What is empathy? It refers to the capacity of an individual to understand what another individual is going through or feeling if they are to be in their shoes, or in simpler terms, the ability to put oneself in another’s position. Beyond words, empathy is crucial to maintain healthy relationships and for communication. It has been observed that it is not unique to humans. It has been found that empathy can be seen from other primates as they were able to express themselves by consoling others. Pet owners of cats and dogs swear by it as well, where there have been many instances where their pets console their owners in times of grief and sadness.
So, here comes the question. Can someone have too much empathy or too little?
Too Much Empathy
For some people, their emotional empathy can be so strong that it affects them personally. While they often reach out to help others, they also are “caught up” so much emotionally that they often share the pain of others. It can lead to distress and depression, and after a while, these “empaths” can become desperate to look for an “off button”. There have been research that show association between hyper empaths and conditions such as:
Although most individuals with autism may require more time to process emotions, they do not have an issue with feeling and sharing the emotions once they understand it. There are also cases where there is increased empathy after brain surgery where the amygdala (the part that helps with decision making) was removed. Since having too much empathy is not currently part of a any diagnostic manual, those who experience distress and depression can learn how to control their emotions
Empathy Deficit Disorder
Individuals with empathy deficit disorder are basically the opposite of those who feel too much empathy. It usually starts when the environment a child grows up in an environment where his or her feelings are not acknowledged by their parents. These parents have the “hurry up” attitude and simply do not take the time or do not have the time to listen to their child. Empathy deficit disorder eventually develops, and these individuals tend to have low Emotional Intelligence Quotient (EIQ). You can test your EIQ here!
EIQ is the ability of individuals to understand emotions, both theirs and others. Those with high EIQ is able to differentiate feelings, label them, and use the information to guide their thoughts and actions. Individuals with low EIQ do not know how to recognize or handle emotions. Since they have low EIQ, they also cannot recognize that they have this issue. Empathy deficit disorder causes lack of closeness between parents and their children. This is an issue that can requires a long time to repair. Children of individuals with empathy deficit disorder are often left wondering why their parent has no concern for their feelings. This causes them to numb their feelings as they cope with the hurt and emptiness they experience at a young age. It is a vicious cycle that parents with empathy deficit disorder pass on to their children who grow up and pas it on to their children.
Psychologist Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., is the director and founder of the Center for Adult Development in Washington D.C. He believes that empathy deficit disorder is now common among Americans. He also thinks that this disorder is becoming increasingly common due to the issues of modernity, namely divorce and war.
Eliminating Empathy Deficit Disorder
The best way to eliminate empathy deficit disorder is through education and awareness. Once the affected individual understands the issue at hand, they can start working on reversing it by reminding themselves not to be callous with their children and others. When this happens, it improves the situation at home and work while also breaking the cycle by not passing it to their children. To start, try to understand why it is important to eradicate empathy deficit disorder. Children need role models that they look up to such as their parents and teachers to respond to their feelings and acknowledging it. If you have empathy deficit disorder, you can begin by acknowledging your child’s feelings by saying “You look sad”, or “You seem angry today”. This helps the child feel that their feelings are a normal part of being human. Basically, the first step to take is to “fake it”. Offer sympathy towards others, ask about their feelings, and validate them. Take comfort in the knowledge that even if you can’t feel what they’re experiencing, you will be able to provide much needed support for the other person.
Another step to take is by providing the love and comfort you child needs when he or she is upset. It may feel awkward but know that it is okay to hold and hug your child. These actions show the child that you are concern about him or her. Try not to tell children that there is no use that they are having negative feelings. For example, “There’s no use being sad, you just have to work harder”, may convey the message that their feelings are not important enough for you to care.
Since empathy deficit disorder is not currently in any diagnostic manual, it is up to you entirely to ensure that the emotional health in your home is maintained. If you already notice signs of empathy deficit disorder in several of your children, you may feel overwhelmed at combating this disorder. However, remember that you can take small steps to make the necessary changes. Remember that while comments such as “It could be worse”, or “You should forget about it” may be well intentioned and primarily aimed to sooth. However, these remarks are ultimately a rejection or denial of what the other person is experiencing. These comments basically mean not to bother you with their issues, or not wanting to talk about unpleasant things.
After some time, you will notice that your relationships are improving. Eventually, you may even feel afraid or sad when you comfort those around you. This can be the first step to feeling empathy. While you may feel uncomfortable taking these first few steps, try to increase the duration you spend working on feeling empathy.
Some of the conditions that are related to empathy deficit disorder are
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – These individuals may be desensitized to the pain and suffering of others as they are deeply affected by their past experience of trauma.
- Antisocial Personality Disorder – These individuals lack the concern for others. They do not feel remorse from purposefully inflicting pain on others.
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder
- >Conduct Disorder – This is a diagnosis only for those under the age of 18 years. It involves aggressive and unacceptable behavior.
- Alcoholics – The emotional empathy of alcoholics can be impaired.
For an interesting read on how one individual bettered herself after realizing that she suffered from empathy deficit disorder, check out her article here. This is also an interesting site that has more detailed information about hyper empathy and empathy deficit syndrome.
Symptoms of Empathy Deficit Disorder
To summarize the above, some of the symptoms of empathy deficit disorder are:
- Lack of empathy
- Unable to recognize or identify feelings and emotions
- Unable to share the feelings other people are expressing
- Avoiding unpleasant conversation about emotions by brushing it off
- Unable to have a close and personal relationship with others, even their own children
- Not knowing how to express feelings or emotions to others
Here is a video that may help you understand the disorder better! For a detailed read on what empathy deficit disorder is and what steps you can take to practice building empathy with your partner, friends, or even strangers, this can be an extensive read, but worth it if you are determined to overcome the issue!