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The Challenges of Being an Empath

In extreme amounts, even emotional intelligence can cause distress.

Key points

  • Empathy is a gift in many ways, but too much of it can create suffering.
  • Empaths might experience burnout or emotional exhaustion; they can also be hurt through the actions of others with less empathy.
  • Learning to say no, setting healthy boundaries, and practicing self-care can help empaths recover.

Most people have a capacity for empathy. The innate ability to feel for the plight of others and put oneself in their shoes is present from the time we are small children. Empathy often helps us with moral development and decision-making and guides our values in life.

We meet all types of people during our life journeys. You have probably encountered people on varying points of the empathy continuum along the way. Some seem to have little feeling for others and their needs and live accordingly, while others are highly empathic and seem to feel too much. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, with an average amount of empathy and self-interest.

People on the highest end of the empathy scale sometimes experience a lot of difficulty as a result of their ability to feel for others. Being empathic is a gift in many ways, but too much of a good thing, in this case, can cause a lot of distress.

The dangers of excessive empathy

Empaths can be at greater risk for several types of negative experiences, some of which are inadvertently self-induced due to the nature of feeling deeply, and others that are a result of being taken advantage of by people who are on the below-average end of the empathy scale.

People who live with extreme empathy are often intuitive, and this can also lead to feeling burned out and emotionally exhausted. When you pick up on the emotions of others and feel deeply for their suffering, it can be a lot. Add an intuitive streak, and it can drain one’s internal resources significantly.

Empaths have a greater risk of taking on others’ problems. Even when an empath knows they should allow others to solve their own problems, the urge to help can be strong. Helping others, even against one’s own judgment, can mean getting relief from the painful feelings of others’ suffering, which makes it hard to resist.

It is easy to envision how empaths could fall prey to people lacking ethics. If someone has skills in deceit, it would be simple to play to the feelings of an empath and use their resources. Empaths are also at greater risk of entering relationships with narcissists, who, by definition, lack empathy for others. Skilled narcissists are often able to act as if they have empathy, and the truth of their self-absorption may not emerge until much later when the empath has already invested deeply in the relationship.

How empaths can recover

Empaths often face a painful recovery period when they recognize the toll that it has taken on their psyche. It is often even more painful when an empath recognizes that they have been played by someone, whether it is a well-meaning friend or someone else who has taken advantage, regardless of intent.

Empaths can find healing with greater limit setting and through learning to establish and respect their own needs. This may be a challenge at first, but as one practices, it becomes easier to maintain.

  • Work on saying no. One of the first skills in setting limits with others is simply learning how to say no. Empaths with people-pleasing tendencies need to practice saying no and releasing guilt about it.
  • Have self-empathy. The ability to view one’s own needs as valid is crucial for empaths to heal. Having self-empathy means having compassion for one’s own thoughts, feelings, and limitations and recognizing that you cannot give from an empty well.
  • Practice self-care. Empaths need to disconnect from the needs of others sometimes. Self-care can help. Shut off the phone, stay off social media for a while, and take time to just be with yourself; these are powerful ways for empaths to recharge.
More from Teyhou Smyth Ph.D., LMFT
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