People who lack empathy are a real enigma to those of us who feel the suffering of others. It’s like they have this twisted superpower to bypass their conscience.
When they hurt other people, they don’t feel the same sting of guilt most of us do.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to imagine what life would be like without empathy.
Why? Several members of my family fall into the Cluster B panicle of personality disorders. This includes:
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder
- Borderline Personality Disorder
- Anti-social Personality Disorder
These conditions are all famous for their notorious lack of empathy.
I’ve had to live with them all my life and it took me a long time to digest the fact that they didn’t feel the same level of care for me as I felt for them.
When I studied psychology at university, I took a particular interest in low or lacking empathy.
Are you wondering what childhood experiences cause people to lack empathy later in life? If so, keep reading. I’ll cover 9 childhood experiences that cause people to lack empathy later in life.
1) The isolated child
Imagine a child growing up where emotions are neither seen nor heard. I remember a cousin who rarely received any emotional responses from her parents.
This lack of emotional mirroring creates a profound disconnect between two people — empathy starts with understanding, and understanding starts with seeing.
Kids model their emotional behavior from their primary caregivers — but what if they’re just not there to model from?
Look at Jeffrey Dahmer as an example — you know, the seriously creepy serial killer?
His early life was marked by isolation and neglect. He grew up in an environment where emotional connection was scarce. His father left at a very early age and his mother was often too ill to engage with him.
This lack of emotional nurturing must have played a massive role in his inability to empathize with his victims.
It’s a stark reminder of how vital emotional connection is in childhood. The fewer Jeffrey Dahmers we have knocking around, the better. Agree?
2) When nothing is ever good enough
How would you feel if you were constantly told you’re not good enough? Children who endure relentless criticism end up internalizing a sense of worthlessness. It’s sad.
And what’s worse is it leads them to have a lack of empathy later in life. They end up hurting other people as a result of being repeatedly hurt during childhood.
I’ve seen this firsthand in a friend who grew up with overly critical parents. He didn’t get unconditional love — it was always based on his performance.
He was diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality disorder and has had to grapple with the fact that he doesn’t have a normal empathetic mind.
While it’s easy to demonize narcissists, it’s also important to remember that they ended up that way due to having a rough childhood.
Even though they can’t feel empathy — they still deserve it. Most of us didn’t have to put up with the same level of bullying they lived with.
3) The scars of bullying: Empathy eroded by fear
Bullying doesn’t just leave physical scars; it deeply wounds the psyche too. Kids who are bullied often build walls around their emotions for protection.
I remember a schoolmate who became increasingly detached after being bullied — it’s a defense mechanism that can severely impair the development of empathy.
While I hate to take it back to serial killers again, I think it’s a good way to highlight to exaggerated consequences of early childhood experiences.
They affect society a lot.
Do you know Ted Bundy? One of the most notorious serial killers? He also faced bullying during his childhood.
The emotional walls he built for self-protection could have contributed to his disturbing lack of empathy. It’s a harrowing example of how bullying can leave deep psychological scars.
I’m certainly not excusing his behavior — no sir!
I just want to outline how his lack of empathy wasn’t random.
Bullying, pressure, and neglect. These are all things we should try our hardest to shield our children from.
4) Neglect’s silent echo
Neglect is a silent destroyer of empathy. When I worked as a teacher in Asia, I met children whose emotional needs were consistently ignored.
It made me feel extremely sad for them knowing how much it would affect them later in life.
Neglected children often focus on survival. This self-centric view of the world can persist into adulthood, leaving little room for understanding others’ emotions.
Serial killer alert!
My apologies, it’s just super relevant — and interesting!
But Edmund Kemper’s early years were marked by emotional neglect. His mother’s indifference towards his emotional needs likely contributed to his skewed emotional development.
Kemper’s case shows us how neglect can lead to a severe disconnect from empathetic feelings. He openly talks about it in his police interviews.
If you’re like me and have a touch of morbid interest — you might enjoy them. But I have to give you a trigger warning before you do!
You don’t want to pick anything up from him by example!
5) Empathy by example
“Monkey see, monkey do” — this adage is particularly true for developing empathy. Without empathetic role models, children may struggle to learn compassion and understanding.
I remember my neighbor’s kid, who imitated his parents’ indifferent attitudes. I was always shocked at how unphased this kid seemed.
Unlike other kids who are naturally curious about other people, he barely flinched whenever I said hello. Nor did he seem phased that his ignoring me made me feel super strange.
I guess empathy often grows where it is shown.
6) Trauma’s turbulent tide
Trauma can take on many forms and everyone experiences trauma differently.
It could be something like not feeling seen enough, or something more extreme like physical domestic violence.
Traumatic events alter how we see the world and connect with others. Childhood trauma is proven to change how our brain develops.
If we want to see more empathy in the world, we should be reminded of how important it is to give children a nurturing and trauma-free environment.
But that doesn’t mean we should be overprotective, either!
7) The overprotected child
Like birds learning to fly, children need to explore the world to develop empathy.
Overprotection can stifle this growth.
Research shows that being overprotected during childhood leads to reduced altruism later on in life.
It might be your first instinct to want to protect your child as much as possible — but there is a point where protection becomes harmful.
8) Domestic violence
When kids see or go through domestic violence at home, it really changes how they think about relationships and feelings.
It’s like wearing glasses that make everything look different. These kids might start to see things like caring and understanding in a way that doesn’t quite match up with what’s healthy or normal.
Take, for instance, someone like Charles Manson.
He grew up seeing a lot of domestic violence, and it really shaped the way he understood relationships and how he connected with others.
His story is a bit extreme, but it shows us just how much impact this kind of experience can have on a kid’s heart and mind.
Knowing about this can help us a lot. It tells us why it’s super important to give kids who’ve seen domestic violence the right kind of help and support.
From the isolated kiddos to those facing bullying, neglect, or domestic violence, it’s clear that our early years are more than just playtime and skinned knees.
They’re the building blocks of how we connect with others throughout our lives.
While people with low or no empathy have the potential to hurt us, we should also be considerate of their history — why are they like that?
We can still protect ourselves while extending kindness, even if we don’t get any in return from certain people.
Remember, everyone’s story is different. It’s easy to judge someone for not being Mr. or Ms. Empathy, but we often don’t see the whole picture.
Maybe that unempathetic person in your life had a tough childhood chapter you know nothing about.
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