Empathy: Can you have too much?

Our brains are predisposed to feel the emotions of others. This capacity, called “empathy,” fuels our most altruistic acts as humans. And it fosters sweeter and deeper relationships.

But it is possible to be overly empathetic. If the doorway to your heart is always open to feeling another’s emotions—pain, sadness, anger, fear—you are on a sure path to burnout when caring for an ailing elder.

Signs of too much empathy

  • Inability to identify your own needs or feelings. Can you answer these questions: “What am I feeling right now?” “What would I like to do?” “What do I need?” If this seems difficult—or impossible—you may be overly empathetic.
  • Unexplained physical or psychological exhaustion. Taking on the emotions of others is deeply tiring.
  • Generalized anxiety (overwhelm) and low-level depression. A lack of boundaries leaves you at the mercy of another person’s situation. Feeling powerless is a precursor to anxiety and depression.

What you can do

Retain your compassion: care deeply but hold enough self-awareness that you don’t lose your own identity.

  • Pay attention to the signals of your body. Do you get tense when someone you care about is troubled? Learn to distinguish between your own feelings and the distress of another.
  • Practice relaxation techniques. Release physical and emotional tension. Deep breathing, guided imagery, and progressive relaxation are simple and easy to implement.
  • Get support from others. Talk with other family caregivers to gain and maintain perspective. They share your need to care and to set healthy personal boundaries.
  • Keep track of things you do for yourself. When you are overly tuned in to others, it’s easy to unconsciously ignore your own needs. The upshot is burnout, and then everyone loses. Strive for balance. Each day do at least one thing that is just for you.