5 traits of people who didn’t receive much empathy as children, according to psychology

We talk about empathy all the time here at Ideapod.

And it’s for good reason. It’s so so important. 

As I mentioned in a previous post, some researchers have even gone as far as to state that it’s a key part of what makes people good. 

Other experts would agree.

As noted by  Karina Schumann, a professor of social psychology, “empathy is a powerful predictor of things we consider to be positive behaviors that benefit society, individuals, and relationships.”

Even the average person seems to concur. In a survey by Ernst and Young, 86 percent of respondents believed that empathetic leadership in companies improved morale, while 87 percent said it was “essential to fostering an inclusive environment.” 

However, not everyone is fortunate enough to grow up in an environment where empathy is nurtured, and it’s well established that our childhood experiences follow us into adulthood.

How does a lack of empathy in childhood affect a person as an adult?

Well, it can have profound effects on personality and behavior.

Today, we get into five traits that such individuals often display. 

Let’s dive in. 

1) They shut people’s feelings down 

This is a big one.

As noted by Psych Central, our communication in adulthood often mirrors the communication dynamics we observed and experienced in our early years.

People who grew up with parents who lacked empathy might have heard phrases like “Stop crying; it’s not a big deal” or “I don’t want to hear about your problems.”

So what do they do?

They repeat that same communication style as adults. 

In romantic relationships, they might respond to vulnerability with phrases like “Why are you making such a big deal out of this?” or “You’re just being too sensitive.” 

At work, it might manifest as dismissive responses to colleagues’ ideas or a lack of support for team members’ emotional well-being.

As you might imagine, this can make it difficult to connect emotionally with others.

2) They have trouble understanding people’s feelings 

It’s not only that those who didn’t receive much empathy as a child don’t want to hear about people’s feelings; they genuinely have trouble understanding them. 

Why’s that? 

Well, as it turns out, a lack of empathy can be contagious. 

As noted by Dan Agin, a Doctor of biological psychology and author,  “Mothers who just lack empathy–or who fail to manifest or act on empathy for other reasons–produce children who themselves have empathy deficits, and these children, when they have children themselves, will carry the consequence to future generations.”

When someone expresses their emotions, these individuals might struggle to interpret the emotional cues or to empathize with the underlying feelings being expressed.

This lack of understanding can result in inappropriate responses or a failure to respond at all, which can be perceived as insensitivity or indifference. 

In professional settings, this might lead to misunderstandings with colleagues or an inability to effectively manage a team’s emotional dynamics. 

In personal relationships, it can create a sense of emotional distance or disconnection, as they may not recognize when their partner or friends need support or empathy. 

3) They find it hard to forgive

They find it hard to forgive 5 traits of people who didn't receive much empathy as children, according to psychology

Forgiving isn’t easy, and we’ve all held grudges for longer than we know we should. 

But those who didn’t get the empathy they needed as a child find forgiving even more difficult. 

This is widely acknowledged by experts such as Psychosocial Rehabilitation Specialist Kendra Cherry, who noted it as a sign someone is lacking empathy in a recent Very Well Mind post

This struggle often stems from, as detailed in the previous point, an inability to understand the perspectives and feelings of others.

They find it hard to see beyond their own hurt. 

This can lead to prolonged conflicts and a tendency to hold onto negative feelings. 

In personal relationships, this can cause tension and prevent the healing of rifts, while in professional environments, it can hinder conflict resolution and collaboration. 

The inability to forgive not only affects the quality of relationships but can also be detrimental to one’s health.

As noted by Johns Hopkins Medicine, studies have shown that forgiveness is actually very beneficial for us.

It can lower stress and anxiety levels, improve cholesterol and lower the risk of heart attack. 

4) They aren’t good at controlling their emotions

Picture this: someone cuts in line in front of them, or a colleague dismisses an idea of theirs without much consideration. 

Individuals who didn’t receive much empathy during their childhood might react with disproportionate impatience or anger in such situations.

In fact, “Reacting with impatience or anger when frustrated with other people” is another sign of empathy noted by Cherry. 

You see, empathy is generally noted to decrease anger.

It helps us to understand and relate to the emotions of others, which in turn can temper our reactions.

It allows us to consider the perspective of the other person, perhaps realizing that their actions weren’t intended to be personal or harmful. 

Without this buffer, however, individuals can find it difficult to regulate their emotional responses, leading to overreactions in situations that might otherwise be resolved calmly. 

This lack of emotional control can be particularly detrimental in high-stress environments or situations that require a level of diplomacy and patience, impacting both personal well-being and professional relationships.

5) They have in forming and maintaining deep relationships

What’s the result of all this? 

A complex set of challenges that significantly impact one’s ability to form and maintain deep, meaningful relationships. 

When you combine a tendency to shut down others’ feelings, difficulty in understanding emotions, a hard stance on forgiveness, and a struggle with emotional regulation, the result is a person who might find it extremely challenging to connect with others on a deeper level. 

Relationships thrive on mutual understanding, empathy, and emotional support, and without these elements, they can become superficial or strained.

The bottom line

That just about wraps it up for today, folks. 

Growing up without much empathy can shape an individual’s personality, and as you probably have noticed, the effects are less than positive. 

However, it’s important to remember that our past doesn’t have to dictate our future.

Recognizing these traits is the first step towards understanding and addressing them. 

If you think you, or someone close to you, might need some help becoming more empathetic (who doesn’t?), we have a full post on this.

You can find it here

As always, I hope you found some value in this post. 

Until next time.

Picture of Mal James

Mal James

Mal James Originally from Ireland, Mal is a content writer, entrepreneur, and teacher with a passion for self-development, productivity, relationships, and business. As an avid reader, Mal delves into a diverse range of genres, expanding his knowledge and honing his writing skills to empower readers to embark on their own transformative journeys. In his downtime, Mal can be found on the golf course or exploring the beautiful landscapes and diverse culture of Vietnam, where he is now based.

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