• Keeping Friends

When a friend lacks empathy

Published: March 24, 2014 | By | 13 Replies Continue Reading
Some people are more sensitive than others. Sadly, there’s not much to do or say when your friend lacks empathy.


Hi Irene,

I have a friend who’s got a heart of gold and would do anything for you. She also happens to be a shirttail relative so she’s in my life for the long haul. But she’s also a competitive person who thrives on drama — and needs to have the upper hand. Whenever I mention a problem, she’ll take over the conversation with her own — bigger — problem. If I mention something wonderful that’s happened, she changes the subject to reflect back to herself.

Recently, I was told my elderly mother now needs hospice so I am faced with some difficult emotional decisions. When I brought this up in conversation with my competitive drama-queen friend, she listened for a minute and then started rambling on about how her own mother’s recent visit to the doctor for a bladder infection and how hard life can be … etc.

People like this leave you feeling invalidated and drained. Of course, I have learned not to expect support or empathy from this friend, and turn instead to others who are willing to listen and share equally. And I do appreciate the fact that this friend is always willing to help when I need a favor — and is very generous in other ways. But I often wonder if there’s a way to make my friend aware that she is making me feel insignificant in her shadow.

Signed, Meena


Hi Meena,

Watching a parent in decline takes a terrible emotional toll on adult children. At times like this, we hope that our close friends will listen, understand and commiserate—especially those who have been there for the long haul, and know us and our families.

Sometimes, people don’t know what to say when a friend is faced with an illness of her own or of someone close to her and they blurt out the wrong thing. But you say that this friend is often lacking in empathy and contorts conversations so she’s always under the spotlight, not you.

I’m not sure there is anything you can do to make her be a more feeling, sensitive person. You might just tell her that you need her to listen rather than to say something.

But you are absolutely right about having to readjust your expectations, appreciating the nice parts of this friendship and depending on other people for support.

Since you may be especially vulnerable right now, you are also correct not to make any rash decisions about a long-time friendship.

My thoughts are with you and your mom.

Warm regards, Irene

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Category: Dealing with difficult friends

Comments (13)

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  1. anon says:

    I hope this helps someone. I am older gal, single with multiple long/short friendships
    when my “senior’ friend got taken to hospital for month, I vowed 15 yr early to help
    her in emergency. she told me how shocked it was, that I literally was the only one
    except for her very BEST friend and ME. I was not her very good friend, but a neighnour
    who talked 1 every 6 months if that! we had nothing in common acually. she is 2o yrs older.

    I also know, people come into our lives for SEASONS, for purpose, and sometimes
    the least known friend, can be superwoman in your crisis.
    Not everyone will serve your highest value, if you feel used, or unheard, dump them .
    keep or downgrade those who are valuble and turn them “into casual fair weather friends:
    I can tell you i have been blocked, and i have blocked 2 people in 28 yrs of friendship
    so its RARE someone is horrible. for those suffering..make friends a priority,esp as you age, or at least find resources. get advice tips… to make it more interesting..remember that “senior friend’ well, she is in wheelchair , we had a bit of “nippy” conversation, she has changed, but i told her ” i am not angry with you. i will say, she cannot help me in my FUTURE needs…

    so, carry on…test people early on their ability to HELP..one of my other so called ‘ good friend” never did anything but lip service,,,,,,,,,. downgrading her to “holiday buddy”.

  2. Shaz says:

    I have a friend like this. Everything in her life is a drama, but when my dad died she said “there’s more important things happening in the world than you losing your dad” and then proceeds to moan about her own father being lazy. She is totally self-absorbed and I realise actually knows very little about me because she doesn’t ask. She has no empathy at all and she has a habit of worming her way in and becoming the ‘best friend’ to her own friends’ best friends, and then telling that person information about them that she knows they won’t know, because she is the ‘better’ friend. She even did this to her own sister, with whom she is fiercely competitive, and has managed to block her sister out of a relationship with her own best friend! So after trying to give her the benefit of the doubt and feeling used, abused and emotionally drained, I decided after seeing her this weekend to call the ‘friendship’ quits. Never felt better! I do hope things go ok with your mother. You need people around you who care about you, and not their own agenda.

