Have you recently scrolled through your social media feed and felt little to no empathy for other people’s troubles?
Maybe you find that issues you once felt passionately about now don’t affect you at all.
Perhaps you even feel contempt or satisfaction at someone else’s misery rather than feeling sorry for them.
What is behind this apparent loss of empathy? And what can you do to get it back?
Why am I losing empathy?
There are several reasons why your empathy may have taken a hit recently. Below are some of the most common contributing factors:
1. You’re overwhelmed by too much stimuli.
This type of “overwhelm” affects neurodivergent people on a constant basis, but it can affect neurotypical folks as well. It happens when there’s simply too much going on, everywhere, all at once, and we short circuit.
For example, if too many people are talking around you at once, you may no longer be able to focus on what they’re saying anymore—you just hear sound, but none of it makes sense.
Similarly, parents of very young children may get touched out. They may feel that contact from any living being is excruciating and intolerable as a result.
They might look down at their child, who’s crying inconsolably and reaching up for hugs, and feel absolutely nothing. Quite simply, they unconsciously check out to save what’s left of their own sanity.
2. Empath “shutdown.”
Highly sensitive and empathic people often have to deal with something known as “empath shutdown.”
We only have so much energy and emotion to dole out on a daily basis. As a result, when our attention and empathy are being demanded from all directions, our wells can quite literally run dry.
A simple scroll through social media will bring up images and descriptions of all kinds of misery going on around the world. Nearly every single day is slated for some type of “awareness,” and people are expected to care about every issue out there.
In fact, if we don’t help to spread awareness and do everything we can about all of these issues, we’re labeled as uncaring jerks and might even be ostracized.
There seems to be a demand for constant emotional output and performative action from everyone, all the time, and that’s exhausting for anyone to try to keep up with. Day-to-day life is draining enough without having to remember to post and share the right images on your 30 different social platforms.
Speaking of expectations:
3. You’re drained by other people’s demands on your energy.
Do you have a housemate or partner who demands your attention as soon as you walk through the door? Or a parent who’s so fond of the sound of their own voice that they deign to lecture you for hours on topics you don’t care about?
You might not give a damn about anything they’re sharing with you, but you’re still expected to act as though you’re engaged in the discussion and offer up nods and “mmhmm” noises at the right moments.
If you don’t, they’ll become defensive because you’re not paying attention to them, and the situation will snowball into an argument or worse.
It’s possible that all you want to do is have a cup of tea in silence and solitude, but their wants and needs seem to take priority over your peace of mind.
For those who are dealing with depression, the act of getting out of bed to use the washroom might take every ounce of strength they have that day.
They have difficulty taking care of their own needs, let alone those of others. Furthermore, they’re unable to enjoy things that used to make them happy.
If you’ve been suffering from depression, it’s no surprise that your empathy levels are low. We cannot draw from empty wells, and if yours has been obliterated by bleakness, then you literally have nothing left to give right now.
5. Medications are interfering with your thoughts and emotions.
Certain medications can cause emotional numbness, which can affect one’s empathy response. This also includes substances that are taken for the purpose of self-medication, such as cannabis.
Take note of any substances you may be taking on a regular basis, and do some research as to their side effects. You may discover that what initially appears to be empathy loss may simply be a secondary effect.
6. General fatigue.
Depression isn’t the only issue that can make you feel drained and exhausted. Life’s daily demands can leave us with very little energy to spare, and that energy can lessen further if you’re dealing with insomnia or getting up 20 times a night to care for young children.
Just about all of us have experienced days in which we were so tired that we didn’t care about what anyone else was saying, doing, or even thinking—all we wanted was to crawl into bed and get some much-needed sleep.
If you haven’t been getting enough rest, then this kind of depletion may be a new baseline standard for you.
7. Empathy fatigue.
This is a common issue that plagues healthcare and personal support workers. They’re exposed to so much suffering on a constant basis that they disassociate and “numb out” in order to get through any given day.
If you’re a doctor, nurse, or counsellor and you find that you’re having difficulty empathizing with other people’s pain, then this is a likely culprit.
It’s possible that you don’t see your patients as people anymore but rather walking diagnoses that need to be taken care of. This may also spill over into your personal life.
For example, if you’ve spent 10 hours taking care of emergency room accidents and come home to a child who has a cut knee, you might dismiss their distress as unnecessary drama and ignore them.
They’re one more straw on your back, and you’re dangerously close to collapsing as it is: you simply have nothing left to give anyone.
8. You have too many of your own issues to deal with.
It’s hard to care about what others are going through—as well as “big happenings” around the world—when you’re dealing with your own problems.
If you’ve been having relationship troubles or dealing with difficult health concerns, then those are going to be at the forefront of your heart and mind. There may not be any space left to deal with (or even care about) anyone else right now.
This gets even more intense when you’ve been struggling with something major, and someone comes to you crying about an issue that’s beyond trivial to you.
It might feel like the end of the world to them, but you find yourself wishing you only had their pithy little issues to contend with. As a result, you’re unable to drum up a single ounce of empathy for their plight.
