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Have you ever shared a trauma in your life only to have the person you are confiding in monopolize the conversation by telling you about a bigger trauma they suffered (usually five years ago)?
There’s no greater insult to add to your injury when someone you mistakenly trusted shows lack of empathy signs and makes light of what you’re going through.
People without empathy have a low emotional intelligence (EQ), and they will not be able to understand you and what you are going through. Despite them professing to be your friends or family, they don’t see you.
While it can be difficult to always find the right words to express your empathy with someone else’s experience, we can and should all try to at least understand what the other person is going through.
However, if you lack empathy with what they are going through, you may not understand their experience at all.
Real caring, real empathy, and real feeling is not about doing something for someone. Instead, it’s about being there for the person and letting them tell you what they want or need. Sometimes, all they need is for you to listen.
What Is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to imagine yourself being in the other person’s shoes in the situation they are experiencing and feeling what they do (from their frame of reference, not your own). Essentially, empathy is when you can respond on an emotional level with shared insight and understanding of what the other person is going through.
“In order to empathize with someone’s experience you must be willing to believe them as they see it and not how you imagine their experience to be.” ~ Brené Brown
Brené Brown’s quote explains what empathy is quite well, but in simple terms, you need to not only walk in their shoes but also know how those shoes pinch that person.
There are different types of empathic ability. People can have emotive empathy (where you feel what the other person feels without even thinking about it), cognitive empathy (when you can think how the other person may feel), and physical empathy (where you feel the other person’s pain through touch and will instantly hug someone when they need it).
The Difference between Empathy and Sympathy
Of course, we’re all good at saying that something is tragic and it’s terrible for the other person, which is what sympathy is. Sympathy is saying “I see you are suffering,” while empathy is “I understand your suffering and I feel it with you.”
Empathy is powerful because we learn to feel what the other person is feeling, while sympathy is just about feeling bad for that person.
Feeling bad for someone’s experience is not very helpful. It has limited connection and lacks real understanding or intuition. However, empathy is about not only seeing the other person’s pain or trauma but also understanding it at a purely emotional level (which often goes beyond words).
With empathy, you understand and share the other person’s emotional reactions. You get why they feel the way they do. However, with sympathy, you have compassion in seeing they are going through a tough time, but you have no concept as to how that experience affects them or makes them feel.
Why Is It Important to Have Empathy?
If we worked on our own ability to have empathy, we would be able to understand the world around us so much more accurately. You’d know why someone treats you badly, see things from their point of reference, and respond very differently than if you don’t have empathy.
With empathy, your perspective on the world and people around you changes very dramatically from when you are simply living with sympathy and feeling sorry for people who suffer.
Empathy gives you the ability to understand all people, not just those you feel sorry for. If you have an empathic nature, you can see and feel the motivations of anyone around you, even those you may not necessarily know all that well.
When you are empathic, you can understand people who wrong you. Even a tough boss becomes less scary when you can “see” what motivates them without needing to ask for an explanation of their actions.
As a result of having empathy, you don’t react to the world. Instead, you respond based on how you see people and not how you see their actions.
Benefits of Having Empathy
There are many benefits to having empathy. Of course, we don’t all share the same level of empathy. Your own self-awareness will influence your ability to have empathy with others as you first need to have empathy with yourself.
Some empathy benefits include:
If you lack empathy, you will easily believe the worst of people, which leads to a life of strife and conflict.
The result of this is stress and health failure. With empathy, you can see things in perspective and become less negative and run down about life and the people in it.
Being a Better Communicator
When you can read people around you with greater insight, you can communicate much more efficiently.
You will find the right words to say because you have empathy with people; therefore, you know what to say and how those words will be received.
Many of us tend to be slightly paranoid. When you are convincing yourself that people are against you, it’s easy to ignore their perspective and only see your own life view.
With empathy, you won’t be able to make snap judgments about people as you can see them and feel their reality much clearer, making you less paranoid.
