Hyper-empathy: is there such a thing as too much empathy?

Do you ever feel like you’re deeply in tune with others? Like you can absorb their feelings? 

Being extra sensitive to other people’s emotions can sometimes feel like a superpower. Other times, it can become a burden. 

People with hyper-empathy experience other people’s emotions almost as if they were their own – and they face unique challenges related to their unusual ability. 

In this article, we’ll learn more about hyper-empathy and how to manage it. 

Are you curious about your personality type and mental health status? Take this online cognitive test for a full assessment of your cognitive strengths and weaknesses.

What is empathy?

Before we learn about hyper-empathy, it’s important to define what empathy is, and how we experience it in our daily lives.

If you were talking to a grieving friend about the recent death of a loved one, you’d probably understand their pain. You’d be able to imagine yourself in their position and even feel their grief yourself.

This is empathy: the ability to share other people’s emotions and to experience them, to some degree, as if they were your own.

Having empathy is crucial for developing relationships and it allows humans to function in society. However, some people have an extremely high level of empathy which is known as hyper empathy syndrome, or simply hyper-empathy.

People with this condition can be known as empaths, or Highly Sensitive People.

Hyper empathy
Hyper empathy

How does empathy develop?

Empathy begins to develop in early childhood. Children begin to show empathic behavior from the age of one, and toddlers often comfort others and show concern for others’ wellbeing. (1)

We are born with the capacity for empathy, but we must learn and develop the skill from the emotional cues of our parents. If a child’s emotional needs are ignored, this can result in impaired capacity to empathize. (2)

Scientists measure empathy levels on a scale. They differ from person to person, and may vary depending on the situation.

On average, women have slightly higher levels of empathy than men. This could be a combination of genetic and environmental influences, as societal norms may encourage girls to develop their empathic sensibilities more so than boys. (3)

Some studies also suggest that the culture we grow up in can have an influence on our empathy levels. (4)

Empathy and personality disorders

There are two types of empathy. Affective empathy is the ability to show compassion and feel another person’s emotions. Cognitive empathy is when you are able to view things from another person’s perspective and understand their motivations and mental state. (5)

Both types of empathy are important, however, some personality disorders result in abnormal levels of empathy.

Lack of affective empathy is a key characteristic in psychopathy, sociopathy and narcissistic personality disorder. People on the Autism spectrum also lack empathy to varying degrees. (6)

However, although people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) sometimes struggle with cognitive empathy, they can experience higher levels of affective empathy. In fact, hyper-empathy can be a symptom of BPD. (7)

Stress, trauma and parental relationships all influence the development of empathy in childhood. (8)

However, negative experiences are not always linked to lower empathy. One study found an association between childhood trauma and high levels of empathy. The severity of the trauma correlated to the level of empathy. (9)

Characteristics of hyper-empathy disorder

Characteristics of hyper-empathy disorder

Empathy allows us to care, connect and maintain relationships. However, having extreme empathy can be challenging.

So, what are the signs of hyper-empathy disorder?

High sensitivity to pain

A study at the McGill Centre for Research on Pain at McGill University in Montreal found that people with higher empathy felt pain more intensely than their lower empathy counterparts. (10)

Another study found that people with higher empathy were more sensitive to negative expressions and emotions, and there is also a link between higher empathy and compassion fatigue in health professionals and caregivers. (11)

Struggles in social situations

Research points to a link between hyper-empathy and social anxiety. (12)

Highly sensitive people find social situations difficult because they take on the pain and anxiety of others and are not able to disconnect. They may put others’ needs before their own and become overwhelmed in situations where people are distressed.

Empaths are good listeners by nature, so this means people often go to them for advice and to talk about their problems. Highly sensitive people therefore end up taking on a disproportionate amount of other people’s distress.

Large crowds can also be challenging because empaths can feel overwhelmed by noise and chatter. This may cause them to retreat from social situations and avoid them altogether.

