Empathy is a fundamental ability to connect and communicate with others. However, empathy is not universally distributed at birth. We all start with individual capacities for experiencing and expressing empathy. Our lives begin different and then life experience enhances our minimizes our innate abilities to empathize with others. We know this developmental process as epigenetics. Some people are “unable to step outside themselves and tune in to what other people experience. especially those who feel, think and believe differently from yourself” (LaBier, 2007). In conditions where an individual is unable to experience empathy, some psychologists have given it a diagnosis of empathy deficit disorder.
Empathy Deficit Disorder is the trait of lacking ability to feel, understand and resonate with another’s feelings.
What is Empathy Deficit Disorder?
Douglas LaBier coined the term empathy deficit disorder. It is not a legitimate diagnosis that we can find in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. LaBier discovered a common grouping of symptoms pertaining to lack of empathy and grouped them together in a class he refers to as empathy deficit disorder. He routinely encountered individuals suffering from deficits of empathy during in his decades long career as a business psychologist, psychotherapist and researchers. He feels that “empathy deficit disorder is a pervasive but overlooked condition” (2010).
So is empathy deficit disorder a thing? Well, yes and no. It really depends on how you define disorders. Certainly, extreme deficits in empathy exist and disrupt lives. Lacking empathy is a symptom listed in many other personality disorders, such as psychopathy and narcissism. So, it is apparent that empathy deficit is a thing. Unfortunately a very common thing in todays society.
LaBier describes that people suffering from empathy deficit disorder are “unable to step outside (their selves) and tune in to what other people experience, especially those who feel, think, and believe differently…” He continues to explain the condition is “. That makes it “a source of personal conflicts, communication breakdown in intimate relationships, and adversarial attitudes, including hatred, towards groups of people who differ in their beliefs, traditions, or ways of life from your own” (2010). Aaron Horn adds, “They find it difficult to form organic and lasting relationships due to their inability to relate or show compassion. Those with empathy deficit disorder are often isolated, as they struggle to form and keep relationships” (2022).
Perpetual Cycles of Empathy Deficit
Sadly, empathy deficits are self perpetuating. Hence, they can be life destroying. A person with moderate empathy deficits may struggle to build relationships, experiencing multiple relationships failures, the failures lead to greater anxiety and isolation. However, relationships are necessary to nurture and develop empathy. Thus a person with empathy deficit disorder may end up in a cycle of interaction that deters empathy development, creating greater isolation. In psychology, we refer to this as reciprocal determinism.
Robert Augustus Masters Ph.D. wrote that “the capacity to feel or emotionally resonate with what others are feeling—known as empathy—is essential to emotional intimacy. Without it we remain isolated from others, cut off from any sort of intimacy” (2013). Perpetual disorders create a barrier that is difficult to free ourselves from.
Signs of Empathy Deficit Disorder?
We exhibit low empathy through a variety of behaviors. When conducting self-appraisals we should objectively look for the obvious signs of empathy deficit. Some of these may include:
- difficulty making new friends.
- inability to maintain emotional connections.
- Quick to criticize others or dismiss others.
- Inability to contemplate different points of view
- lack of appreciation for others.
- Joy in causing pain
- No patience for listening to others.
- Quick to externalize and blame.
- failure to take personal responsibility.
- Jealous of other people’s successes.
*List adapted from Minddiagnostics article
What Causes Empathy Deficit Disorder?
Most psychological disorders begin at a cellular level. This does not mean, however, that we are destined to be a certain way or cannot implement changes. For several decades, scientists pinpointed the mirror neuron as the brain center for empathy. Sue Johnson wrote that the “mirror neurons allow us to see emotion expressed by another and feel this emotion within our own body” (2008, Kindle location 2,078). The expanding discoveries of brain science discredit the mirror neuron theory, believing empathy functions from a much greater brain network than a single geographical location.
Kerrin Jacobs describes empathy as a neural process. He wrote that, “empathetic processes are grounded in dissociable neural systems” (2022). Infants quickly develop behaviors that indicate a theory of mind. They conceptualize the affective experience of others separate from themselves. Jacobs states that for us to experience empathy we must have the “ability to monitor oneself and to maintain and regulate self-other awareness in order to differentiate between one’s own and others’ experiences.” These are abilities based in brain structures.
Masters explains that while empathy deficits may have biological beginnings, we still can enhance or diminish empathy. He wrote, “our capacity for empathic arousal appears to be innate, but it can be suppressed or derailed through certain conditions, such as abusive or traumatic early-life circumstances.” Masters continues, “yet whatever obstructs our empathy can, at least in most cases, be rendered permeable enough to allow us to reconnect with our empathic abilities” (2013, location 793).
