Why Empathy Fails

In order to empathize with another person, you have to recognize that he actually exists apart from and without specific reference to you.  You must understand that she has a distinct identity and an interior life of her own, with which you might possibly empathize.  While there are some interesting exceptions to this rule, it’s a useful place to start a discussion of why some people can’t empathize, or why their ability to feel empathy is severely restricted.  We can look at the spectrum of psychological disorders in terms of ability to recognize and tolerate separateness, then understand the ways that this ability will limit our capacity to feel for other people.

In psychotic disorders, for example, where splitting and projection dominate, other people serve as containers for disowned parts of our own psyche.  As a result, we may try to avoid them — annihilate them, in the most profound cases; or if idealization is involved, we may want to merge with and “own” them instead (think celebrity stalkers, for instance).  But because we’re so busy projecting into them, we can’t see those people for who they really are; we can’t empathize with their internal experience.  People who present with autism symptoms famously lack the ability to empathize.  Autistic defenses seek either to shut out the external world because it feels too threatening (shell-like defenses) or to obscure and erase personal boundaries because separateness is intolerable (confusional defenses); the awareness of other people as separate and distinct is therefore severely compromised. Empathy is virtually impossible.

Lack of empathy is a primary diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder, as well.  For these individuals, other people serve mainly to provide narcissistic feedback or to contain our shame.  If you exist (in my personal universe) merely in order to admire me, then I can’t see who you are or how you feel.  If you exist so that I may feel superior to you (the container for all my projected damage), I likewise can’t empathize with your actual feelings.  Even in less troubled people, narcissistic behavior of various kinds reflects a limited ability to recognize or take an interest in others, restricting the capacity to empathize with them.  This is an experience we’ve all had in our everyday lives:  the self-absorbed friend who talks on and on about herself, or dumps his problems into us, with no interest in us or our feelings.  (I discussed this dynamic in my post on the toilet function of friendship.)

In borderline personality disorder, the picture is more complicated.  These individuals have a fluctuating sense of self and separateness:  at times, they may feel grandiose and superior to everyone else, at others like a worthless piece of shit and beneath them.  But now and then, they have moments of greater clarity about who they are and what the people around them are actually like.  I’ve worked with borderline clients who, at times, were capable of enormous empathy.  In the transference, as they gain a better understanding of the dependent nature of the psychotherapy relationship, they often develop great insight into their therapist’s internal workings.  I’ve worked with borderline clients who could intuit my feelings with more accuracy than just about anyone else.   Often, this kind of empathy has developed as a survival mechanism when the parents were unstable:  getting what you needed from them depended a lot on picking your moments, knowing when your mother or father was emotionally available and when you needed to stay clear.  Sometimes such children  rely on empathy in an attempt to “cure” their parents, hoping this will make them more available and able to provide what is needed emotionally.  This describes my own background fairly well and it had much to do with my decision to become a therapist.  I don’t think I’m unusual in that regard.

Where symptoms of depression dominate a person, they tend to obscure the outside world and the people in it.  We may idealize others, or envy them for having the supposedly happier life we crave.  Or we may become highly dependent and look to others as caretakers who are there to rescue us.  In cases of bipolar disorder, where states of hopelessness alternate with manic flight, we tend to avoid other people as reminders of the reality we’d like to escape, or idealize them as our salvation.  In neither case can we deeply empathize with another person’s pain.  Finally, in anxiety disorders, where our own emotions often feel threatening, other people’s feelings may also overwhelm us.  We can’t empathize because we can’t bear the way we feel inside when we do.

Even in people who don’t easily fit into any of these diagnostic groups, or who don’t suffer from a psychiatric illness, empathy may be compromised.  For example, I’ve discussed the way that political alignments or some religious affiliations depend upon splitting and the de-individualization of the Other.  If you look at the current levels of hatred in politics, it’s clear that people on the “other side” have no authentic reality; it would therefore be impossible to empathize with them or their actual experience.  If you consider how certain fundamentalist religions vilify and hate any number of sub-groups — immigrants, homosexuals, Jews, Arabs, etc. — it’s clear that members of those sub-groups aren’t experienced as real people, men and women with internal emotional lives who feel pain and suffer.  Splitting and projection often place great limits on the ability to empathize.

