Too Much Empathy Can Be Bad for Your Mental Health

Too much empathy can compromise your mental health, and it does so more intensely than you might imagine. Keep reading.
Too Much Empathy Can Be Bad for Your Mental Health
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Reviewed and approved by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana.

Last update: 23 January, 2023

The term empathy derives from the Greek word empátheia which translates as “passion” or “emotion”. It gained popularity more than 100 years ago in psychology thanks to authors such as Edward Titchener, but with a slightly different nuance. Today it’s understood as the understanding of the feelings, suffering, and behavior of others based on compassion. This is considered a positive quality, however, too much empathy can affect your mental health, something that has been shown in recent years.

Empathy is closely related to otherness, altruism, solidarity, and understanding. All these are values considered ethical and moral in society.

Being an empath is a valuable trait in many professions, such as nursing, and putting it into practice translates into strong interpersonal ties. That said, what happens when empathy exceeds healthy limits? We’ll review how its excess can compromise your mental health.

What science says about too much empathy and mental health

All people have different degrees of empathy. Apart from certain disorders that condition it negatively (such as psychopathy, autism spectrum disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, and others), each of us manifests it with different intensity on a day-to-day basis. Some are more empathetic than others, but in the end, we all develop attitudes and behaviors guided by it.

Now, according to researchers, empathy helps us connect with others (their experiences, needs, and desires). This is an evolutionary trait, as the survival of our species depended and still depends on mutual aid. Therefore, being empathetic is one of the means to favor bonds of help. When manifested in certain contexts of excessive intensity, too much empathy can affect your mental health.

A study published in Development and Psychopathology in 2015 found that, at extreme levels, empathy is a risk factor for depression and anxiety. When empathy’s practiced in a pathological way, the connection with the experiences, needs, and desires of others translates into emotional disorders when these variables can’t be adequately satisfied.

In addition to depression, experts have found pathological empathy to be a trigger for submissive behavior, fear, and guilt. Those who practice it excessively substitute the concerns of their own life for the concerns of others. This makes them highly manipulable and submissive, as well as manifesting feelings of guilt when they can’t help those around them.

Codependency and pathological empathy

Excess empathy and mental health dom't always go hand in hand.
It’s important to set limits when trying to help others with their personal problems.

Researchers have associated excess altruism and empathy with codependency in interpersonal relationships.

From a psychological point of view, codependency is understood as those obsessive and compulsive attitudes toward the control of other people and relationships. This is a very broad concept, one that’s sometimes associated with tolerance for situations of violence or aggression (although of course, this isn’t always the case).

Codependency manifests itself in any type of interpersonal relationship, in such a way that it can develop towards friends, family, and romantic partners. Codependency has been linked to permanent difficulties in the formation of self-concept in such a way that it can directly affect self-esteem.

Too much empathy and exhaustion

A woman sitting on her bed looking depressed.
When interpersonal relationships carry a high emotional charge, the person’s quality of life may be diminished.

There’s a phenomenon that has been studied for years that’s known as compassion fatigue. It alludes to the overflow of emotional capacity as a consequence of continuous or prolonged interaction with a person who’s suffering or needs help.

It’s often used to refer to the stress experienced by caregivers and medical staff, but the truth is that it can affect anyone. Too much empathy can lead to compassion fatigue, and even when it’s not compassion fatigue itself, it can lead to burnout.

Certainly, a negative relationship has been found between pathological empathy and exhaustion, which can be both physical and mental. Problems concentrating, stress, problems memorizing things, and changes in decision-making are some of its consequences.

These aren’t the only ways empathy negatively affects your mental health. We’ll leave you with a selection of problems associated with practicing too much empathy:

  • Financial stress as a consequence of permanently helping others (through donations and other ways).
  • An inability to act due to overwhelming sensations due to events that arouse sensitivity. This is later translated into regret, anguish, and despair.
  • Feelings of helplessness that can cause a battery of feelings ranging from anger to sadness.
  • Moral conflicts about how to act in certain circumstances.

As you can see, excess empathy doesn’t go unnoticed in your mental health. Contrary to what you might think, it hurts you more than it helps you.

The researchers point out that women tend to develop it more than men, so they’re classified as the main risk group. Being aware of the consequences of pathological empathy is very important in order to adjust emotions, attitudes, and behaviors in favor of others.

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