Losing empathy when depressed: here is why

In this article we will discuss why you might be experiencing a loss of empathy when you are depressed. 

We will also discuss some telltale signs of empathy fatigue and how to cope with empathy fatigue when you have been affected by depression

Why do we lose empathy when we are depressed?

If you are experiencing a loss of empathy or the inability to empathize with others if you have been affected by depression, a possible reason is that you are expercine empathy fatigue.

A study on the empathy of adults affected by clinical or subclinical depressive symptoms found that depression has been linked to one’s inability to distinguish oneself from others which results in extreme empathetic distress. So empathy fatigue becomes a defense mechanism for people with depression to oretech themselves. 

People who experience empathy fatigue- usually caregivers- are often overwhelmed with their feelings of concern and compassion for others that they begin to grow numb. 

Let us take a closer look at empathy fatigue and how you can identify it in yourself and how to cope.

What is Empathy fatigue?

The most simple way to understand empathy fatigue or compassion fatigue is the inability to care. It is usually understood as a defense mechanism and your mind’s way of telling you to care for yourself.

Empathy fatigue is a negative consequence of repeated exposure to stress and trauma and can manifest both in terms of physical or emotional symptoms. 

The Clevelandclinic identifies the Emotional symptoms can include feeling numb, unable to relate to others, Isolating yourself, lack of energy to care, tense, and anger, inability to respond to the world around you, and self-blame. Whereas the physical symptoms include headaches, nausea, insomnia, fatigue, loss of appetite. 

Empathy fatigue is so pervasive that it can impact your relationships, lead you to use substances, and might also influence avoidance behaviour from work and other people. 

What causes empathy fatigue?

The cause of Empathy fatigue according to Ugo Uche for PsychologyToday involves the denial of painful or difficult feelings triggered by negative or traumatic events. A person’s denial runs so deep that they are unable to feel negative and positive feelings- they become emotionally numb as a way to protect themselves. 

So a person who has not allowed themselves to feel any emotions as a way to preserve themselves cannot adequately feel empathy  for others even though they might understand what empathy is.

What are the Signs you are experiencing empathy fatigue

Let us look at some patterns of behaviour, thought, and feelings that might indicate that you are experience empathy fatigue as a result of depression:

Kimberly Drake for psych central identified some signs 

  • You are critical and judgemental of others, yourself, and the world.

Kimberly Drake for psychcentral writes that people with low empathy may excessively criticize others. They might even blame others and also label or judge people without understanding others. 

A study to assess the cognitive and affective components of empathy found that personal distress that resulted in egocentric and cynical world view and increased focus on self criticism and self preservation was linked to lower empathy due to decreased perspective taking. 

  • You find it difficult to connect with others or relate to others

People with depression who struggle with empathy fatigue also lack the inability to put themselves in others’ shoes and feel like they cannot relate to other issues that people bring up.

  • Inability to see other’s point of view

Because people with depression struggle with immense pain and suffering that they are unable to understand that people are suffering too or that others have life experiences that are also negative. This is because of their egocentric worldview. 

  • You have trouble understanding how your behavior affects others

Low empathy may result in you not realizing that their actions can affect others. Because depression often involves so much emotional distress, when confronted by others you might have a hard time accepting that you are capable of hurting other people because of your behaviour. 

It is likely that you think that because you are hunting so much, there is no possible way to hurt others- but most people with depression do not realise that some of their behaviours affect people.

  • Difficulty maintaining relationships

A lack of empathy and negative cognitive tendencies like egocentrism can make you seem self-centered in your bid to protect yourself. 

This can lead to constant friction in relationships because you find it hard to understand others and at the same time be understood by them. This can result in a lack of meaningful relationships without much awareness.

How to cope with the loss of empathy?

Here are a few steps you can take to manage and cope with empathy fatigue:

Develop Awareness

The first thing you can do once you notice or have been told that you seem to lack compassion is to take time to pay attention to how we feel, think, and behave. 

While you could be afraid of these difficult feelings and scary thoughts that often come with being depressed, the best thing you can do for yourself as an act of self care is to sit with these feelings and acknowledge them for what they are without judgement. 

Similarly, taking the time to reflect on your thoughts can be a great way to acknowledge the inner battle you might be struggling with. 

