Understanding Empathy

Is excessive empathy draining you?

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  Understanding excessive empathy

When you look up empathy in the dictionary it reads “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. Some of us (me included) rather than feel with another we feel for them which is exhausting. I’m well known for crying at films, getting emotional at sad images or stories on the TV or on social media when my family and friends feel very little.

As a mum, I recently experienced a situation with my child that brought my excessive emotional empathy out in droves, alerting me to re-visit my psychology books as I could feel myself starting to become anxious, emotionally invested and drained at a time when I needed to be strong.

Empathy actually requires complex skills but we have a choice when to use it, it has a filter, is not fixed as it contracts and expands with life events. Sympathy, kindness, altruism and pro-social behaviour are all welcomed life skills but we don’t need to reconstruct the thoughts and feeling of another individual and our job is not to hold the power. I work as a counsellor, mentor, holistic therapist and life coach and once my clients leave I do not mull over what we have discussed until the time comes to prepare their notes for their next session so my empathy must have a filter and can obviously be controlled?

 Two hundred and fifty years ago, Adam Smith famously described the way observers might feel watching a tight rope walker. Even while standing on solid ground, our palms sweat and our hearts race. In essence, we experience the tight rope walker’s state as our own. This captures the scientific model of empathy and how our mirror neurons help us understand the intentions and actions of others.

There are different types of empathy:

  • Cognitive
  • Emotional
  • Compassionate

Cognitive empathy is being able to put yourself into someone else’s place and see their perspective without engaging with their emotions.  It is a great skill for negotiators, coaches, managers and is led by thought rather than by feeling.

Emotional empathy is when you can literally feel the other person’s emotions alongside them, causing personal distress and anxiety. We need to be careful here because we can over invest emotionally into an outcome which we have little or no control. It is possible to become overwhelmed by those emotions (empathy overload) and we may need to work on our self-regulation and self-control to manage our emotions because we can’t see where our life starts and the other person’s ends. We may feel our peers, friends and family don’t feel the same or are uncaring– this results from over-protection from empathy overload or excessive empathy and we need to take a step back.

Compassionate empathy is feeling someone else’s pain and taking action to help. Like sympathy, compassion is about feeling concern for someone but with some action to help and is the type of empathy that is usually most appropriate. As a general rule, people who want or need your empathy don’t just need you to understand, or to feel their pain, become anxious or worse burst into tears alongside them. They need you to understand and sympathise with what they are going through and help them to take appropriate action.

Cause and effect of excessive empathy

Excessive empathy or hyper empathy is a higher amount of empathy than average and is generally found in sensitive, emotionally reactive people. You probably find you have longer antenna than others and pick up on every emotion vibrating in the atmosphere! There are many reasons for excessive empathy, sometimes we learn to become hyper-vigilant as a child because we are living with a dysfunctional care-giver(s), so we learn to read body language and sense atmospheres quickly for a safer life, we may not have been shown compassion or have in some way been shamed in childhood or a stage of development, we may have lower levels of cognitive empathy and self-esteem and have poor personal boundaries.

Tips to lessen the effects of excessive empathy:

  • Set better personal boundaries
  • Try to avoid gaining your self-worth from caring or pleasing others – work on your own self-esteem
  • Research empathy further
  • Deep breathing exercises if you are feeling anxious
  • Use mindfulness exercises that encourage examining your own emotions and feelings
  • Be compassionate to yourself
  • Bring non-judgement into your world
  • Use meditation to relax the mind and to connect with the subconscious mind (there are several free meditations to listen to on my website below)
  • Learn to become present rather than trying to predict the future or worry about the past

In summary, if you suffer from excessive empathy, arm yourself with an understanding of what it is, why it may become a problem for you and take action - less excess empathy more compassionate empathy!





Gail Donnan is a published author, radio presenter, counsellor, life-coach, mentor, retreat specialist and Reiki Master Teacher.  She has qualifications in mindfulness, meditation, Inner Child Therapy, Buddhism, Bach Flower Essence Remedies and holistic therapies. She owns The Mindfulspace Wellbeing Centre which is a wellness space and training academy along with having a private practice both in North Yorkshire. She is also part of the writing team for Beauty Despite Cancer and a freelance wellness writer.

Her website is www.gaildonnan.com







Gail Donnan

Interdisciplinary Psychologist, Trauma-informed EMDR Psychotherapist, Director and Practice Lead, The Trauma Centre - Ripon

I have been working in the wellness industry since 1995. I have a Master's Degree in Interdisciplinary Psychology (Leeds), I am a trauma-informed EMDR psychotherapist, Director and Practice Lead of the Trauma Centre, Ripon which is a community interest company.  I am a qualified teacher, assessor and IQA. I am a trained Meditation Teacher, Bach Flower Essence Practitioner, Qi Gong Instructor and Reiki Master Teacher Practitioner.  I specialise in mental health issues arising from trauma, anxiety, depression and am the published author of two books -"The Gateway - A journey to re-claim your power from Stress and Anxiety" and The Gateway Junior Edition - children's mental health. I have a huge interest in somatic psychotherapy and have an interdisciplinary approach to mental health.