Toxic Empathy: What is It and Can You Really Be Too Empathetic?

By Tatenda

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Last Updated: January 9, 2023

From an early age, we are taught that too much of everything is very bad.

But does that also refer to the ‘good things’? I am talking about positivity, empathy, and the like. 

Well, many researchers and writers have established that too much positivity, otherwise known as toxic positivity, surely is not a good thing.

More recent studies on human emotions are also showing that empathy, one emotion that is essential in our interactions with others, can be too much in some cases. 

At face value, it is definitely not simple to understand why and how one can ever have too much empathy. Well, I did a deep dive into the issue so you don’t have to. 

In this article, I will help you understand what empathy is as well as what toxic empathy looks like. 

 

 

What is Empathy?

Empathy refers to being able to understand, share and relate to the feelings of others.

It is that thing that allows you to put yourself in the place of others and view things from their perspective. It allows us to feel what they are feeling. 

When someone tells you that they are going through a hard time because they have lost someone they love, empathy allows you to instantly put yourself in their position and experience the same feelings. 

Thanks to empathy, we are able to fully understand how others are feeling and work towards making their lives better ie. helping behaviors. We are also able to build and improve our social connections by responding appropriately to social situations and experiences. 

Some of the common types of empathy are: 

  • Cognitive empathy
  • Somatic empathy
  • Emotional empathy
  • Affective empathy

 

 

Toxic Empathy

Empathy is a wonderful trait, but we need to be able to separate ourselves from others. Toxic empathy is when we overidentify with the feelings of others. When we are in this situation, we find it difficult to understand that the feelings and emotions of the other person are not ours. 

An example of toxic empathy might be you feeling anxious because your friend had some blood tests that could determine if they have cancer.

While it is important to relate to the anxiousness your friend might be feeling as they wait for the results, when you feel very anxious on their behalf to such an extent that you’re unable to get anything done, then that becomes a problem. 

As a result of toxic empathy, we suffer with those around us, and in addition to our personal emotions, we also carry theirs. Consequently, we end up feeling emotionally exhausted and depressed. 

Signs of toxic empathy include: 

  • Using other people’s negative situations/experiences as a justification for them being horrible
  • Treating other people’s problems as your own
  • Having difficulties saying ‘no’ to people’s requests
  • Having difficulties fulfilling your responsibilities because you are emotionally overwhelmed
  • Feeling sad, shame, guilt or any other strong feelings for others despite not knowing the whole story
  • Unintentionally mimicking someone’s feelings
  • Compromising your needs for the same of others
  • Being physically and emotionally exhausted after interacting with others

 

 

You Need to Draw The Emotional Boundaries 

Empathy is good, but too much empathy can be damaging and exhausting, and make us resentful and angry. We begin to feel this way because in our eyes, people are not reciprocating to our feelings in the same manner we handle their emotions. 

In most cases, toxic empathy is a trauma response. Typically, people whose emotions were ignored when they were children might grow up to over-relate to other people’s emotions. This results in toxic empathy.

This is one reason why is important for us to go through therapy and deal with our childhood experiences so we relate to others in a manner that is not damaging to us. 

As we interact with many people, it is important to learn how to draw the line between our own emotions and those of others. 

This skill is particularly important for those who work as service providers in spheres like healthcare, as they are often exposed to people dealing with a wide range of emotions and pains. 

Even so, as we interact with our friends and family, they are also likely to share or vent about their experiences which might require us to be empathetic. We need the boundaries that help us manage our emotions and protect us from toxic empathy. 

Photo by Karolina Grabowska

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6 comments on “Toxic Empathy: What is It and Can You Really Be Too Empathetic?”

  1. Toxic empathy really rings true with me! I get so caught up in others issues my own life gets put on hold. I let them treat me like dirt. I worry ,-many times more than they do about their issues. Only to find out in majority of cases they were lying or exaggerating! It really effects my life and I find saying no very hard, some take advantage of this seeing kindness as weakness. I can really feel what they should be feeling, most times they just don't care tho! Toxic really sums it up nicely. One to watch out for!

    1. Thanks PT. Kindness is never a weakness, but sometimes we realize we are wasting it on people who don't care, or worse, take advantage of it. Don't stop being kind to others (You probably couldn't anyway!), but make sure to focus it on yourself and others who will truly benefit from it. Good luck! 🙂

  2. Boundaries are the key. I am a psw and live with a man who suffers from ptsd for the last 22 yrs. Takes all my strength. I asked him to get professional help he refuses. He prefers to self medicate with alcohol and pills for his rheumatoid arthritis. One day he will reach his bottom. He threatens suicide often.

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