As human beings, we’re wired to share experiences and connect with others. When we do that, we usually expect others to understand us, or at least to acknowledge our emotions. And that’s precisely why it’s so hurtful to come across someone who lacks empathy. The experience can leave us confused and resentful, but there are things we can do to cope with it.
In this article we’ll look at why some people struggle to empathize with others, common lack of empathy signs, and what you can do when dealing with people low on empathy.
At its most basic, empathy is the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Showing empathy means being able to identify and recognize the needs, feelings and intentions of other people around us, even if they’re different from ours.
The concept of empathy has been central to keeping societies together. Being able to empathize with others can make everyday interactions smoother and reinforce interpersonal bonds, whether they are personal or professional. Empathy is also related to other important aspects of human behaviour, such as altruism and compassion.
What’s more, empathy is considered an important aspect of emotional intelligence, as it helps us regulate our emotional response in a way that benefits us and those around us. As such, it can be beneficial to mental health, since empathetic people tend to enjoy stronger and more rewarding relationships with others.
If empathy has such a powerful effect, why do some people seem to lack it? First of all, it’s rare for someone to have no empathy at all. It’s so rare that psychologists classify a total lack of empathy as a disorder, usually linked to narcissistic or anti-social personalities.
A lack of empathy causes relationship problems
Empathy is a quality that displays to different degrees and has a strong situational component. This means that people can make the decision to show empathy or not, depending on the circumstances and the people involved. The degree of empathy someone shows can also depend on past experiences. Some people may have opened up to others and had bad experiences, so the automatic reaction is to shut down and avoid behaviours that can make them feel vulnerable or remind them of unpleasant experiences.
Another reason why you may notice signs of lack of empathy in some people is that there are different ways we come to acquire this quality. Empathy is the result of both learned and automatic responses. It’s partly innate, so we have the ability to develop it from birth.
But empathy is also something that can be learned, so people who were raised in families where compassion and affinity levels were low may show a lack of empathy. This is because they haven’t been exposed to good examples, or, in some cases, they may not even know that some situations require empathy.
“Behind a lack of empathy is the belief that someone is always right. This can lead to frequent arguments and can have a negative impact on personal relationships.”
While the reasons why people are low on empathy are complex, the signs of a lack of empathy are pretty much standard across the board.
Here are some common signs of lack of empathy to know and look out for:
So, what exactly can you do if you have to interact with people who show signs of a lack of empathy? These interactions often create a cascade of negative feelings, from disappointment to anger or frustration at not being understood.
The main thing to understand is that although we can’t change people, we can change the way we react to them, even if faced with a shortage of empathy. So, the solution isn’t to get into arguments or try to reason with people who have trouble empathizing with you. Instead:
The problem isn’t you, it's the lack of empathy in the other person. Because these comments stem from poor emotional intelligence, they are likely to be based on inaccurate perceptions. Don’t take it to heart, because they’re not a reflection of who you are.
When there’s friction in interpersonal relationships, there are many situations where saying “when you do X, I feel Y” can work. But that’s not always the case with people who lack empathy – remember that their emotional responses are different, so emotion-based arguments are unlikely to yield results. It can even make them and you more frustrated.
It would be wonderful if we could change the way people act towards us, but that’s not always realistic and especially in the case of people who are low in empathy. Avoid heartache by reminding yourself what you can and can’t expect from them and manage your expectations accordingly.
Avoid emotionally-based reasoning with those lacking in empathy shutterstock/WAYHOME studio
If you’ve been dealing with lack of empathy for a while, the negative comments or criticism may have made a dent in your self-esteem. Don’t let that hole grow any bigger by linking your self-worth to what others say or letting those attitudes feed limiting beliefs or negative self-talk. If your self-esteem needs some TLC, try some self-love meditation.
If you’re repeatedly hurt by someone who lacks empathy, it may be wise to limit your interactions with them. This can be tricky if they’re family or coworkers that you see everyday. In that case, it could help to stick to topics that aren’t emotionally loaded. If this doesn’t work, don’t be afraid of setting boundaries.
Keeping your distance from people who display lack of empathy signs doesn’t mean you have to isolate yourself. Compensate for limited interaction with people who struggle showing empathy by spending more time with those who do. Nurturing those relationships can build up resilience when faced with a lack of empathy.
Hurtful interactions with people who have no empathy can bring emotional pain, but try not to harbour it or resentment. It’s OK to be vulnerable, and in fact this goes hand in hand with empathy. Just be selective with who you open up to.
Being hurt can be an opportunity to learn about ourselves and become stronger. Don’t blame yourself, but think constructively about why lack of empathy affected you and what does that reveal about your own emotions and expectations.
We can all develop empathy, but not everyone chooses to do so. If you’ve been affected by interactions with people low on compassion and affinity, don’t take it personally, work on your self-esteem, and nurture meaningful relationships. We can learn something from most experiences in life, so take this as an opportunity to learn about yourself, your emotional needs, and how to meet them. •
Main image: shutterstock/Dustin Petkovic
A social sciences graduate with a keen interest in languages, communication, and personal development strategies. Dee loves exercising, being out in nature, and discovering warm and sunny places where she can escape the winter.
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