Empathy is a fundamental part of building meaningful social connections. For some people, though, developing it may be a challenge.
Understanding another person’s feelings and experiences, even if opposite to ours, may allow us to respond in a supportive way and regulate our own emotions.
What happens when you don’t feel it? Is it possible to lack empathy altogether? And if so, is this a sign of a mental health condition? There are many possible answers to these questions, even though this is still an evolving area of research.
In general, empathy is the ability to understand or sense another person’s perspective, feelings, needs, or intentions, even when you don’t share the same circumstances. It can sometimes involve acting on that understanding, including offering help.
But empathy doesn’t always lead to action. It may depend on the type of empathy you’ve developed.
According to psychologists and researchers Paul Ekman and Daniel Goleman, there are three main types of empathy:
1. Cognitive empathy
This type of empathy is an intellectual understanding of someone else’s feelings. It’s the ability to consider other perspectives without sensing or experiencing them yourself.
For example, if a colleague loses their job, you may recognize what emotions they could be feeling. You could also understand how their emotions might affect their behavior. This doesn’t mean you experience distress yourself.
2. Affective or ‘emotional’ empathy
People who have emotional empathy tend to feel another person’s emotions. Although not always the case, this may also include physical sensations consistent with such emotion.
For example, if you see someone under great distress after losing a loved one, you feel sad yourself and could experience chest or stomach pain while sensing that emotion in the other person.
3. Compassionate empathy or ‘empathetic concern’
Compassionate empathy is a combination of cognitive and emotional empathy. You recognize and understand another person’s emotions and also feel them.
Taking on another person’s challenges and hurt may end up taking a toll on you. This is why some people may not develop this type of empathy.
However, relating to other people’s suffering may also lead you to consider helping. And research suggests that when you do help, your body produces more dopamine — a “feel-good” hormone. This then leads and motivates you to continue acting on your cognitive and emotional empathy.
Examples of compassionate empathy include stopping your car to help if you see someone fall or donating to a cause after a natural disaster.
Can you have one type of empathy only?
Not everyone develops compassionate empathy, and there are also different levels of emotional or cognitive empathy.
For example, you could feel sad that your partner is experiencing a challenge (emotional empathy). It hurts you to see them hurt.
Yet, you may not really understand why they feel this way. Or you may even feel that their reason for feeling sad isn’t serious enough to warrant these emotions. You may have difficulty seeing the situation from their perspective (cognitive empathy).
Because of this, you may not experience compassionate empathy.
Empathy exists on a spectrum, and in most cases, it isn’t entirely absent — it’s just diminished.
Because empathy is an ability, most people can develop it. Having low empathy doesn’t mean you’ll feel this way forever.
In some cases, due to illness or trauma, some people may have extremely low empathy and a diminished capacity to develop it. However, they still have the capacity.
Because everyone is different, and empathy is a spectrum, low empathy or lack of empathy can be challenging to spot.
In general, some of the signs someone may lack empathy include:
1. Being critical and judgmental
People who have low empathy may excessively criticize other people for experiencing or expressing emotions in certain scenarios.
Someone with a lack of empathy may also blame the person for what they’re experiencing. For example, they may say things like, “If you didn’t do those things, you wouldn’t be in trouble now.”
Someone who isn’t empathetic may also label people or behaviors without considering the context. For example, they may criticize a colleague for being late, without realizing or appreciating that they have a sick child at home.
2. Thinking it wouldn’t happen to them
Someone with low empathy may have trouble connecting to other people’s circumstances.
They may believe that a certain event would never happen to them, or that they could handle the situation “much better.” Because they feel this is the case, they won’t be able to understand or feel the other person’s distress.
3. Calling other people ‘too sensitive’
Because they have difficulty understanding another person’s perspective and sensing their emotions, a person that lacks empathy will sometimes think emotional reactions are not valid, or they may act in dismissive ways.
They may think people’s feelings are optional or come from what they may perceive as an emotional deficit. “You’re feeling that way because you want to or because you’re too sensitive, not because it’s really that bad.”
4. Responding in inappropriate ways
Someone with low empathy may joke about someone’s emotions or circumstances. They may also have a difficult time actively listen to you. They could also act chirpy or indifferent after you just expressed feeling sad or stressed.
