Dear Prudence

Help! I’m Worried I’m Incapable of Feeling Empathy for My Friends.

In We’re Prudence, Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. The answer is available only for Slate Plus members.

A young man looks frustrated next to a crying face emoji.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by SpicyTruffel/Getty Images Plus and AaronAmat/iStock/Getty Image Plus. 

Every week on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer:

Dear Prudence,

My mother has always been a high-strung and dramatic person. Most of my childhood involved having to manage her emotions to some degree, and this got progressively worse the older I got. My teenage years were especially difficult, what I now understand to be an extended and severe Borderline Personality Disorder cycle. I’ve come out of it bruised but whole, and I’m a happy and functional adult with a good grip on my own emotions. Except for one admittedly large issue: I think she used up all my empathy reserves. If friends are struggling, my default response (albeit inside my own head) is anger and annoyance. It’s a defense mechanism that protected me from her instability as a teenager, but I seem to apply it to everyone. I know this is unfair, and I know my friends aren’t doing the same “I WANT to be unwell!” (a direct quote!) thing my mother did. I know if people are grieving for an animal or relative they aren’t going to take it to the same bizarre extremes as my mother did. I know that nobody is going to do any of the abusive and manipulative things my mother put me through. I am extremely empathetic in the abstract, noticeably more so than a lot of people when it comes to issues like addiction, mental illness, homelessness, etc.

But when it comes to people I actually know and care about, I can’t seem to muster up any actual empathy or even much sympathy. I’ve done therapy on and off over the years and come to terms with my childhood and been empowered to call it abuse, but this seems to be one hurdle I can’t get over. More therapy isn’t an option, both financially and logistically. I want to be a better friend and a better person, and while I try to be supportive I’m sure my internal emotions are limiting my abilities to do much more than material help like sending care packages. I just can’t seem to switch off this reaction or even have a more caring reaction alongside the initial anger/annoyance!

—Son of My Mother

Dear Son of My Mother,

When I shared your question, readers responded with a lot of kindness and generosity. And I think you deserve those things. I really do. The ideas I thought were most helpful fell into three main categories.

First and most important, go easy on yourself! On this topic and in general. You are not terrible for feeling the way you feel. You don’t sound particularly flawed. No one has complained. You’re probably in the realm of normal. And if you’re not, it’s for a good reason. But, if you really do want to feel more empathy for others, empathy for yourself might be the best way to get there:

The best way for me to describe how I overcame this is that I spent time nurturing myself until my empathy reserves came back. You’re so used to caregiving that it’s important to remind yourself that when friends are going through things, you don’t have to feel empathy — @katieandmister

It’s really okay to have a feeling/thought pop up! What you choose to act on is more important to your friends’ experiences of your relationships — and if you ask them, they can give you feedback on what makes them feel supported. You can accept yourself! You’re doing great — @OleaBlossom

Maybe the resentment you feel is because you spent so much time taking care of someone when no one was taking care of you. Take care of yourself, ask for care from others and allow yourself to receive it, and when it comes time to care for someone else you may be less resentful — @ashleyn1cole

Try out Loving Kindness Meditation practices. Maybe pick up Kristen Neff’s book, see if there are any local guided opportunities. As you end up extending grace and kindness to yourself and others, it increases your empathy for yourself too, which can be hard with that history. — @LurkHer

I think OP should be patient and kind with himself. He doesn’t lack empathy — he said it himself, shutting down is a defense mechanism. Healing and learning to trust your own feelings again takes time. In the meantime, I suggest he adopt the strategy of “fake it til you make it.” — @AlyssaFranke

Second, be open about this. Talk to your friends. Tell them what you’re struggling with, and even ask what they need from you.

I wonder if his friends feel his reaction the same way he feels it. It might help him to check in w/them (at a neutral time) to see if his reaction to their needs is “landing” in a helpful way. — @KollockShepard

I would suggest a routine of explaining this to those in your support system and asking them to be specific about what’s helpful when they’re going through hard times. If they provide a list, that may eliminate the pressure of previous guesswork the mother created. — @AHindery

Given that therapy’s not currently an option, I think it’s okay to be direct with people you’re close to and just preemptively tell them what your deal is. “Here’s why I am the way that I am, I’m sorry if it ever impacts you, it’s a thing I’m working on so I can do better.” — @dex_ruth

Finally, you can’t control what you feel, but you can control what you do—which might ultimately be even more impactful. Focus less on what’s going on in your head and more on how you can help when a friend is going through a hard time.

I’d say have a pre-set reaction plan, IE, if a friend has a death, they can actively help by making some muffins or baby/pet-sit while the friend deals. Practical help can be as useful as emotional support. And be upfront in friendships that big emotions aren’t their best area. — @baddestmamajama

As someone also trying to be better to people, two things: One, be candid that you are trying and think through ways to express empathy if you can. Two, consider being the organizer/planner. Your emotional distance can serve really well for taking care of things in crisis. I sometimes come off as a little cold or distant and you may as well, but I am ALSO the project manager. Taking things — airport pickups, sorting catering, calling a cleaning service — off people’s plates is a good and kind thing to do. Be the person with the bottomless bag filled with hankies/hand sanitizer/ibuprofen/spare masks/glasses wipes/antihistamines/local takeout menus/hard candies/coins for the meter/phone chargers/bottled water/energy bars/etc. That’s a good person to be. — @sesmith

You say you want to be a better person and a friend. That’s always admirable, but I assure you that you’re already doing better than you think you are.