Written by Kelle Salle
Image by @laurennicolefk
With everything that’s happened over the past few years, it’s normal to feel more empathetic than usual. Empathy is defined as having the ability to understand what people feel, see things from their point of view and imaging yourself in their place. It is such an important part of daily life simply because it allows us to have compassion for others. Being empathetic can help us relate to friends, loved ones, co-workers and the world. While empathy is a great trait and skill to have, some people can have high levels of it – which is called hyper-empathy. When people are overly empathetic, they find it hard to regulate their emotions because they are too in tune with other people’s emotions.
If you think you may be overly empathetic, you’re not alone. The good news is that you are a caring person who can learn how to regulate their emotions, find different ways to express them and care for others without compromising your wellbeing. So, how do you know if you’re overly empathetic? We’ve asked Therapist and Content Creator Tasha Bailey to share a few signs:
You get overwhelmed emotionally – The more we absorb and hold onto other people’s feelings, the more prone we are to emotional burnout. Imagine filing a backpack with everybody else’s stuff. It’s only a matter of time before it’s filled to the brim and too heavy to carry. If you get overwhelmed emotionally, give yourself permission to have a break and social detox. Turn off your phone for a weekend and enjoy some solo time and implement some boundaries when you return to protect yourself and your emotional capacity.
You avoid confrontation
Conflict is a natural part of relationships, even the best ones. We can’t be on the same page with everyone in our lives all the time, unless someone is massively over-compromising themselves in order to keep the peace and be liked. When you notice yourself avoiding conflict, take some time to reflect on it. What is it that you wish you had said? Write it down. Remember that it’s never too late to voice something that you didn’t agree with, and it might feel strange to speak with that person after your reflection. Conflict doesn’t have to be negative or hurtful – it’s about repairing and strengthening the relationship.
You feel guilty when you can’t help others
One of the reasons why people may become over-empathetic is because they thought their role was to fix everyone around them. Being the rock for everyone in your life is unrealistic and unhealthy for your own mental health. Also, assuming that you can fix or rescue someone takes away their own autonomy or self-belief that they can take care of themselves.
You dislike large crowds
Imagine having a superpower where you absorb the thoughts and feelings of everyone around you. Now imagine walking into a crowd with that superpower. The superpower is actually called hyper vigilance, and it can be exhausting and anxiety provoking to be around so many people and sensory information. One way of soothing hyper vigilance is through grounding exercises like breathwork and mindfulness. You could also try to connect with your glimmers (good memories and positive triggers which make you feel safe and connected to yourself). What is a memory that makes you feel safe? Picture it in your mind. Are there any smells or songs which quickly connect you to that memory? If so, use them. This can help you feel safe, even in an environment that feels uncomfortable.
You overlook your own needs and focus on the needs of others
This often comes from a place of parentification, where growing up, the roles between the parent and child were reversed. It then means that the person grows up always taking care of everyone around them, never knowing how to communicate or focus in on their own needs. To help with this, get into the practice of pausing and asking yourself “what do I need in this moment?” If you struggle with this, start to brainstorm a list of various potential needs that you can choose from. These should include practical needs such as water, rest and exercise as well as emotional needs like reassurance, challenge and inspiration.
You justify toxic behaviour
Being able to empathetic and understanding of others is great but we also have to show compassion to ourselves and the bigger picture. It can be tempting to rationalise someone’s hurtful behaviour, especially if we care about them. However, we could be hurting ourselves in the process. Imagine taking a step back and seeing the whole picture. Who is getting hurt or disrespected in that process? Also, how would you feel if you saw someone else being treated the way that you are being treated currently?
You isolate yourself due to disappointment and resentment
Disappointment and resentment can be helpful feelings here. Disappointment is a sign that we haven’t communicated our needs effectively and so we have been let down. In this case, reflect on whether you clearly communicated your needs to begin with. Or did you expect the person to guess what you needed? Furthermore, expecting someone to treat us the way that we treated them is unproductive – no one is a mind reader. Resentment is a sign that we have given too much of ourselves. It can be a great motivation in building up our right to say no to things that don’t serve or suit us.
You feel joy and pain more intensely than others
Both joy and pain have one thing in common: vulnerability. When we are over-empathetic, the doors of our own vulnerability are wide open and so we feel everything a lot more intensely. This is especially the case when we are emotionally stretched and fatigued.
You absorb other people’s emotions
An example of absorbing other people’s emotions might be noticing how angry or sad you feel on behalf of somebody else. The problem with this is when that person leaves, you are left with all of those emotions.
Friends often ask you for advice
How much emotional space do you both take up in the relationship? Is it shared and is there turn-taking? If you find that you are often stuck in the listener role, ask your friends to ask for consent before they stress dump onto you. This involves just checking whether you have the emotional capacity to listen the way that they need you to. You can also demonstrate this by asking the same thing when you need to offload.