Mood swings and stress

Higher levels of emotional intelligence or empathy come with stress.  A study found that emotional intelligence can have a positive effect on social interactions with others but can cause stress for the empath. (13)

Hypersensitivity and contagion from other people’s negative mental states  can also lead to emotional storms and mood swings. (14)

Dependency on others

Empathy allows us to bond with other people. However, hyper empathic individuals can have a blurred sense of self.

While codependency and hyper-empathy are not the same thing, many empaths have codependent traits which stem from their intense sensitivity for others’ feelings and tendency to put other people’s emotions first.

Romantic relationships are especially difficult for people with hyper-empathy. The closeness of a relationship is challenging for someone who may feel overwhelmed by the emotions of others.

Highly sensitive people are susceptible to manipulation and can fall into abusive relationships with narcissists.

Judith Orloff MD is a psychiatrist and expert in hyper-empathy. She’s also an empath herself, and in an interview with Business Insider, she described the empath-narcissist dynamic as a “toxic partnership”.

She said that these two personality types often attract each other because empaths are highly compassionate and understanding, while narcissists thrive on someone worshipping them. (15)

Strong intuition

People with hyper-empathy are more likely to trust gut reactions and pick up on subtle cues that offer insight into what others are thinking or feeling.

According to a Danish study,  doctors who scored highly on empathy were more likely to make decisions based on their gut feelings and intuition. (16)

Susceptibility to mental health problems

Highly empathic people can be at greater risk for certain psychological disorders.

A review of several studies found that youths with higher empathic sensitivity were at an increased risk of personal distress and excessive interpersonal guilt. Hyper-empathic people may be at more risk of developing anxiety and depression because of a tendency to internalize and focus on negative emotions and take on guilt. (17)

too much empathy

When do you need a hyper-empathy test?

Hyper-empathy is not a disease, but if you suspect you are a highly sensitive person it may be useful to find out. Then you can develop coping strategies to deal with it.

In Judith Orloff MD’s book The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, (18) she suggested that if you answer “yes” to at least 3 of the following questions, it may indicate that you have hyper-empathy:

  • Have you been labeled as too emotional or overly sensitive?
  • If a friend is distraught, do you start feeling it too?
  • Are your feelings easily hurt?
  • Are you emotionally drained by crowds, requiring time alone to revive?
  • Do your nerves get frayed by noise, smells, or excessive talk?
  • Do you prefer taking your own car places so that you can leave when you please?
  • Do you overeat to cope with emotional stress?
  • Are you afraid of becoming engulfed by intimate relationships?

Other signs to look for include:

  • Feeling drained after social gatherings
  • Struggling to say no and consistently putting others’ needs first
  • Feeling sorry for others means you tolerate unkind behavior
  • Getting overwhelmed by emotion and struggling to maintain standards in your daily life

Hyper-empathy treatment

There is no treatment for hyper-empathy, but there are some tactics highly empathic people can use to avoid overwhelm and keep their emotions under control.

In an article for Psychology Today (19), psychologist Dr Marcia Reynolds recommended the following exercise whenever you notice you are reacting emotionally:

Relax – breathe and release the tension in your body.

Detach – clear your mind of all thoughts.

Center – drop your awareness to the center of your body just below your navel. Feel yourself breathe. This helps to clear the mind.

Focus – choose one or two keywords that represent how you want to feel. Feeling curiosity and compassion foster non-reactive empathy.

There are other ways hyper empathic people can deal with the downsides of having a stronger sense of empathy:

  • Spend time in nature. While empaths sometimes feel overwhelmed in noisy places and amongst large crowds, they take comfort in peaceful natural settings.
  • Practice self care. Hyper-empathic people absorb the stresses and problems of others, so it’s extra important for them to practice self care and take time out to recharge.
  • Set boundaries. By setting boundaries and limits, empaths may be able to limit the emotional distress that they experience due to emotional overload.
  • See a therapist. A good therapist can help you learn the tools to cope with hyper-empathy and learn how to channel your unique abilities in a positive way.

References

(1) Mcdonald, Nicole & Messinger, Daniel. (2011). The Development of Empathy: How, When, and Why. Moral behavior and free will: A neurobiological and philosophical approach.

