Apathy: the opposite of empathy (A Complete Guide)

In this article, we will discuss Apathy: the opposite of empathy. We will do that by describing empathy and compare it with apathy. We shall discuss the origin of apathy, its experience, and its signs. We shall also explain the application of apathy in our daily lives, its societal sources, and its treatment.

Apathy: The opposite of empathy 

The opposite of empathy is apathy. Apathy refers to a lack of emotions or feelings. Such individuals have a very indifferent state of mind towards people, things, and situations. Apathy is a psychological condition in which a person suppresses their positive and negative emotions e.g. motivation, happiness, excitement, or passion. These people are uninterested in life in general be it socially, emotionally, academically, or at an occupational level. Apathy can be a symptom of an underlying psychological disorder, a medical condition, or a neurodegenerative disease. In some cases, apathy may exist independently as well.

Empathy vs apathy

Empathy refers to the ability to identify the emotions of another person and seeing the world from their perspective. Such people are also called highly sensitive people since they feel things a lot, be it their own emotions or the emotions of others. They are also driven to help individuals who are in pain and need their help.

In contrast, apathy refers to an indifferent and emotionless state. These people are disconnected from their own emotions and the emotions of other people. It can be due to prolonged suppression of one’s feelings. They experience a lack of motivation and interest in the activities of life and also don’t experience the urge to help someone in pain if they are unrelated to them.  

Origin of Apathy

Apathy comes from the Greek word apatheia which means without feeling or without emotions. Other terms used to describe it include the absence of passion or insensibility. It was first used by Stoics who described it as a state of indifference towards events and situations that are outside of a person’s control.

Throughout the years, the meaning of apathy went through different changes and was used in different contexts. The current meaning of apathy became popular after world-war I when soldiers started experiencing PTSD symptoms that were then known as ‘Shell shock’. These people employed apathy as a form of defense mechanism. For them, apathy served as a protective strategy against their traumatic experiences in the war. 

We can say it helped them to disconnect and adopt a state of indifference towards experiencing the pain of being separated from their loved ones due to war, attacking/killing the enemy, and death of comrades on the battlefield. Such people experienced an overall state of numbness.

John Dos Passos, a famous novelist describes apathy as “Apathy is one of the characteristic responses of any living organism when it is subjected to stimuli too intense or too complicated to cope with. The cure for apathy is comprehension.” (1950)

The experience of apathy

People with apathy may experience purposelessness in their life. In other words, they do not derive meaning from everyday things as other people do. They may also exhibit sluggishness in their overall approach. According to positive psychology, people with apathy feel that they lack the skills to confront challenges and see them as irrelevant. In a way, it is a form of learned helplessness.

Almost everyone in the world experiences apathy at some part of their life. It usually occurs when people experience stress for prolonged periods of time or go through various events that lead them to feel disappointed and dejected. Apathy allows them to disconnect from negative feelings. So, in a way, it is a protective strategy that people employ to distract themselves from negative emotions.

Usually, apathy is a temporary state that lasts for a short time. However, if unaddressed or untreated, it can stay for a longer duration. In such cases, apathy may be reflective of deeper level psychological and emotional issues that need to be properly addressed and processed, if a person wants to get over it.

It is important to mention that apathy is different from reduced emotional or facial expressions. Rather, apathy is a psychological state that can become pathological in some cases. Extreme forms of apathy occur with people who are experiencing neurodegenerative diseases or brain disorders e.g. Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, dementia. In some cases, apathy may co-occur with major depressive disorder. Whereas, in other cases, it may exist independently of other conditions as well.

Signs of Apathy

There are different signs of apathy. These must occur for at least 4 weeks for a person to be apathetic. It includes the following:

  • An apathetic individual experiences low or a lack of motivation. This is inconsistent with his age, culture, or health status.
  • Changes take place in thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Such people find it difficult to interact with others. They do not feel emotions be it positive or negative. Their thinking may be disconnected from their feelings and be dominated by complete disinterest.
  • An apathetic state may affect a persons’ quality of life and overall relationships. This can be in the form of poor performance at work or academics. Similarly, they may not derive the same level of pleasure from their relationships or various activities as before.
  • Apathy is unrelated or not the result of other conditions like substance use, medical diseases, and conditions that affect orientation and level of alertness.

