Sympathy vs. Empathy

Before we dive into the ADHD and empathy connection, let’s clear something up. Sympathy and empathy are often confused despite being two distinct feelings. It helps to understand the differences between the two if you’re going to look closer at one of them — in this case, empathy.

Sympathy is a feeling of caring about another person’s grief or pain. Someone experiencing sympathy feels pity for the person going through a difficult time, but they also feel removed from it. This might be because they can’t relate to what that person is going through, or because they don’t know the person very well.

Empathy, on the other hand, is a feeling of sharing in someone’s emotions. Someone experiencing empathy will attempt to understand what that person is going through and see it from their perspective. Empathy is all about acknowledging and understanding someone else’s emotions and sharing in their experience. While sympathy is usually reserved for tragic circumstances, empathy can be felt in all kinds of situations.

Types of Empathy

To understand how ADHD comes into play with empathy, it helps to think about the ways that it is expressed. There are two main types of empathy which someone can experience:

  • Cognitive empathy: This type of empathy focuses on identifying other people's feelings through social cues, such as facial expressions, body language, and changes in voice. It is the cognitive understanding of someone’s experiences and emotions.
  • Affective empathy: This type of empathy, also known as emotional empathy, is about sharing in someone's emotional experiences through your own sensations and feelings. When it’s as if you can feel another person’s pain in your heart, that’s affective empathy.

Some also argue that there’s a third type of empathy: compassionate empathy. This is when sharing in another person’s feelings compels someone to take action to help them in some way. It’s sometimes referred to as empathic action.

Does ADHD Affect Empathy?

There have been a number of studies exploring the connection between ADHD and empathy. The results are sometimes generalized in a way that makes it appear as though ADHD leads to lower empathy levels, but when you look more closely, that’s not necessarily the case.

For example, people with ADHD symptoms had lower scores for affective empathy in one study compared to participants without ADHD symptoms. However, their empathy levels were still considered to be within a normal range overall. In another study, adults with ADHD were found to have deficits in their ability to empathize. However, this study involved a small group of participants, all of whom had never been treated for their ADHD.

The Impact of ADHD Symptoms on Empathy

Some researchers have theorized that part of the reason people with ADHD get lower empathy scores in these types of studies is because their symptoms interfere with expressions of compassion. Someone who has ADHD may already struggle with emotional dysregulation, for example, so processing someone else’s emotions in addition to their own can be particularly challenging. Impulsivity, restlessness, and a short attention span can all make it harder to focus on another person’s emotional needs and spend the time to make sure they feel heard and supported.

Executive dysfunction can also create obstacles to experiencing and expressing empathy. For example, symptoms like forgetfulness and disorganization could result in not showing up to support a friend when they’re going through something difficult, like having surgery or losing a loved one. It’s not that the person with ADHD doesn’t want to be there for their friend or fails to recognize the significance of the situation. It’s that their symptoms can make it harder to take empathic action.

Ways to Show Empathy

There’s good news for ADHDers who are worried about their own empathy levels. Experts have found that empathy can be learned, so this is a skill you can work on strengthening despite your ADHD symptoms. Here are a few ways to work on showing compassion in an empathetic way:

  • Avoid giving advice. When someone is going through a tough time, focus on letting the other person talk through their feelings. You can ask questions to understand them better, but don’t tell them what to do or use their experience as a springboard to talk about your own experiences.
  • Be mindful. Life can get busy and hectic, which makes it harder to pick up on other people’s emotions. Try to take moments to focus on the present and get in touch with those around you.
  • Work on yourself. If you’re struggling emotionally, it’s hard to be there for others. Manage your ADHD with a solid treatment plan and attend therapy if you need help processing your own emotions.