Barbara Ehrenreich suggests that there is a general loss of empathy in our society. She warns, “but in the world of positive thinking other people are not there to be nurtured or to provide unwelcome reality checks. They are there only to nourish, praise, and affirm. Harsh as this dictum sounds, many ordinary people adopt it as their creed, displaying wall plaques or bumper stickers showing the word ‘Whining’ with a cancel sign through it. There seems to be a massive empathy deficit, which people respond to by withdrawing their own. No one has the time or patience for anyone else’s problems” (2009, Kindle location 861).
Why is Empathy Important?
Empathy is the foundational skill for building relationships. It is a key ingredient for emotional attunement, compassion, and kindness. When we have empathy deficits, we struggle to bond. Intimate relationships elude healthy bonding efforts and the sufferer typically defaults to broken and maladaptive strategies to maintain relationships. These strategies include manipulation, abuse, and deception.
Masters wrote that “without a significant degree of empathetic attunement, our dialogue can easily degenerate into enervating argument, prolonged withdrawal, or heart-crushing distancing, in which what we are actually feeling becomes secondary to our interpretations of (and debates about) what is going on.” Masters emphasizes that “without empathy, there is no intimacy” (2013, Kindle location 672). Sue Johnson gracefully adds “what it means for lovers is that there is a tangible power in actually looking at each other. It helps us be emotionally present and pick up on our partner’s nonverbal cues. This creates a level of engagement and empathy that is lost in a less direct conversation” (2008, Kindle location 2,076).
Beyond intimate relationships, empathy helps us connect with the larger whole. LaBier wrote, “from empathy, tolerance grows. Tolerance of differences is an important part of the foundation for healthy emotional and mental attitudes and behavior. By focusing on developing empathy, you can deepen your understanding and acceptance of how and why people do what they do, and build respect for others” (2007). Perhaps, with more empathy, the world would be a much better place.
Can We Increase Our Capacity for Empathy?
A staple of our human existence is consciousness. Consciousness performs skills such as focusing attention. Where we focus attention directly influences learning. Our attention then is essential for development of new skills, creating and strengthening neural connections in our brains. We know this as neuroplasticity. We can change our brains. Hence, we can improve our capacity for empathy.
Masters wrote, “if we score low in empathy, we need to do more than just say that’s the way we are; it’s important to realize that we’re not doomed to occupy the lower rungs of empathetic capacity” (2013, location 797)!
How Do We Increase Empathy?
As mentioned in the previous section, a key behavior for increasing empathy is focusing attention. For some, finding even a sliver of acknowledgment of others is tremendously difficult. In diagnosable disorders, often they don’t even see a need to identify with others. This is why so many of the personality disorders are amazingly resistant to change. the narcissist and psychopath cannot fathom a reason to start considering others’ feelings.
However, for the rest of us, with a glimmer of hope to change, we can direct attention to the emotional experience of others. Master’s wrote “visualizing ourselves in an unliked other’s shoes or doing meditative practices centered by wishing others well—will deepen our capacity for empathy” (2013, location 803). LaBier suggests the difficult practice of holding two opposing ideas in our head at the same time. He explains, “immerse yourself in your partner’s perceptions of you. Try to experience them fully. At the same time, hold on to your own views. Don’t let either negate the other” (2007).
Another way to increase empathy is to actively work to build new relationships. Sometimes in old relationships, we get stuck in ruts. A new friend may help us establish new interaction routines where we can practice and grow empathy.
Lastly, mindfulness practice is a proven method for discovering hidden emotions in ourselves and others. Masters wrote, “because the more we are in touch with our emotions, the more in touch we’ll likely be with the emotions of others—which greatly increases the likelihood that we’ll have a relatively high level of empathy for them” (2013, location 807).
A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic
Empathy deficit is real. many people suffer and cause suffering because they have significant deficits in empathy. Whether or not empathy deficit disorder should be included in the DSM is debatable, but lack of empathy is serious, causing problems for the individual, significant others, and society.
Ehrenreich, Barbara (2009). Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermined America. Metropolitan Books; 1st edition.
Johnson, Sue (2008). Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Little, Brown Spark; 1st edition
LaBier, Douglas (2010). Are You Suffering From Empathy Deficit Disorder? Psychology Today. Published 4-12-2010. Retrieved 5-15-2023.
LaBier, Douglas (2007). Empathy: Could It Be What You’re Missing? Center for Progressive Development. Published 12-25-2007. Retrieved 5-15-2023.
Lee, J., Son, J., Kim, S., Kim, J., Chung, S., Ghim, H., Lee, S., Shin, C., & Ju, G. (2021). Disrupted Association Between Empathy and Brain Structure in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Journal of the Korean Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 32(4), 129-136.
Masters, Robert Augustus (2013). Emotional Intimacy: A Comprehensive Guide for Connecting with the Power of Your Emotions. Sounds True.
Soderstrom, Henrik (2003). Psychopathy as a disorder of empathy. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 12(5), 249-252.
Mind Diagnostics (2022). What Is Empathy Deficit Disorder?