Day 900: The opposite of empathy

Last night at a therapy group, we talked about many things, including personal injuries and the horrific murders in a Charleston, South Carolina church.

As usual, the topics covered the board in the group room.

At one point, I said to the group members, “It looks like we’re talking about the opposite of empathy. What is the word for that?”

And then we all struggled, together, to come up with one word to describe the overriding theme in the room — a word that could do justice to the pain people had suffered. We were able to put some words on how it felt to encounter a lack of empathy, but it was difficult to come up with one word for the opposite of empathy.

I didn’t take a picture of the whiteboard, with the words we tried, but I do remember these:

  • Non-sympathy
  • Coldness
  • Shamelessness
  • Heartlessness
  • Evil

One of the group members used her phone to look up antonyms of empathy, which were only three:

  1. Apathy
  2. Misunderstanding
  3. Unfeelingness

Here are some more words I wrote down — after that group discussion — about my personal experience with the opposite of empathy:

The opposite of empathy

I don’t know what word to put on it

I know it when I encounter it.

The first time I did, it

was a Resident named Hyatt

at Children’s Hospital.

I was 10

in pain

and he said

“You are not in pain

You are a spoiled brat

And you are taking our time

away from children who are

really sick.”

My response was


then finding a

doctor or nurse

empathic enough

to listen to me,

to believe me,

and, using their skill and power,

to stop the pain.

I wonder what happened

to Dr. Hyatt?

Did he learn and get

better at dealing with

children in pain?


Here are some photos I took yesterday, before and after I learned about the killings in Charleston:

Here’s one I took today:

Just as the group last night had trouble finding one word for the opposite of empathy, I’m having trouble finding one piece of music for this post.

Here’s one that was playing last night, as I walked back to my car, after the group:

I found “Tears of Rain,” performed by Gary Burton, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny,  Roy Haynes, and Dave Holland, on YouTube.

What words or music might you choose, for the opposite of empathy?

My gratitude to all  who contributed to my writing this post and to you — as always — for reading it.

Categories: personal growth, photojournalism | Tags: , , | 47 Comments

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47 thoughts on “Day 900: The opposite of empathy

  1. That story was so horrible. I’d normally go with apathy but I think evil works in this case. I really like that Keep it Simple message.

  2. Callousness, Ann. That’s my stab at it, but it’s not quite exactly right.

    I empathize with your photo of the biker passing the line of folks outside the school. That’s a great one.

    And I’m mourning the loss of all that love in our world down in Charleston at the hand of a hateful, wrongful young man.

  3. Inhumane and unfeelingness come to my mind. There is such a lack of love, understanding and caring.
    The impact is mean and cruel.
    Sorry you ever met Dr Hyatt Ann….

  4. Indifference. It comes from an expression I heard a long time ago: “The opposite of love isn’t hate. The opposite of love is indifference.” It’s a powerful word because it implies, to me, that someone has gone into difference, has purposely chosen to separate from others and how they feel. We all have differences and that’s a good thing, but indifference is what happens when we allow differences to obscure what we share.

    And doctors should never be indifferent. It’s implied in the Hippocratic oath: “First do no harm.”

    • I’ve heard that expression before, Christopher, and I truly empathize with and appreciate all your powerful words about this.

  5. I’m so glad you addressed this topic of the horrific shooting, Ann, because it’s been on my mind and that of the nation collectively. A client who was coming in yesterday to talk about childhood trauma but was angered and upset by the shootings had to vent about it for some time first.

    Here are some words that came to my mind about the opposite of apathy:
    Flagrant disregard
    Antisocial personality
    Superiority complex
    Self aggrandizement

    Bless you, Ann. I’m sorry that Wyatt was so dismissive and judgmental about your needs and your true pain. Interesting that you recall his name. When I was in my early 30s I started undergraduate school with the goal if becoming a psychologist. Anytime anyone asked what was my major, I’d say “I’m studying to be a psychologist.” My ex and I visited a psychologist to get treatment for his depression. I made my statement of intention at some point during the interview. He responded, “Forget it. You’re too old, and it’s harder to get into PhD programs in psychology than medical school.” I long ago forgot his name, but I let his callous disregard of my goal to help propel me. Nine years after I started classes as a freshman I had my PhD in clinical psychology! I’ve never looked back and love what I do. Empathy! Yeah!

    • Sonnische, your empathy is beautiful. I am so glad you turned that nameless psychologist’s lack of empathy into such a triumph! By the way, one of the group members last night also came up with the word “arrogance.”

  6. Oops, opposite of empathy! Autocorrect did that. But I guess it jumped the gun. Apathy works as an opposite too!

  7. Opposite of empathy. It really IS hard to pin down the exact sentiment, but it looks like it’s a pretty unifying concept. We knwo what we want to say and we know how it feels even if we can’t quite express it.

  8. I surely hope Dr. Hyatt learned to be more empathetic! That was an unconscionably cruel thing to tell a child. Or an adult, for that matter.
    I guess to me the opposite of empathy is heartlessness.

  9. I would definitely go with Heartlessness. That to me encompasses so many of the other words. Dr Hyatt sounds like a person who chose the wrong profession.

    • I’m so grateful that you chose to read my blog, Lisa!!!!!! Love the “Empathy” you brought here today.

