Can You Have Too Much Empathy?

comforting a friend

Halfpoint Images / Getty Images

If you walk in someone else’s shoes who is going through a difficult time, you feel their pain. When it happens too often, though, you can suffer the consequences of having too much empathy. Feeling another’s distress can wear you out or turn you apathetic after a while. It can also cause mental health challenges.

While there are those who are indifferent or hard-hearted about others’ travails, some have an overabundance of empathy. They feel the hardships others are going through and this can take a toll on their well-being.

What Is Empathy?

Like the general population, scientists and psychologists do not agree on exactly what this concept of empathy is. Some insist it’s showing concern for someone else, others say it’s connecting deeply to fellow human souls, others say it’s a moral issue.

According to a recent study,scientists have come closer toward a consensus on the nature of empathy. They analyzed literature published between 1980 and 2019. They concluded that empathy can be defined with four themes involving understanding, feeling, sharing the feelings of someone else, and maintaining differentiation between the self and the other.

This can help in the measurement and development of future research on empathy.

How Is Too Much Empathy Toxic?

Empathy helps us connect to others and has positive attributes. Unfortunately, maintaining the separation between the self and the other can be problematic.

Carrying the emotions of those who are hurting can also hurt us. That’s why we need to modulate our emotions and develop and practice emotional regulation. If we don’t, we are negatively impacted in various ways.

You Suffer With Those Suffering

Let’s say you’re comforting a friend whose child died. You don’t need to feel your friend’s terrible grief. You can still feel compassion for your friend and want to mitigate her pain. You don’t need to immerse yourself in total empathy. Otherwise, you’ll also share the emotional anguish.

By having too much empathy, you’d likely suffer along with your friend. As a result, you become exhausted or depressed. Then you might avoid visiting your friend. But if you feel compassion, you’re more likely to reach out.

Since the pandemic, more people have felt empathic distress. With so much overwhelmingly bad news, it was hard not to. While you might think having empathy means you care, emotional overloading can lead to feelings of fatigue and helplessness.

You Take Less Action

In the example of the friend whose child died, with too much empathy, you could very well lack the energy to help her constructively. You might feel so devastated that you turn away and withdraw. As a result, you may not take the actions needed to assist her, like buying her groceries.

Some caregivers like doctors, nurses, and psychologists admitted they were emotionally overwhelmed after treating the exorbitant number of patients and dealing with staff shortages during the pandemic, for example. While they admirably kept performing their duties, health care workers were known to develop empathy fatigue (also called compassion fatigue) and burnout.

You Can Be Swayed Morally

Having too much empathy can affect your moral decision-making. It can motivate prosocial behavior but in one studyscientists found that it can lead to bias.

To persuade people to give money to charities, for example, promoters know we’ll be moved by one sick child. Our empathy will therefore affect our decision-making rather than our reason.

We can’t feel empathy for mass numbers of people in harm’s way. In other words, we can’t put ourselves in thousands of people’s shoes so it influences who we will give aid to.

We are also swayed morally through empathy and might not realize it. We can be manipulated by politicians, for example, to feel empathy for one group and not another. That can lead to cruelty and aggression.

Symptoms of Empathy Fatigue

According to the Cleveland Clinic, when you’re drained by your concern for others, you might end up feeling numb or overwhelmed. Perhaps after seeing bad news, you replay in your mind the TV images from a big car accident or a war with many civilian casualties.

You might also feel hopeless and become depressed as a result. Physical manifestations of empathy fatigue appear in the form of stress-related headaches, insomnia, and a change in your appetite. Empathy fatigue can also lead to your shutting down and no longer caring.

Compassion vs. Empathy

Compassion and empathy is sometimes used synonymously. They’re related, but there is a difference. When people feel compassion, their heart rate slows down and they secrete oxytocin, the bonding hormone. With compassion, you'll care about what someone else is going through and want to offer kindness or take some action to help.

With empathy, you take on their perspective and feelings. If someone is anxious, then you feel anxious. If the other person is in pain, then so are you.

As discussed above, if you take on too much of someone else's pain, it can lead to apathy, depression, anxiety, and a lowered desire to help the other person in need.

How to Avoid Having Too Much Empathy

To avoid the overload that comes along with having too much empathy, there are various actions you can take.

By taking these steps in your life, you can better maintain an even keel and protect your well-being.

It's also important to check in with yourself regularly. If you're honest with yourself and embrace your feelings, you can better identify if you're starting to feel burnout and experiencing empathy fatigue. Then, you can take the appropriate steps to help yourself feel better.

How Therapy Can Help

Especially when you experience stress and trauma because of too much empathy, you could very well become emotionally overloaded. Or in some cases, the situations that adversely affect you mentally haunt you. You might ruminate without end and be unable to stop thinking about the situation or atrocity.

So, don’t overlook the benefits that accrue from turning to psychotherapy.

The right therapy can help you figure out the source of your distress, determine the best ways for you to self-soothe and help you move forward. You’ll also learn which therapeutic method would best suit you if you choose to work with a mental health counselor.

For example, common therapies used to treat anxiety and overwhelming emotion are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Using CBT, you can learn how to transform negative thoughts and beliefs to lessen your anxiety. You will reduce cognitive distortions through this method. You might also learn mindfulness and deep breathing techniques.

Another therapy suggested is called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). With this method, you accept rather than try to control or eliminate the problem. And you increase your involvement in meaningful, healthy, and productive activities.

You’ll do exercises or mindfulness training and maybe even homework with this approach. Whatever approach is suggested and you choose, getting help when you have too much empathy can really make a difference.

Was this page helpful?
5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Håkansson Eklund J, Summer Meranius M. Toward a consensus on the nature of empathy: A review of reviewsPatient Educ Couns. 2021;104(2):300-307. doi:10.1016/j.pec.2020.08.022

  2. University of Central Florida. How Can Medical Professionals Cope With Compassion Fatigue?.

  3. Bloom P. Empathy and Its DiscontentsTrends Cogn Sci. 2017;21(1):24-31. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2016.11.004

  4. Cleveland Clinic. How Stress and Trauma Can Take a Toll on You.

  5. Greater Good Magazine. What Is Compassion?.