Characteristics Of People With A Lack Of Empathy: How To Protect Yourself

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated March 11, 2024by Regain Editorial Team

Human beings are social creatures with an innate desire to be connected to other human beings. One of the primary requirements for this type of connection is empathy. 

Empathy 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, there are 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 difficult. Their behavior may seem selfish or inconsiderate, so it’s important to communicate clearly and set strong boundaries. 

What is empathy?

Do you wonder if others take advantage of your kindness?

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.

This is different than sympathy in that sympathy is often defined as actually experiencing the emotions others describe or display. Both empathy and sympathy have a similar result, but they have different experiences in your brain.

Some people define sympathy as merely a different type of empathy. According to this theory, the definition above for sympathy is affective empathy, i.e., you are feeling, to some extent, what the other person is feeling. What we previously defined as sympathy would be considered 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.

What causes empathy to go missing?

It is worth noting that empathy is a fundamental part of human psychology. It has been tied to specific neurological pathways in the brain and can, to some extent, be measured and recorded in neurology. In this way, your biology at least partially determines your ability to empathize.

Beyond this, 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 experience limited empathy may not all be limited in the same ways. 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 outward emotional reactions but not their ability to emotionally 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, a lack of empathy might be traced to a physical difference. Not having empathy can also develop as a defense mechanism if someone grew up in an unstable environment; it may have been advantageous to be emotionally distant.

Being completely incapable of empathy is sometimes a symptom of a distinct neurological condition and may be related to certain diagnoses such as antisocial personality disorder, psychopathy, or narcissistic personality disorder. 

Problems a lack of 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 with low or no empathy. 


Getty/Xavier Lorenzo

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.

Communication problems

Put simply, 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 more important than general 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 and practice being 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. Getting along with coworkers or random social connections lacking empathy is easier than experiencing challenges 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.

Open communication

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, which can invalidate the real harm that miscommunications caused by a lack of empathy can do.

The solution to this is addressing it directly. If someone seems distant or cold, speak up about it to that 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, but to assert the validity of your experience and work to find solutions.

Be patient

As stated, the origins of this behavior are complicated, the source can be partly unconscious, and it takes practice to overcome a lack of empathy. 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.

Getty/SDI Productions
Do you wonder if others take advantage of your kindness?

How patient you should be depends 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 interacting 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.

Online therapy for a lack of empathy

As with any psychological condition, professional help in managing a lack of empathy in yourself or others is invaluable. A neutral observer 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.

Online therapy may be a good option for those who lack empathy. Research suggests that online therapy is not only effective in treating low-empathy mental health conditions, but may also promote a sense of empathy between patients and their treatment provider that is not as strongly present in in-person settings. This may make recognizing and fostering empathetic behavior easier.


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 may be a greater challenge across the board.

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. For help in becoming more assertive, discerning, or empathetic, reach out to a licensed online counselor.

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