Understand Toxic Empathy and How to Protect Yourself from It

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Empathy is about seeing the world from the other person’s perspective and understanding what the other person is thinking, feeling, and experiencing. It involves mental, emotional, and somatic processes.

Affective or emotional empathy

This is a deep understanding of how others feel and the ability to share or mirror the feelings of others (e.g., crying when another person is crying).

Cognitive empathy

The cognitive aspect of empathy involves taking others’ viewpoints into account and understanding their feelings, such as by trying to imagine what they are going through or thinking.

Somatic empathy

Somatic empathy refers to visible bodily reactions that match the experiences and sensations of the other person.

Empathy is also a skill that everyone can learn and develop. People with highly developed empathy, also called empaths, are great at recognizing and responding to others’ feelings, thoughts, and experiences. They use this understanding to connect with others and establish healthy relationships.

But how much empathy is too much? Is it possible to have too much empathy? Yes, it is, and it is known as toxic empathy.

What is Toxic Empathy?

Toxic empathy, or hyper-empathy syndrome, occurs when someone can thoroughly understand and empathize with the feelings and experiences of others, but they take it too far and end up placing others’ needs ahead of their own. Toxic empathy can cause you to lose sight of your needs, harming your well-being.

For example, feeling sorry for a friend who has lost a loved one is natural. However, toxic empathy occurs when you become despondent and unable to continue your regular life due to your sorrow.

Or, if you’re that friend that everyone goes to for advice and support, this can make you feel really overwhelmed and start to cause you damage.

Empathy vs. Toxic Empathy: What’s the Difference?

Empathy is about profoundly understanding another person’s emotions and genuinely caring about their well-being. It is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and viewing the world from their perspective.

Toxic empathy is empathy taken to an extreme, so it becomes harmful. It is when you overidentify with another person’s problems, pain, or distress to the point where it harms your emotional, physical, and mental well-being.

What Does Toxic Empathy Look Like?

Toxic empathy can cause anxiety, stress, depression, and burnout. It can also result in compassion fatigue, a condition in which you have a reduced capacity for empathy and compassion due to the ongoing emotional load of absorbing the suffering of others.

Here are some more signs that you may be dealing with toxic empathy.

Lack of boundaries.

Toxic empathy usually manifests as a lack of boundaries. It’s about overidentifying with other people’s feelings without being able to set emotional boundaries, which leaves you feeling overwhelmed and drained.

Neglecting self-care.

If you are constantly exhausted, and you disregard your own needs and health for the sake of others, this is a sign of toxic empathy.

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Enabling.

Toxic empathy is common in codependent relationships and among natural caregivers and people-pleasers. To avoid upsetting the person with whom they are empathizing, these people frequently enable others’ harmful or self-destructive behaviors.

Frustration.

You are continuously frustrated, angry, and resentful because you are continually sacrificing your needs for the sake of others. This can affect both you and the person you’re empathizing with.

Why is Over-Empathizing Bad for Our Well-Being?

mindful woman sad thinking

When you constantly absorb the pain of others, this can lead to increased stress levels, causing you to feel emotionally drained and finally reducing your capacity for empathy. Compassion fatigue makes you desensitized to others’ pain and suffering, so you might find it incredibly difficult to offer genuine compassion and support.

Additionally, over-empathizing might make it difficult to set boundaries and say “no” to the wishes or requests of others. This might cause you to overlook your own self-care and well-being, eventually leading to health issues, resentment, irritability, and conflicts.

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How to Protect Yourself from Toxic Empathy

Even though empathy is a wonderful skill, taking it to an extreme may harm your own and others’ well-being. So, here are three effective ways to protect yourself from toxic empathy.

1) Build Strong Boundaries

Being an empathetic listener doesn’t mean you have to absorb others’ problems and pain. It is okay to refuse to carry someone else’s burden like it’s your own. Be aware of your feelings and thoughts when helping others, and learn to say ‘no’ to others’ requests when (or, better yet, before) you feel overwhelmed.

It is okay to decline help to someone if you feel their emotions and troubles are too much to manage. You can suggest alternative support instead.

2) Pay Attention to How Your Physical Body Is Feeling

Practice mindfulness and deep breathing to become aware of your bodily sensations. Pay close attention to how your body feels when you provide empathy and compassion to others. 

Practice a body scan to observe tension, discomfort, or other unpleasant bodily sensations.

Make grounding exercises part of your daily routine to stay connected to your physical self.

3) Seek Relationships Built on Emotional Reciprocity

Relationships built on emotional reciprocity are those in which both parties demonstrate openness, trust, understanding, and empathy toward each other. They respect boundaries but feel comfortable sharing their deepest thoughts, feelings, and experiences. 

Emotional support goes both ways in emotionally reciprocal relationships, with both sides providing and receiving help when needed. People in these relationships know how to recover after arguments and work together to find solutions, addressing each other with respect.

Engaging in Sustainable Empathy Begins with You

Finding a balance between caring for yourself and supporting others is the key to sustainable empathy. You can only engage in sustainable empathy and develop meaningful relationships with others when you care for your emotional and mental well-being.

If empathizing with others overwhelms you and makes you feel emotionally exhausted, consider seeking professional mental health support. A skilled life coach can support you in increasing your self-awareness and prioritizing self-care. If you want to learn to take care of your emotional needs, set boundaries, and prevent feeling overwhelmed and drained, contact me to set up a free, empowering conversation.

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Kamini Wood

Kamini Wood

Kamini Wood is a Certified Life Coach, and best-selling author. Her mission is to empower high-performing adults and teens to become resilient self-leaders by reducing stress and anxiety, overcoming imposter syndrome, working through trauma, and re-discovering their AuthenticMe®.

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