Alternatively, you may be processing the aftermath of trauma. Emotional numbness and subconscious avoidance are common in PTSD and can either be temporary—such as if the trauma happened recently—or long term.
If you’re in this type of situation, you may not simply be having difficulty feeling empathy, you might have trouble feeling anything at all.
Alternatively, the opposite may be happening:
9. You’re dealing with empathic illness.
This is a condition that most empaths deal with at some point in their lives. If you’re an empath, then you’ve likely felt pain or suffering along with those around you.
Should you be in circumstances where many people around you are ill, then you may end up experiencing their symptoms as well.
This type of illness may cause you to detach and numb out as a means of self-protection. That said, you may also be losing empathy because that’s what others around you are doing.
Since you feel what other people around you are feeling, it’s only natural that you’ll end up feeling detachment and loss of empathy if that’s what they’re experiencing.
10. Hormonal fluctuations.
Puberty, pregnancy, menopause, and aging can do a number on us as far as how we feel about other people. We might feel patient and hopeful one minute, then curse all of humanity with our next breaths.
These hormonal rollercoasters can cause us to numb out and disassociate at times, which can be quite distressing to people who are accustomed to usually feeling deeply and passionately about most things.
11. Brain injury or illness.
When one has had a brain injury, such as a stroke or physical trauma, it can rewire their thinking and feeling patterns for a while. In fact, some changes may linger indefinitely.
A person who had previously been very extraverted and loving may now be detached and prefer solitude. Or in contrast, someone who used to be stoic might dissolve into tears at the slightest provocation.
If you’ve experienced a brain trauma, you might simply be incapable of feeling certain things right now, and that’s okay.
Chances are things will get back to “normal” eventually. Give yourself time to heal, and don’t judge yourself too harshly for something that’s entirely out of your control.
It’s important to note that conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s can also have an emotionally numbing effect. If you haven’t had a brain injury, and you can’t determine any other causal factors for your loss of empathy, consider whether either of these conditions runs in your family.
12. Others have treated you so badly, you can’t care about their problems.
Depending on what you’ve had to deal with in the past, you may have found yourself on the receiving end of some rather intense mistreatment from others. They may have tormented or bullied you for years, or an event may have occurred that made them say or do truly awful things to you.
As such, if and when karma comes ‘round, and they’re suddenly dealing with intense issues, you may not feel anything at all for them. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, you might even feel a pang of satisfaction knowing that the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak.
It’s difficult to feel empathy for people who have dug their own holes, especially when you’ve repeatedly warned them about doing so.
How can I protect my empathy from being drained further?
Much like any other ailment, once you’ve figured out what’s causing your empathy loss, you can take the steps necessary to stop it from worsening.
Your empathy may not bounce back immediately, but you’ll be able to stop it from depleting more until you can rebuild it again.
Don’t spend time doing things (or seeing people) you despise.
Does the thought of going to your cousin’s best friend’s baby shower make you cringe all the way to the marrow? Then don’t go. Send a gift, some flowers, and a lovely card, and then spend that day doing something that won’t suck out your will to live.
There’s no point in trying to pretend that you’re invested in an event if you aren’t. You’ll end up exhausted and resentful from performing for the crowd, and everyone involved will know that you don’t really want to be there either.
In simplest terms, don’t do things that you hate.
The same goes for interacting with people who only inspire harsh emotional responses from you. For example, if you’re sick to death of hearing your narcissist parent spout off about what a victim they are when you know they terrorize everyone around them, go low- or no-contact with them.
If you have an emotionally demanding partner who’s so fixated on getting their needs met that they’re overstepping your boundaries, consider taking some time apart or ensure that they’re getting regular therapy.
The more time you spend with people who steal your energy and give nothing back in return, the less empathy you’ll be able to have.
On a similar note:
Reduce exposure to the things that drain you.
This may be easier said than done, especially if the place that drains you the most is your workplace. Bills still need to be paid, and you’ll probably need to eat at some point as well.
That said, a lot of workplaces now have the option to work remotely, at least part of the time. Alternatively, you could try to figure out what it is about your work environment that’s annihilating your empathy.
Do you have to share an office with people who spend all their time gossiping about nothing? See if you can move your workstation somewhere quieter instead.
If you feel obligated to socialize during your lunch break, use that opportunity to go for a walk or browse a bookstore so you don’t feel forced to expend energy and empathy that you don’t have to give.
Are there TV shows or movies that make you shut down emotionally? Or that cause you so much contempt and anger that your empathy plummets? Then stop watching them.
Sure, watching The Walking Dead with your partner might be a nightly ritual, but it’s not going to do anyone any good if it results in you dying inside.
Find a different show that the two of you can both enjoy—preferably one that makes you smile or encourages you to take up a new hobby.
If you live in a city and you’re feeling severe empathy loss and fatigue, see if you can take some time off and retreat into nature. Spend some time in the woods or by a lake, and you’ll notice how your jaw unclenches and your shoulders drop down from around your ears. Constant city energy can damage even the most resilient souls over time.
Nurture yourself as best you can.
Since empathy loss is so often associated with depletion, you can try to counteract it by learning how to nurture yourself properly.