People often display sympathy instead of empathy, confusing the two (see my post on the difference between them).  By expressing sympathy, you don’t actually have to feel with the other person.  Sympathy may be conceptual, or it may be about yourself rather than the other person — I’m such a kind, caring person.  Sympathy is often an expression of sentimentality, where divisions between good and bad, loving and hating impulses are clearly drawn.  It may have a story-like quality.  Rather than expressing real empathy for what the other person actually feels, we may express sympathy for the way we view him instead, and the sanitized feelings we attribute to her.

Sometimes, to empathize might be to share a person’s rage.  Empathy might mean feeling anger and hatred.  If we have a difficult time bearing our own such feelings, it will place limits on how much we can empathize when other people feel that way.  If we have strong defense mechanisms that push our own destructive impulses from awareness, people who threaten those defenses by arousing such feelings present a problem.  Rather than empathizing (and thus coming into contact with our disowned experience), we’ll try to keep those people at a distance.  We might express sympathy instead.  We might try to “talk them out” of their feelings, or offer reassurance.  In some cases, we may develop an antipathy to such people and try to avoid them.  Anyone who reminds us of our “shadow self” can easily become an enemy.

For all these reasons, anyone who wants to practice intensive psychotherapy must have lengthy treatment.  As you know if you’ve read my bio, I spent 14 years in treatment, most of it going multiple sessions per week.  What I learned in treatment, developing the ability to tolerate my own split-off feelings, shaped my abilities as a therapist.  None of us can help a client explore an issue that remains unaddressed within ourselves; none of us can truly empathize with an experience if we can’t tolerate  our own version of it.

Finding Your own Way:

Think about an instance where you felt you were unable to empathize.  Maybe the other person even accused you of being unempathic.

What feelings was the person expressing?  How did you feel in response?  If you look back, was the person conveying one feeling but verbally expressing something entirely different?  Maybe you empathized with the unconscious communication when that person expected you instead to sympathize with what was being said.

Or maybe what that person was going through triggered something you would rather not have felt.  If this is the case, you might have experienced some feelings of aversion or hostility.  Have you wanted to avoid this person since then?  Do you feel especially critical, maybe even judgmental?

Think about times when you were depressed or deeply anxious.  How did your depression or anxiety affect your ability to empathize with those around you?  Maybe you felt too overwhelmed to have “room” for their feelings.

Here’s another example:  As I’ve said before, babies are very good at evoking feelings in us, “forcing” us to empathize, as it were.   Can you think of times when you found it intolerable to be around such a baby?  Maybe the projection of its feelings into you triggered emotions of your own you couldn’t bear.  That’s the challenge of parenting, of course — learning to empathize and bear with the overwhelming emotions felt by an infant and then projected into us.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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33 Responses to Why Empathy Fails

  1. Evan says:

    I think I am usually uncomfortable with intense hatred. At least to the extent of being shocked.

    I think I would have liked to hear more about empathy with the positive – though I guess that isn’t usually the reason people go to shrinks.

    I’d also like to see therapy be done more quickly -14 years is a long time, and would cost an awful lot,

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Most people are uncomfortable with intense hatred — understandably. But with seriously troubled clients who come in for treatment, you need to be able to empathize with such feelings. It’s much nicer and easier to empathize with emotions like sadness. I don’t mean to sound dismissive, but you’re right — the “positive” emotions aren’t what bring people in. I also think there’s enough talk about such emotions in our field and in the area of self-help; somebody needs to talk about the “ugly” feelings.

      As for the cost of therapy, I would like to see it done more quickly and inexpensively, too; I’ve just never seen any kind of treatment that convincingly does the job any faster. I spent more money on therapy than I did on 10 years of college/graduate school and have never regretted a penny. It has had a more profound and valuable effect on the qualify of my life. My therapist quite literally saved my life; I have saved the lives of a number of my clients. How much do you think that’s worth? What value do we place on a life?

