“Can too much empathy be bad for me?” “Could empathy make me overly sensitive?”
These are common questions I hear in my emotional intelligence and coaching skills classes. If you embody the emotions you pick up from someone, the answer could be yes. If you instead, notice and release the emotions in your body so you can hold the space for the person to safely express him or herself, the answer is no.
If you want people to feel comfortable and be open with you—the purpose of empathy—you need to let your reactions fade away. You create a safe space between you by caring and feeling curious so you can identify and understand what they feel, not mirror it back to them.
Empathy as Social Sensitivity
Even at work, most people long for you to listen with compassion, the cornerstone of empathy.1 They want you to sense their discomfort or distress especially when they struggle articulating how they feel.
Humans desire to be seen and understood beyond their words. Empathy demonstrates you care.
You can experience empathy by noticing a person’s body language and voice, but acute sensitivity includes being open to the emotional energy vibrating between you.2 You might feel this energy in your heart or gut. You sense not only what people feel but also what they need. You can tell when they need attention, acknowledgment, or an offer of help. You grasp when they want you to back off and give them space or when they want you to quietly stand by. You know when they are impatient to move on or if they want to take more time.
Empathetic Reactivity – When too much empathy is bad
With empathy, you will feel their stress, anxiety, and anger in your body. You might feel their pain emotionally and physically. If you let these emotions sit in your body, your body and mind can be emotionally hijacked.
Unbridled empathy can lead to concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, making it difficult to release the emotions.3 Taking on other people’s feelings so that you live their experience can make you susceptible to feelings of depression or hopelessness.
Not only will this lead to burnout, you can break the bond of trust you were hoping to strengthen. When you embody other people’s emotions, you may feel responsible for relieving their pain. You feel the need to fix their problems and make them feel better.
Unless people want your help, your intrusive reaction will push them away no matter the value of your intention. They might feel less understood. They feel disrespected, undermined, or enfeebled when you interrupt to render aid. The response you believe is "being supportive" could damage their sense of safety and trust. They no longer feel they can fully express themselves with you.
How to foster non-reactive empathy
Having open, nonjudgmental awareness, “… is the capacity to remain receptive to whatever might pass into your thoughts, view, hearing or feeling and to do so in a non-critical way.”4 You notice when emotions begin to arise in your body. You might name the emotion and offer what you sense to the person to help him or her better understand the experience. Then you relax your body and let the emotion subside.
Non-reactive empathy is especially useful when you feel the urge to jump in and fix people, helping them see what they should feel and do instead. This urge might arise from empathy, or you could be judging the person’s beliefs.
I was coaching a man in China in front of a big audience. He wanted to explore what to do when he retired. When he talked, I could sense his heart-felt desire to help others grow. I asked him what he loved about his job being the Director of HR for a large company. He told me he loved developing people and have them realize their potential. Most of all, he was proud to be instilling the Communist principles. I felt my entire body shudder. My democratic values curdled in my bones. But it wasn’t my place to judge him or change him. I noticed my reaction and let it go so I could be fully present with this wonderful man who didn’t want to quit helping people when he retired.
We accept, appreciate, and encourage expression in others by observing our reactions and letting them go.
You can foster this open, non-judgmental awareness with the following exercise. As soon as you notice that you are emotionally reacting:
Relax – breath 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.
When your own emotions distract you, breathe and recall your keywords to maintain trust and connection. Allowing others the safe expression of emotions could help them diffuse their feelings and see a possible path forward.
Copyright Dr. Marcia Reynolds
1 BusinessThink. The Rise of the Compassionate Leader. Blog post, August 21, 2012.
2 Daniel J. Siegel, The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. New York: The Guilford Press; 2nd edition, 2012.
3 Agata Blaszczak-Boxe, Too much emotional intelligence is a bad thing. Scientific American Mind, March 1, 2017.
4 Richard J. Davidson and Sharon Begley, The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Penguin, 2012, page 60.