Is Empathy Your Most Destructive Emotion?

In many respects, empathy exists as one of the most “human” emotions of all considering its importance in sustaining healthy relationships. While everyone can use a little empathy every now and then, someone who lives to empathize with others may well be doing damage to his or her own well-being.

Understanding the difference between healthy and unhealthy empathy can help you determine whether some form of treatment help may be of benefit.

Call our toll-free helpline at 888-647-0051 (Who Answers?) for help with finding treatment that meets your needs.

What is Empathy?

According to the Journal of BioPsychoSocial Medicine, the ability to feel empathy is actually a complex response that draws from a range of psychological mechanisms, including:

  • Observation
  • Knowledge
  • Reasoning
  • Memory

When combined, these mechanisms create a perspective that enables one person to respond to another person’s mental and emotional state in a caring way. The potential for empathy to become destructive lies in the degree to which you internalize another person’s experience.

How Empathy Can Be Destructive

Destructive Emotion

Hyper-empathy syndrome can lead to social phobia and a hypersensitivity to the negative emotions of others.

Hyper-Empathy Syndrome

The brain contains a set of neurons known as mirror neurons. In effect, mirror neurons make it possible to feel empathy for others.

With hyper-empathy syndrome, mirror neurons cause a person to mirror the feelings and emotions of another person at a higher intensity than someone not affected by hyper-empathy. In some cases, people affected by hyper-empathy may actually experience physical reactions to another person’s pain or emotional distress.

Over time, hyper-empathy syndrome can drive a person to compulsively help others at the expense of his or her own needs.

Social Phobia

Living with hyper-empathy syndrome for years at a time can cause feelings of anxiety to develop in social situations. When left untreated, these feelings can evolve into a full-blown social phobia.

People living with social phobia develop a preoccupation with making a good impression on others regardless of whether they know them or not, according to the Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences. In effect, someone with a high capacity for empathy becomes especially sensitive to negative emotional expressions in others.

Over time, this sensitivity towards negativity starts to warp one’s self identity and overall quality of life. These developments lay the groundwork for social phobias to take root.

Harmful Effects

If empathy has become a destructive emotion in your life, it’s likely you’ll see signs of its effects on your physical and emotional well-being. Signs of hyper-empathy may take the following forms:

  • Feeling emotionally drained much of the time
  • Unexplainable mood swings
  • Erratic energy levels
  • Frequent headaches
  • Feeling a need to withdraw from social situations

As with any type of emotional disorder, when left untreated, these symptoms only grow worse with time. Also, the areas of the brain that underlie empathy will only become more fine-tuned, creating an even stronger empathy response over time.

The truth of the matter is, as “humane” as empathy may be, too much empathy can impact your life in harmful ways.

If you suspect excess empathy may be a destructive emotion in your life, we can help. Call our helpline at 888-647-0051 (Who Answers?) to speak with one of our phone counselors about available treatment options.


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