The term “empathy” is used to describe a wide range of experiences. Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. It is an important characteristic that ensures a person’s emotional well-being, so much so because emotional intelligence is often regarded as more important than a person’s IQ. But we all have interacted with some people that seem to have a lack of empathy, at some point in our lives. I know that those experiences can leave us feeling frustrated, unsettled, angry, disappointed, and even betrayed, mainly when we need support. It gets even harder and more painful if you are in a relationship with someone who is unable to put themselves in your shoes. Especially when we consider some of these people our friends, or maybe even worse when those people are family members and we have to be in contact with them frequently.
Why do some people lack empathy?
Empathy is an innate and a learned skill that is shaped by how we are wired when we are born, and our own environment and life experiences. To experience empathy to some extent, it means that we have to get in touch with our emotions.
People who lack empathy were probably raised in families who were avoiding to get in touch with their feelings and even condemned others for feeling their emotions. Some people have learned to shut down their feelings early in their lives to such a degree that they closed off their hearts and can’t even feel their own feelings – they certainly can’t relate or feel other people’s feelings.
As a result, these people end up lacking self-compassion, self-love and are disconnected from their authentic self and divine connection to source. They are probably not even aware that such disconnection is like a defence mechanism from their ego because if they empathize, they need to relate, get in touch with their feelings and feel the pain.
In most cases, developing and cultivating empathy is possible only if the individuals are willing to change how they relate with others and consciously choose to retrain their brains. Due to our brain’s neuroplasticity, we can create new brain patterns.
However, there are other cases in which lack of empathy is associated with severe disorders such as narcissism, anti-social personality disorders, and psychopathy. In these cases, these individuals need to get professional help if they are open to it.
A big part of the reason why people may lack empathy is Anger. This emotion blocks off your capacity to feel warmth for those you are the closest to. For example, Instead of concern, you feel numb when your partner tells you that he was demoted. He is crying, panicked, and worried — and you are cold. You feel like lecturing, perhaps scolding him, citing the reasons that he should have listened to you or followed your advice. Instead of empathy, all you can drum up is contempt.
Another reason could be that you don’t feel empathy for those closest to you is because you are too busy Protecting yourself. You ask yourself as you read this, “Why would I need to protect myself?” Imagine that your sister is crying and in pain. Unconsciously, you feel her pain is a kind of virus: You fear to get “close” to her feelings/virus because you imagine you will “catch” the same thing. If you allow yourself the luxury of supporting her and actually “feeling” for her, then you imagine that you are “closer” to experiencing pain.
Yet another reason for being emotionally cut off is to avoid Identifying yourself in the other. For example, if your child wasn’t invited to a party, you may try to talk her out of being upset. Her left out feelings hit too close to home. They remind you of your childhood. You remember all too well how it felt to be left out. On the other hand, you may be contemptuous of her social status because you were always popular. Therefore, you can’t afford to be emphatic for fear that she will misunderstand your compassion for acceptance. Your attempt to rationalize her feelings away is an attempt to cut off your own painful feelings, either for her or for yourself.
The fear of Intimacy is also sometimes a reason for being emotionally distant. It is much easier to feel distant from your loved ones than for us to feel close and intimate. Vulnerability to hurt and loss come with closeness. Risking yourself is what is needed to feel intimate and empathic with your inner circle. Often times, when it relates to our children, we have trouble separating and deciphering what is their pain and what is our pain, leaving us particularly blocked off from our own emphatic capacity.