Is it possible to care TOO much?

Is it possible to care TOO much?

I’ve said this before (many times) and I’ll say it again (no doubt, many times) … happiness is NOT selfishness.

Rather, real happiness is about connection and belonging, it’s about relationships and so … authentic happiness is about caring for others. 

Not surprisingly, then, empathy is an important contributor to happiness, as it relates to caring but also, to understanding and tolerance, to compassion and even to self-compassion.

But one of the readers of my weekly eNewsletter recently asked if it was possible have TOO MUCH empathy? She was referring to what’s sometimes called toxic empathy or hyper empathy.

Is this really a thing?

Well, yes, of course it is. In the sense that any strength can have a dark side, any attribute can be over used or used inappropriately such that it becomes unhealthy or unhelpful to the “user”.

As with almost every construct in psychology, there are many definitions but one that explains things pretty well and simply is …

… hyper-empathy syndrome occurs when you are too in tune with other people’s emotions and mirror them to the same intensity. In other words, you care too much. People with hyper-empathy may find it hard to regulate their emotions and may have a tendency to pick up on negative feelings.

In short, then, caring for others is a wonderful trait, one that’s almost certainly a part of genuine happiness, but caring so much so that you’re constantly stressed and distressed, so you too often take on other people’s emotions, may well be unhelpful.

Which leads me to then ask … what can we do about it?

A phrase I heard several years ago, and one that had a huge impact on my life as a hyper empath, was … observe but don’t absorb!

Although it’s easier said than done, MUCH easier said than done, if we can recognise and acknowledge the emotions of others WITHOUT taking them all in ourselves, we can still care, and be compassionate, without necessarily suffering as much ourselves.

Because what’s important to remember here, is that if we care too much, and suffer accordingly, we’ll eventually burn out and then … not be able to care for ANYONE any longer.

So to care for others, we need to take care of ourselves.

And here are a few other tips that might help those of you who can relate: 

  • practice mindfulness, non-judgemental observation of your thoughts and feelings and the feelings and reactions of others
  • name emotions, yours and those of others. Making a feeling tangible can also make it more manageable
  • practice grounding strategies, like meditation or simply observing and describing objects in your surroundings
  • imagine there’s a glass wall in between you and the other person, the person about whom you care. You can see them and hear them and interact with them BUT their emotions can’t break through the glass and come back to you
  • and remember, always, that self-care is a necessary pre-requisite to other care. As the cliche goes … put your own mask on first!

So there you have it, some tips for the empaths out there which I hope will allow you to continue to care, without excessively suffering. As always, I hope this helps. Take care … Dr Tim