Developing a Better Personal Code
With empathy, you will develop a much more solid and comprehensive personal code or set of morals you live by.
Empathy allows you to consider all sides of any situation you are in and you are able to make better decisions because you don’t look at things in an egocentric manner. You “know” why people act the way you do, which means you can act in a more informed manner.
Make Better Connections
Empathy allows you to see people for who they really are, not who you want them to be. In seeing someone, you get to the truth of their lives, and you can make a deeper connection to them.
With empathy, you can build deeper relationships and friendships. You are more approachable and more understanding and forgiving.
17 Warning Signs of a Lack of Empathy in People
Sadly, people don’t wear a T-shirt that says they are without empathy or that their level of empathy is low and underdeveloped. We only discover how much empathy someone has when we are disappointed in their absence of insight and compassion.
Here are 17 lack of empathy signs so you can identify when someone isn’t empathic:
Warning Sign #1. Critical Behavior and Comments
When compassion and insight is low or missing, someone may be hyper-critical and unfeeling about the circumstances of others. They may be prone to saying things like, “Oh, it’s their fault and they deserve their punishment.” Empathy means someone will have the insight to see the challenges others face, instead of judging and telling someone off.
Comments such as “He brought that on himself because he didn’t listen or didn’t learn or didn’t care” are an indication of how someone with low empathy judges others harshly.
Warning Sign #2. Laying Blame and Believing You’re Too Good to Suffer
Those with a shortage of empathy tend to also blame people for their misfortune, while at the same time believing that misfortune will never hit them personally. In their minds, misfortune is the result of other people’s neglect. Instead of seeing that life can be hard, they think other people bring their misfortune on themselves.
Warning Sign #3. Dismisses Other People’s Emotions
“You’re being too sensitive!” When someone says this to you, it is a dismissal of your emotional response to events. These words indicate they are lacking in empathy and can’t understand why you feel the way you do.
Because someone with a low level of empathy is unable to understand your feelings in a situation that you experience, they can only think how they may react in that situation, but this excludes your reality and your perspective on life.
Warning Sign #4. Cracks Jokes at Bad Times
Those with a lack of empathy will find emotionally traumatizing situations difficult to handle.
When you are sad or depressed, they will try to “cheer” you up. However, they do this not because they empathize and want to support you, but rather, they do it to take away the discomfort they experience from your strong emotions.
They may say things like, “Oh, stop crying; it doesn’t help,” not realizing that crying and sorrow are normal human emotions that you are entitled to feel. People with a low level of empathy suffer from a lack of emotional sensitivity, so they tend to accuse others of being too sensitive and they act inappropriately when faced with extreme pain or joy.
Lacking empathy and insight, these people often speak without thinking of the ramifications of their words.
Warning Sign #5. “What Did I Do?”
Without empathy, you can’t see how your actions impact others. Your ability to see other people’s feelings also includes seeing how your actions upsets or confuses people around you.
When you don’t see what you do to others, you have a serious lack of empathy, which can be a characteristic of sociopathy. Psychopaths have a powerful lack of empathy, which is why they can do such heinous things without feeling any remorse or shame.
Of course, not all people with low levels of empathy will become psychopaths or serial killers, but they are walking the thin line between understanding why hurting others is wrong and not seeing that it is.
Warning Sign #6. Frequently Changing Relationships
Without empathy or with a low level of empathic connection, it’s very hard to build lasting relationship bonds. Simply put, someone with little empathy is incapable of seeing others for who they are or acknowledging their experiences, making for poor relationship material.
When their partner needs them, the person without empathy will be absent or disconnected. Nobody likes to be in a relationship where their partner is emotionally absent, and therefore, those without empathy frequently experience breakups. Usually, they will then blame their partner.
