Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Viewing criticism as an attack is a hallmark of immaturity
Baltimoron: I am in a relationship with someone who appears to be lacking empathy. There aren't many situations where he even seems to care about how I'm feeling. When I tell him that something he's said or done has hurt/angered/embarrassed/etc. me, he is swift to explain away why he did or said what he did. Apologies and acceptance of personal responsibility are a rarity.
Is there an Empathy 101 class or is this just a lost cause?
Carolyn: It may be a lost cause, but it doesn't sound as if you're there yet.
A lot of people with great empathy might see a past version of themselves in this guy. It's natural for many of us to take criticism as an attack — even constructive criticism. It's a hallmark of immaturity — protect self at all costs!!! — and it's quite common, even in people who seem to have everything going for them. Rather than deal with their insecurities head-on, many just learn to make their defenses more subtle.
This is especially true of people with perfectionist tendencies, who are tough on themselves, or whose families were tough on them, or both. Even people who have faced down that issue can still have an initial "wait, I'm not wrong/bad/a failure!" reflex when told something they may have missed.
It's not always a refusal to admit fault, just a longstanding fear of it — something they and their loved ones can overcome, as long as they have the will and patience, and they communicate along the way.
The question here is whether this guy can get over himself, and start recognizing that being called on something doesn't mean he's a jerk, or that you hate him, or that he's in trouble. It just means there's another way for him to look at a situation — your way — that he might have missed.
Of course, the proper way to respond when someone shows you a new way to look at things is, "I didn't realize that, I'm sorry, thanks for pointing it out" — which is probably the exact response you were hoping for.
At some non-charged moment, please say this to him. Explain that you've noticed he gets defensive when you tell him you're upset about something, and that you hope he realizes you're not attacking him — you're just telling him how you feel, in hopes that he can see something from your point of view. Empathy 101, for both student and teacher. His receptiveness (or thoughtful counterargument, or continued defensiveness) should tell you whether your student intends to show up.
Anonymous: I can see much of myself in your description. I automatically expect people to assume that I intended to hurt them, so I become both hyper-defensive and hyper-apologetic. I often apologize for others' misfortunes that had nothing to do with me. My initial reaction is not that I'm bad but that something bad will happen to me, such as losing the other person's love. It's not so much seeing criticism as a personal attack, but seeing criticism as a sign of impending danger.
Carolyn: The net effect is the same, though — potential loss. It's fear of losing the other person, be it because you're seen as mean or flawed or rude or whatever. Thanks.