He’s struggled with this since we met 6 years ago.
The other night my partner and I were settling in, and he squeezed me in close. He let out a big sigh, and it seemed like he had something on his mind. “How do I learn to have empathy?” he asked me.
I really thought for a moment. I told him that I didn’t know. I also said that I think empathy is something you learn in your childhood, usually. Silence fell over us until I interrupted it — “I think no one showed you empathy when you were young, so you never really learned it”.
A lack of empathy is something my partner has always struggled with since we met almost 6 years ago. It’s not something that stood out to me right away, but it’s also not something that went unnoticed for long.
Even in the strangest of circumstances, I have no trouble putting myself in another’s shoes. My partner cannot. Where I can feel the pain of a hurting person, my partner can feel bad for someone else when they hurt, but he only feels his own pain.
He also displays other signs of low empathy like: seeing others as overly sensitive, having an argumentative attitude, aversion to emotional situations, and surprising emotional reactions (rooted in impatience with other people’s feelings).
I don’t want to this to come off the wrong way. My partner is actually quite warm, thoughtful, and very sympathetic. He has the capacity to feel bad for people, but he is not able to connect deeply on that level at all.
It’s hard to describe. He has a deep emotional range within himself. But he struggles to see things from another point of view, imagine himself in another’s place, or understand what other people feel on an emotional level.
But there are other characteristics of low empathy he doesn’t struggle with. My partner has quite a few long-standing friendships and does not have any difficulty maintaining them. He is not completely dismissive of another persons perspective, and understands that different points of views are valid and exist.
He has a difficult time understanding how a lack of empathy can be negative, because it doesn’t harm him in any way. In a lot of situations, he actually sees this as an advantage. Over the years we have come to know ourselves and each other a lot, so he is more self aware of his own personal struggles now, even this one. He’s just not sure how to fix it — or maybe if he even wants to fix it. It’s not in his nature, and he doesn’t know life any other way.
He has come a long way over the years. Simply asking the question that night is true to his character. He wants to be the best human he can be. For whatever reason, he did not gain these tools in his life up to this point. For him, that’s what empathy is — just a skill he needs to develop.
I decided to do some googling on his behalf, and according to positivepsychology.com, there are a few factors in empathy development including genetic, neurodevelopmental, temperament, and parenting.
There are actually practices you can implement to increase your capacity to empathize including receiving feedback, joining a shared cause, mindfulness, role-playing, and stepping out of your comfort zone.
Although it might be hard to see by the individual struggling with empathy to see the benefits of having it, there definitely are some such as better parenting, more positive work relationships in work and otherwise, improving how we see ourselves and others, and the big one: averting global disaster (reason being that we will be able to deal with the obstacles ahead of mankind such as war, pandemics, and global warming).
We all have parts about ourselves that need work. I’ve passed along some of the tips I learned and shared them with him genuinely. I do appreciate his transparency and I see his desire to grow. I mean, I can put myself in his shoes and know exactly where he’s coming from.