Someone who is empathetic might try to cheer you up if they see you down. But someone who isn’t may ignore how you feel altogether.
5. Having trouble understanding how their behavior affects others
Often, low empathy may result in a person not realizing that their actions can affect others. Other times, they may understand that their behavior impacts other people, but they may not feel remorseful about it.
This means that someone may act in selfish or vindictive ways without realizing or caring if that hurts you.
6. Difficulty maintaining relationships
Low empathy may lead to constant friction in relationships or a lack of meaningful bonds.
When someone has a difficult time understanding other people’s feelings or acting in helpful ways, they may end up with few or no meaningful connections. Sometimes, they’re not even aware this is happening.
Everyone may experience low empathy at times. For example, it may be natural to have difficulty feeling and expressing empathy toward someone who has harmed us.
There is some debate on whether a person is born with low empathy or if upbringing, social factors, or life experiences may hinder their ability to develop it, or even limit it. Genetics may also play a role.
Other possible factors associated with low empathy include:
Personality and developmental disorders
- narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)
- sociopathy or antisocial personality disorder
- borderline personality disorder (BPD)
Among these conditions, levels of empathy can vary. Among individuals, levels can vary even more so.
Machiavellianism (a personality trait) and NPD (a mental health condition) have long been associated with a lack of empathy. However, one study suggests that people with these traits and disorders actually have a certain degree of empathy — they just may lack the motivation to show or act on it.
Additionally, autistic people can sometimes have difficulties with cognitive empathy. However, they may develop emotional empathy but face challenges with expressing it. A
Because empathy is partly a learned behavior, you may not be as empathetic if you didn’t experience much empathy while growing up.
Also, if you were alone much of the time, you may not have had the opportunity to practice empathy. This, too, can lead to a reduction of empathetic expression.
Low emotional intelligence, burnout, and stress
Emotional intelligence may be linked to empathy. If you haven’t developed this type of intelligence, you may also have low empathy.
Being under prolonged stress may also lead someone to be less tolerant of other people’s behavior and have lower cognitive empathy.
In some cases, emotional avoidance may also be a reason why someone may not develop or practice empathy. If someone is emotionally burned out, they may avoid all additional sources of distress, including relating to someone else’s difficulties.
In general, research also shows that some people may not develop compassionate empathy because of its perceived costs, like mental effort, time, and emotional weight.
Empathy can be developed. Here are a few tips for working on it:
Building cognitive empathy
Consider asking questions whenever you feel you don’t understand what the other person feels:
- “How do you feel about this?”
- “What were you hoping for?”
- “Is there anything else going on in your life you may want to talk about?”
You could also work on being more observant of body language. You may be able to tap into someone else’s emotions if you notice a change in their expressions. This may also include focusing on nonverbal cues like tone of voice and change in habits.
Learning more about what’s important to those around you may also help you notice when their mood changes, even if you don’t feel the same way they do.
For example, if you know this person cares a lot about their pet — even if you don’t like animals — you may understand why the loss of their companion is devastating to them.
Increasing emotional empathy
Working on recognizing your own emotions may help you connect with other people. Not everyone will recognize how they feel at all times or why they act in a certain way.
For example, you may act irritable and impatient today without realizing it’s because you’ve been sad about an argument you had yesterday.
Learning to connect your emotions with your actions may help you connect with other people’s emotions, too.
You could also practice listening more attentively and resisting the desire to tell the other person about your personal experience when they’re talking about themselves.
When you do, consider focusing on how they feel and why they may be feeling this way.
Enhancing compassionate empathy
As you develop both cognitive and emotional empathy, you’ll be more likely to have compassionate empathy and step into action when you see someone having a difficult time.
There are many types and levels of empathy. How much empathy you have depends on many factors, and may vary according to the situation.
Empathy may help you exhibit more helping behaviors and could also improve your relationships.
If you feel you could be more empathetic, you’ve taken the first step. Empathy is something you can develop, and it starts with awareness.
If you feel you’re having a challenging time developing empathy, you may want to seek the support of a mental health professional who can work with you in practicing a few techniques that may help.