Empathy is a desired quality. Developing it should make us better, but when it becomes an emotional burden it can hurt, even a lot.
Last update: June 21, 2021
Empathy, coupled with good emotional intelligence, is an adaptive advantage. It can help us in society and at work. However, when this ability to perceive and recognize the emotions of others is extreme, it risks overwhelming, blocking or limiting us. In fact, being too empathetic can sometimes hurt. How can you avoid it?
Sometimes being too empathetic can interfere with some decision-making processes, such as intelligently choosing the position to adopt in the face of the problems of others or making the most right choices of the case.
If you recognize yourself in this description, you will find in the following lines some tips to better deal with the situation.
Being too empathetic can hurt: demythologizing empathy
Friends of particularly empathic people are grateful to have someone close to them who can understand them emotionally, so deeply.
However, just like with medications, there are side effects associated with overdose: if the controlled dose helps the body to heal, too high a dose is likely to do a lot of harm. The same occurs when prolonged or too frequent use of the same drug is made.
Empathy is often associated with the feeling of universal justice. This belief gives empathy almost a moral value, leading us to believe that decisions based on this quality are more just and correct. However, this is not always the case.
After the Munich Putsch, a couple took care and hid from the police, Hermann Göring - one of Hitler's lieutenants - seriously injured. The couple died sometime later in a concentration camp.
Being too empathetic sometimes hurts - what to do about it?
The suffering caused by empathy has a broad spectrum ranging from physical pain to emotional contagion. The latter, although not negative in itself, can turn into a problem and even interfere with the normal course of daily life.
Generally, the suffering caused by the excess of empathy is closely linked to the weight of the emotions of others or to their management. In this regard, in the following lines we present some tips to regain control of emotions.
1. Focus on your own needs
It might sound selfish, but our mental and physical health is in danger of deteriorating if we put our interests on the back burner to prioritize those of others.
Before deciding to help a person, therefore, you need to check that you are actually able to manage the situation. This, in fact, is one of the main reasons why too much empathy causes suffering.
Prioritizing yourself isn't bad at all. If you are not in a position to help someone, you risk not being successful and you will only end up getting more tired.
3. Others' problems are not ours
The intensity of the emotions aroused by empathy can unconsciously lead to taking on the problems of others. Sometimes distancing yourself from the person can help reduce the intensity of empathy and make it easier to think of useful solutions.
Reducing personal contact with people in need of help is one of the best strategies, as empathy is activated mainly through seeing and hearing. Often a text message is more helpful than a live conversation.
4. If empathy causes discomfort, we need to relativize
The ideal would be to have a switch to turn empathy on and off when it is intense. Unfortunately, however, it is not possible at all, but one can always relativize this feeling; that is, don't take it too seriously or even use a sense of humor.
In this way, it is possible draw a dividing line between the emotion and its external observation. This also reduces the fatigue of compassion.
5. Set limits
Being very empathetic is a gift that allows us to know the reality of others and to tune in with them. The suffering and joy caused by empathy are genuine, not a reflection or just an idea.
Emotional vampires, narcissists, angry or self-pitying people are among the profiles to avoid in order to establish an interpersonal relationship. If you have no choice but to deal with them, set boundaries that don't allow these people to take advantage of your ability to put yourself in their shoes.
6. Being too empathetic causes suffering: carving out a space for oneself
Loneliness and calm are very useful for recharging the energies invested during the day. Setting aside a time and a place to do it is by no means a selfish act: avoiding running out of batteries will allow you to take care of yourself and others in the best possible way.
As you can see, empathy can produce very different effects depending on the different components of our emotional intelligence. High empathy, coupled with the ability to regulate and manage emotions, can be a great benefit.
However, it could even turn into a great condemnation if the two components are not qualitatively well synchronized.