The Effects Of Childhood Trauma On Ability To Feel Empathy.

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One of the key features of those who have suffered significant and protracted childhood trauma, especially if it has resulted in associated conditions which can go under the various names of borderline personality disorder (BPD), complex-PTSD or developmental disorder, depending on the frame of reference upon which the diagnosing clinician is drawing, is an impairment of empathic feelings for others.

This impairment may manifest itself in 2 opposing ways :

  1. The individual may be unable to feel very much empathy for others at all, or, alternatively :
  2. The individual may be overwhelmed by intense feelings of empathy for others.

Let’s look at each of these in turn :

1, UNABLE TO FEEL EMPATHY FOR OTHERS.

Individuals with conditions such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) (see above) are in a state of such intense psychological pain, fear and anxiety that it is essentially impossible for them to focus upon anyone’s suffering but their own (just as someone suffering from excruciating tooth-ache, for example, would find it hard to think of anything else). When such extreme anguish continues relentlessly for months and years, the individual is liable to become ‘stuck’, through no fault of his own, in survival mode, or, in other words, in an habitual state of ‘fight, flight or freeze. This is an automatic, physiological response that has hard-wired into us all through millions of years of evolution, and forces the mind to be solely focused upon one’s own survival).

Often, too, those who cannot feel empathy for others have themselves missed out on empathic care during their childhoods (particularly early childhood). And, to make matters even worse, this early life emotional neglect can greatly impair their own ability to evoke feelings of empathy and caring directed towards themselves from others, perhaps ending up with a diagnosis of anti-social personality disorder and becoming a social pariah, left to drown in a sea of profound loneliness and despair. In essence, as a young child, the individual was been unable to internalize, or form an adequate mental representation of, a caring, loving, nurturing, attentive and attuned mother.

A third reason such individuals are unable to feel empathy for others may be due to their traumatic early life experiences disrupting their emotional development to such an extent that they were unable to develop a ‘theory of mind.’ The term ‘theory of mind’ refers to having the ability to understand that other people have minds that, whilst similar to one’s own, contain different desires, plans, intentions, beliefs, knowledge, emotions. and mental states in general. The failure to develop such a ‘theory of mind’ in those who have experienced dysfunctional mothering as babies, infants and young children may occur due to the lack of adequate bonding and attunement between the mother and child in early life.

However, it should also be noted that impaired development of a ‘theory of mind’ is also linked to various other conditions, including autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, mental retardation, congenital blindness and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and damaged frontal and / or right hemisphere brain regions.


2) OVERWHELMED BY INTENSE FEELINGS OF EMPATHY FOR OTHERS.

What appears to be hyper-empathy (i.e. excessive empathy) displayed by those who have experienced disrupted development in early life may, in fact, be explained by the individual’s inability to form an adequate boundary between himself and others, resulting in him experiencing their mental anguish as his own. For example, such an inability to form boundaries can also occur as a result of an ‘enmeshed’ relationship with a narcissistic mother.

Finally, it has also been hypothesized that, when parenting is unpredictable and abusive, children develop enhanced empathic abilities so that they are able to sense and ‘pick up on’ subtle and subconscious signals that parents may give out that alert the child to the need to be ‘on guard.’ In other words, in such cases, hyper-empathy has developed, in evolutionary terms, to help the child protect himself and, ultimately, to survive.

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSC; PGDE(FAHE).

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About David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

Psychologist, researcher and educationalist.

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