Is It Possible To Be Too Empathetic?

Showing empathy is a skill that many people aspire to learn. By doing so, you can relate to others in their time of need. Additionally, you can strengthen your bonds with friends and family while gaining a better understanding of what it's like to be in their shoes. However, it's not uncommon to feel like you're carrying the burden of others on your shoulders if you constantly lend an ear. That being said, is it possible to be too empathetic?

As it turns out, that burden you might feel could be more than just a temporary challenge, especially if it begins to affect your personal life. If you often empathize with loved ones, but find it difficult to differentiate between your feelings and the emotions of others, you could be experiencing hyper-empathy syndrome. "Not only does a [hyper-empath] feel your emotion, they feel it so strongly that it can either stay with them, or it may cause them to lose sight of their own emotions," psychiatrist Dr. Lorenzo Norris explained to Well+Good. Over time, a person with hyper-empathy syndrome may develop anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Understanding the differences between empathy and sympathy, however, is essential before diving into the characteristics of hyper-empathy syndrome. Sympathy and empathy evoke different emotions, and much of it depends on the situation.

Understanding the differences between empathy and sympathy

Although the two are sometimes confused for one another, sympathy and empathy are each their own emotion. "They feel different," psychotherapist Dr. Erin Leonard explained to Women'sHealth. "When a person has empathy, they resonate with how the other person feels as a fellow and equal human being. Sympathy is pity. When someone pities someone else, they are looking down on that person." Dr. Leonard went on to state that, when we try to connect with someone, we may feel sorry for them; this is typically how sympathy manifests. When you put yourself in the other person's shoes while attempting to connect, the situation can evoke empathy instead — especially if you try to grasp their feelings.

Empathy is also sometimes viewed as more of a one-on-one connection as you look to gain a deeper understanding of another person's emotions, per Psychology Today. You might even go beyond trying to emotionally tap into the situation by mentally putting yourself in the other person's situation to get a better point of view. However, this is when the fine line between being empathetic and hyper-empathy can become blurred. Attempting to take on some of the burdens of the other person can eventually result in burnout. If you empathize with others at this level on a consistent basis, you may begin to experience the negative psychological effects of doing so, such as emotional exhaustion and depression.

What are hyper-empathy syndrome and its symptoms?

You might have always thought you were always highly sensitive to others' needs, but if your empathy negatively impacts your personal life, it could be a sign of a larger problem. Hyper-empathy syndrome can be defined as being empathic to the point that you take on the emotions of others. In addition to being unable to discern their emotions from your own, you might begin to overlook your own needs or isolate yourself. Other symptoms of hyper-empathy syndrome include feeling guilty or inadequate when you can't help others, the justification of toxic behavior, and physical reactions to seeing someone in distress.

It is worth noting that the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses (DSM-V) — the main reference guide used by mental health experts in the U.S. — considers hyper-empathy to be a trait of personality disorders, as explained by Exploring Your Mind. In turn, this ultimately suggests that those who exhibit hyper-empathy syndrome symptoms could also be experiencing a personality disorder. However, only a mental health professional can diagnose these conditions. For this reason, it's important to reach out to your doctor if you recognize any of these symptoms. They can provide you with additional information, any necessary diagnoses, as well as treatment options for your specific needs.

Cognitive empathy, affective empathy, and compassionate empathy

Most mental health experts agree that there are at least two types of empathy — cognitive empathy and affective empathy. Compassionate empathy is sometimes also recognized by psychologists as another form. Cognitive empathy can be described as the ability to understand a person's mental and psychological state, and "step into their shoes," so to speak. When you can exercise affective empathy, you may be able to experience and feel a person's emotions. In turn, you can offer compassion to the person in their time of need. When you execute both cognitive and affective empathy, it is sometimes referred to as compassionate empathy. Feeling the desire to help a person in distress also falls into this category.

Empathy is essential to creating deep connections with others, but it may be difficult for some to develop, as explained by PsychCentral. While many believe that certain people are incapable of empathy, experts believe that it exists on a spectrum, meaning that certain individuals can possess extremely low empathy skills. This doesn't mean that it can't be improved upon over time. Some people find it challenging to be empathetic in their adult lives if they do not experience empathy as children. Empathy is often perceived as a learned behavior by experts, and spending a great deal of time alone can also result in fewer opportunities to develop this skill.

How to manage hyper-empathy syndrome

Those who find empathy challenging might think hyper-empathy syndrome sounds more like a superpower. However, anyone experiencing its symptoms will tell you that it can be just as daunting as any other mental health condition. While people may appreciate your ability to relate to them on a deeper level, it can result in distorted feelings and emotional burdens for you, if you lean toward hyper-empathy.

Luckily, there are several ways to handle hyper-empathy syndrome on a daily basis, and mental health treatment may help. Self-care can do wonders when it comes to managing the symptoms of this syndrome — maintaining a routine consisting of a balanced diet, adequate sleep, and exercise can help. Having compassion for yourself, in addition to others, might also remind you of the importance of self-care.

Creating and maintaining boundaries also rank as essential parts of managing hyper-empathy syndrome. Keep in mind that just because you can empathize in this way with others doesn't mean you must do so all the time — especially if it's resulting in burnout. Talk to your doctor if you wish to address more specific symptoms or learn more about mental health treatment options. "This isn't something you want to leave untreated because you could wind up either feeling emotionally agitated all the time, or isolating yourself because the experience of everyone else's energy is so intense for you," marriage and family therapist Dr. Joy Berkheimer told Well+Good.

How to support a loved one with hyper-empathy syndrome

If your friend or family member is coping with the symptoms of hyper-empathy syndrome, you can support them in several ways. Being respectful of the person, as well as their boundaries, can help you maintain your relationship over time. Even if you don't understand what they are experiencing, you can provide emotional support by withholding any judgment and treating them with respect.

Another way to help? Give the person as much space and time as they need while they're managing the condition. Additionally, make it a point to let them share their feelings on the matter with you, but don't pressure them to open up. As you listen to what they have to say, don't be afraid to remind them of the mental health resources available to them, especially if they appear to be struggling. While you shouldn't try to take control of the situation, letting them know that you'll be there if they choose to seek additional support can go a long way.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.