EMPATHY: What It Is and Why You Need It


“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, 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?

Empathy means recognizing how someone else feels, caring about how they feel, and then expressing that care.

In order to have a close relationship, emotional connection is required. Without empathy, there can be no emotional intimacy or 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.”

~Brené Brown

“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

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 our mental and physical health suffers. 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.

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“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.”

~Brene Brown

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 does not mean being weak. On the contrary — what it means is having 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 Golstein, 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, 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.”

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

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.”

Carl Rogers

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.”

(Eric Zorn)

♥ Thank you for reading. Love to all of you.

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16 thoughts on “EMPATHY: What It Is and Why You Need It”

  1. janes

    I am speechless , what a touching/ healing post !
    Thanks a lot

    1. Adelyn Birch

      Thank you, Janes! I’m so glad to hear it.

  2. Anonymous

    Some evil people have lots of empathy. They are the sadists. To be a good and successful sadist you have to know what will maxmally hurt your prey. I hope you never meet one. THAT IS THE DEFINITIVE N OF EVIL!. Empathy isn’t the answer, COMPASSION, is the answer.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      Empathy and compassion go together. Like I said in the article, I wasn’t going to write about pathologicals and their ability for cognitive empathy (there’s a link if anyone hasn’t already heard it a thousand times). I wrote about us and our needs, not them and their pathology. I think you missed the point of the article.

  3. red

    This article touched me deeply. I have gone months of no contact with the abusers in my life. It took being in an abusive relationship for me to truly recognize the abuse perpetrated my own mother.

    I feel a sense of regret for not recognizing sooner that what these people lacked was empathy. Maybe if I had realized it earlier, I wouldn’t have gone through so much pain. I don’t know. I am only just beginning to learn to have compassion for myself. This eases the grief and regret somewhat. I feel as though I’ve been stripped completely bare, left with almost nothing, aching for the empathy I gave so freely to people who hadn’t the capacity to return it.

    I am healing slowly. I am finding empathy for myself like I’ve never experienced. My therapist has been a life-preserver throughout. There is strength in knowledge. Thank you for writing this.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      Red, you’re not alone. So many of us (myself included) didn’t realize the problems in past relationships — be it a parent, sibling, friend or partner — were due to their lack of empathy. I had a veritable parade of empathy-deficient people in my life, and didn’t realize it until the P. When those types of people come into our lives early, it seems “normal” to us, like it’s just the way people are. Be glad that you found out when you did; better late than never, that’s how I look at it. The cure for being treated without empathy is empathy. I’m so glad to hear you’re getting some!

      1. Christine

        Adelyn, I am reading your blog posts when it seems the subject is one that would be helpful. This one is so beautiful and wisdom-filled.

        I was stung this evening by someone who implied that there must be some unconscious benefit in my being “sick” or I would have been healed after all this time. I am so foolish. Why do I continue hoping to be understood? It is understandable why I isolate myself from people…but every now and then I look for some kind of connection.

        I had a thorough psychological evaluation and it states that no “secondary gain” was indicated. But I’m not going to bother defending myself. I guess I am sharing this here because this is the only place I have to seek a compassionate response .
        I am so grateful for your blog, Adelyn,

        1. Adelyn Birch

          Wanting to be understood, and to be supported and cared for, by those closest to us are needs we all have. When that doesn’t happen, it hurts badly. The best thing in this situation is to have an empathetic therapist who will really listen to you, understand what you’ve been through and how you’re feeling, and validate you. I hope you will find the support you need soon, Christine. I’m glad I’ve been able to provide some.

  4. Metanoia

    Great article…I love the Elizabeth Kubler Ross quote. I actually have that quote on my facebook!

    1. Adelyn Birch

      Thank you. And yes, that is a great quote! I just found it today.

  5. Adelyn Birch

    If you thrived with your father (and I’m glad to hear that you did), then he was able to fulfill your emotional needs. That’s all that matters. As for “pretend” empathy, it never works, because–as you described–it’s always used for personal gain. That reminds me of a woman I used to know, who volunteered in a food bank. She made herself out to be a saint, so compassionate and selfless! Well, imagine my surprise when she admitted to helping them because she believed they were lazy, stupid and utterly helpless. She only did it to look (and feel) superior.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      I agree. Words mean little; actions are what count, and where the truth is found.

  6. Amy

    Dear Adelyn,
    The question of “empathy” had me thinking for a few months. As I had already commented, at first I did not quite agree with you on the subject.
    Today I believe that I simply had a misconception between empathy and sensitiveness. I know quite a few people who are not sensitive but can be emphatic, and the other way around. The difference: if someone who is rather coarse or cool, but good at heart does wrong, you can speak up and tell them, “That was rude” or something like that and they will understand. They will get the message and possibly apologize and make amends.
    If someone is unemphatic (whether sensitive or not), he will never see your point no matter how you try to explain it. He will always be convinced that you hurt his feelings, disappointed him somehow etc., in any case the “fault” will be on your side. Many people are sensitive only when it comes to their own feelings, or when it comes to exploit your feelings to their own advantage.
    So, I can fully agree with you. Empathy is vital for human communication; I used to know a lot of people who were “sensitive” believing they also were emphatic, but they were not. My narcissistically disturbed mother is oversensitive but only to her own advantage. She used to accuse me of thinking only of myself, but the truth is that she is completely unemphatic and therefore only sees the “wrong” other people seem to do to her; that is why she can never be happy no matter what you do or sacrifice for her.
    Thank you for the enlightenment :-)

    1. Adelyn Birch

      I’m surprised you changed your mind, Amy. Thanks for coming back and letting me know! I can see you’ve really thought it through; I like your distinction between being sensitive and being empathetic. I hadn’t thought of it that way. It’s true that narcissists are oversensitive when it comes to themselves, and insensitive when it comes to anyone else.

      1. Amy

        I guess the point is maturity. A mature sensitive person will learn to be emphatic; who never matures will be a blackmailer, manipulator etc.
        Who is not born sensitive but grows to maturity will perhaps not be very emphatic, but having a conscience they will understand that they hurt someone’s feelings if they are told so.

        1. Adelyn Birch

          In some cases maturity can be the issue, but certainly not in all of them. Some people are unable to empathize. Their brains are structured in a way that doesn’t allow for it.
          But not everyone short on empathy has one of these disorders, or is a lost cause; some people are capable of developing it, and they can if they work on it.

          Having a conscience doesn’t mean being able to understand that someone’s feelings have been hurt. People who have a conscience—but who can’t empathize—tend to show their conscience through being sticklers for following rules and by doing what they believe are the “right” things. The scary thing is, if what they believe is the “right thing” harms others, they don’t care. It’s not a part of the equation for them.

          Also, if you let someone who doesn’t have empathy (but has a conscience) know that they hurt your feelings, they won’t be empathetic about that, either, because they can’t be. They will tell you that you’re too sensitive, or that they didn’t hurt your feelings. In other words, they will invalidate you in some way.

          Someone who does have empathy, and who insults you inadvertently, will feel bad and apologize profusely when you let them know. They will not hurt you a second time by invalidating your feelings.

          This might interest you: Invalidation: I Refuse to Have This Discussion!

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