    • R. Davidson says:

      You expressed the situation so clearly about this person. I think
      your decision to divorce yourself from her was a good one.
      The person sounds so duplicitous I would run the other way. Keep running. You might still have to do some damage control, but don’t forget the relief you are feeling from ridding yourself of someone so dangerous.

  3. Lily says:

    So sorry to hear about your mother 🙁 I hope everything goes well. I’m 17 and no expert, but your “friend”‘s actions are very characteristic of passive-aggressive and even toxic behaviour. It’s possible that she envies you/you make her more aware of her own insecurities. I know that’s not much help, but I for one like to know the reasons behind someone’s behaviour. It can help make it less personal. One way to protect yourself against her type of behaviour is assertiveness – if you can prepare some assertive sentences for when she starts making you feel the way you do, then you can bring her attention to the way she’s behaving, and also the way you want her to treat you. Good luck 🙂

  4. Denise says:

    Hi Meena

    I can imagine how disappointing and unimportant you must feel when important conversations you want to share with her are swept aside for the “real” important news.

    My suggestion is next time she turns the conversation to herself after you’ve shared something important (or maybe anytime)is to touch her arm and say,”Katie, I really wanted you to listen about ______________ and help me with it, but you changed the subject. It’s happened several times before and I feel hurt.” –something like this where you tell her what she does and how it affects you. Or you could not follow her thread and return to your own subject. I think she’ll either realize it, apologize and change or downplay it and not change. If she doesn’t change, I wouldn’t tell her important things like your example above anymore. Find empathetic listeners.

  5. caraK says:

    P. S. please forgive the many typos in my reply. I inadvertently hit the post button before I completed my post and I did the editing. it may not be clear that what I was trying to say is the way you described your friend reminds me of the people who disappeared from my life during my medical crisis. I believe that any friend we keep as a close long term relationship should match our own moral and social codes. it is extremely hard what you’re going through with your mother’s illness. it was extremely hard for me this past year fighting for my own life through a rough medical diagnosis. I feel that holding on to the taker or self centered type of friend, and lowering or adjusting our expectations to their low level, is very dangerous. I was able to rise above the terrible way certain key people treated me and dh while I was fighting for my life, though my feelings were often very hurt. my faith in God is what got me through it. but someone else might be so discouraged by the mistreatment they receive at the hands of self centered friends, they might not be able to rise above it. whenever we say a friend is important to us, we raise them up to that level of importance in our brains and in our hearts, then if they let us down bigtime during a time when we are extremely weak and vulnerable, they could hurt us very seriously. I am NOT talking about mere Aacquaintances. I mean close friends and family. it is perfectly good n natural to expect close family and friends to be supportive, empathetic, and to assist you during times of need. and having a person to listen to you talk is essential. again, God bless you.

    • Meghan says:

      Hey Cara, you said:

      “I feel that holding on to the taker or self centered type of friend, and lowering or adjusting our expectations to their low level, is very dangerous. I was able to rise above the terrible way certain key people treated me and dh while I was fighting for my life, though my feelings were often very hurt. my faith in God is what got me through it. but someone else might be so discouraged by the mistreatment they receive at the hands of self centered friends, they might not be able to rise above it. whenever we say a friend is important to us, we raise them up to that level of importance in our brains and in our hearts, then if they let us down bigtime during a time when we are extremely weak and vulnerable, they could hurt us very seriously.”

      I couldn’t agree with this more. I find that a lot of the time people don’t recognize who their true friends are and they end up repeatedly hurt and disappointed because the relationship is so one-sided. I have learned to walk away from ‘friendships’ like this because they truly are poisonous, as you said in your earlier post. People who are so self-centered don’t deserve to have genuine friends since they are sucking the energy out of others. It is really sad though, because I find that most people don’t know what the true meaning of friend is these days.

