Hyper and Toxic Empathy: On Being an Empath

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Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.

Mohsin Hamid

I am an empath. That’s a controversial thing to say these days. Many people use it in a way that makes it sound like magic; a superpower, straight from the gods. I’m in a lot of spiritual groups and I hear a lot about it there. Because of that, folks tend to roll their eyes when they read the word “empath” in their feeds.

Empathy and being and empath

empathy, meet, sensitivity

That said, I am an empath. There is not much magic about it. Empathy, which is the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of other living things, is important in the human species. It is generally viewed as a good quality to have and it is what connects us. It is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes; feel what they feel.

Empathy helps us to better cooperate with others, build lasting relationships, and make decisions based on morals. However, some people feel too little or too much empathy. Feeling too little empathy is bad, for obvious reasons, and should be worked on with a medical professional. Feeling too much empathy can be just as unpleasant, however.

An empath is a highly sensitive person with the ability to understand, share, and sometimes detect what others are thinking or feeling. They are able to see things from other’s points of view and are often good at “reading the room.” However, they can sometimes go as far as taking on the pain of others, to their detriment.

But there is nothing magic about being an empath. Being empathic is most often the result of sustained childhood trauma; we had to be hyper-aware of body language, tone, and, other social cues. As a result, we developed the ability to read people’s emotions and moods, without even realizing it. People with mental illness and ADHD are often highly empathic because of their lived experiences and the ability to feel for people who have been there.

Hyper Empathy

Let’s take a look at some of the signs of hyper empathy.

compassion, listening, sharing

You have above average listening skills.

There are many different types of listening, but the one you hear most about is active listening. I won’t get into what all active listening entails, but I want to stress that active listening was created for a certain type of environment; public speaking, business situations, etc. Your doctor and therapist should be practicing active listening. You should be using active listening during important business meetings. You get the idea.

That said, I’m a firm believer that all parts of active listening were not meant for regular conversation. This brings me to empathetic listening. I am an empathetic listener in most social situations. What this means is that I listen to what you are saying to me and then I often meet that with a story of my own to tell you that I know how you are feeling. This is considered rude by some people; they consider it one-upping or “making it about you.” I assure you, that is never my intent. It’s my way of saying, “You are not alone.”

I digress, empathic people are good listeners and people often seek them out for just that purpose. They tend to be non-judgemental and supportive. People tend to confide in you because you have a calming effect on others. Empaths enjoy deep conversation and deep connections and generally feel most themselves in these situations. I thrive on deep conversation with friends and I crave it when I don’t have it. It has made pandemic times extremely difficult.

You often get asked for advice or get told things in confidence.

People with hyper empathy tend to be good at keeping big secrets. We seem to understand what it feels like to need someone to confide in and (see above) we’re non-judgemental listeners. People sense this about us early. Part of that is that we are so open about our own experiences (meeting story with story), so people feel comfortable and at ease.

I’ve often asked my friends if my communication style is disarming or overwhelming. I am extremely open about everything. Even the gross stuff that most people don’t talk about. The consensus among my friends seems to be that it makes them feel more comfortable to talk about their own problems and issues. I find that, in most cases, the most embarrassing stuff is stuff that we all go through, but are too ashamed to talk about. I want people to know that there is no shame with me.

You are good at picking up on other’s moods and, at times, seem to “absorb” them.

For people who experienced trauma as children and specifically prolonged abuse, we become more in tune with other people’s moods. We were trained to pick up on body language and tone as children to survive and it’s a skill that we honed to a fine tip. By adulthood, it’s often something that we aren’t even aware of, but we’re good at.

My husband is not a morning person. Like, at all. Sometimes he wakes up after me and he’s in a terrible mood. I find that, no matter how I was feeling before he woke up, it also puts me in a bad mood. He is usually much better after his first cup of coffee and his mood wears off, but I am stuck and grumpy for the rest of the day. The same goes for work. If one of my coworkers shows up in a bad mood, it will ruin my whole day and I will be pissy for the duration.

You are often overwhelmed by tragic events.

I don’t even know where to begin with this one. We live in a world where tragedy strikes multiple times a day, all over the world. For empaths, this can be excruciating. We can see an event as if we were there; feeling the fear or the pain. The worst part is, we know that we can’t be possibly feeling what the victims are feeling…we know that it must be overwhelming for them and it makes us feel worse.

I sometimes force myself to read the names and look at the faces of victims of gun violence. We lose so many beautiful people to senseless violence. People from all walks of life and all ages. When I think of the fear and the helplessness…it’s so unfair. No one should have to spend their last moments that way. That’s not to mention the survivors and what they will go through for the rest of their lives. It’s heart-wrenching and I feel so much emotion for every person that is touched by such senseless evil.