Try to get as much sleep as you need, even if that means bailing on plans and getting to bed before nine. Try to avoid overexerting yourself: exercise will do you good, but don’t overdo it.
Choose deeply nourishing, nutrient-dense foods, and enjoy fresh juices, smoothies, and soups on a regular basis. Take replenishing baths, get regular massages, spend time in nature, and enjoy pastimes that soothe your soul.
Your goal here is to replenish the well that has been depleted by the demands of everyday life and external stressors.
We can handle more things when we have the energy and mental bandwidth to be able to process them, and for that we need a solid foundation of health.
Once your core needs are taken care of and you start to bank sleep and vital nutrients, your empathy should increase as well.
If you think that the aforementioned issues such as hormonal fluctuations or brain dysfunction may be contributing to your empathy loss, consider seeing your healthcare provider. Should they find anything, you’ll be able to address it before the problem intensifies.
Put your time and energy into what truly matters to you.
As mentioned earlier, while awareness of various awful things is good for staying apprised of what’s going on, there’s too much happening for anyone to be able to handle with grace.
You don’t have to support and spread info about everything going on around you. Instead, you can place your energy and emphasis on the issues that matter the most to you.
This way, you can put the care and love that you have for these issues to best use, instead of feeling like your minimal energy is being pulled in too many directions.
If someone else gives you grief because you aren’t supporting something with as much gusto as they are, remind them that you’re different people and thus have different priorities.
You can let them know that you admire and respect their dedication to the causes that are important to them, and then you can ask that they grant you the same courtesy in return.
Be sincere in your personal interactions, rather than performative.
Earlier, we touched upon how we’re constantly expected to pour forth emotional energy on demand. Furthermore, this output must be appropriate for the time and circumstances or we risk upsetting or angering those around us.
This requires an extraordinary amount of vigilance and observation so we can gauge the “right thing to say or do” in every situation. If we’re honest about what we think and feel, we’d likely offend or horrify everyone around us and then have to deal with the fallout from that.
In many ways, it’s rather like being hypervigilant when living with an abuser. One has to walk on eggshells and “read the room” on a constant basis so as to know what they should or shouldn’t say or do, lest they incur the other’s wrath.
You don’t have to be brutally honest about what’s going on in your mind, nor do you need to pander to other people’s expectations.
For example, if your coworkers are prattling on about something you don’t care about, and they give the impression that you’re being rude by not joining in, you don’t have to call them a bunch of imbeciles and run away.
Instead, you can let them know that you have a lot going on and aren’t up to socializing, but you hope to have a proper catch-up over coffee or drinks after work soon. This pacifies their need for social unity while also saving you from having to jump and squeak at their will like a trained monkey.
Reduce or eliminate contact with those who mistreat you.
Earlier we talked about situations in which you might feel contempt (or absolutely nothing) for those who have wronged you.
The spectrum of mistreatment and abuse is quite vast and can range from “askholes” who demand your advice but never listen to it to those who have abused you emotionally, physically, or mentally.
Remember that you are under no obligation to feel anything for anyone, and it doesn’t make you a bad person if you can’t drum up empathy for someone else’s suffering. It simply makes you human.
You may be trying to be downright saintly in your interpersonal interactions, but if you found out that a person who kicked you for years had to have their kicking leg amputated, it’s unlikely that you’d feel bad for them.
In fact, very few people would be able to feel empathy for those who have harmed them.
If you feel bothered by your lack of empathy and that you “should” be feeling bad for another’s pain, consider talking with either a therapist or your faith advisor (if you have one).
We often have misplaced ideas of how we should behave, and thus we try to live by their example rather than being true to ourselves.
The thing to remember here is that the stories we hear or read about Buddha, Jesus, and other great spiritual leaders of note have been very tightly edited over the years. We only hear about the good stuff, and those stories have undoubtedly changed since they were first shared.
As such, people generally try to live up to unrealistic expectations based on things that they thought others did, rather than what actually happened.
Give yourself a break and allow yourself the space to feel (or not feel, as the case may be).
It’s better to be sincere about absent emotion rather than pretending for other people’s benefit. There’s enough virtue signaling out there. It’s far more virtuous to admit when you’re struggling and work through it sincerely.
Reach out for help when you need it.
Whether you’re dealing with empathy fatigue, overstimulation, trauma, or any of the other reasons listed above, please know that you don’t have to face the issue alone.
There are countless therapists and counsellors available to assist you when you’re ready. They can help you discover the root of your loss of empathy and work with you to get it back on a timeline that isn’t overwhelming to you.
If you’re nervous about seeing one, ask a friend or family member to accompany you. Keep in mind that just because you’re having difficulty with empathy right now, it doesn’t mean that others are as well. Those who love you will happily support you and help you through difficult times.
There’s nothing wrong with you.
You aren’t “broken,” and loss of empathy doesn’t make you a bad person.
Our emotions ebb and flow like tides or turning seasons. You wouldn’t expect strawberries to ripen in the dead of winter, so please be gentle and patient with yourself about your own empathetic fluctuations as well.