If you recognize these 8 behaviors, you’re dealing with someone who has selective empathy

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Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, a critical component of healthy relationships. However, not all displays of empathy are genuine.

Some people exhibit what’s known as selective empathy, an inconsistent and self-serving way of relating to others. These individuals reserve their understanding and compassion for certain people or situations while ignoring or dismissing the feelings of others.

Recognizing selective empathy can help you navigate relationships more effectively, avoiding unnecessary emotional turmoil. Here are eight behaviors that indicate you may be dealing with someone who practices selective empathy.

1) Selective emotional investment

Empathy is all about really getting where someone else is coming from, you know? Feeling their highs, their lows, their everything. But someone whose empathy is selective tends to pick and choose when to care—when it’s convenient for them.  

One major sign of selective empathy is when an individual appears emotionally invested in certain people or situations but remains indifferent or dismissive towards others.

This can be especially noticeable when the person shows deep concern for those who hold a significant role in their life or who can offer them something in return.

For instance, they may display empathy towards a colleague who can help them climb the corporate ladder, yet fail to show the same regard for a subordinate or a colleague from a different department.

This selective compassion reveals a utilitarian approach to empathy, using it more as a tool for personal gain rather than an expression of authentic understanding and shared feeling.

2) Inability to share in others’ joy

I’ve picked up on something interesting about folks with selective empathy: they really struggle to join in on others’ happiness. Empathy isn’t just about understanding and sharing in people’s tough times—it’s also about cheering them on when things are going great. 

But when someone has selective empathy, they have a hard time time giving you a high-five when you’re on cloud nine. Your achievements? They might downplay them, change the subject, or worse, show a hint of envy instead of genuine excitement.

My advice? Don’t let someone else’s inability to share your happiness diminish your accomplishments. Learn to validate your own achievements and find satisfaction in your successes, regardless of others’ reactions.

In the wise words of American novelist, Harper Lee: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

This includes sharing in their happiness as well as their sorrows. Genuine empathy is comprehensive, encompassing all aspects of another person’s emotional experience.

3) Lack of emotional consistency

Another key behavior to watch for is a lack of emotional consistency.

Back when I was working at a marketing agency, my former boss, Alex, was a classic example of someone with selective empathy.

I remember when my colleague, Emily, was going through a tough time because her father was seriously ill. Alex was incredibly supportive, offering her flexible hours, extra support, and genuine words of encouragement.

However, when I faced a similar situation with my own parent falling ill, Alex’s response was vastly different. Instead of offering the same level of empathy and support, Alex seemed impatient and dismissive.

I remember feeling like my concerns were brushed aside, with comments from Alex about keeping personal issues out of the workplace and needing to “stay focused.”

Experiencing this stark contrast in Alex’s behavior towards different team members left me feeling frustrated and undervalued. It became clear that Alex’s empathy was selective, and their inconsistency in providing support undermined the trust and morale within the team.

4) Neglecting emotional reciprocity

The core of empathy is emotional reciprocity. However, individuals with selective empathy often neglect this balance.

They might be adept at eliciting empathy from others, sharing their struggles and seeking comfort. But when it comes to reciprocating that empathy, they may fall short. They might gloss over your concerns, redirect conversations back to themselves, or seem disinterested in your experiences.

Sometimes, people aren’t aware of how their actions affect others. Maybe you could let them know how you feel in a non-confrontational way. Share with them how their lack of enthusiasm dampens your spirits. 

5) Dismissing or invalidating feelings

 You know what really stings? When someone pulls the old “your feelings don’t matter” routine. Yep, that’s selective empathy in action. They’ll brush off your emotions like they’re nothing, maybe even throw in a classic “you’re overreacting” for good measure.

But here’s the thing: that kind of dismissal messes with your head. Suddenly, you’re second-guessing yourself, wondering if maybe you’re the one who’s off-base. It’s like a punch to your confidence, all because someone couldn’t take a moment to understand where you’re coming from.

But hey, here’s the silver lining: your feelings are legit. You deserve to be heard and understood. True empathy means embracing the whole emotional rollercoaster, not just the parts that are convenient.

6) Excessive empathy towards inanimate objects or animals

It doesn’t make much sense, but going overboard with empathy towards inanimate objects or animals can actually be a sign of selective empathy. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, being caring towards animals or nature is commendable. But when that care for critters starts overshadowing how you treat your fellow humans, well, that’s when things get a bit wonky.

Picture this: someone freaks out over a little injured bird but couldn’t care less about a friend going through a rough patch. It’s like they’re all in for empathy when it’s for the birds, but when it comes to human emotions, they’re on mute.

While I strongly believe in the importance of compassionate coexistence with all living beings and respect for our environment, it’s crucial to remember that our fellow humans also warrant our empathy and understanding.  

7) Turning empathy on and off like a switch

One of the most telling signs of selective empathy is the ability to turn it on and off like a switch.

Here’s the thing: genuine empathy is not something that can be conveniently switched off when it’s no longer beneficial or becomes uncomfortable. It’s a deeply ingrained emotional response that permeates all our relationships.

But those with selective empathy? They usually switch off their empathetic responses when they’re no longer beneficial. For instance, they may show deep concern for someone when in public, but the moment they are in private, this concern vanishes.

This inconsistency can be disconcerting and hurtful for those on the receiving end.

8) Empathy only in response to personal experience

Finally, if a person only shows empathy when they can draw parallels with their own experiences, it might indicate selective empathy. Genuine empathy allows us to understand and share the feelings of others, even if we haven’t experienced the same situations ourselves.

On the other hand, someone with selective empathy might only show understanding when they can relate personally.

For example, they may express empathy towards someone dealing with a specific problem because they’ve been through it themselves but be dismissive of other issues that fall outside their personal experience.

The beauty of empathy lies in its ability to bridge gaps between different experiences and perspectives. It’s about stepping out of our personal frame of reference and stepping into someone else’s shoes.  

Understanding selective empathy: An invitation to deeper connection

Dealing with those exhibiting selective empathy can be challenging, but your emotional well-being is paramount.

What you can do is to express your feelings openly and gently, helping them understand the impact of their behavior on you. Don’t forget to establish boundaries to safeguard your heart and limit interactions if needed.

Remember, their limitations may stem from their own struggles, so don’t let them affect you. You deserve empathy and support in every facet of your journey.

In this journey of understanding and personal growth, you might find it helpful to join a community of like-minded individuals willing to explore similar topics. I invite you to subscribe to my YouTube channel here, where I share insights on personal growth, authenticity, and living a life of purpose and freedom.

As we conclude this exploration of selective empathy, I leave you with a question for introspection: How can recognizing these behaviors help you nurture more authentic and empathetic relationships in your life?

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Justin Brown

Justin Brown is an entrepreneur and thought leader in personal development and digital media, with a foundation in education from The London School of Economics and The Australian National University. As the co-founder of Ideapod, The Vessel, and a director at Brown Brothers Media, Justin has spearheaded platforms that significantly contribute to personal and collective growth. His deep insights are shared on his YouTube channel, JustinBrownVids, offering a rich blend of guidance on living a meaningful and purposeful life.

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