What Is Empathy?

Empathy is a wide-reaching term used to describe sensitivity to other people's feelings. It means not only recognizing the emotions of others, but also understanding them and imagining what they might be experiencing. This is actually differentiated by the two types of empathy:

  • Cognitive empathy: Identifying other people's feelings through facial expressions, body language, and other types of cues.
  • Affective empathy: Sharing in someone's emotional experiences through your own sensations and feelings.

People with a lot of empathy are often thought to be sensitive, kind, and compassionate. Meanwhile, those who are lacking empathy may be perceived as cold, blunt, or selfish.

Do People with ADHD Have Less Empathy?

Scientists have attempted to assess whether having ADHD lowers one's capacity for empathy. In one study, researchers found that people with self-reported ADHD symptoms earned lower scores for affective empathy compared to other participants. However, they were still within the range of what's considered typical for empathy levels overall. In addition, cognitive empathy levels among those with ADHD symptoms were similar to the rest of the study group.

Another study measured empathy skills in adults with ADHD who have never received treatment for their disorder. The results found that these study participants had a lack of empathy skills. In their discussion of the results, they noted that there may be a connection between empathy and executive functions, which are the skills that tend to be most challenging for people with ADHD.

There are limited studies on ADHD's connection to empathy. Slightly lower empathy levels in people with ADHD seem to be fairly common in these studies, but some of those findings are complicated by small study group sizes, self-reporting, and the interplay of ADHD symptoms.

ADHD Symptoms and Empathy

People with ADHD are sometimes thought to have lower empathy levels. In some cases, this is due to the fact that some ADHD symptoms are mistaken for a lack of empathy or even narcissism. For example, if someone makes impulsive decisions that have a negative impact on others, it can come across as insensitive or selfish. If someone with a short attention span can't focus on a conversation, it might appear that they don't care about their friend who is trying to confide in them.

These types of responses are hardwired into the ADHD brain, and they're not necessarily an accurate reflection of how empathetic someone with ADHD actually is. A better measure of how much empathy someone with ADHD has is how they feel about their impact on others. They might feel badly about the way their symptoms affect others, or they might not care. Although there are differences in brain function to consider, ADHDers can also be just like neurotypical people in that they can have varying levels of empathy.

How to Develop More Empathy with ADHD

Empathy was once thought to be solely an innate trait that some people were born with. While there have been studies supporting a genetic element to empathy, scientists have also discovered that empathy can be learned. That's good news for people with ADHD who are concerned about their own empathy levels. You can teach yourself to be more compassionate and empathetic — although it may take some practice to master.

The following are some examples of strategies that someone with ADHD can try to increase empathy:

  • Look for body language cues, changes in tone of voice, and other indicators of how someone is feeling.
  • Practice being an empathic listener, and try to ask about someone else's feelings or experiences rather than inserting your own.
  • Minimize distractions when someone is trying to connect with you. You could turn off your phone, for example, or ask to have the conversation in a quiet, private place rather than a busy public setting.

In addition to working on your empathy in your day-to-day life, it's also important to recognize when your ADHD is impeding your ability to connect with others. Managing your symptoms through treatment can be an important step in improving your ability to empathize and form stronger, healthier relationships with the people in your life.

In fact, medication could increase your empathy levels. One study of children and teens found that after 12 weeks of taking methylphenidate for their ADHD, study participants scored higher on an empathy test than they had prior to beginning their treatment. At the same time, their ADHD symptoms decreased.

If you're interested in ADHD treatment, Done is here to help. Start with our one-minute online assessment and we'll connect you with a licensed clinician to discuss your options.