Popular culture has led us to believe that if the people around us don’t show an expected degree of empathy, there’s something wrong with them. Some are labeled as narcissists, others as sociopaths, but are they really? Granted, there are a shed load of those types out there, but an apparent lack of empathy in someone isn’t necessarily grounds for assuming they fall into either of those categories.
When we’re suffering and we turn to someone for support, our expectation is that they will empathize with us and comfort us. That’s a soul-deep yearning that we have when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with others. So, when we display our soft underbelly and admit that we need support, and the one we’ve opened up to turns away from us, it hurts like hell.
We might feel shock, betrayal, and other negative emotions because our friend has basically done the polar opposite of what we need from them, and our assumption is that they’re cold. They’re cruel. They’re sociopathic or flagrant narcissists and utterly unable to feel properly, because if they did, they’d understand our needs in that moment and bend over backwards to grant us their support.
There could be many different reasons why a person doesn’t show empathy or compassion in the way that you expect them to, at a time when you want them to do so, and the reasons listed below are just a few of them.
They’re Overwhelmed, and Can’t Take It
The vast majority of us refrain from splaying all of our personal issues across our social media pages, and as such we really never know what another person might be going through at any given moment. Some folks manage to maintain a strong façade while dealing with an incredible amount of pain, but although they seem stoic and positive, in reality they’re barely holding their sh*t together. All they need is one small trigger to make them collapse into a puddle of hysterical tears.
As an example, one of your female coworkers (let’s call her Jenna) may be dealing with yet another failed fertility treatment, and she’s now facing the very stark reality that she’s unlikely to ever bear a child of her own. She hasn’t discussed this with anyone at work because she’s a very private person, but she’s emotionally devastated and just barely holding onto the professional, perky mask she’s donned. At lunchtime, in the office canteen, another coworker brings up a topic about a friend who’s sad because she’s just had a miscarriage, and Jenna walks out of the room without a word. Everyone starts whispering, offended by her behavior and calling her heartless with the compassion level of a dead horse, meanwhile she’s locked herself in her car so she can sob her guts out in relative privacy.
It’s hard not to assume and judge others for their behavior, but since we’ll never be able to reach into another’s mind or heart and really know what they’re feeling, it’s often a good idea to give them the benefit of the doubt.
And in a similar vein…
They’re Suffering Compassion Fatigue
Did you know that today, the average person will be exposed to more news and information than someone in the Victorian era would have read or heard about in a year? It’s small wonder why so many people are plagued with anxiety and panic when day after day, their social media feeds are flooded with all manner of injustices, horror stories, and despair.
For some people, the constant onslaught of all of this negativity can cause them to develop compassion fatigue. It’s a trait that sometimes develops in nurses. After a certain amount of prolonged exposure to situations or information that is emotionally damaging, the mind just… sort of shuts down the empathy centre as a means of self-preservation.
The person goes into autopilot; able to function and do their job professionally, but without emotional involvement. Often, it’s either that, or a total nervous breakdown because of all the horrific, emotionally jarring crap they’re contending with.
People who work in really high-stress environments (like trauma ward nurses or field medics in war zones) also process emotion on different levels, and have different priorities when it comes to what they consider to be severe. It’s difficult to empathize with someone who’s moaning and wailing about their sprained ankle when you’ve had to amputate someone’s limb because they were hit by bomb shrapnel, ye know?
To the person dealing with the sprain, that might be the worst pain they’ve ever experienced and they’re looking for a bit of comfort and reassurance from someone they care about. To the field medic, it’s a question of “I can’t even. Come talk to me when you’re bleeding out of your eyes.”
They’re Dealing with Personal Trauma or PTSD
For some people, a lack of empathy might stem from a traumatic experience in their past. People who, as children, had to deal with circumstances in which they were abused, or dealt with a high-stress, traumatic environment, have often had to shut down their reactive emotions in order to carry on. As such, there’s sort of a dampened effect when it comes to their emotions; their coping mechanism was to reduce their reaction to emotional stimuli, so they seem to have a much higher threshold for witnessing pain and suffering.
They may appear cold or unfeeling, but those reactions (or lack thereof) stemmed from the need to protect themselves when they were dealing with incredibly traumatic situations in their past.
This is another nod towards the fact that we rarely ever know other people as well as we think we do, and it may take folks years to open up to us about the crap they’ve lived through, if they ever talk about it to us at all. It’s very easy to condemn another for their apparent coldness, when it’s possible that they don’t have much control over that reaction at all. Best not to judge.
They have an Inability to Relate to The Other
There’s another solid reason as to why people may seem to lack compassion, and that is that many can only really understand and empathize with things they have experienced personally. As an example, someone who has never experienced food poisoning might make fun of those who have suffered from it, until they’ve had it themselves and are floored by the misery and pain. NOW, once they’ve felt it firsthand, they’re able to empathize with other people going through that: “I feel you, man… I had a dodgy curry and it broke me for a week.”
These are the types of people who, when faced with stories or images of people suffering in distant lands, can’t truly relate to what they’re going through and, as such, don’t have a strong emotional response in turn. Bad things are happening in a nebulous “far away, out there somewhere,” but the goings-on are so far removed from “here” that they seem surreal… almost like watching a film or TV show full of actors rather than real people. This is the “othering” that we have to be careful about; we should remember that just because someone lives far away, doesn’t mean they don’t feel the same things we do. They’re just like us.
As a side note, people who have difficulty empathizing with others far away are not the same as those who can look at emaciated children or hungry refugees and just say something to the effect of “not my tribe, not my problem.”
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.