  6. caraK says:

    first, may I encourage you to believe that healing for your mother is always possible. god bless both you and your mother during this time, and I pray that she will be healed……… in regards to your challenge with your friend, you begin your post by saying she has a heart of gold and will do many things for you. but you do not mention these things. this past year I went through a terrible medical situation. it was a life and death situation. thank God I came through and that I am alive with a beautiful prognosis. there was a problem with one of my oldest friends being not present at all for the whole year, and hence not supportive in any way at all. before I had major surgery last year I wrote her a long letter. like your friend she always talked about herself and her many many complaints. she never seems grateful for the many good things and blessings in her life. since she and I became adults, I listened and listened to her complaining. and I never gave her any advice however she often asked me for my assistance and i always gave it. she has chosen to live her life as if the whole world must revolve around her life. I always told myself that she would be my friend forever, because we’ve been friends since we were born. Prior to this past year, she had let me down big time a few times before. especially a couple of big ones. but I always put the age of this friendship first. no matter what. the long letter I wrote her before my surgery talked about all these things, and that I felt the long friendship had to come first, however I stated that I could no longer listen to her complaining. I even asked dh to make a copy of the letter so I could keep a copy. it’s about 12 handwritten pages long. it is a very loving letter, fill in the letter I do stay that I can no longer listen to her complaining, because to listen to someone else complaining year after year and decade after decade, is a terrible burden. especially when the person expects you to give them no feedback, and the person is never willing to listen to your problems in return…….. but I never sent it!! the letter and its copy have sat on a shelf in my kitchen for almost a whole year now!! actually a couple of weeks ago I put it away in a filing cabinet, probably for good. I’m moving forward. something kept me from sending it during this whole previous year. and now I no longer want to send it. I have come to realize when you’re going through a terrible time, it is essential to have the support of your good friends. it’s not just a nice thing, it is essential. now a year later, I have chosen to put behind me all friends and family who turn their backs on me and dh during this terrible time. it is difficult and heartbreaking. through a lot of thinking, talking, and prayer, I have come to realize that friends and family who aren’t givers, and I mean especially get rid of a listening ear during times of crisis, as well as other forms of help, I realize these sorts of people are not mere annoyances but truly are poison to life. having had to fight tooth and nail for my own life for a year, I have come to realize this fact. elsewhere on this website I read a guest article talking about how essential good friends are to each of our well-beings. I know this. I have never met a person who is of a giving nature who would withhold, as you say your friend, a listening ear to others; givers seem to be mostly very good listeners. also I do not know what you mean by a golden heart. a golden heart and plies to me a person who gives what is needed at any given time to her friends and family. sometimes a listening ear is needed, other times somebody to do the laundry, cook dinner, or babysit for a child. I know for me that I kept giving everybody another chance and another chance, honoring the length of a friendship or the closeness of a family member, despite the fact that they had proved over and over again that they were self centered, self focused people who is easily let other people down during times of crisis. it took me 1 year to evolve to the point where I am now. the year ago I didn’t realize that there will be people quotes people in our lives who we disappear from the entire year!!!! so now I’ve made my decision to move forward, leaving the taker type of people behind me, i’m moving forward to me to give her type of — the people who enjoy being empathetic. it has been a heartbreaking difficult situation for me, and it is all my during these recent 2 months then I am beginning to move forward……. whatever your decisions may be, I hope I may have assisted you somehow. god bless you and your mother, and bring joy every day into your lives during this very very difficult time.

    • Mrs. R. Davidson says:

      I am glad to you are moving forward and hopefully, enjoying
      life again. I have a new motto for myself: Using patience and delay.
      Patience and delay and help me when to stop and think about taking an impulsive action.

      By writing that letter, you were helping yourself to get your
      thoughts and feelings on paper. But by not sending it out, I think
      you saved yourself aggravation. You were able to review your feelings from a different vantage point. The first person to think of is yourself and then your circle widens. If this “friend” is being harmful to you peace of mind, she leaves the circle.

  7. Amy F says:

    So sorry about your mother. I hope that you do have friends and family who give you the emotional support you need.
    To me, it sounds like you’re already doing everything right. You have realistic expectations for that you can and cannot get out of this particular individual. I find that what I have realistic expectations for people and I “expect” certain typical behaviors, I’m far less frustrated. It doesn’t sound like this is a friend who is able to integrate feedback even if you were to ask for more in terms of an emotional cushion from her, so I’d avoid her when you’re feeling particularly vulnerable, so you’ll be better able to focus on the positve things she had to offer when you’re in a better frame of mind.
    I hope things go as easy as possible with your mother.

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