Empathy has become a popular term in today’s increasingly polarized political and social culture. Chances are you’ve probably interacted with someone with low empathy within a personal relationship, a friendship or at work. Feeling as if your emotions have been disregarded can be frustrating, disappointing and unsettling. Empathy plays a crucial role in helping us form social connections, but is lack of empathy a mental illness?
What Is Empathy?
Empathy is typically described 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 you don’t share the same circumstances. There are three types of empathy you might experience:
- Cognitive Empathy: The intellectual understanding of another person’s feelings. You’re able to identify the emotions and understand how they’re affecting a person’s behavior, even if you don’t experience the emotions yourself.
- Emotional Empathy: The ability to feel another person’s emotions. If you see someone in distress after losing a loved one, you may experience sadness or chest pain by sensing that emotion in the other person.
- Compassionate Empathy: A combination of cognitive and emotional empathy, meaning you recognize, understand and feel another person’s emotions, which often leads to 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 social interactions among humans. It’s typically used to share and understand 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 can account for this. Sharing experiences and feelings assists in developing empathy, which is exclusive to humans compared to other species. However, childhood experiences can significantly impact your ability to empathize with others. Studies suggest that children exposed to abuse, parental divorce, violence, mental illness or suicide in the family may lack empathy.
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 lack of 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.
However, not everyone with low empathy requires psychological counseling. Individuals with high-functioning autism often lack social skills, are emotionally flat and may lack empathy. Individuals struggling with mental health problems such as depression or anxiety may seem less empathetic because they’re distracted by their own psychological issues.
Signs Someone May Be Lacking Empathy
If you find yourself wondering “do I lack empathy,” or considering the same about a loved one, it’s important to understand what a lack of empathy looks like. Low empathy isn’t easy to detect, since people who are less empathetic can still hold down a job and have personal relationships. However, there are a few signs you can look for:
- Not listening to other people’s opinions or perspectives
- Inability to cope with emotional situations
- Being extremely critical of others
- Blaming the victim
- 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?
Many researchers believe empathy is a trait that can be developed and strengthened. While empathy may have some biological factors, social and situational factors can also heavily influence empathy. For instance, children who grow up in a loving household are more likely to become empathetic adults.
If you find it difficult to empathize with others, there are a few methods you can use to develop empathy:
- 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. 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. Volunteer work is a great way to help other people who are less fortunate than you, and improve your empathetic skills.
Does Someone Need to Seek Help for Lack of Empathy?
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 signs are associated with signs of sociopathy, professional treatment is crucial for the well-being of that person and those around them.
True sociopaths often lack remorse or guilt for hurting others or performing horrific acts. Although they may appear charming, personable and smart, they have no 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.
Seek Help for Lack of Empathy
Lacking empathy can significantly harm your personal and professional relationships, making it hard to connect with friends, family or colleagues. 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.