These days, there is a lot of talk about empathy – and indeed, for quite a few people it would be good to learn and develop their empathetic abilities more. Projects that focus on practicing empathy already with first-graders in school, whose brains still develop, are certainly good and useful. One example here is Roots of Empathy.
However, there is a flip side to that coin that we rarely – basically: never – hear about, and that is: too much empathy. Empathy to the degree that one literally ‘feels’ other people too much or even only other people, but no longer properly one’s own needs.
This can be an issue in helping professions, it can be an issue in coaching and consulting, and it can be an issue in our personal lives. It can go to the point of self-sacrifice.
The medical basis for empathy lies in the number of mirror neurons one is equipped with. Mirror neurons help us with the ability to imagine things/contexts. And yes indeed, some people have difficulty imagining things. They literally ‘lack imagination’, find it stressful to even attempt to imagine things/concepts. They prefer observation of what is, what they can see, hear, touch. Fair enough. Also much needed, especially in hands-on professions.
Some other people though are so richly equipped with mirror neurons that they imagine things too well – they hear somebody talking about a tooth ache and literally feel that tooth ache themselves. They read about somebody fainting from pain or illness and almost faint themselves. They tend to say: “I feel other people too much” or “I’m just a highly sensitive person”.
I have had to learn the hard way that it is indeed much less ‘poetic’ than that: It is simply so that there is too much ability to imagine things. To anticipate: “What would it be like?” In full complexity. You are not actually ‘feeling’ the other person’s pain or emotion or anger. You are just too good at imagining/anticipating things.
So sometimes, it helps to step back, look inside yourself and ask: “So what do I actually feel? And what do I actually want and need right now?” And to stop thinking about that person or that situation that triggers the imagination/anticipation. Literally take your mind off it – let go of anticipation. Switch and return to yourself.
For people with ‘too much empathy’ that can be a necessary exercise. It doesn’t mean that you will lose your compassion. It’s simply about consciously developing ‘good enough’ boundaries, turning away a little instead of turning towards. We’re supposed to be connected – and sometimes it’s okay and even healthy to be a bit separate. Try and find your own good ‘middle ground’.