Developing an awareness of these thoughts and feelings can give you insight into your behaviour which might not be as adaptive as you’d might think. So developing an awareness of how your behaviour impacts your relationships and you as a person can be a good place to start. 

Self compassion

As you develop awareness, there is a possibility that it will drive you to more self-criticism and anger towards yourself. So take effort to practice self-compassion if not for others at least for yourself. 

UNderstand that you are not alone and the struggle of being affected by depression is not a simple thing. While your behaviour might impact others, accepting it with self-compassion can be a way to heal yourself. 

Dr. Neff for selfcompassion.com writes that self compassion can include positive self affirmations, or positive self talk, soothing yourself by giving yourself a hug or a pat on the back, and acknowledging that you are having a hard time- whatever feels natural to you.

Strike Balance. 

Now, because empathy fatigue can be caused because of a lack of work-life balance, striking a healthy balance between you-time and other-people time can go a long way.

Give yourself permission to find a balance between what feels like moments of rest and moments of active engagement with them world outside. Stress can be a major negative influence that aggravates symptoms of depression, so take active effort to maintain enough time to rest and care for yourself.

Activities of self care can include eating healthy, sleeping well, exercising, doing things you enjoy, giving yourself a warm bath after a day’s work etc. It can also be reaching out to other people and seeking help.

Connect with others 

Feeling connected with other people can be so healing to those experiencing empathy fatigue and depression.

Take time to go out of your way, push yourself to reach out to people you trust and care for you and talk about what you are struggling with. 

Choose to allow yourself to be loved and cared for by them and allow yourself to be vulnerable with those who want to help you. It might be scary but social connection and a sense of belonging and love is crucial to your mental health. 

Consider therapy 

Now, if you notice that you have tried all that you can from the list above or you find it hard to start and get going, consider talking to a professional who can guide you through this process. 

Therapists and counsellors, if you do not already see one for your depression, can be extremely helpful in developing insight and awareness about your patterns and also guide you in executing strategies for healing and coping. 


In this article we have discussed empathy fatigue as a result of why you seem to lose empathy for others and yourself when you are depressed. We have also explored some ways in which you can help yourself when you identify empathy fatigue in yourself. 

Frequently asked questions related to “Losing empathy when depressed: here is why”

What disorder causes lack of empathy?

Antisocial personality disorder is characterized by a lack of empathy and remorse. People with this disorder are often seen as manipulative, often with an agenda and do not have concern for others safety as well as their own. They also have no regard for how their behaviour impacts others nor do they have regard for the rights of others. 

Do narcissists lack empathy?

A person with narcissistic personality disorder does not necesarily lack emoathy- as in no empathy- but they might have a lowered sense of empathy and compassion for others however they can learn to sow and develop empathy for others if they choose to. 

What do you call a person who lacks empathy?

A person who is unable to feel empathy or lacks empathy are associated with two psychological terms- sociopath and psychopath- which are both non-medical terms for a person with Antisocial personality disorder.

A sociopath is someone with very low empathy whereas a psychopath is a person who experiences no empathy. .

Why do I have no feelings for anyone?

If you find that you do not have feelings of care and love for others, you might be struggling with anhedonia- the inability to feel excited or interested in others, things, and events-which is a symptom of Depression and anxiety and PTSD as well. 

Severe levels of elevated stress can also trigger feelings of emotional numbness and at the same time some medications can also cause numbness.

What do you do when your partner has no empathy?

If you feel that your partner has no empathy in the relationship, understand that they can learn to do and say the right things; however, this requires you to communicate your experiences directly and honestly with them. 

Communicating what you need and what are some ways both of you can get what you both need in the relationship without judgement can be a great place to start.





Schreiter’s, Pijnenborg GH, Aan Het Rot M. Empathy in adults with clinical or subclinical depressive symptoms. J Affect Disord. 2013 Aug 15;150(1):1-16. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2013.03.009. Epub 2013 May 11. PMID: 23668900.

S. Melillo, F. Caputo, C. Colletti, C. Mazza, M.P. Mazzaferro, C. Elce, E. Prinzivalli, S. Orlando, M. Casiello, EPA-0168 – Can depression affect empathy? European Psychiatry, Volume 29, Supplement 1, 2014, Page 1, ISSN 0924-9338, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0924-9338(14)77627-8.

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