  2. Dee says:

    Boy, I recognize myself in your writings and I recognize some of my friends also. There is a lot of pain right now for many people with the financial challenges facing so many. It seems to me that everyone has some kind of disorder and that the low or high level of depression that is so pervasive has made it even more difficult to really connect with people. I think as you say, depression, makes people turn inward. Some are very angry that their once comfortable lifestyle has changed. When a friend talks about how life has been so unfair to her and she is listing things that have happened to me also, I do try to reason with her or talk her up a little. but I’m sure it is as much for me, as her. or maybe all for me. What stops me dead in my tracks is when supposed good friends out and out attack me. I realize they are very angry with things, their lives, that things haven’t gone the way they planned. Is that an excuse for attacking well meaning friends? I honestly try to never provoke envy as I am very fearful of the poisonous feelings between women that come from being envious. I find though that people don’t gravitate to me. So I must be doing something wrong. Maybe it is better to join the miserable masses and atleast have company.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I’ve noticed (with my clients and myself) that the more stressed and under pressure we are, the less empathy we (usually) are able to feel. It stands to reason that the enormous stress and pain of the economic downturn would have similar effects on many people. On the other hand, when we suffer, it sometimes makes us feel more sympathetic (empathic) towards others who are also in pain. It probably depends on how well we’re able to tolerate and cope with our own suffering. If it’s manageable, it may increase empathy; if overwhelming, decrease it.

  3. Marla Estes says:

    Again I’m amazed and impressed by the way you can synthesize and consolidate such “big” concepts into, not only bite-sized pieces, but more importantly to take them from the abstract to the concrete — so that people can see how these dynamics are alive in themselves.

  4. Terry says:

    Because of a violent father and a mother who could not bear her own feelngs. I learned to read body language, and pretend everything was okay all the time. My schizophrenic brother and I had a kind of knowing between us that we communicated through our eyes, and it somehow made it tolerable … his illness helped me laugh at some of the absurdity of living with parents who were really children and who relied on us for their feelings of self worth. If they didn’t get it, they would either fly into a rage or go into fantasyland. I am a recovering addict, and people write that we all felt different even before we started using, and that our fear of people kept us distant even from our parents. My take on this is: Who in their right mind would allow these people to parent you when you were actually parenting them. My job was entertaining them… I kept them laughing and when I didn’t I went to the doctor for pills … I must be depressed (?:) Who is happy all the time?

    • paul says:

      Wow Terry! So nice to hear there are others like you out there. I am so deeply bothered by the lack of empathy by others, and I am also, I believe, hyper-aware of the impact of my actions( not claiming to be perfect or hands-clean either–far from it).
      And what a wise response from Joseph. I have accepted my ‘abnormality’ with age, and am always trying to focus more on it as a blessing, rather than curse, as it definitely is both.

  5. Empath says:

    I’m fascinated by the idea of empathy and what happens when we don’t have it. I feel that I’m extremely empathetic, perhaps even highly sensitive, and am continually shocked when I’m treated with little empathy, even small things like being stood up for a date. I just baffles me. I’m currently processing the ending of a relationship where there was very little empathy expressed towards me, and I find myself just utterly confused and trying to move through the feelings without grasping on to the comfort of pathologizing my ex- as a “narcissist”, etc. I wonder if, because I feel so much empathy, that these other people are merely exhibiting “normal” levels of empathy and I’m overreacting to their seeming callousness. But it’s hard when I literally cannot exist without thinking of the feelings of others and acting in a way so as not to harm them; I can’t not do it, it’s like breathing. And I’m no pushover, either, I can hold firm boundaries, and express them in non-harming ways. I guess I just expect people to treat me that way, and most of them don’t. As another commented above, I feel I can’t connect deeply with others, because most others seem to enjoy gossip, complaining, and treating each other badly. So who’s abnormal, me or them?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      If “normal” means behavior that is the norm, then you’re the abnormal one as most people seem fairly insensitive, just as you described. But who wants to be normal, if that’s what it means? I’m like you — I’m continually disappointed by the lack of consideration in other people … but then, as my own therapist would have said to me, why do I go on expecting something when experience has taught me that it won’t happen?

    • Sarah says:

      Empath,

      Even if it’s “abnormal” statistically, there’s nothing wrong with being empathetic and sensitive to others’ emotions, even if most people don’t display the same level of consideration. It’s interesting that you are trying not to conceive of your ex as a narcissist when, given the widespread scourge of narcissism and its attendant behaviours that exists in our society, it’s more than likely they’ve got shades of it even if not a full-blown personality disorder. Most people really are irreparably bruised and broken after a certain age in this society and frankly just don’t care about other people because they’ve chosen to switch off to deep feelings (their own and others) in order to survive. The narcissists I know are literally like vampires, mesmerised by young people and their energy, naivete (which they characterise as “optimism” when it’s really just the young person’s naive strength of belief in their fantasies of ego realisation becoming reality), and emotional availability in general because they cannot generate this positivity themselves. They are jaded and so drawn helplessly to the hopes and dreams of the younger set to “feed off”.

