Is It Possible to Be Too Empathetic? (And How to Cope if You Are)

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Ever since I can remember, other people’s pain — both physical and emotional — seemed to infiltrate straight into my own body and mind. As a kid, whenever someone fell on the playground, my stomach lurched up and down like an erratic elevator. Even if someone just talked about getting hurt, my belly reeled in empathy. To this day, my body still reacts the same way whenever I see or hear someone in distress (watching the news can oftentimes bring on a feeling of physical pain and panic). 

The emotional absorption, though, hasn’t always been so clear-cut, as feelings like depression, fear, and anger are often kept under wraps. But, as I became older, it became more and more apparent just how much I’m affected by other people’s emotions. I can be perfectly at ease and feeling energized, but if I’m around certain people too long, I internalize their negative emotions, which makes me feel unwarranted anxiety, sadness, and exhaustion. On the other hand (thank goodness!), I also tend to feel more joyful and hopeful when I’m around those people who are honest, kind, and… empathetic. 

In the last year or so, I’ve also discovered that there’s a term for people like me: empath. When I first heard it, I have to admit that it sounded like something out of a sci-fi story (the example that came to mind was Deanna Troi from Star Trek who had the ability to sense emotions and fittingly worked as the ship’s counselor). Yet, the more research I did, the more I realized how much the empath label fits. 

In an article for Psychology Today titled “10 Traits Empathic People Share”, psychiatrist Dr. Judith Orloff describes empaths as people who tend to absorb other’s emotions and/or physical symptoms. An empath herself (and author of The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People), Dr. Orloff lists some of the most common traits that empaths share, which include: highly sensitive natures and senses (an empath can get more easily stressed than others by noise, smells, etc.), a developed sense of intuition, a tendency to become overwhelmed, and an inclination to nurture others at the expense of one’s own mental health. 

I know that I can relate to almost every part of that list… and now understand that when a family member called me “oversensitive” when I was a kid, it wasn’t because I was weak or wrong — but rather that it was simply a part of who I was — and will always be. As Dr. Orloff recommends, though, empaths learn how to center themselves so that they don’t become too overwhelmed. Empath or not, we all feel overloaded at times, so the following suggestions may help you navigate life, whether you relate to the intuitive Deanna Troi or the logical Spock!

  1. Take Breaks: In your day-to-day life, remember to take both small and large breaks. Small breaks may be as simple as taking a couple of minutes for deep breathing exercises in your car before you get out — especially if the drive itself was stressful, lying on the couch and closing your eyes for a few minutes after grocery shopping, even taking a walk around the block when your partner’s voice is starting to grate on your nerves! Larger breaks include indulging in a long bubble bath, taking a day off from online work and social media, and getting out in nature. Taking breaks can help reset, rejuvenate, and balance — so make sure to take them as soon as you feel overwhelmed — or even know that you will.
  2. Set Boundaries: If someone continuously makes you feel ill-at-ease and/or drains your energy, think about limiting your time with that person. And when you are in that person’s company, remind yourself that you do not need her approval… so if she wants something from you that you do not want to give, you can learn to push away any unnecessary guilt and also may feel more empowered to say no. One of the most compassionate ways, by the way, to say no is to simply thank the person for thinking of you and explain that you are too overwhelmed to take on anything else right now. If you’re not sure, you can always say that you need to check your calendar first and will get back to that person within the next several days. And, if you think you may be too much of a people pleaser (empaths tend to be), it may be very helpful not to agree to anything in the moment (unless, of course, you know that you really want to).
  3. Trust Yourself: Last but not least, remember that you are the one who knows you the best. No one else can gauge how much time you need to recuperate. No one else can tap into your intuition. No one else can learn how to balance your own life as well as you can. So, honor your gift, realize your strength, and… trust yourself. 

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APA Reference
Shawn, T. (2020). Is It Possible to Be Too Empathetic? (And How to Cope if You Are). Psych Central. Retrieved on August 30, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/is-it-possible-to-be-too-empathetic-and-if-you-are-how-to-cope/

Scientifically Reviewed

Last updated: 28 Aug 2020 (Originally: 30 Aug 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 28 Aug 2020
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.