by Andrea M. Darcy
Does hyper empathy really exist? Can you really care too much about what someone is going through?
What is hyper empathy?
The prefix ‘hyper’ refers to something being ‘higher than average’.
The term ‘hyper empathy’ is used by scientists, such as in the case of a woman who had part of her brain removed to stop epileptic fits, and was then found to be have higher than normal empathy levels.
But hyper empathy is not not a mental health ‘syndrome’ or something a psychologist or psychotherapist is going to diagnose you with, despite internet articles implying it is.
So what we are really talking about here is letting empathy go too far, in ways that one could sometimes debate are still empathy at all.
[Always feel too much? Ruining your relationships and leaving you shattered? Book an online therapist today and start finding your way back to balance.]
The two kinds of empathy
Psychologists talk about both emotional empathy, and cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy means we can mentally imagine the other person’s experience.
Emotional empathy is where things get tricky. It is when we allow ourselves to feel what another person might be feeling. And this is where we can end up in the realm of hyper empathy, or what Stanford University’s Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education perhaps more accurately terms “empathic reactivity’.
The signs of hyper empathy
So how do you know that you are over-empathising and caught up in ’empathic reactivity’? Signs to look for include:
- feeling drained and tired after time with others
- struggling to say no to others and put your own needs last
- allowing others be unkind to you because you ‘feel sorry for them’
- emotional responses that are out of proportion (bawling at a photo of an animal being hurt, feeling rage when a mother chastises a child in public)
- physical reactions to other people’s upset (feeling sick to your stomach, having muscle tension)
- not being able to drop your emotional response to another’s pain but staying in it for hours, or even days
- being so overwhelmed your own life suffers. You are late for a meeting, you skip your gym class, you can’t eat your dinner.
Just highly sensitive, or a mental health issue?
It’s true that some of us seem naturally more emotional that others. We have a personality type that sees the world through an emotional lens. From childhood onward we are deemed ‘highly sensitive‘.
But as ‘sensitives’, we will also develop ways to manage our over-empathising. We might turn to gardening or exercise, or be a creative, using writing, acting, or art to channel our excess of feeling.
But if we constantly show the signs of hyper empathy, and have a marked tendency to wallow in our feelings? It might be time to consider if it’s not just a natural tendency towards being emotional, but a deeper psychological issue at play. And if it’s even empathy at all.
An overview on the science of empathy put out in connection with the University of Chicago points to four key elements of empathy, with one being self-awareness.
“Even when there is some temporary identification between the observer and its target, there is no confusion between self and other,” the study states.
But with the following mental health issues, this boundary gets blurred.
Mental health issues and ‘hyper empathy’
The following mental health issues can leave you overreacting emotionally to those around you.
1.Poor personal boundaries.
If we don’t have good boundaries, we can struggle to differentiate our responsibility from what is really another person’s. We spend all our time doing things for other people as we can’t say no, and we might even try to feel all their emotions for them.
If you are codependent you’ll take your sense of self-worth from taking care of and pleasing others. And over-empathising can be one of the ways you try to ‘win’ attention and love.
3. Anxious attachment.
Grew up with a caregiver who couldn’t give you the love and attention you deserved? You might have ‘anxious attachment‘.
Trying to love someone makes you nervous and uncertain, and you can believe you have to ‘earn’ love, such as by being very empathetic.
4. Anxiety disorder.
Anxiety is driven by fear-based thinking that throws us into the fight, flight or freeze mode, with its corresponding cortisol highs. The chemical rush of this state leaves you reactive to perceived ‘dangers’, including to the upset of other people.
5. You lack empathy for yourself.
Interestingly, over-empathising with others can stem from not being able to empathise or show compassion to yourself. It relates back to codependency. In an effort to feel valuable, we over-empathise with others.
6.Victimhood and projection.
If we suffer from shame due to something like childhood sexual abuse, we might live our adulthood from a victim mentality. And we can project this perspective onto those around us, instead of processing our own rage and sadness . A friend feels upset about a fees issue at the bank? We decide they have been conned and get furious on their behalf.
7. Borderline personality disorder.
BPD can actually leave you low on cognitive empathy for people. You can’t correctly think about what another is going through, or make huge assumptions about what other people are thinking and feeling.
On the other hand, borderline personality disorder also makes you very oversensitive emotionally. So you might find yourself overreacting to movies and things you read or see, and become very enraged about animal rights or protecting nature.
What do I do if I struggle with hyper empathy?
If hyper empathy means you struggle to have a healthy relationship. or to function on a day-to-day basis? It’s time to seek support.
A counsellor or psychotherapist can help you get to the root of your issues with hyper empathy, and help you find the balance of being empathetic while also taking care of yourself, too.
Harley Therapy connects you with top London counselling psychologists and psychotherapists who can help you with hyper empathy issues. Not in London? Use our booking platform to find a therapist UK-wide or call an online therapist no matter what country you find yourself in.
Andrea M. Darcy is a mental health writer trained in coaching and counselling who also advises people on how to find the right therapist for them. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy