Understanding the Highly Empathic Person
Learn how to optimize the strengths and manage the downsides of this trait.
Posted October 21, 2021 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Highly attuned people are sharply intuitive and proficient at both identifying emotions and attending to the needs of those around them.
- Children adapt and secure their relationships by maximizing the accepted parts and minimizing the rejected aspects of the self.
- Staying present in the moment is the first step toward fully knowing oneself and forming accurate perceptions of others.
Consistent patterns of sacrificing their own needs to be caretakers for others incites the questions:
- When did this pattern begin?
- How is it reinforced?
- How can it be corrected?
Where It All Began
Children have fundamental needs for attachment, attunement, dependence, and independence from parents or primary caregivers. When these needs are met, it determines the capacity and depth of self-understanding, confidence, and the ability to regulate emotions (Heller & LaPierre, 2012). However, when these primary needs are neglected, a struggle ensues. This struggle relates to the ability to identify, communicate, and feel worthy of getting needs fulfilled by others (Siegel & Solomon, 2003). Life and relationships become constrained, as they are disconnected from themselves and contract to the limits of connection and fulfillment learned from early dissatisfying relationships.
Parents or primary caregivers are naturally imperfect. They cannot flawlessly attune themselves to every need of the children for whom they provide care. However, perfection is not necessary for healthy attachment. Instead, it is D.W. Winnicott’s concept of good enough parents, who are responsive and sensitive to children’s needs, while also introducing a tolerable level of frustration of unfulfilled desires, that allows those children to transition towards a progressively independent position.
For highly attuned people, this transition is not seamless. Instead, they are faced with the abrupt realization that their needs are less important than those around them, usually deferring to the needs of parents who are either preoccupied or rely on their children for emotional regulation. Through this role reversal, they become self-reliant parentified children.
When Adaptation Goes Awry
Authenticity is the connection to instincts, gut feelings, and intuition. But for many, to preserve attachment and adapt to their environment, parts of their authentic selves were suppressed (Maté, 2011).
This suppression is particularly common in relation to how caregivers respond to undesirable traits in their children, such as anger. Our culture does not readily tolerate anger in children. Angry kids are usually isolated and placed in time out, threatening their attachment relationships. Therefore, when children feel anger towards caregivers, it is intuitively felt as dangerous to attachment and becomes synonymous with the risk of abandonment.
The most resourceful and adaptive children learn to distance themselves from anger and other parts of themselves that caregivers do not accept. The side effect will be the development of defenses that prevent the experience of anger, such as depression or anxiety. A more effective solution is not to rid oneself of anger, rather learn the tools needed to manage anger, so it is no longer viewed as destructive (Maté, 2011).
Instead, children modify their emotions and display less externally threatening yet highly internally arousing reactions like anxiety, worry, and distress. These reactions are strategies for survival. While they shield their relationships with primary attachment figures, these children learn they must assume the burden of these consequential emotions.
As adults, they continue to disconnect from their bodies, avoiding these resulting emotions through distraction or higher-level defenses, like intellectualization or aestheticization. What began as an adaptive strategy to manage painful experiences becomes the source of difficulties in regulating emotions, maintaining self-worth, and managing needs in adulthood (Dwan, 2020).
That is the paradox of survival strategies. All too often, they are applied past their expiration date as what was once essential becomes rigidly encoded in a way that further perpetuates a cycle of suffering.
When Attunement to Others Facilitates Avoidance of the Self
Children are highly attuned. They can perceive the parts of themselves that their parents value and welcome. In turn, they adapt and secure their relationships by maximizing the accepted parts and minimizing the rejected aspects of the self (Heller & LaPierre, 2012).
Conversely, attunement to their own needs becomes strained because they were frequently met with rejection or shame in the past. Instead, they learned it is safer to accommodate the needs of others while concurrently abandoning their own.
While this works short-term, a lifetime of restricting leads to an entrenched struggle to manage challenges through a constrained false-self persona, in turn, they lose the flexibility to respond creatively and adaptively to more complex problems later in life.
Ultimately, what was once key to survival, becomes responsible for rigid beliefs and constricted ways of relating to others. In the past, they were faced with few options and had to adapt based on limitations in the environment. However, they tend not to realize how they carry the shackles of these once-adaptive behaviors into a life sentence of self-confinement.