Warning Sign #7. Emotionally Challenging Situations Cause Meltdowns
Those who have a deficiency in empathy tend to find emotionally stressful situations challenging. They may have a mental wobble or meltdown when pressured by the feelings of others.
Instead of thinking carefully about what they are feeling, they will project their volatile feelings onto others, criticizing them for the same things they are feeling.
Warning Sign #8. Lack of Diplomacy
Because people with less empathy can’t read the emotional expressions and experiences of others, they lack the ability to be diplomatic. Those who don’t have empathy may say inappropriate things, they may lash out at people who appear “emotionally needy” to them, and they can come across as rude.
Warning Sign #9. Quick to Anger
Those without empathy can’t consider the reasons why people act the way they do, which means such people are quick to become angry. When you lack empathy, it’s easy to make everything about you.
Whenever something happens, the person with empathy will try to see how they fit into the situation and how to help those around them. The person without empathy will make the situation about them (even if it’s about someone else) and focus on what they feel. Sometimes, they won’t even think about why they feel the way they do.
Warning Sign #10. Unforgiving
Since someone who is on the lower end of the empathy scale tends not to understand why people act the way they do, it becomes impossible for them to see other people objectively. Therefore, they can’t forgive others when they do wrong.
Forgiveness is the process of seeing why someone did what they did and understanding it so you can accept it and move forward without further blame. If you lack empathy, you will continue blaming others, believing they are malicious and did things on purpose.
Warning Sign #11. Never Apologizing
To apologize means to admit you were wrong. It requires the ability to see what your actions have done to someone else. Essentially, if you lack empathy or have very little empathy, you can’t fathom what your actions have done to someone else. You can’t put yourself in their shoes, and you can’t feel their pain.
Saying sorry would be admitting you were wrong, and you need empathy with others to see that. In fact, people who lack empathy can only see when they were wronged, but they can never see themselves as the perpetrator or wrongdoer. This is a characteristic shared by narcissists too.
Warning Sign #12: “My, Myself, and I”
A person who doesn’t feel or show empathy is self-centered. They are only focused on themselves, and everything about them reeks of “me, myself, and I.”
Whenever you talk to this selfish person who lacks empathy, it’s all about them: how they were the victim or the hero (depending on the narrative they want to spin), how they did or that, and how they experienced XYZ. They’ll monopolize the conversation and are experts at changing the topic back to themselves.
Only they matter in all things, and when they don’t, they aren’t interested in hearing you out and demonstrating empathy.
Warning Sign #13: Poor Listening Skills
Another sign that a person lacks empathy is when they have poor listening skills. After all, how can you expect someone who doesn’t listen to display empathy and put themselves in your shoes?
When someone doesn’t pay attention to what you are sharing, whether it’s about your success, challenges, and life in between, their responses are often nonsensical or off-topic.
It’s like that scene in the third episode of Beef (Netflix), where Amy and George sit on the bed (probably in some version of soul gazing). Amy talks about how she always felt this heavy feeling on her chest, and then George just cuts in, talking about how he knows so many people who battle depression and how he feels low. George believes he listens to Amy and can relate to her, but he’s so far off course that he just comes across as the biggest schmuck.
Or, people with poor listening skills will change to the topic or appear to be bored out of their minds.
People who are empathic have excellent active and mindful listening skills so they can respond appropriately and make you feel seen, heard, and gotten.
Warning Sign #14: Impatience
No empathy also equates to being impatient. I’m sure you have someone in your life that is like this. They are always busy, scurrying this way and that.
You probably feel like a burden when you do share information with them, like you are stealing their time and they have something more important to do (even dirty dishes rank higher than you). Or you don’t share because you feel so insignificant and uncomfortable.
The other side of the coin is that they are also impatient with you. They literally don’t wait to listen when you talk about your challenges, experiences, or emotions. They cut you off and say outright they are too busy for this (aka you) or that they have somewhere else to be. That saying “people to see, places to be, and things to do” rings very true when it comes to this impatient, empathy-lacking person.