      Since it seems you are not this type (which is a good thing!), you can either choose to keep bleeding for every one and every hurtful run-in you have, or you can accept that 98 percent of people aren’t worth extending yourself for past the most common of courtesies, and also decide to “switch off”, at least until you find someone is really worth a deeper engagement. The advice that was given to me by a workplace counsellor, about some very toxic people I’d tried to befriend in the interests of making the workplace pleasant, is “Don’t throw your pearls before swine” (not sure if that helped, but hey!)

      I wonder though at the strength of empathy you seem to have. There is such a thing as empathy that transcends separation of you from other people in moments of trauma or panic. I’ve heard it described as “catching” others’ emotion, and it’s normally a function of having gone through abuse or trauma as a child. It’s like a kind of hyper-sympathy – your body actually undergoes the same kind of electric arousal as the person you are “empathising” with, induced by their emotional state, and can in fact be physically overwhelming for you even if the other person is not actually overwhelmed by their own feelings.

      If you’ve been fortunate enough to have the kind of happy life that, up until now, has afforded you the capability to be empathic to a healthy degree, then that is something that you can cherish about yourself as it seems to be an increasingly rare quality (and life trajectory) with so much damage around us in this day and age. But, if you are someone whose capacity for empathy has been honed by severe personal trauma that’s left you with lasting, overwhelming, over-empathy because you somehow feel that that’s the only way anyone will be able to connect with you, then I would say it’s not at all surprising that a narcissist took advantage of that, and you should maybe consider seeing a psychologist.
      I’m sorry for the long post, but I hope that this helps.

  6. Abagab says:

    What type of therapy were you in (what clinical theory)? It sounds like freud since it was a long term and frequent treatment. However, you do seem to speak of some other theorists such as Jung with the shadow and gestalt in reference to splitting.

    @Evan there is effective therapy that is short term. It is just that Dr. Burgo seems not to prefer those types.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I was in long-term psychoanalytic therapy but I don’t think psychoanalysts are the only theorists with insight. I find Jung’s idea of “shadow” deeply valuable.

  7. Al says:

    I would like to know if you recommend any books on working with teens. As an inner city high school teacher, I have recently found that many urban teens exhibit most of the symptoms of BPD: hostility, anger, narcissism,, overly emotional, poor interpersonal relationships, etc. I have not yet found this covered in educational research which instead mostly refers to socioeconomic disadvantages rather than personality disorders. Working with about 125 students daily is constantly disrupted by the many students who cannot control their outbursts.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I wish I did have something to recommend. It sounds like an enormous challenge. Maybe one of the other site visitors will know about such books.

      • Ben Morgan says:

        I can honestly say that I am one of those students that has had those outbursts. Its all in the key aspect of what they say. I remember shout “All Christians deserve to die.” in math class. I said it mainly because I was majorly depressed and the people making it depressing were my family (Christians). As a teenager, I can truly say that the only thing I’ve been wanting was trust. Something I am not used to either. When someone trusts me and does NOT ask me to prove it, I feel awkward, like I just found a little piece of my conscience. I remember going to guidance and asking about challenging grade 11 math, they stated that I did not know it, no matter how much I tried to prove right in front of them; it got really messy after and no one was willing to even consider that I might know math because my marks were low in it and my math teacher was greatly against acceleration in education. If you want to help these students, you need to listen give them the help they need, not what you want to give them. As a student, never tell a student to bottle it up and give them a suspension. When someone has an outburst, it was called a nervous breakdown, but now renamed to MAJOR DEPRESSIVE EPISODE, it self-explanatory on what probably causes it!

        Don’t ever ridicule a student for their age, as it is now known as being ageist. Don’t, after the outburst, talk like the student was getting off easy. I can definitely say that when I have to leave class after a MDE, I have nowhere to go, I don’t trust anyone, and in cause, no one to tell about my feelings. My VP simply stated that my MDEs were just me being autistic, but I have tried hard to tell everyone as a rugby player, deception expert, and video game hater that I do not have autism. Most people are just stuck with that label and I can definitely say that 80% of autistics aren’t autistic. You HAVE to be born that way.

        I remember that from a trip to the MARS Laboratory in Toronto for a science fair and the day I was there, the media was too. MARS had found the chromosome that induces autism or whatever biology term; terrible at it. My mother made me go to that special presentation because she believes I have aspergers; don’t ever assume the IEP is telling you the truth, just SOME past or current symptoms.

