But is it ever possible to be or become too empathetic? As it turns out, this is one of those scenarios where there can be too much of a good thing. A condition called hyper empathy, or hyper-empathy syndrome, involves being so empathetic that you actually embody others' emotions to the same strength or extent as you would your own—such that you lose track of what's theirs and what's yours to feel.
- Joy Berkheimer, PhD, LMFT, Florida-based sexologist and licensed marriage and family therapist
- Lorenzo Norris, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington School of Medicine & Health Sciences
Given we all have a finite capacity for how many things it's possible to, well, feel at once, such a tendency can quickly lead to emotional overwhelm, negating the would-be benefits of being empathetic in the first place.
What is hyper empathy?
As with any other feeling, the capacity for empathy exists on a continuum. If, at one end of the spectrum, you find people who really struggle to feel any empathy for others, the hyper-empathetic folks would fall at the opposite end, says Lorenzo Norris, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington School of Medicine & Health Sciences.
In this way, there's also a good deal of overlap between people with hyper-empathy syndrome and true empaths, who make up only a tiny fraction of the population (an estimated one to two percent) and are thought to have the capacity to physically feel what someone else is feeling. On an emotional level, both true empaths and people with hyper empathy take on others' feelings wholly as their own, whereas folks who are empathetic (but not in either of the above camps) can differentiate between their feelings and someone else's, and identify when they're feeling one versus the other.
"Not only does a [hyper-empath] feel your emotion, they feel it so strongly that it can either stay with them, or it may cause them to lose sight of their own emotions."—Lorenzo Norris, MD, psychiatrist
Though the capacity to be so in tune with someone else's emotions may sound like a superpower—and it certainly may allow for some next-level vulnerability and intimacy—the problem lies in the hyper-empath's inability to disassociate from or check out of the other person's emotions when it would be healthiest to do so. “Not only do they feel your emotion, they feel it so strongly that it can either stay with them [for too long], or it may cause them to lose sight of their own emotions, or set healthy boundaries,” says Dr. Norris.
3 signs of hyper empathy in action
1. Poor sense of self
Because someone with hyper empathy cannot easily differentiate, if at all, between their emotions and those of others, a person in this camp may also have a blurry understanding of their own identity writ large. "You may have a hard time identifying what makes you happy, but you can very much identify what makes somebody else happy," says marriage and family therapist Joy Berkheimer, PhD, LMFT of someone with hyper empathy.
This can spawn codependent behaviors in relationships and friendships. "Apart from someone else, a hyper-empath may find that they don't know what they want to eat or where they want to go or what they want to do, but they can say, 'I know what this other person would want,'" says Dr. Berkheimer. Because they struggle to pinpoint their own needs and desires, chances are, those aren't being addressed or met, which can trigger resentment long-term.
2. Limited (if any) boundaries
A person with hyper empathy feels almost intrinsically connected to others. "There's basically no autonomy or separation between them and their friends or partner(s)," says Dr. Berkheimer. As a result, they tend to have no form of boundaries and will gladly change their own plans for the sake of others, say "yes" to requests when they don't have the emotional or physical bandwidth, or otherwise overextend themselves in an unsustainable way.
3. Emotional overwhelm and mood swings
Perhaps the most glaring sign of hyper-empathy syndrome is being in a near-constant state of feeling...all of the things. Life can feel so intense for a person in this position because they're essentially experiencing everything that the people around them are experiencing by way of the resulting emotions. And that can be a lot to handle. "They may even get to the point where everything is so chaotic that they start to self-isolate," says Dr. Berkheimer.
Things can snowball even further when others respond negatively to the hyper-empathetic person. "Friends and family members might resist this person's excessive need to empathize with them, leading the overly empathetic person to become angry or resentful," says Dr. Berkheimer.
Cue: yet another set of potential emotions for the emotionally flooded person to handle. "The empath might feel disappointed that everyone in their life isn't excited about their efforts to help [carry the emotional load]," she adds. "They're like, 'I want to give you all the things—why would you not want this support from me?'" When really, the other person is just trying to move through their own emotions themselves.
Effects of hyper-empathy syndrome
On the person experiencing it
While it's important and healthy to feel your emotions, a hyper-empath can sit in emotions for an excessively long time and may be unable to let go of emotions, which can be stressful and upsetting. “Any emotional state that is fixed is inevitably not going to be a great thing, whether it’s sadness, anger, or even happiness,” says Dr. Norris. Particularly with negative emotions, however, the effects of sitting in them for lengthy periods can be detrimental to both body and mind.
For example, someone who is angry for an extended period (including someone who is empathically taking on the anger of someone else) will also continue to undergo the body's stress response to such an emotion; this includes a spike in the hormone cortisol that can trigger physical symptoms like a racing heartbeat and shortness of breath. “It’s exhausting to be angry for a long time, and it has a very real effect: You’re likely going to be more aggressive to everyone around you, you may start to lose concentration, and you may not sleep well,” says Dr. Norris.
Being able to shift out of angry (or sad or happy) feelings easily is a key part of healthy emotional regulation, adds Dr. Norris, and having hyper empathy makes this much more difficult.
On others around them
A person with hyper-empathy syndrome may inadvertently topple others' boundaries by way of their tendency to fully assume other people's emotional states. It's almost as if they're constantly “dropping into another person’s experience,” says Dr. Berkheimer, even if they weren't really invited to do so, explicitly or at all.
This can have the effect of preventing the other person from really embodying and experiencing their own emotions, leading them to feel as if their autonomy is being infringed upon, which can be hurtful or upsetting, says Dr. Berkheimer. As a result, they might try to express or reinforce a boundary of their own, which could just lead the hyper-empathetic person to feel unwanted or rejected. The ensuing conflict could then wind up distancing them from others, she adds.
How to manage hyper empathy
If you identify these signs or effects of hyper empathy in you, it's important to learn how to separate your own emotions and feelings from those of others. To do so, Dr. Berkheimer recommends working with a mental-health professional. "This isn't something you want to leave untreated because you could wind up either feeling emotionally agitated all the time, or isolating yourself because the experience of everyone else's energy is so intense for you," she says.
In particular, you might look for a therapist who practices dialectical behavior therapy, which is specifically geared to those who experience intense emotions. Part of this work involves learning how to respect others' boundaries, and how to establish your own boundaries based on your values; it's key to understand that just because you can feel someone else's emotions on a deep level doesn't always mean it's healthy or helpful for you to do so, either for you or for them (or both).
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