Empathy and insight are vital to all social relationships and critical to our survival as a species. So why is it so hard to get compassion and understanding from some people?
It’s painful being in a relationship with someone who is unable to put themselves in your shoes or show even the slightest insight into their own behaviour. Even a casual relationship with a neighbour or co-worker can wreak havoc in your life if they lack empathy and insight.
Empathy is on a Continuum
Empathy is on a continuum with some people being high in empathy and some people being low. Many people fall somewhere in the middle. Those who completely lack empathy are often sociopaths or narcissists.
If you are a caring person, it’s natural to assume that everyone else is too; or at least could be with a little encouragement. So when you express your feelings to someone and instead of getting compassion, you get an angry attack, it’s hurtful and confusing.
It’s a vicious cycle trying to get through to someone who doesn’t understand you. The more they don’t understand, the more hurt you become; the more hurt you become, the more you try to be understood. It’s painful.
I see this pattern too often; adult children trying to get validation from a parent after years of abuse, a spouse pleading for resolution to years of emotional injuries, or a brother or sister trying to have a relationship with an indifferent sibling.
Talking Does Not Solve All Problems
I have had my share of trying to be validated by someone who wouldn’t validate me. I used to believe talking could solve everything. The more my attempts fell on deaf ears, the more overwhelmed I became.
The sad truth is that talking about your feelings only works if the other person has empathy, insight, and actually cares about how you feel. The other sad truth is that someone can care about you, but not care about how you feel.
Your Feelings Provoke Their Shame
A person low in empathy appears overly confident and even arrogant, but they are hiding deep insecurities. They cannot tolerate any criticism of themselves, no matter how slight. Whereas you view talking as a chance to resolve conflict and deepen connection; they view it as trying to shame them.
Excessive shaming in childhood leads to shame-sensitivity in teens and adults. Some people try to avoid painful feelings of shame by constantly reflecting, trying to perfect themselves so they don’t make mistakes. By avoiding mistakes they hope to avoid feeling shame.
Some people go in the opposite direction. They avoid shame by making their own mistakes and shortcomings everyone else’s fault. They refuse to accept responsibility for their behaviour. The more you try to get them to have insight, the angrier and more vicious they become.
They may or may not have a full-blown narcissistic personality disorder, but they have narcissistic wounds that are triggered by anyone who tries to hold them accountable for their behaviour.
Many narcissists show empathy to others and are generous and helpful. It makes them feel good about themselves. If a co-worker mistreats you, your narcissist spouse will strongly come to your defense. But try to talk about how your spouse mistreats you and you will get a verbal attack that leaves your head spinning.
Narcissists can show empathy as long as they are not being accused of making a mistake. If you imply in any way that they are less than perfect, they will only hear that you are trying to blame and shame them; they will protect their fragile ego with a vengeance.
This selective empathy is confusing. Many clients are hurt when their spouse shows empathy to others, but not to them.
Can a Narcissist Change?
Change is always possible; if I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be a therapist. However, do not base your hopes and expectations on something that is possible; focus on what is likely.
Narcissism is a personality disorder, which means the behaviours are deeply entrenched in personality. Changing parts of our personality is never easy. The important point for you to understand is that there is nothing you can do to change another person’s narcissistic tendencies. This is an inside job that only the person who has the problem can fix.
Don’t confuse what’s possible with what’s probable. Make your decisions on what is, not what could be.
Take Care of Yourself
You need to keep yourself emotionally and physically safe from people who lack empathy. The first step is to recognize what you are dealing with. Stop taking it personally so you can get off the emotional roller coaster.
Some things to help you cope:
Stop trying to make them understand your feelings. Trying to provoke empathy and insight only angers, frustrates, and sometimes actually bores them.
Talk about facts, not feelings. Tell them what you think, not how you feel. They won’t always like it, but they will like it a lot more than listening to your feelings. For example, “You came home late from work four times this week and didn’t eat supper, so I am not going to cook dinner unless you call first to let me know you’re going to eat,” is more easily accepted than “I feel ignored and disrespected when you’re late.”
Let go of expecting this person to validate you. This expectation keeps setting you up for hurt and disappointment. It’s not personal and it doesn’t mean they don’t care about you.
Whenever possible, keep a polite, respectful distance. You don’t have to cut them completely out of your life, just out of your “circle of trust.”
Don’t argue with them; you will never win. While you can sometimes be persuaded to change your opinion, they rarely do.
Learn as much as you can about narcissism.
Do You Have Narcissistic Tendencies?
If you have narcissistic tendencies, you can learn to develop more empathy for others. The first step is wanting to change. The second step is a willingness to look inward, not with self blame, but with self-compassion and curiosity. If you are honest and compassionate with yourself, you can change.
Developing more empathy for yourself and others improves the quality of your relationships and the quality of life.
We All Can Have Narcissistic Tendencies
A crisis can bring out the narcissist in any of us. A friend going through a break-up can turn completely self-absorbed for months on end, dominating every conversation, with his or her troubles. A person diagnosed with a life-threatening illness may find it difficult to care about the daily struggles of others.
Narcissistic tendencies when we are suffering, is not a sign of our true nature. However, even if we are suffering, we can learn to step back from our pain and to focus on those around us. In doing so, we can often reduce our pain.
DBT Skill: Mindfulness of Others
Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) helps people learn to understand and regulate their emotions by building Four Key Skills: Basic Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Emotion Regulation, and Interpersonal Relationship Skills.
We can improve our interaction with others by letting go of judgmental thoughts and observing other’s behaviour factually, not critically. Don’t make assumptions about what others are thinking or doing, or what their true motives are. Do not assume to know what someone is thinking. If you have an assumption, check it out.
"When you start to develop your powers of empathy and imagination, the whole world opens up to you." ~ Susan Sarandon
To learn more, or if you are interested in counselling services, please visit Validity Counselling's homepage,
Author: Jenny DeReis
Jenny is CEO and therapist at Validity Counselling in Prince George, BC. She has a Master's Degree in Counselling Psychology from the University of Calgary.
Jenny has intensive and advanced training in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) from Dr. Charlie Swansen, author of several books on DBT . She has also received DBT training from the Behavior Tech Institute, and from DBT expert Sherri Van Dijk.