As I am sure you’ll agree: empathy is, generally speaking, a very good thing. In fact, I would hate to live in a world without empathy. It stands at the very core of our social interactions, making it possible to feel compassion, care, and love for others. Empathy brings so much beauty and meaning into our lives that it may seem as if we could never have enough of it.
Empathy is what enables us to feel what others feel as well as to appreciate their needs and desires. When our empathy is very high, we become acutely aware of the even minute details in others’ emotions – we seem to know exactly how they feel without them having to utter as much as a single word. Exceptionally empathetic individuals experience profound connections with others. They care deeply about everyone’s feelings and their needs and wants. Everyone but themselves.
Individuals with exceptionally high levels of empathy don’t only neglect their own needs, but they are also easy target for others who would want to take advantage of them. Even perfectly nice people can end up hurting those with overactive empathy, because the latter often neglect to communicate their own needs and desires, or the importance of them.
It is worth noting that empathy has a physical dimension. Scientists have identified special neurons in our brains, called mirror neurons, that cause people to mentally experience actions done by those that they observe. Moreover, recent studies indicate that these same mirror neurons cause us to mimic the emotional states of those around us. This is not to say that there aren’t environmental factors that affect our empathy level. But, the physical side of empathy helps explain why empathy levels are typically relatively stable over time and can be very difficult to change.
Those who have healthy levels of empathy are able to sympathize with others while still holding onto themselves. They can appreciate the needs and desires of others without neglecting their own. When empathy drops too low, the result is a highly selfish, unpleasant person who can easily and heartlessly manipulate others. On the other hand, when empathy is too high, we get a person who is very nice to everyone but themselves.
Do You Have Overactive Empathy?
How can you tell if you have overactive empathy? The surest way to tell whether you have overactive empathy is if you can detect the feelings of others without them having to say anything, and you usually get it right. You are very careful not to hurt others, and you might even get upset by the mere idea of causing someone else discomfort. If you disagree with someone, you may forgo your own perspective if you understand theirs. For example, a husband comes home and tells his wife that he is tired and needs some alone time. If she has overactive empathy, then she will let him rest without negotiation even if she is also exhausted, say, after taking care of the kids all day. She might not even hint at her own need for rest. It is enough that his needs are justified.
In some cases, overactive empathy may even be a hindrance to helping others. You may have a difficult time enforcing boundaries with your partners, friends, and relatives. In some cases (but not always), those with overactive empathy may also have difficulty watching, and consequently helping, people experiencing physical pain (they may be “afraid of blood”). Their strong level of empathy causes them to feel as if the pain is happening to them, which can make it more difficult for them to administer help.
Self-care for those with overactive empathy
I wish I had a magic formula to make your levels of empathy just right: not too high and not too low. But as I mentioned earlier, empathy is a real, physical thing, and like most things with a real physical dimension, it is resistant to change. In fact, I don’t know how to change it at all. However, what I can do is share with you some ideas for managing overactive empathy. You will probably continue to deeply feel for others, but you might be able to better guard yourself against some of the negative byproducts of having overactive empathy.
Self-care is absolutely essential for those with overactive empathy. These individuals are usually so absorbed in the inner world of others that they might neglect their own most basic needs, and are often out of touch with their own desires. First, make sure that you take care of your needs. Get adequate sleep. Take the time to prepare and peaceful enjoy nutritious and delicious food. And make some time to exercise. This will help restore balance not only physically, but also emotionally, and consequently may help normalizing your empathy level. Aside from taking care of your physical needs, here is some advice on how to overcome some of the negative effects of overactive empathy.
Make Time To Be Alone
If you have overactive empathy, it is very important that you take time to be alone. Because you are readily (and very) affected by everyone around you, you may easily lose sight of where the views, needs, and desires of others end and your own begin. This is especially true when there is someone else physically present with you. As a result, it is essential that you spend some time completely alone. This may be your only chance to get in touch with how you really feel, and what you really need and want. With this added clarity, you can then return to your interactions with others with a clearer sense of your own point of view.
It might also be a good idea to write down what you learn about yourself during these times alone. Say you are facing a problem with a relative, and, as always, you fully understand and appreciate their perspective. But, when you ask yourself how you feel about whatever the situation may be, and what you need and want, you realize that it would be detrimental to go along with them. It may be helpful to write down how you feel about the situation, and what you need and want, to help you crystallize your own perspective before you return to your relative to discuss the issue further. Writing down your own perspective can provide you with an additional guard against being overly influenced by the views of others.
