“Taken too far, empathy can blur the line between self and others…”
– Addiction specialist David Sack, M.D.
There can be such a thing as too much empathy.
Below are some of the ways that too much empathy is manifested and some the categories in which too much empathy can play a part in possibly negative outcomes.
5 Examples of Negative Results from the Effects of Too Much Empathy
1. Codependent Personality
The Codependent Personality tends to be very concerned with a wish to solve the problems of other people. Alternatively, they may also control others or on the other end of the scale try to cater to every desire the other has.
Many times this is not beneficial for the person who is codependent. Feelings of resentment, loneliness or even anger can come back around to haunt the codependent person once they realize they may have given more of themselves than they should have.
Even through this, the codependent person may still have problems leaving a bad situation. This can also be a sign of more issues that sometimes have to do with addiction to relationships, sex, and love.
“Enabling. People sometimes mistake enabling for empathy. Out of care and concern for a loved one, people may enable destructive behaviors like substance abuse. They loan money, provide food and shelter, and make excuses for an addict. While these behaviors may look and feel like empathy, they prevent the addict from experiencing the natural consequences of their behaviors, thereby perpetuating the addiction.” – David Sack, M.D.
At one time or another most of us really want to help someone out at what could possibly be our own expense. Maybe it was a friend of yours who forgot to study for a test, so you helped them cheat. Maybe you vouched for someone who you know deep down was a risk to your own reputation.
However, an Enabler makes more of a habit out of helping, making excuses for, and basically making it easier for an Abuser of any kind to continue to abuse.
Under the guise of empathy, the enabler actually in the long run does not do any favors for the person with the problem, or for themselves. In fact much of the time it is just the opposite.
3. Helicopter Parenting
The overly attentive parent is also known as the Helicopter Parent, for their tendency to “hover” over their child.
Most of the time it is with only love in their hearts that the Helicopter Parent may do such things as try to intervene in disagreements between the child and others.
Though they wish to protect and care for them, this can interfere with the child’s ability to build confidence. The helicopter parent, while seeking to give the child only the best preparation for the future, unwittingly does quite the opposite as the child is often ill-equipped to make confident decisions. Many helicopter children find it hard to release themselves from their dependency on others.
4. Professional Burnout
“In certain professions, having too much empathy can lead to burnout. Physicians, nurses and police officers, to name a few, have to balance healthy empathy with their ability to do their job…” – David Sack, M.D.
In addition to the other highly empathic end of the spectrum personalities mentioned above, Dr. Sack goes on to say that there are consequences to having an overly empathic personality, specific to certain high-stress professions.
Most of us, if faced with the kinds of traumatic, mentally, and emotionally draining scenarios the people in the medical and emergency professions might encounter daily, it would be completely understood that we may not be at our emotional best. It would be understandable for us to break down, faint, go into some sort of shock.
However, if the people to whom we turn to for support when there’s no other option, these people in uniforms with emergency apparatus to control and large, imposing vehicles to drive, must think clearly or else someone may die.
What if emergency responders could not withstand the harshest of scenarios when we need them the most?
These people must limit their empathic accessibility for their own good and those whom they would wish to serve, or else end up victims themselves of Professional Burnout.
5. People Pleasing
“The desire to make others happy may appear to be driven by empathy, but often motivations behind people-pleasing are based on a selfish desire to be accepted. People pleasers often end up feeling angry or resentful because they’ve given too much of themselves to others. They may base their self-worth on how well they are liked or how much they do for others, and in the process become someone else’s ‘doormat’.” – David Sack, M.D.
A well known and familiar scene in most North American homes is the grand spectacle that is the gross “one-upmanship” that goes on at Holiday Time.
Heartfelt gift giving and the idea that it is not the gift but the thought that counts seems a faraway tale of yore. Did we hear this fable from our grandparents?
Nowadays, if one gives an inexpensive gift they may fear a less favorable rating than other friends, family, co-workers, etc. Gift after gift is given to increasingly bored and jaded recipients, who probably would have preferred something else.
Within our own family, in an effort to increase the appreciation of even the smallest gift, over the past few years, we’ve asked for only handmade or inexpensive items. We feel this has helped return the focus on the thought of the gift rather than the cost of the item.
Still, it is true we feel good when we give someone a fantastic gift. One reason for why we feel that way may be our need to feel liked, accepted and seen as an important part of the group.
If you’re a people pleaser, and it’s becoming an unhealthy burden for you, the method I took within my own family unit may be an effective way to get back to the basics of sharing what really counts and should be valued, the person’s genuine attention.
“So ask yourself: Are you really ‘too nice,’ or is the real issue a deeper struggle with boundary-setting or low self-esteem.” – David Sack, M.D.
So now that we’re aware of how too much empathy can manifest itself in our daily lives, what are the consequences for someone who has too much empathy?
Well, if you have allowed it to continue for too long, some of the following effects may have crept into your life.
You may be putting yourself at risk for:
– Mental Health Problems
– Depression and Anxiety
– Physical Complications
– Heart Disease
– High Blood Pressure
– Addiction in various forms such as food or alcohol, gambling or other types of compulsive and potentially self-damaging habits
Dr. Sack suggests the following if you feel you’re too empathic for your own good.
Set Personal Boundaries
If you find you have a problem saying no and give other people’s needs more priority than your own, you may find it helpful to set limits on how you spend time with or interact with others.
Of course, this may seem difficult especially if you’re used to saying yes and love that happy face people give you when you’ve surrendered to their request. However, you can set boundaries and still empathize with someone else.
If it feel s hard for you or you feel it necessary to explain why you need to set boundaries, simply say no, and try to be honest about your feelings with the person, and when problems arise, recognize and confront them.
Identify the Bad Relationships and the Good Relationships, Then Consciously Choose to Nurture the Healthy Relationships.
Now when you think about it, you know who the people in your life are who make you feel drained. At the other end of the scale, there are the people you know make you feel good. If I asked you to actually stop and think about who’s who in your life, I would bet that it takes you half a second to name those who make you feel bad.
Begin to take steps now to limit your mental emotional and actual time with those people who make you feel bad or consistently disregard your boundaries. Rather, choose to enrich your valuable time and grow friendships and relationships that are mutually beneficial.
Some of us will not feel good about choosing to spend less time with those who make us feel bad. The truth is that even though you can feel for the person, you cannot change their actions or way of thinking. Only their own free will can do that. Do you have the right or ability to change their own free will? Most would say no.
But that is also the right, and reality, that you must use for your own boundary setting. You may love this person but you’re not obligated to spend time with anyone who makes you spend more time than necessary on the scared, upset or angry side of life.
Mindfulness Meditation and Yoga
Dr. Sack goes on to suggest that some sort of mindfulness and self-awareness mediation techniques can help to manage emotions in those afflicted with too much empathy.
We will discuss a few useful meditation techniques in another blog post, so stay tuned…
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