Can You Be Too Empathetic?
Do you experience overwhelming feelings when confronted with lots of other people? Do people, even strangers, pour out their hearts to you? Do you care more about other people's feelings and well-being than your own?
If so you may be highly empathetic. Individuals with a highly empathetic temperament are often kind and caring, putting others before themselves. However, these talents can be viewed as weaknesses, as empathetic people are overly sensitive to others' remarks and actions. They are too alert to the suffering of others and suffer on their behalf. This can be a problem because they try to ''mind-read'' or second guess others' motives, putting themselves at risk of misinterpreting or reading too much into their behaviour. They may find themselves wounded by the slightest of remarks. This can leave a highly empathetic person feeling vulnerable and flawed.
Most of us are born with some intuitive abilities, and many of us have experienced that sinking feeling when we sense something is wrong – that we, or someone we care about, is in danger. However, we all experience intuition and empathy in varying degrees. Highly empathetic individuals are often very intuitive and experience a surfeit of emotion. But when emotions are reeling in the mind they can distort an individual's thinking.
Developing strategies for handling emotionally charged thoughts helps you regain a sense of control. An example is a work situation where your boss gives you an appraisal and you are told how well you are doing, but you are also told where you could make improvements. The highly empathetic individual tends to hear only the critical feedback, not the praise. They may feel hurt and regard the feedback process as a ticking off or as disapproval.
Below are some tips to help preserve your empathy:
1. Stand up to people who call you over-sensitive
As you're getting to know someone, don't be afraid to let them know that you're a perceptive person who picks up on things and needs some quiet time once in a while. Don't let others put you down by calling you over-sensitive. Yours is a gift, not a fault, so learn to appreciate and value it.
2. Have at least one quiet room or area in your home in which to retreat
Maintaining your well-being if you're highly empathic can be challenging if you live with someone else or in a large family. It is a challenge that requires that everyone involved to clearly understand the boundaries. Even if they are extroverts in nature, the highly empathic tend to need a lot of time alone.
3. Embrace cooperation rather than competition
The highly empathic tend to be cooperative, rather than competitive, and often underperform in competitive environments. Be prepared to think outside of the box. Although some social interaction is important, the highly empathetic can be effective working unsupervised and can flourish as freelancers. The same applies to highly empathetic children, who may not thrive so well at school but excel if they are educated in the quieter environment of the home, which offers less emotional distraction.
4. Give yourself time to get things done
The highly empathetic are easily shaken up and distressed by changes and so need time to adapt to new challenges and situations. Letting go of perfectionism is important – accepting our own imperfections and limitations can sometimes vastly reduce stress.
5. Keep an eye on your emotional wellbeing
Avoid emotional exhaustion by keeping a check on your emotional and physical well-being. Problems and anxiety can become magnified when you're fatigued, so getting plenty of physical exercise and a good night's sleep can make a real difference in conquering worries.
6. Notice what you're feeling
You will never reach your potential as an individual if you constantly hide behind other people's expectations, and others will not recognize you for your true worth. So the first step in addressing behaviour directed to please others but not yourself, is to notice what you are feeling. Take time for quiet self-reflection as this often helps.
7. Re-frame your thinking
You need to develop ways of getting to grips with the emotional turbulence inside your head and learn how to turn irrational thoughts into rational ones. A useful method for dealing with the kind of unreasonable fears that refuse to budge is to pick one of your stubborn thoughts and write it down. List anything that suggests the idea is mistaken or false. Next, list the opposite. In doing so, you can learn to reassess your thoughts.
8. Keeping hold of a sense of fun
Having the whole world on one's shoulders doesn't tend to make for a whole lot of fun. Letting your hair down and recapturing a sense of fun should help you keep a sense of perspective. Numerous studies support the view that humour and laughter are therapeutic for relieving tension and anxiety.
So is having too much empathy a problem? Not if the individual learns to keep in reserve sufficient self-compassion. A highly empathetic person who looks after themselves will learn to recognise the gift of empathy, rather than self-sacrifice or self-denial.