Empathy Takes an Emotional Toll and People Are Avoiding It, Study Shows

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that people are more likely to choose to look at another person objectively, rather than with empathy.
  • Expressing empathy can be incredibly taxing and hurt a person's well-being.
  • Through boundaries and check-ins with yourself, it's possible to express empathy without becoming drained.

There are few things as comforting as having another person take the time to understand what you’re going through truly. Being seen in such a clear way can alleviate the stress of difficult situations. However, such an expression can be taxing for the empathetic person. Unlike expressing removed compassion for a person, empathy requires a greater immersion into others’ struggles. This voluntarily brought on mental weight can make some people closed off to expressing empathy.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers looked at when and why people show empathy to others. Researchers asked participants to choose between an empathy and an objective deck when describing a person. People avoided empathy by only choosing the empathy deck about 29% of the time in the first study and about 30% in the second. However, it was easier and more likely to show in cases when they were close to the person discussed.

Unlike taking in someone’s story at surface level, empathy requires putting yourself in another’s shoes and looking deeply at their issue. Whatever problem they’re dealing with can almost feel like one of your own. This transference can tremendously impact your well-being and may feel unnecessary as the cause is not truly something you must face. As a result, some people may fear the impact of feeling empathy towards others.

Leela Magavi, MD, a psychiatrist

Some individuals who perceive the world as unsafe and malevolent may find comfort in the theory that someone or something is responsible as this means there is some kind of solution or way out.

— Leela Magavi, MD, a psychiatrist

“Someone might actively avoid feeling empathy as a matter of self-protection,” says Saba Harouni Lurie, a licensed therapist and founder of Take Root Therapy. For people who are particularly emotionally sensitive, the act of continually extending empathy can be incredibly draining. “Highly empathetic people may think it is natural to offer empathy and compassion to everyone, but they may not consider the toll this practice can take on their emotional health,” adds Lurie. On the flip side, people who are not used to extending empathy may not have the energy ready to do so.

For anyone who has experienced trauma, empathy may be hard to express if there’s a lack of trust in others. “These individuals tend to be hypervigilant and find profound meaning in things that others would not,” says Dr. Leela R. Magavi, a psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry + MindPath Care Centers. “Some individuals who perceive the world as unsafe and malevolent may find comfort in the theory that someone or something is responsible as this means there is some kind of solution or way out.” 

Then there’s the case of people seeking empathy from those who disagree with their actions. If a person wants empathy for facing the repercussions of cheating or stealing, it can be more difficult to project it or even held back.

How To Set Boundaries When Expressing Empathy

Each person has a right to provide and withhold empathy when they see fit. However, with the proper boundaries in place, people may be more likely to show empathy for others. Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University in New York City, explains that some people may avoid displaying empathy if their boundaries have been exploited or ignored in the past. “As a result, their solution is to keep everyone at a distance, sacrificing connection and intimacy with others to protect themselves,” she says. “While they might not get hurt, they prevent themselves from closeness and more connected attachment.”

Firm boundaries are critical in the process of creating healthy, emotional relationships with others. The first step in setting boundaries is determining what they look like for you. What’s comfortable for one person will not be the same for the next. Magavi recommends speaking about these with a loved one or therapist and journaling your thoughts to find the steps you’d like to take. These boundaries aren’t set in stone and, as long as you recommunicate clearly with those around you, you can change them.

“We all know what it’s like to have a good listener in our lives and the instinct to want to bring every problem to them,” says Lurie. “If you’re the one that provides this type of support to those in your life, it is both helpful and important to care for yourself just as you do for others—and that means setting limits.”

Saba Harouni Lurie, a licensed therapist

Highly empathetic people may think it is natural to offer empathy and compassion to everyone, but they may not consider the toll this practice can take on their emotional health.

— Saba Harouni Lurie, a licensed therapist

Boundaries don’t need to be extreme, leaving you completely open or fully closed off. Instead, when someone asks for your time or help, take a moment to consider if you’re in the right mental space to take it on. Saying no doesn’t mean you’re leaving them alone for good.

Explain “that you do want to help the person, but that at this time you’re not able to accept their request,” says Romanoff. “This is a firm way of bringing yourself and other person’s needs into the situation so they can understand that although you may want to help them, at this moment you are not able to, and it may, in fact, cause harm to yourself.”

As you navigate this, keep in mind how people in your life respond to these boundaries. If a person ignores or mocks them, it may be time to take a step back and reevaluate the relationship. “This itself, although difficult, maintains safety and increases self-compassion and self-esteem,” says Magavi.

Points To Keep In Mind When Feeling Taxed By Empathy

Practicing and maintaining boundaries takes time, especially if someone is highly empathetic. Romanoff explains that people with this nature may regularly prioritize the needs of others instead of their own. 

If you are struggling to express empathy and would like to, Magavi recommends the following:

  • Make bullet points about why the person is the way they are
  • Create a list of a person’s positive attributes
  • Recall the times others displayed empathy when you needed it the most and how this helped you

Give yourself time to replenish and check in with how you’re feeling after periods of empathetic discussion. “If you have safe coping skills that you use to fill your own cup or additional support that you can enlist, remind yourself of what is available to you and make sure that you access these resources to take care of yourself,” says Lurie. The key is finding a balance that works for you.

What This Means For You

Again, empathy is for you to express or not at your own will. When it's possible to give, empathy can connect two people and make you feel less alone. Continually check in with yourself to determine what you need and how to best move forward.

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.
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