“One doesn’t have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient.”
(Charles M. Blow)
Many of you reading this have been involved with someone who had no empathy, and you have experienced the harm that results. That person may have been psychopathic, narcissistic, borderline, autistic, or had some other pathology that rendered them incapable of empathizing.
I could go into a long description of their inability to empathize, or of the psychopath’s ability to empathize cognitively but not emotionally, and talk about how they use that ability to manipulate us. But let’s forget about them for now and talk about something else: How a lack of empathy affects us.
Understanding ourselves is perhaps the most vital thing we can do to ensure we only become involved in healthy relationships with non-pathological people in the future. The key ingredient of a healthy relationship is empathy. When we understand what it is and why we need it, we’ll know when it’s missing, and we’ll understand that a relationship without empathy isn’t a real relationship at all.
Just what is empathy, exactly?
I love this definition from Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D.:
Empathy is the ability to be aware of another person’s thoughts and feelings, and having the wherewithal to speak about this awareness. It also means creating mutual understanding and a sense of caring for one another. It’s not empathy unless you respond appropriately to the other person.
In other words, empathy connects people emotionally.
In order to have a close relationship, emotional connection is required. Without empathy — an awareness of someone else’s thoughts and feelings, mutual understanding, caring, and expression of that care — there can be no real connection.
“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
“It is an absolute human certainty that no one can know his own beauty or perceive a sense of his own worth until it has been reflected back to him in the mirror of another loving, caring human being.”
(John Joseph Powell, The Secret of Staying in Love)
Without empathy, we experience emotional deprivation.
Emotional reciprocity, love and belonging are essential human needs. We’re born with them. We seek relationships for the purpose of fulfilling these needs. If these needs are not being met, then mental and physical health will suffer. People with little or no empathy can not meet these needs.
We all have fundamental emotional needs, and that does not mean we’re needy (a common accusation of the empathy-challenged) — it means we’re human.
These are some of our fundamental emotional needs:
To be acknowledged.
To be accepted.
To be listened to.
To be supported.
To be understood.
To be loved.
To be appreciated.
To be respected.
To be known.
To be safe.
To be valued.
To be worthy.
To be trusted.
To be capable and competent.
To be clear (not confused).
When our involvement with a pathological person began they pretended to meet these needs, and that’s how they hooked us. Things went bad when they stopped meeting our needs, but we may have never even noticed that’s what the problem was.
“If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”
Vulnerability is essential for emotional intimacy.
Brene Brown, sociologist and expert on social connection, conducted thousands of interviews to find the root of deep social connection. An analysis of the data revealed that it was vulnerability. Vulnerability here does not mean being weak. On the contrary — what it means is the courage to be yourself. It involves uncertainty, exposure, and risk. We may want to run from vulnerability, but it is an inevitable part of relationships that are close and rewarding.
Emotional intimacy comes from being vulnerable enough to allow yourself to be fully known, and to be accepted and understood when you do. That creates the potential for true intimacy. Being vulnerable with another person entails a certain amount of risk. If you’re vulnerable with someone who lacks empathy, instead of feeling known, accepted and understood, you will feel rejected, unheard, invalidated or shamed. There is no true intimacy possible with someone who lacks empathy.
“Empathy is truly the heart of a relationship. Without it, a relationship will struggle to survive. That’s because empathy requires compassion. And without compassion, couples can’t develop a bond.”
(Carin Goldstein, LMFT)
“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
(Henri J.M. Nouwen)
When we are involved in what we believe to be a close relationship with someone lacking empathy, we will suffer harm. Why? Because emotional reciprocity, love and belonging are essential human needs, and if these needs are not being met, then mental and physical health will be affected. We can experience (as many of us already have):
• Low self esteem.
• Feeling confused/bewildered.
• Feelings of anger, depression and anxiety
• Feelings of guilt
• Loss of self/depersonalization
• Phobias – social/agoraphobia
• Post-traumatic stress reactivity
• Mental breakdown
• Physical symptoms such as insomnia, fatigue, migraines, weight loss or gain, and low immunity that could result in illnesses ranging from frequent colds to cancer.
If we experience these things while in a relationship, we need to ask ourselves if we feel empathy from our partner, and ask ourselves which of our emotional needs are not being met. An inability to empathize, in and of itself, can cause these problems; it can also make it more likely that a person will manipulate, lie and abuse, because they aren’t concerned with how their words and actions affect us.
“I told you once that I was searching for the nature of evil. I think I’ve come close to defining it: a lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants. A genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow man.
Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”
(Gustav M. Gilbert, German-speaking American prison psychologist at Spandau prison
in Berlin, where Nazi war crimes defendants were held, 1945)
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
As people with the ability to empathize with others, we need empathy in return. That’s a fact. But it is possible to have too much empathy, which can cause problems for us. If we do, we tend to put other people’s feelings ahead of our own. In doing so we can neglect our own feelings and needs, and end up staying in relationships where our needs aren’t being met. You can find out more about it here: How to Avoid the Empathy Trap
“When the other person is hurting, confused, troubled, anxious, alienated, terrified; or when he or she is doubtful of self-worth, uncertain as to identity, then understanding is called for. The gentle and sensitive companionship of an empathic stance provides illumination and healing. In such situations deep understanding is, I believe, the most precious gift one can give to another.”
Having relationships with people who are capable of empathy is essential for our well-being. We have fundamental emotional needs that need to be met, and fulfilling those needs is the reason we seek relationships in the first place.
When we deny our own needs, we deny our own humanity — which is the same thing the person who lacks empathy for us is doing. To avoid that, we need to be aware of what our needs are and aware of when they’re not being met.
“Empathy is the greatest virtue. From it, all virtues flow.
Without it, all virtues are an act.”
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