My empathy does just extend to humans. I feel the same way about all living things. I recently read that trees talk to each other and feel pain and I don’t know if I’ll ever be the same. I digress; knowing that animals feel fear, confusion, and pain is sometimes more than I can bear. Every time I hear about large-scale forest fires, my heart bleeds because I know there are so many living things that are hurt and scared and desperate. It honestly rips my soul out.

feedback, satisfaction, customer

You have difficulty setting boundaries.

There is one emotion that empaths have, that is their own, that we don’t talk enough about: Guilt. We feel guilty, not helping where we can. That guilt causes us to take on other people’s pain and problems, even when we don’t have the spoons for it. Because of this guilt, we have major issues with setting and enforcing real boundaries.

I saw a meme not too long ago that said something to the effect of, “Empathy without boundaries is self-destruction.” Honestly, it’s true. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten heartbroken because I didn’t set any boundaries with the people in my life. Boundaries are important to protect yourself and your empathy. We have soft and kind hearts…that doesn’t mean that everyone we come into contact with will also.

You have good intuition.

This also goes back to trauma and skills that we honed while going through trauma. We teach ourselves to read patterns and behavior and it helps us to put together pieces of the puzzle before we really know what is going on. This can sometimes seem like a magical power, but it is actually a coping mechanism that we’ve perfected over time.

One problem that empathic people have, however, is not trusting our intuition. We often try to see the good in everyone, without realizing that there just isn’t much good in some people. So we ignore the tug and pull of our guts and don’t enforce any boundaries and we get ourselves in a mess. It is important to trust your gut when it speaks up…it usually has something important to say, even if it’s just telling you you’re hungry.

You have a comforting energy.

People flock to you because you make them feel at home. When I was a younger person, in my 20s, my apartment was always “home base” for everyone. Before work, after work, on the weekends…It was just where my friend group ended up. Sometimes there were still people in my living room when I went to bed at night and still people there when I got home from work the next day. They came because it felt like home. They stayed because everyone was welcome and accepted.

I was always “the mom” of the group, worrying about where they were going and who they were with, and probably even more so now that I’m an actual mom. The people that I love know that I will be there for them, I will worry for them, I will keep their secrets, I will lend my shoulder for their tears…I will love them unconditionally. I know from my own amazing friends that there is such comfort in knowing that you have people in your life that will love you no matter what.

You often care too much or can’t stop yourself from caring.

Hyper empathy can be a real kicker. Sometimes, it makes us care too much and it puts us in tough situations. Over the last few years, I’ve lost a few friends. These were long-time friends; people that I believed would be in my life until the day that I died. I loved them dearly and I knew them very well. I knew who they were and what they were afraid of. I knew about the things and the people who had hurt them and, until a certain point, I understood them as people. Like I said, I just really fucking loved them.

And then the tide turned. They hurt me deeply, all of them. I knew that they were hurts too deep and that I had to cut ties with them. That’s exactly what I did. That said, I still think about them all of the time. I wonder how they are doing and I hope that life is treating them well. I shouldn’t care. I really shouldn’t. But I can’t help but feel bad for them. I feel empathy and sadness for them. I spend precious energy on them that they no longer earn. It’s tough.

light, circle, points

Toxic Empathy

There is such thing as too much empathy and it can start to become a toxic presence in your life. As you can see from the list above, hyper empathy isn’t always sunshine and fuzzy feelings. It can be extremely painful and difficult to deal with. It can ruin entire days and put undue stress and strain on your brain. When a person over-identifies with someone else’s emotions, feelings, or mood and takes them on as their own, you get toxic empathy.

Here are some ways to combat toxic empathy:

  • Separate other’s problems from your own; don’t take them on for yourself.
  • Don’t allow your emotions to get highjacked by others; notice how you are feeling and ask yourself if the feelings belong to you or someone else. Be aware of your emotions vs. theirs.
  • Only engage in reciprocal relationships. You should not be a sounding board for a “friend” that is only around when they need you.
  • Set clear boundaries from the beginning and remember…setting them doesn’t do any good if you don’t enforce them.
  • Allow yourself to listen to your loved ones and then let go of the emotions and problems that they brought to you.
  • Take a break from the news cycle. Allow yourself to refresh and take a break from the bad things that happen in the world.
  • Take a break from social media. As we all probably already know, social media can be toxic in itself. Often the dregs of humanity find their voices there. Allow yourself to step away and recharge.
  • Be sure to stay grounded in the here and now, especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed by someone else’s emotions and problems.

