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Can We Have Too Much Empathy?

Times are hard but empathy is not a burden if we fully engage in all its parts.

E. A. Segal
Source: E. A. Segal

You might hear statements like “empathy is a blessing and a curse” or “there is a dark side to empathy.” I have written about the myth of dark sides to empathy before, but in these trying times, it is worth reviewing how to effectively engage in empathy without feeling overwhelmed when there is so much pain and loss around us.

Yes, there can be two sides to empathy.

First, there is the positive. We need others to understand us and so we welcome their empathic insights. We feel more connected to others when we tune into their feelings. When we understand what their feelings mean, we can deeply communicate. Connecting through empathy creates strong bonds and often leads to caring responses.

And then there is the negative. Feeling the pain of others opens us to sharing difficult emotions. Tuning in to others takes effort, and we may not always have enough attention to share. Times of intense struggle and pain for others can feel draining, we cannot always turn it off to take time for ourselves.

However, the true full array of empathy can guard against the negatives and enhance the positives. The key to a positive experience rests on the part of empathy called emotion regulation. Emotion regulation is our ability to maintain and modulate our emotions.1 We begin learning that process in childhood and adolescence, and if we manage our emotions successfully, we can engage in sharing the emotions of others without stress throughout our lives.2 Faced with the intense feelings of others, the extent of emotional harmony we can maintain while still stepping into the shoes of another is the key to empathy.

Emotional overdrive is not empathy.

During these difficult times, there is so much grief and loss that our feelings for others can go into overdrive. That is not empathy. When we are consumed by emotions, even if a reflection of another person’s feelings, we are experiencing emotional contagion. This is our ability to mirror or imitate the sensations of others, but doing so without using the rest of the skills behind empathy.3 Being fully engaged in empathy includes skills that allow us to separate our feelings from those of others.

We engage in self-other awareness, which is understanding how we are different people and we do not own the emotions of others. We are simply visitors. And we maintain our own emotional harmony through emotion regulation. With so much pain, loss, and grief it is not easy. Empathy in its full form takes learning and then lots of practice.

We can control our empathy.

Empathy does not come with an on/off switch. For those of us who are empathic, we pick up feelings of others even when we are not conscious of doing it. But the safeguard for not being overwhelmed can be learned, and in times like these, must be learned. Emotion regulation, maintaining an even keel, combined with self-other awareness, are key parts of the empathic process and give us the ability to wade far into the feelings of others and then pull back and regain our sense of self. We can re-center ourselves and still gain insight and understanding into the lives of others. How do we do that?

Tools for Emotion Regulation

Without the ability to manage our emotions it is difficult to be empathic. Our ability to be aware of our surroundings and the actions of others without letting it overwhelm or distract us is key. We can do this through mindfulness, often described as being in the moment. It is our ability to stay focused while not over-reacting. Mindfulness may seem overused and trite, but the practice is beneficial for maintaining emotional harmony.

Another way to regulate our emotions is by taking good care of ourselves, self-nurturing. This suggestion may seem overused too, but it is foundational to all we do. Keeping up our own health, physically and emotionally, gives us reserve to step out and experience the feelings of others.

Don’t be afraid to step back when you are sharing the emotions of others and take time to process what you are experiencing. You can be present, assuring people that you are hearing what they are saying, but you can tell them that you need time to process and understand what it means. Time can give you perspective, a chance to stay in the moment, and the space you need to manage your own feelings.

Maintaining our emotional harmony keeps us healthy for our own sakes, while at the same time it allows us to be available for others.

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1. Eisenberg, N., Smith, C. L., Sadovsky, A., & Spinrad, T. L. (2004). Effortful control: Relations with emotion regulation, adjustment, and socialization in childhood. In R. F. Baumeister & K. D. Vohs (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications, pp. 259–282. New York: Guilford Press.

2. Silvers, J. A., Buhle, J. T., & Ochsner, K. N. (2014). The neuroscience of emotion regulation: Basic mechanisms and their role in development, aging, and psychopathology. In K. N. Ochsner & S. M. Kosslyn (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of cognitive neuroscience, Vol. 2: The cutting edges, pp. 52–78. New York: Oxford University Press.

3. Singer, T., & Decety, J. (2011). Social neuroscience of empathy. In J. Decety & J. T. Cacioppo (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of social neuroscience, pp. 551–564. New York: Oxford University Press.