Practice Saying “No”
People with overactive empathy have a very difficult time saying “No.” They are so acutely aware of the needs and desires of others, and have such a profound need to help others, that they often take on a lot more than is good for them. It is sufficient for the other person to have a good enough reason for their request, and the overly empathetic person feels obliged. Even though they may feel a ting of discomfort when saying “yes,” they rarely take the time to examine the root of their discomfort. Instead, they reassure themselves that they were right to help someone else. If, however, they did take the time to understand themselves, they may find that they take on a lot more than they should. It’s ok to say “No.” In fact, it can be said that it is a basic survival skill.
Give Yourself Permission To Change Your Mind
Individuals with overactive empathy often believe that they do not have the right to change their mind. Indeed, changing your mind can cause some social tension. If you made a promise, you feel obliged to follow through. In some ways this is a very good thing. It makes you reliable and dependable.
However, as life unfolds, it is sometimes not only in our best interests, but absolutely essential for our well-being to change directions. At other times, overwhelmed by the emotions and perspectives of others, overly empathetic individuals may agree to an arrangement that was never in their best interests. As a result, it is imperative to give yourself permission to change your mind from time to time.
Interacting with those less empathetic than you
If you have overactive empathy, then your relationships are very important to you. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you skipped the self-care section and went straight to this part (in which case, I’d recommend you go back and look over the previous section).
Here are some ideas that can help you maintain meaningful, healthy relationships.
Gauge The Empathy Level of Others
This advice will probably not make much sense to those who do not have overactive empathy. But those who do can put it to good use. With only a little practice, exceptionally empathic people will find it easy to gauge the empathy level of others.
You can gauge the empathy level of anyone you come in contact with by how sensitive they are to your feelings, needs, and desires. Individuals that lack empathy may hardly care about how you feel even when you make yourself very clear. It may feel as if their own needs and desires are so powerful that they simply cannot sense anyone else’s through them. They are poor listeners, they often get bored if anyone else is talking for too long and become visibly disinterested if the conversation centers on anyone else. They would interrupt you even if you were talking about the most important thing that ever happened to you. They are also good at standing up for themselves, and can be quite confrontational.
People with healthy empathy levels will empathize with you when you make your perspective clear, and will sometimes, but not always, pick up on how you feel all by themselves. Individuals with healthy levels of empathy take turns: sometimes they are the center of attention, and sometimes you are. Those with healthy levels of empathy make sure that their needs are met. But if someone who is dear to them needs their help, they may put their own needs and desires on hold. They have found a way to balance their own needs with the needs of others.
Finally, people with overactive empathy will pick up on how you feel even when you are trying to hide it. If you are feeling down, they will know that something is wrong when, or even before, you say “hello.” They are excellent listeners. And such people will rarely step on your toes, and if they inadvertently do, they will feel terrible about it and apologize.
Interacting With Those Who Are Less Empathetic
When two people with overactive empathy interact, there is no problem. They are so careful not to hurt each other that they usually don’t. However, in all other relationships, those with overactive empathy are in a weak position. Generally speaking, the person with less empathy has more power in the relationship. As a result, it is very important to learn how to protect yourself when you interact with those who are less empathetic than you are.
If you have overactive empathy, you may find it easy to interacting with others that have similar empathy level. But it can also a good idea to interact with those who have a healthy level of empathy. The reason is simple: you can learn from them! You should still exercise some care, because those with a healthy empathy level can take advantage of those with overactive empathy without meaning to do so. When dealing with individuals with healthy levels of empathy, those prone to over-empathize should make sure that they make their perspective clear. By learning to clearly express their needs and desires, those with overactive empathy can create and sustain healthy relationships with those whose levels are healthy, as well as learn from their example.
If you have overactive empathy and you want to protect yourself from being taken advantage of, you have to exercise extra care when dealing with individuals with low empathy. It is still possible to enjoy and sustain such relationships, but only if the overly empathetic individual develops the necessary skills. Remember, when dealing with people who have low empathy, the other person is barely even aware of where you stand, and so it is essential to not only clearly state your position, but to learn to stand up for yourself. You’ll need to convey the importance of what you are communicating through your tone and body language. When dealing with anyone less empathetic than yourself, try to make sure that the relationship is balanced. Make sure that you don’t do all the giving. Learn to say “no” if you are asked to do more than your fair share. Allow yourself to change your mind if you were trapped into an arrangement that doesn’t suit your needs. And ask. Ask for what you want and need.
Once you realize that different people have different levels of empathy, you can act a lot more rationally in your relationships and learn to protect yourself from harmful interactions.
Like many other things, living life with overactive empathy has both advantages and disadvantages. I wrote this guide to help individuals with overactive empathy to protect themselves against some of its pitfalls. By becoming more mindful of their empathy and the effects that it has on their lives, and learning how to manage it, those with over active empathy can learn to enjoy their relationships without neglect and harm to themselves. As a naturally empathetic person, with some practice, you can tip the scales to achieve a healthy balance between yourself and others.