The Consequential Strength of this Survival Strategy
While born out of unfavorable circumstances, these challenges set the stage for highly sophisticated skills in attunement. Most highly attuned children become caretakers, problem-solvers, and helpers. Identity becomes solidified around their ability to recognize and meet the needs of others, to the detriment of their widening inability to attend to their own discarded needs. Eventually, these castoff emotions accumulate to a magnitude that can no longer be ignored. A volcanic eruption ensues, spilling into their ability to function effectively at work and in relationships (Gordon & Archer, 2012).
Highly attuned people are also inclined to engage in codependent relationships. While they may appear to be the caretaker in these relationships, they provide the opportunity to meet their own needs by becoming indispensable indirectly. As they disconnect from themselves and are attuned to others, they learn that alleviating distress in others is more externally rewarding than managing their own. Additionally, this protects them from discomfort around their own dependency needs and their fear of rejection if expressed (Purvis et al., 2013).
While they are perceptive to the needs of others, these people end up providing the same care they wish to receive themselves. This usually leads to frustration when they learn others do not reciprocate care for them, resulting in resentment and strained one-sided relationships.
Steps Toward Change
It is essential to break this cycle. Instead of disconnecting, these individuals must learn to become more present in the moment (Schimmenti, 2012). This will create space to identify recessed emotions when they arise in the present. Being more present allows the choice to tolerate strong emotions without transforming them into something more immediately suitable but inevitably destructive.
In turn, they must learn to contain these strong emotions and then integrate them into their understanding of themselves and how they relate to others to increase their ability to connect authentically.
Staying present in the moment is the first step toward fully knowing yourself and forming accurate perceptions of others.
Healing and regulation can only occur to the extent that connection is maintained to both internal (emotions, body, needs) and external factors (relationships with others) regardless of how seemingly threatening that might be (Heller & LaPierre, 2012; Siegel & Solomon, 2003).
Training in self-reflection makes it possible to form a greater understanding of the adaptations made based on the belief that their needs will not be met. While this belief was born out of real situations in which others did not adequately respond, they must now own their role in sustaining this cycle by seeking familiar relationships with people who are comfortable taking while avoiding their discomfort in asking for what they need.
Their task is to challenge the inclination to shut down when facing strong emotions that might threaten relationships. Growth is encouraged by increasing their ability to tolerate more intensity and expanding their patterns of relating. This includes allowing themselves to grieve for what they did not receive in early life, reconnecting with themselves, working through the fear of needing, and beginning to engage in more satisfying relationships.
Dwan, E. (2020). An exploration of the role of integration in healing developmental trauma.
Gordon, C., & Archer, C. (2012). Reparenting the child who hurts: a guide to healing developmental trauma and attachments. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Heller, L., & LaPierre, A. (2012). Healing developmental trauma: How early trauma affects self-regulation, self-image, and the capacity for relationship. North Atlantic Books.
Maté, G. (2011). When the body says no: The cost of hidden stress. Vintage Canada.
Purvis, K. B., Cross, D. R., Dansereau, D. F., & Parris, S. R. (2013). Trust-based relational intervention (TBRI): A systemic approach to complex developmental trauma. Child & Youth Services, 34(4), 360-386.
Schimmenti, A. (2012). Unveiling the hidden self: Developmental trauma and pathological shame. Psychodynamic Practice, 18(2), 195-211.
Schimmenti, A., & Caretti, V. (2016). Linking the overwhelming with the unbearable: developmental trauma, dissociation, and the disconnected self. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 33(1), 106.
Siegel, D. J., & Solomon, M. F. (Eds.). (2003). Healing Trauma: Attachment, Mind, Body and Brain (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). WW Norton & Company.
Silberg, J. L. (2013). The Child Survivor: Healing Developmental Trauma and Dissociation. Routledge.
Van Der Kolk, B. A., Pynoos, R. S., Cicchetti, D., Cloitre, M., D’Andrea, W., Ford, J. D., & Teicher, M. (2009). Proposal to include a developmental trauma disorder diagnosis for children and adolescents in DSM-V. Unpublished manuscript. Verfügbar unter: http://www. cathymalchiodi. com/dtd_nctsn. pdf (Zugriff: 20.5. 2011).