Warning Sign #15: Tunnel Vision
People who don’t have empathy with others also have tunnel vision. I actually call it funnel vision because it starts wider (still narrow) and then just gets narrower and narrower.
Since these folks can’t see things outside their very own narrow perspective, they are also not open to experiences, points of views, other ideas, or cultures. It’s very much a case of “my way” and there is not even a highway option.
People with tunnel vision are more than just self-centered and self-focused because they are that in addition to only focusing on one goal or aspect — and you definitely aren’t part of their world.
Warning Sign #16: Allergic to Your Good Mood
You know a Sour Sam, right? That person who gets irritated to another level because you smile, are bubbly, or are simply having a wonderful moment. When you’re up, they’re down.
You might forget and accidentally share that your partner proposed, that a flower is blooming, or that your kid got over their cold — and Sour Sam will rain all over your parade.
A Sour Sam can’t be empathic because they are in a chronic bad mood, and they may only have time for you if your mood matches theirs. With them, it should always be a case of “bad mood meets bad mood.”
This person simply doesn’t understand why you are in a good mood because they aren’t.
Warning Sign #17: Lonely
You surely can’t be surprised with this lack of empathy sign, right? Why would anyone honestly want to spend genuine time with someone who isn’t empathic?
That’s why those who are unable to show empathy are often loners. They don’t have a romantic partner or friend, and even family members and colleagues stay far, far away from them. They aren’t great at fostering relationships, and you can’t blame the others who run a mile a minute to avoid these loners.
Can Empathy Be Taught?
Empathy is not an on or off switch in the brain. You can’t really read a book on empathy and magically develop a whole new skill set that fits into the slot in your brain. In fact, if you have a lower level of empathy, you’ve probably been arguing about most of what I said here.
You are probably critical of the examples, insist they don’t apply to you, and blame the people around you for being too wishy-washy-touchy-feely sensitive. Life is tough, and so should you be (right?).
Empathy is an innate skill you learn from early childhood by watching your peers. Your parents showed you empathy when you cried, and they exposed you to other people who were also (hopefully) sensitive enough to model emotive behavior.
If you grew up in a home where your parents were absent, and you received little emotional stimulation and validation, then you will have developed very little empathy with the people around you. Your early childhood isolation and lack of stimulation will have led to a lower level of empathy.
Yet, empathy can be shaped throughout your life. Like an addict, if you admit you have a challenge, you can reach for improvement. It will require mental dedication and drive to become more empathic, but it is possible.
When you learn to sit and observe people and situations (without judgment or criticism and while restraining your urge to be frustrated), you can begin to see the connections between actions and feelings. Continuous observation can lead to the development of cognitive empathy.
While you don’t naturally feel connected with other people, you can think your way into their shoes, consider how they feel, and reason what the emotional impact of a situation is.
Final Thoughts on the Lack of Empathy Signs
We should all work on developing a stronger empathic ability so we can understand the people we interact with daily. When there is understanding and insight, conflict will become a thing of the past. Anger will be diminished as you can restrain yourself better when you understand the other person.
A lack of empathy can lead to serious personality disorders, such as psychopathy and sociopathy. Even if you don’t turn into the next Ted Bundy, you will find that without empathy, you will lead a lonely life where people turn away from your critical, judgmental, and inappropriate comments and remarks.
Before you bare your soul to people around you, consider whether they have empathy by watching for signs that they lack it. Learn about feelings and develop awareness with simple tasks such as following a mood tracker journal like our printable bullet templates.
And if you're looking for more resources on empathy, be sure to check out these blog posts:
- 7 Benefits of Showing Empathy Throughout Your Life
- Sympathy VS Empathy: 5 Basic Differences with Examples
- 11 Good Movies About Empathy & Showing Compassion
Finally, if you want to identify YOUR personality type, then take one of these 11 personality tests to better understand what makes you tick.