Is it possible to have too much empathy?
Empathy is, "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another" (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). So how can too much empathy be a bad thing?
It can become a problem when someone over-identifies with somebody else’s feelings and literally takes them on as their own. For example, feeling anxious for your friend when he/she is really stressed at work and this anxiety keeps you from concentrating on the things you need to get done. Or perhaps you are the one all of your family members flock to for advice and you become overwhelmed by all of their problems. This can leave you feeling drained and make you feel like you have no time left to take care of your own problems. You simply don’t mirror other people’s feelings, you absorb them. So how do we fix this?
- Recognize that other people’s problems are not your problems. This is a good way to establish healthy boundaries between yourself and others. It’s important that you set boundaries for yourself in order to maintain your own identity and mental health. You are not required to take on other people’s burdens.
- Don’t let other people’s emotions hijack your body. Our brains are wired with mirror neurons that connect us to how others may feel and this is what helps us to be empathetic. However, when we physically feel stressed as we listen to a friend complain about a difficult boss, then we are letting the other person's emotions hijack us. To help remedy this, notice what feelings arise in you and then focus on relaxing your body. As your body begins to relax, choose to let go of the emotion. Eventually, the feeling will subside. It’s all about observing your reactions and then choosing to let them go. They are not yours.
- Ensure reciprocity in your relationships. If some people only seek you out to complain about their problems and not allow you to share yours, then that’s not a reciprocal relationship. Remember, healthy relationships are "give and take," so if the relationship is just one sided, then only one side is getting his/her needs met. Once again, setting boundaries and communicating how you feel about this to the other person can help you resolve this issue.
In essence, protect yourself from toxic empathy by remembering to set boundaries and not allow other people’s problems to trample your path to inner peace.