Make sure you take care of yourself, first and foremost. You are important too and you should turn some of that empathy inward, from time to time. Take care of yourself. Love yourself. Be kind to yourself.

In Conclusion

That’s all I’ve got today, my friends; just a little ditty about empathy and what it’s like to feel an inordinate amount of it. It’s not magic, actually much more tragic, but it does have its benefits. I wouldn’t change that aspect of myself for the world. I’ll cry while watching commercials and I’ll rage at the news. I’ll keep writing my blog posts because I care about how people like me are fairing in the world.

But, you can also see from the list that being empathic can be hard and painful. We have to be mindful of ourselves and to the extent that we identify with our people’s negative emotions, pain, and problems. The world needs people like us, but the world needs us healthy and ready to face the day. Take care of yourselves. Be gentle and kind. You deserve it.

Make sure you check out The Winter Of My Discontent Podcast. This week’s episode is all about ADHD and its various symptoms. You can also find us on Apple Podcast, Spotify, and Google Podcast.

Be sure to check out our Buy Me A Coffee page! On Buy Me A Coffee, you can support The Winter Of My Discontent by buying us a coffee, access exclusive memberships, and book Zoom meetings with me to talk about content creation, mental health, and more! You can also find me on Twitter, where I talk about writing, ADHD, and my random thoughts, and on Facebook where we have a private group for people with ADHD and mental illness.

Love and light. Keep fighting the good fight!💜💜

About The Author

Amber Corinne

Writing about living with ADHD and mental illness and my journey down a thriving path forward. Breaking stigmas and creating community, one post at a time.

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9 Comments

  1. I liked that you started this post by talking about the issues with the term “empath”. I’ve been a little wary of using that word too, because of the associations with it being “magical” or “supernatural”. But the way you described it makes perfect sense – that it’s actually hyper empathy, both from having a sensitive nature and also a trauma response, from learning as a child to be hyper vigilant to people’s body language and tone. This is something I can definitely relate to and I found your tips on managing it really helpful, thank you! x
    Kate recently posted…Depression: What to Do If Your Doctor Won’t HelpMy Profile

    1. Yes, I usually stray away from the word because of the “magical” usage of it. My therapist actually used it recently and it made me feel more comfortable using it in a real way. I’m so glad that the post resonates with you. Thank you so much for reading. 💜 💜

  2. Thank you for sharing this. “Empath” is a new term to me as a “label” and your article was very informative. I identified with a lot of the attributes and examples that you provided. One thing that I’ve discovered is that my “hyper-sensitivity”, although challenging at times, has been a significant advantage in my role as a people leader at work. Being able to support people meaningfully in their development is very rewarding.

    1. I’m glad that it resonated with you. Being sensitive can be hard in a world like this, but it needs us. You sound like an incredibly empathetic leader and we need more of those…desperately!! Thank you for reading.

  3. Great post that really got me self-reflecting. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Really informative post, Amber! After the year we’ve had, this post means a lot more and a lot of points you’ve touched on are getting put to use more frequently. Thanks for sharing!

  5. i always like to say being an empath is like having a superpower. i’ve learned to set clear boundaries. but i do find myself caring a bit too much sometimes and certain events (like grief) are very hard for me. i like how this post is very informative & describes the different types of empathy really well. thanks for sharing!

  6. I really appreciate this blog and the honesty included. To be empathetic is a quality that should not be taken for granted. Being attentive & sensitive to others is a learned skill. Thank you for sharing this post. If more people were empathetic, we would have a different world around us. 😊

  7. I really enjoyed reading this post. Up until very recently, I had never even heard the word used. I met someone, however, who described herself as an empath. I didn’t really know what she meant at the time. I am not an empath. I do have ADD, however, so recognise some parallels, but I think that I have tried to bury my emotions because it is hard to listen so actively. Like you in personal relationships, I have had to cut people loose who hurt me deliberately. Including family.

    My “re-discovery” of my own ADD as well as the meeting of my first “empath” came through the world of D/s. I am drawn to D/s because it is a safe outlet for intense emotion, and being able to submit to someone while it is pouring out of me is very spiritually fulfilling. It happens that just the feeling of safety that comes from feeling “owned” by someone is enough to summon up very powerful feelings in me that often choke me up. What I noticed about the person who described herself as an empath, who also happens to be the D/ to my /s, also got choked up.

    Thank you for sharing and educating on this subject.
    PLJ recently posted…The ADD and D/s ConnectionMy Profile

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