Do You Have an Over-developed Sense of Empathy?

22 August, 2016

Would you describe yourself as an empathetic person? If so how is it working for you currently? Does it balance out nicely with other aspects of your life, or does it leave you exhausted, frustrated or burned out?

I’ve mentioned on my blog before that doing this change work with people tends to flow in patterns.  Either I will get clients talking about a challenge that I have recently experienced, or, I will get several clients talking about the same issue at the same time in the practice.  This is always very insightful as a coach as what one client struggles with and learns from can inform the path of the work I conduct with others.

Currently, I am working with several people about an ‘over-developed sense of empathy’.  Although everyone is an individual and how this problem manifests between people will differ slightly, there is a strong generic theme that goes along with this. The recipe for it looks a little something like this: 
  1. See someone they care about struggling or suffering in some way
  2. Go inside and either:  imagine what they must be feeling / or remember a time when you felt the way you think they are feeling
  3. Try to save them from feeling that way / fix it for them / try and solve it for them / try to alleviate it in some way
  4. (repeat for several people all at once)
  5. Feel useless / worried / anxious / exhausted / burned out
The definition of empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.  So, in terms of a ‘strategy’ for empathy it’s quite on the money really, wouldn’t you say?

So when or why does it become unbalanced or dysfunctional? 

The point I want to make is this: because empathy is viewed in society as an honourable and good quality (of course!), people don’t consider that it could be operating at a dysfunctional level - “but empathy is a good thing, it makes you a nice person!” they will say.  What I will say is yes, it is good and honourable and nice - and - as with anything, balance is of crucial importance.  When someone is so good at empathising that they’re OVER empathising, it’s unhelpful for them and the person they’re empathising with as they get over-whelemd and the experience becomes overall unpleasant.  So, it’s useful to tip the balance into something healthy - which is acting in a way that’s empowering for both you and them, and that gets the best outcome for both you and them.

It becomes problematic at steps 2 and 3.  There’s a process that’s possible here called parallel process, or perhaps we could call it mirroring.  It’s when seeing and/or imagining someone else’s emotion doesn’t stop at this, it doesn’t remain theirs it actually becomes YOUR emotion: seeing them struggling has triggered an emotional response in you, which is likely to be unpleasant and sometimes overwhelming for you, i.e. this is like the time my husband left me.

The second problem is in the action part of the strategy, where you want to help them. The people who have what we’re calling an ‘over-developed’ sense of empathy won’t just feel empathetic and then offer to use their fabulous helping skills, only proceeding if the person agrees or actively asks for their help, and then goes to bed at night feelng peacefully at ease.  No.  They take this person’s struggle as their own responsibility to resolve, and may either outwardly - or, indeed, just inwardly - embark on a mission in which to do so.  If they then feel they haven't helped enough, or appropriately, it can send them off in to all kinds of tailspins.

You can see how owning someone else’s problem (if indeed it even is a problem for the person involved.  Sometimes it isn’t) and trying to solve it is problematic.  It can be overwhelming for the empathiser, especially if they are so good at over-empathising that they are doing this for several people all at once.  It’s also dysfunctional in the sense that in reality, you CANNOT fix something for anyone else, even if they wanted you to.  Ultimately we can only help, the changes they make inside their brain and body are theirs and theirs alone.

If you’re reading this and noticing that you may have an over-developed sense of empathy, you might also be wondering what to do about it.  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Notice what emotion within you is getting triggered when you’re empathising.  Notice what event in your life it reminds you of.
  2. Ask yourself: what would it be like to have empathy without this emotion?  What might I do to resolve this emotional reaction within myself?
  3. Decide what well-balanced empathy would look like for you?  How would you know if it was manageable?
  4. Once it’s manageable for you - and - you realise it’s not your responsibility to solve it, check: what useful helping skills do I have for this person so they can (if it’s appropriate for them) resolve their struggle or problem?   These are things like offering help, impartial listening, reflective listening, being available, giving advice if asked
  5. Consider what boundaries you might need to put in place in order to help this person and protect yourself at the same time.
Empathy is essential for human relations (imagine a world without any empathy?!).  Over-doing it not useful for either party, and no one benefits from you being depleted and burned out.  Keep up your fabulous empathy skills and remember to keep it in balance.  Ideally you will keep your energy in check and get a little lift from making a difference to someone else.

As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Love Charlotte.

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