct and leave the responsibility for making the shift on them. While you will likely have to remind them occasionally that it is not your responsibility to help them get there if they persist in negative interactions. Working with a loved one will be much more of a collaborative effort.
Set And Hold Boundaries
Healthily practicing open communication and patience will require healthy boundaries. Be direct and open about what you need and what you cannot tolerate. This is vital for two big reasons. One, people who lack empathy are not going to place those boundaries themselves. They struggle with emotional connection. If you don’t tell them where the lines are, they are not going to see them.
Two, and relatedly, people who lack empathy are going to push your boundaries. Because they can’t see the lines, they are going to charge over them. You should expect that when working with someone to improve their empathy, you will have to do more than show them your boundaries; you will have to defend them until they learn not to cross them actively.
Be Willing To Walk Away
Some people don’t learn. Some relationships aren’t worth saving. Sometimes, even though the other person is trying, even though you want things to work, it can be just too painful to keep going. When someone is unempathetic, you must be prepared to shut things down if they don’t improve.
As we’ve discussed, there is great potential for pain when dealing with unempathetic people. This is especially true when you get into the people for whom it is a diagnosable psychological issue (e.g., sociopaths and psychopaths). It is not quitting to accept that a relationship is bad enough that it has to stop.
As with the other issues, this will depend on your relationship at the start. It can be extremely difficult for loved ones to end things over this issue, and you will likely put more time and energy into addressing it before you start thinking it can’t work. Conversely, with a new social connection, if you can spot a lack of empathy before things progress, it may be worth cutting them off right away.
Not Having Empathy Is A Struggle For Everyone
Nobody likes feeling as though they “don’t get” other people. We all want to be understood and loved. Empathy, the ability to understand what is going on in someone else’s head, is a core component of our ability to connect. When other people lack it, connections become more difficult and more fraught. For the people who lack it, life is a greater challenge across the board.
As with any psychological issue, professional help in managing a lack of empathy in yourself or others is invaluable. A neutral third party with training can help you spot the warning signs, clearly identify the problem, and develop appropriate responses. Emotional interactions are hard enough to navigate when everyone gets along. Counselors like qualified professionals at ReGain can help you approach these challenges.
No one is perfect at empathy. You can’t be perfectly emotionally resonant with everyone you meet. But struggling with empathy occasionally is much different than lacking it in many circumstances. Understanding the origins of weak empathetic ability and the warnings signs for it in other’s behavior can save you a great deal of stress and turmoil.
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