Applications of Apathy

Apathy is a way to cope with stress. It can be done in an adaptive or maladaptive way. The adaptive way of coping would be to be able to not let rejection, stress, and disappointment dominate you. Rather, having the capacity to not let it affect you is one way apathy can be used in a positive way. Similarly, after a traumatic experience, apathy serves to protect a person and helps them overcome the experience slowly and gradually.

However, if a person starts to rely on apathy to continuously escape from negative emotions by distracting or suppressing them, then it can be maladaptive. If done for a long time, such an apathetic state may become permanent and leave a person in an emotionless and indifferent state. This applies to both positive and negative feelings. e.g. such a person may not be able to feel happy or be excited about anything.

Societal sources of Apathy

According to David Meslin, an activist, people are more inclined to be apathetic due to our social systems that do not employ the public to actively participate and get involved in various events. He argues that our systems are poorly designed and because of that, many people do not know what to do and how to make their contributions when something happens. This obstructs the self-motivation of people. In other words, apathy is quite harmful to society and breeds individuals who are indifferent towards the evil and suffering of others.

Apathy also originates from schools since students are not intrinsically motivated. Factors like grades, college acceptance, etc are all external motivators. The majority of the students do not study to understand and learn the content. They find assignments and subject material as meaningless and irrelevant. Factors that contribute to such an apathetic attitude can be from the media, peers, home life, school struggles, etc.

Bystander apathy occurs when we are in a situation of emergency but do not take responsibility to do anything about it since we expect others to take charge. In other words, the responsibility gets divided and no one does anything to help. Apathy has also contributed to us being indifferent in the online world especially when we see others being cyberbullied, harassed, verbally abused, etc. In a way, it contributes to the bystander effect when we see pain and suffering but not let it effects us especially if it happens to someone who is not in our immediate social circle.

Treatment of Apathy

Treatment of Apathy may depend on the underlying causes. Medications can help especially if apathy is linked with medical or psychological conditions e.g. antidepressants, antidementia agents, antipsychotic agents. etc.

Apart from medication, psychotherapy can be helpful in uncovering the source of apathy and psychological & social factors contributing to it. An apathetic individual can work in collaboration with the therapist to process any unprocessed emotions, engage in behavioral activation, and address negative thoughts, especially through Cognitive behavioral therapy.

Other potential treatments for apathy are still under-research.

FAQs: Apathy-The opposite of empathy

What is apathy a symptom of?

Apathy can be a symptom of other mental health problems like depression or schizophrenia. It can also be indicative of underlying neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, etc. In some cases, apathy can occur as an independent state as well.

What is apathetic behavior?

Apathy is a lack of interest and motivation for different life activities and social interactions. Such individuals have repressed emotions and experience an indifferent state. Due to this, they are unable to maintain the quality of their job, relationships, and perform daily activities with the same vigor as before. They also lose interest in activities they enjoyed before.

What is the cure for Apathy?

The cure for apathy depends on the underlying cause. If the cause is related to depression or schizophrenia, it can be treated by antidepressants and antipsychotics. If it is related to neurodegenerative disease, then it can be treated with antidementia or related medicines. Finally, if the underlying cause is psychological, psychotherapy particularly, Cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective treatment for apathy.

What is the meaning of apathy?

The dictionary defines apathy as ‘lack of interest, enthusiasm or concern’.

Conclusion

In this article, we discussed apathy-the opposite of empathy. We found that the opposite of empathy is apathy. Apathy refers to a lack of emotions or feelings. Such individuals have a very indifferent state of mind towards people, things, and situations. Apathy is a psychological condition in which a person suppresses their positive and negative emotions e.g. motivation, happiness, excitement, or passion. These people are uninterested in life in general be it socially, emotionally, academically, or at an occupational level. Apathy can be a symptom of an underlying psychological disorder, a medical condition, or a neurodegenerative disease. In some cases, apathy may exist independently as well.

 I hope you found this article interesting. If you have any queries or comments, please state them in the comment section 😊

Citations

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apathy

https://www.healthline.com/health/apathy#outlook

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