We all want to think we have empathy. This ability to understand how another person is feeling and even feel it ourselves, even if the “thing” is not happening to us, is critical for maintaining relationships of all kinds and being, well, human. It’s an important quality for both our personal and professional lives and, along with the related emotional intelligence, plays a huge role in dictating our success in these spheres.
Unfortunately, we’ve all encountered people who seem to have a distinct lack of empathy, too. These people say or do things that hurt us, often without seeming to grasp how they’ve affected us. Moreover, they can’t handle uncomfortable situations themselves and see perceived slights everywhere.
How do you spot someone who lacks empathy? And how do you cope? Here are nine signs — and what to do about it.
Sure, we all do it sometimes. But if someone spends their entire time picking apart other people’s flaws and criticizing every little thing to the point at which it becomes exhausting to be around them, it’s a pretty clear sign that they lack empathy. After all, even if someone has less than desirable qualities, an empathetic person will try to understand where they’re coming from and recognize that all people have flaws.
Does this person often succumb to angry outbursts over the tiniest thing? Do they have trouble regulating their emotions, especially negative ones? This, too, is a sign that they have difficulty putting themselves in other people’s shoes and recognizing that a perceived slight may not actually be a slight at all. They also aren’t able to let things go, something empathetic people are able to do.
Of course, this is the core of a person with a lack of empathy: the inability to understand or recognize how other people are feeling. They can’t read the cues people are giving off. For example, if you’re upset but aren’t verbalizing your emotions, an empathetic person will usually pick up on nonverbal signals, like a facial expression or an uncharacteristic unwillingness to talk. Someone without this quality will ignore your nonverbal cues.
Even if someone articulates their emotions, they could simply not care and change the subject back to themselves or something they do care about.
If this person does upset you, they will immediately become defensive, accusing you of being overly sensitive when they’ve hurt your feelings. They might even go so far as to blame you for causing them to hurt your feelings, putting the onus of your hurt back on you, even when they’re in the wrong. Ultimately, they invalidate your emotions.
At the same time, they are quick to overreact themselves — the very thing they accuse you of doing — lashing out over incidents that don’t warrant this type of aggressive reaction. They can be argumentative and even hostile when they think they’ve been wronged. They, of course, always believe themselves to be right.
Sometimes, they might even lash out at strangers: the person on the train who accidentally jostles them, someone on the street who looks at them the wrong way and so on.
Going along with point #5, people with a lack of empathy always believe that they’re in the right. They’re constantly getting into fights with other people, including family members, friends, colleagues, authority figures and significant others. Even when they do realize they’re in the wrong, they’ll never admit it, which can do a lot of damage to their relationships with others; they’ll never apologize or acknowledge that they caused the strain.
Someone who lacks empathy, by definition, is unable to understand what constitutes an appropriate reaction. While everyone has trouble knowing exactly what to say or do 100% of the time, these people might make jokes at inopportune times, downplay the magnitude of an upsetting situation (especially if it doesn’t personally affect them) or otherwise act insensitively. In other words, they can’t read the room.
You got a new job. You’ve started a relationship. You won an award. Yes, some friends might be envious, but if they’re quality people, they’ll still be happy for and supportive of you. But a person who lacks empathy won’t hide their envy. They might downplay your achievements or otherwise be dismissive of the things that are going well for you, especially if they want and don’t have the same things.
They might even deride what you have as though it’s completely irrelevant or not worth having.
This person cycles through friends quickly. They can’t maintain close relationships, often because they exhibit the above behaviors and ultimately drive people away. Even if they do seem to have friends, it’s likely that you’ll see them fighting with them constantly. If they’re your friend, you’ve probably been the victim of one of their attacks.
Empathy isn’t cut and dry. People have varying degrees of empathy, some of which is innate and some of which is learned. Moreover, there are some situations in which individuals exhibit empathy while they may not in others.
People who lack empathy may have grown up around parents and other family members who had trouble regulating their own emotions or exhibited insensitivity or little compassion toward them. Or, they’ve dealt with other difficult situations that have caused them to shut down. There is an element of innate wiring that dictates whether or not someone is empathetic, too
A lack of empathy is also characteristic of personality disorders like narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder.
If a person who lacks empathy criticizes you, has an emotional outburst over a perceived slight or otherwise behaves insensitively, remember that it’s not about you. It’s about them. You’ve probably seen them behave this way around other people, too. They may even have done this to you before. And, if you want to maintain a relationship with them, know that it will happen again.
These individuals will not change. Stop waiting for the day when they’ll apologize for their behavior or admit that they were in the wrong. It won’t happen.
There are treatments for personality disorders, such as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), but they take a great deal of time and effort on the part of the therapist, and the individual who suffers from it must be willing to put in the investment, too. Because many people who lack empathy are unwilling to admit there might be something amiss with them, they’re unlikely to seek this type of treatment.
I was once in a relationship with someone who lacked empathy. Sometimes, he would be withholding. Other times, he would berate me. And occasionally, he would be nice. I lived for those nice moments and kept coming back again and again, hoping that I would get to enjoy one.
In Skinner’s experiment involving intermittent reinforcement, rats were conditioned to press a lever that would result in rewards. Some rats got treats every time they pressed it, and some never got them. Another group received the treats at random, and these were the ones who pressed the bar most frequently.
Don’t be that rat. Stop putting yourself in situations to get hurt and expecting things to be different. A person who lacks empathy will always hurt you.
If you do want to maintain contact with a person who has a lack of empathy, you’ll need to establish clear boundaries. You might not want to see them too frequently, and you might limit your interactions to a specific kind of activity. For example, if you’ve noticed that their behavior is less palatable when they’re drinking, let them know you don’t want to go to the bar with them. You might also avoid sharing certain things with them lest you provoke an upsetting reaction.
You won’t find validation in a person like this. Look for it elsewhere: in friends who truly care about you, in family members and most of all in yourself.
Personally, I hate the cliche “You can’t love anyone until you love yourself.” To me, it sounds trite and suggests that only people with high self-esteem deserve love. Still, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t build the skills you need to get through obstacles and learn a little self-compassion along the way.
This is especially true if you’re hoping to maintain a connection with someone lacking empathy. They may well hurt you, and you need to have the coping skills to get you through it. Plus, this will decrease the likelihood that a conflict will derail your relationship.
Ultimately, you need to simply accept the fact that this is the way this person is. If you want to keep them in your life, you’ll have to accept them and all their flaws — including their lack of compassion for you and others.
But if you find that this individual is detracting from your life more than they’re adding to it, you may eventually decide that it’s time to leave. And that’s okay. Not every relationship is salvageable, and not every relationship is worth saving. It’s okay to say goodbye to someone who’s proving to be a toxic presence in your life.
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