  10. The opposite of empathy to me is selfishness, or indifference, most likely selfishness. When I was young, my parents and other adults used to say that I was using a “cover up” for my acting selfishly and shy because they considered me an artist. Artists, unfortunately, are stereotyped and labeled as being “selfish” or “uncaring”, when it’s the other way around. Big surprise when I actually turned out to be quite “nerdy” for my age, and it didn’t have to do anything with being an artist at all. It turned out I developed several interests for many things and had no friends. I would rather study insects or planets, for example, than going to dances or doing things kids my age did. The bullying was constant, as it turns out some people can even “smell” other people who are different. I was diagnosed with the mildest form of autism, ‘Aspergers’, but no longer called that because it falls under the ‘autism spectrum’ umbrella. It is characterized precisely by a lack of ’empathy’ and ‘indifference’ towards social relationships. Nevertheless it’s quite the opposite. People with AS are quite empathetic, they just express it in a different way. Doctors are thought to be highly empathetic simply because they are doctors. It doesn’t work that way. It takes many years to develop true empathy, and many doctors are more concerned with theory than with being empathetic.

    • I am sure that many people empathize with what you bring here, Maria. I am SO grateful for your empathetic presence — it’s great medicine!

  11. Hatred.

    I have no music I can share, but I do wish to say: I hope Dr. Hyatt took up another profession, and if he didn’t, hopefully he learned compassion, and in doing so, understands how empathy opens our hearts and minds to the suffering of others. It teaches us to respect others circumstances and moves us away from selfishness to selflessness.

    • I love this comment. Thanks so much.

      • You are most welcome. I am truly sorry you had to endure that cruelty from an individual who certainly did not respond appropriately. We become scarred by insensitivity and it echoes back for a lifetime. We may be adults, but there is still that child within us that recalls how painful an event was, and no matter how we try to forget the other persons injustice, we are left remembering how vulnerable we felt.

        Ann, you are better because of this incident, as crazy as that might sound. It is no wonder you came to your profession filled with such compassion. Enduring a major medical concern throughout your life has enlightened you to help others on their journey toward freedom from heartbreaking circumstances.


      • You bring such beautiful and insightful gifts, every time you comment. I am truly grateful.

      • Likewise, wonderful lady, likewise.❤️

  12. Great question! I think empathy is an ability some develop more easily than others. If it’s the ability to feel or think with someone else and to articulate this convincingly so that the other person feels understood, then the opposite would be either inability or refusal to develop the ability. It isn’t about whether I agree with them or not. It’s about connecting with another human being. Even though it comes easier for some people, it’s a learned skill–a way of reaching out to another human being. I don’t know if there are persons unable to empathize with anyone.

    On the other hand, if I’m dealing with a person who seems to have no conscience, I don’t know how I would empathize with him or her–unless I pretend not to have a conscience. I don’t think that’s possible (pretending I don’t have a conscience). I can build bridges of understanding to most people, including bridges that connect with wishing I hadn’t done something foolish or harmful to others, or with feeling left out and abandoned by everyone in the whole wide world. But I don’t know what it’s like to live with no conscience at all.

    Thanks for this timely post. It has me thinking hard about our culture and how many people seem to think empathy is a ‘soft’ way of dealing with people. This sometimes seems to fuel chest-thumping lack of empathy. What happened yesterday in Charleston was indeed horrific, and not an isolated incident. Also not easily resolved or ‘explained.’ I don’t know whether I would be able to empathize with the thoughts or feelings of the young man who pulled the trigger. I do, however, see him as a human being just as I am a human being. Which isn’t to say that makes what he did OK. It isn’t OK.


    • I connect with everything you wrote here, Elouise. Thanks for building this amazing bridge with your empathy.

  13. As my brother was struggling with his heart issue, he went to a family event and our aunt said “You don’t look sick” and that angered him tremendously (and I don’t blame him – I didn’t attend the event but you can bet I would have found the words!). So, I really, really hope Dr. Wyatt learned. The unseen is sometimes the most powerful.

    • The unseen may be the most powerful sometimes, Kate, but it’s always powerfully wonderful to see you here.

  14. I would have chosen apathy as well Ann. I’m sorry you had a dimwit for a doctor as a child. What he practiced wasn’t apathy though, more like cruelty. ❤
    Diana xo

  15. I have been choking back so many words since the Charleston tragedy, Ann. There is still so much racism in that area, I witnessed it for 4 years in the 90’s and it always made me shocked and angry. I have a lot of stories I could share, but I’ll wait. There is so much healing to do. My hope is that some of this long held bigotry and hypocrisy will come to light, and they won’t just dismiss this as the action of another sociopath. There are layers to this story. I’ll stop now.

  16. A good post, Ann. Thank you.

    Some words for the opposite of empathy are:/heartlessness and callousness. I wonder whether the opposite of.empathy might be something more active rather than lacking, like sadism.

    Hyattistic could be our new word for lack of empathy at the thoughtless, rather than murderous, end of the spectrum.

    • This comment is Maureenably heartfelt and empathic. I LOVE “Hyattistic.” Thank you for turning an old ogre of mine into a useful concept.

  17. MAG

    Indifference related to narcissism is for me opposite of empathy ;
    Dr Hyartt is a good example, but you and your job are good opposite

  18. You have given us something to think about Ann. First, I hope Hyatt lost his job as soon as possible. For him I would have no empathy. I like Christopher’s indifference. Strangely enough, sympathy could be a contender. This is because that word implies identification with the sufferer’s suffering, and that doesn’t always help, because no two people will experience the same event in the same way. Empathy implies an ability to imagine what it must be like for another person, not how it would be for oneself. Hyatt’s treatment appalled me and made me angry, but what you needed was an understanding of your helplessness.

  19. Ann,
    Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone’s misfortune. Empathy goes a step further because you understand their suffering, as you may have walked in those same shoes.

    The opposite of either can be found in the following self concerned statement: A recession is when my neighbor is out of work; a depression is when I am out of work.

  20. There were 2 workmen on the side walk. The first man dug a deep hole. The second man looked at it for five minutes then filled it in. When asked what they were doing, they replied that the man who puts the tree in was off sick that day.

    Your photos reminded me of this joke Ann. 😀

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