        Notes from a student a like…

  8. lisadiane says:

    Why does someone have to be empathetic or feel it? Is it not enought to at least be sympathetic? This struck a cord with me because I never feel empathy but I can be sympathetic to someones suffering or situation and help them if need be.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      You don’t have to feel anything. But sympathy is not the same thing as empathy.

    • Terry says:

      What does empathy look like when acted upon? What does sympathy look like when acted upon? If these remain “feelings” then how do they help anyone?

      • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

        They don’t, by definition, have to help anyone. They are what they are and they don’t need to lead to action of any kind.

  9. Bobkatty says:

    Hi,
    I am not sure if I’ve ever empathised with anyone in my life. If I am with a group of people and watch a sad movie I can identifythe people in the movie are sad, I can notice that others around me are emotionally responding to the person being sad – but I simply do not FEEL anything. The emotions of others just don’t seem to transfer to me – I remember being quite perplexed as a child that this was so and noticing others found it disturbing, so I’d fake the emotion. When I try I can think of things that make me sad and appear sad to others – but I don’t actually empathise. I find this technique very usefule when dealing with people to mimic empathy (as my lack of emotional response can disturb them), but it is acting and sometimes I think my emotional response is “off” because people have occasionally commented that I am displaying an unusual emotion in a given situation (because I’ve misinterpreted the emotion they are displaying and mimic the wrong thing). Fundamentally, I simply do not feel anything remotely like they feel.
    My childhood was “complicated” (and unfortunately abusive). I had so many “carers” I cannot really recall bonding with anyone, or ever really feeling things in response to people’s feelings (as distinct from their actions preventing me getting what I want, or allowing me to get what I want). I appear very normal (with only the occasional hypersensitive “flight” response to threatening environments), but this lack of empathy is reducing the capacity for me to play the political game at work (although to be frank, I just want to do my job and don’t care that much about prestigue anyway). I don’t tend to feel guilt or shame or jeallousy. My objectives are not destructive and I don’t obtain any pleasure from others. Is there any way to learn empathy to make me a better leader and manager?
    (quick background – perviously in order to understand my lack of empathy I had some testing done … I am generally happy, and not autistic, aspergic, angry, hostile or narcisstic. I am charasmatic and create bonds with people quickly and these bonds tend to last. Psychopathy tests were inconclusive as I can still be anxious at times when I am in a threatening or inconclusive environment, and I have no drive to harm others in striving for my own gain (too complicated). I have above average IQ and above average emotional intelligence in all areas but empathy which is almost non-existant)

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Fascinating profile. In my experience, the way to develop empathy is through discovering one’s own shame — but that’s a long discussion.

  10. lisa says:

    I wished that you could bring into this the relationship as it applies to therapists.
    I feel that they want admiration and oft en empathy is difficult. Maybe its impossible.

  11. Kelli says:

    I agree with many of you here regarding insensitivity of others or lack of empathy. I have a blog that is the focus of the Cluster B personality disorders, and the fallout survivors experience from a relationship with them. Has insensitivity of others always been this high in society? Is it just the very hateful political climate, coupled by measures of austerity and/or otherwise economic hardship? I wonder if advances in technology have decreased connectedness with others, hence decreasing empathy? Many questions that I have that remain unanswered. Thank you for such an informative blog.

  12. Lily Ponds says:

    Hi Dr. Burgo,
    How do you explain that “John” feels empathy is when he himself is depressed?

  13. Timothy Gass says:

    I find myself unable to empathize, but I am not entirely sure why. Personally, I don’t like to act off my own feelings so understanding others seems almost impossible. The best I can really do is just to sympathize. Put myself in their situation and imagine how I would feel, but that often doesn’t work.

  14. Mia says:

    Oh, I really love this article! I’ll soon be psychologist, and my first motive was to cure myself, and if it would be possible, use that knowledge in my job. I couldn’t emphatize before because I was prisoned in my narcisstic personality (I was all fake), my communcation skills were none, and big emotional part of me was anxiety only. The best decision of my life was taking psychotherapy, which is helping me to get out of my disfunctional world I’ve used to live.

  15. Verklempt says:

    The therapist I have is as cold as ice and empathy deficient. But perhaps this is typical for EMDR therapists.

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