(2) Peg Streep: 6 Things You Need to Know About Empathy. Psychology Today, Jan 23, 2017. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/tech-support/201701/6-things-you-need-know-about-empathy

(3) Christov-Moore, L., Simpson, E. A., Coudé, G., Grigaityte, K., Iacoboni, M., & Ferrari, P. F. (2014). Empathy: gender effects in brain and behavior. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 46 Pt 4(Pt 4), 604–627. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2014.09.001

(4) Cassels, Tracy & Chan, Sherilynn & Chung, Winnie. (2010). The Role of Culture in Affective Empathy: Cultural and Bicultural Differences. Journal of Cognition and Culture. 10. 309-326. 10.1163/156853710X531203.

(5) Healey Meghan L., Grossman Murray Cognitive and Affective Perspective-Taking: Evidence for Shared and Dissociable Anatomical Substrates, Frontiers in Neurology  VOLUME 9, 2018, DOI: 10.3389/fneur.2018.00491

(6) Decety, J., & Moriguchi, Y. (2007). The empathic brain and its dysfunction in psychiatric populations: implications for intervention across different clinical conditions. BioPsychoSocial medicine, 1, 22. https://doi.org/10.1186/1751-0759-1-22

(7) Imi Lo: The Unexpected Gifts Inside Borderline Personality. Psychology Today,  May 17, 2018. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/living-emotional-intensity/201805/the-unexpected-gifts-inside-borderline-personality

(8) Levy, J., Goldstein, A., & Feldman, R. (2019). The neural development of empathy is sensitive to caregiving and early trauma. Nature communications, 10(1), 1905. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-09927-y

(9) Greenberg, D. M., Baron-Cohen, S., Rosenberg, N., Fonagy, P., & Rentfrow, P. J. (2018). Elevated empathy in adults following childhood trauma. PloS one, 13(10), e0203886. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0203886

(10) Loggia ML, Mogil JS, Bushnell MC. Empathy hurts: compassion for another increases both sensory and affective components of pain perception. Pain. 2008;136(1-2):168-176. doi:10.1016/j.pain.2007.07.017

(11) George Chikovani, Lasha Babuadze, Nino Iashvili, Tamar Gvalia, Simon Surguladze, Empathy costs: Negative emotional bias in high empathisers, Psychiatry Research, Volume 229, Issues 1–2, 2015, Pages 340-346, ISSN 0165-1781, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2015.07.001.

(12) Tibi-Elhanany Y, Shamay-Tsoory SG. Social cognition in social anxiety: first evidence for increased empathic abilities. Isr J Psychiatry Relat Sci. 2011;48(2):98-106.

(13) Bechtoldt, M. N., & Schneider, V. K. (2016). Predicting stress from the ability to eavesdrop on feelings: Emotional intelligence and testosterone jointly predict cortisol reactivity. Emotion, 16(6), 815–825. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000134

(14) Fonagy P, Luyten P, Strathearn L. Borderline personality disorder, mentalization, and the neurobiology of attachment. Infant Ment Health J. 2011;32(1):47-69. doi:10.1002/imhj.20283

(15) Lindsay Dodgson: Empaths and narcissists make a ‘toxic’ partnership — here’s why they’re attracted to each other. Business Insider, Jan 23, 2018. https://www.businessinsider.com/why-empaths-and-narcissists-are-attracted-to-each-other-2018-1?IR=T

(16) Pedersen, A. F., Ingeman, M. L., & Vedsted, P. (2018). Empathy, burn-out and the use of gut feeling: a cross-sectional survey of Danish general practitioners. BMJ open, 8(2), e020007. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2017-020007

(17) Tone, E. B., & Tully, E. C. (2014). Empathy as a “risky strength”: a multilevel examination of empathy and risk for internalizing disorders. Development and psychopathology, 26(4 Pt 2), 1547–1565. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954579414001199

(18) Dr Judith Orloff: The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People(19) Marcia Reynolds Psy.D.: Can You Have Too Much Empathy? Psychology Today, April 15, 2017. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/wander-woman/201704/can-you-have-too-much-empathy