Updated October 3, 2023
The ability to relate to someone else’s experiences, challenges and achievements is a vital part of building strong social connections. Whether you’re frustrated by a friend or family member who can’t seem to consider perspectives outside of their own, or you’re asking difficult questions such as, “Why don’t I feel empathy,” it’s important to recognize the value in cultivating curiosity about and connection with the experiences of others.
What Is Empathy?
In general, empathy is defined as the ability to sense other people’s emotions and imagine what another person might be feeling or thinking. It helps us understand or sense another person’s perspective, needs or intentions, even if we don’t share the same circumstances. Empathy can fall into three categories, including cognitive, emotional and compassionate.
Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand another person’s feelings on an intellectual level. With this type of empathy, you can recognize how an individual’s emotions could influence their behavior, even if you have a different emotional response to an issue, event or idea.
Emotional empathy is the ability to share what someone else is feeling. In addition to recognizing how they may feel in response to a trauma or tragedy, you may internalize those emotions. As a result, you may experience the same emotions, even though you may not be impacted by an event in the same way. For example, you may feel grief alongside someone who’s experienced the loss of a child, even if you didn’t know the child and your own children are healthy.
Compassionate empathy combines cognitive and emotional empathy. In addition to recognizing and identifying with someone else’s emotions and internalizing them, you turn that empathy into action. For example, you may stop your car to offer help if you see someone stranded with a flat tire.
Is Lack of Empathy a Mental Illness?
Empathy plays a critical role in day-to-day social interactions and is vital for sharing and understanding personal experiences. According to one study, empathy in humans is a complex psychological state allowing them to feel for and act on behalf of other people, even when someone else’s experiences are very different from their own. One theory suggests that the ability to carry a conversation and express, share or explain emotional experiences through words, an ability that’s exclusive to humans, can account for this.
Why Do I Lack Empathy?
Some people are naturally more empathetic due to genetic predisposition as well as social factors related to their age, gender, life experiences and the role they played in their family of origin. On the other hand, some people have to work harder to identify with others’ experiences. Just as there are genetic and societal factors that may influence someone to be more empathetic, those factors may result in another individual being less so.
For example, studies suggest that children exposed to abuse, parental divorce, violence, mental illness or suicide in the family may be predisposed to lack empathy. For some, exposure to trauma results in the individual going into self-preservation mode, making it difficult for them to take on the difficult emotions others may experience.
A person with no empathy is called apathetic, meaning they’re unable to consider the emotional state of others. But is lack of empathy a mental illness? While low empathy disorder isn’t listed as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), low empathy could be a sign of a serious mental illness.
For example, those with borderline personality disorder, a mental illness often associated with unstable moods and difficulty maintaining interpersonal relationships, experience less brain activity in the regions responsible for empathy. Similarly, someone living with anxiety or depression may appear to lack empathy as a result of being overwhelmed by their own negative emotions or numbness. In addition to this, developmental disorders such as autism may result in a lack of empathy.
Why Don’t I Feel Empathy, and How Can I Change?
If you find yourself asking questions such as, “Do I lack empathy,” or you wonder whether a friend or family member is truly able to identify with the struggles of others, it’s helpful to recognize what a lack of empathy looks like. Because low empathy typically doesn’t impact an individual’s ability to perform well at school or work and cultivate close relationships, it can be challenging to recognize.
Even so, there are a few signs that may indicate low empathy, including:
- Not listening to other people’s opinions or perspectives
- Inability to cope with emotional situations
- Being overly critical of others
- Blaming the victim for a trauma or tragedy
- Not forgiving people for their mistakes
- Being impatient with other people’s emotional reactions
- Reacting with anger when frustrated with others
- Not considering how your behavior may affect others
- Believing negative things won’t happen to you
- Feeling baffled by other people’s feelings
Can Someone Learn to Become More Empathetic?
While some people may naturally be more empathetic, this is a valuable social skill anyone can foster and improve. If you’ve wondered, “Why don’t I feel empathy,” there are a few things you can do to strengthen your capacity for relating to others.
- Talk to other people and pay attention to how they’re feeling. Actively listening to what people are saying and noticing body cues such as facial expressions, tone of voice and body language can help you tune in to their emotions and understand why they feel the way they do.
- Consider what you’re going to say before you say it. If the comment is inconsiderate or sarcastic, keep it to yourself. Remaining silent and actively listening is better than saying something hurtful.
- Allow yourself to be open and vulnerable. Most people are resistant to uncomfortable emotions such as hurt, frustration, anger and grief. However, having empathy for others requires you to feel what others are feeling. This means allowing yourself to feel challenging or distressing emotions to help you forge stronger connections with other people.
- Take action to help other people. If the pain and challenges that other people face feel too abstract, volunteer work may be a great way to gain an appreciation for what others experience. Consider donating your time to a local food bank, homeless shelter or mentorship program to become more attuned to the challenges members of your community face.
Do I Need Professional Help?
Not everyone who experiences low empathy needs professional help. In many cases, this is a skill that can be cultivated and improved upon. However, sometimes, mental health treatment such as counseling or therapy can often help people identify the cause for low empathy and develop empathetic skills to form stronger relationships with others. If lack of empathy is associated with mental illness, a personality disorder or a developmental disability, professional treatment can benefit the well-being of that person and those around them.
In extreme cases, a lack of empathy can create serious interpersonal and even legal problems. For example, sociopathy is associated with a lack of remorse or guilt for hurting others or performing horrific acts. While the individual may appear charming, personable and smart, they have no innate sense of ethics, morals or concern for others. They’re also prone to using manipulation to get what they want, even if it means hurting someone in the process. In instances such as this, professional help is essential for their well-being as well as those around them.
Getting Professional Help for Lacking Empathy
In some cases, lacking empathy can point to a mental illness such as depression or anxiety or an underlying personality disorder. It can make it difficult to connect with friends and family and lead to conflicts. If you or a loved one is struggling with low empathy and believe it may be due to a mental illness or drug problem, Restore Mental Health is here to help. Call us today to take the first steps to a more fulfilling life.