Empaths, Compassion & Mirror Neurons

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As a psychiatrist and empath I’ve always been intrigued by the science of empathy.

Research has shown that our brain has a specialized group of cells called mirror neurons, which is responsible for empathy and compassion. Studies suggest that empaths have a hyperactive mirror neuron system which places them high on the empathy scale. When someone you love is in pain, you may feel it as if it is actually happening to you. (Whereas malignant narcissists are thought to have empathy-deficient disorder which puts them low on the empathy scale.) Sometimes, you may even feel the pain of strangers and the world. Similarly, when someone has been compassionate or hopeful, you absorb the intensity of these positive expressions too.

Understanding the responsiveness of your mirror neuron system reminds you of the importance of protecting yourself from discomfort that is not your own. It’s a gift to be so caring, yet it’s also necessary to set healthy boundaries. To conserve your resources, use your empathy well. Know when the time is right to go inward and refuel.

What is a healthy boundary? Modulating your mirror neuron response

Your actions can modulate your mirror neuron response so you’re not overwhelmed with feeling empathy or take on other people’s pain. In my book Thriving as an Empath, I explain that a boundary means communicating your preferences about how you want to be treated. For instance, “It would be great to see you tonight, but I only have an hour.” Or “I’m sorry, I can’t take on another commitment now.” Or “Please stop raising your voice.” If you are wishy-washy you won’t be taken seriously. To successfully express a boundary, be kind but firm. Then others will know you are serious and will be less likely to feel offended.

If you are reluctant to set boundaries, what holds you back? Is it low self esteem? Are you afraid of being rejected or hurting others’ feelings? Maybe you didn’t feel safe expressing yourself in your family. Or perhaps you think compassion means being a martyr and not setting any boundary at all? Some of my sensitive patients initially start psychotherapy feeling too timid to speak up in their lives. Before they were able to set boundaries, they’d always been the designated doormats or victims in their relationships.

To shift his pattern, practice the adage, “Feel the fear but set the boundary anyways.” Start with easier people, such as a telemarketer or a supportive friend. (Don’t begin with your mother!) Learning this protective skill will help not become overwhelmed by your mirror neuron response. Then you have a choice about how much you want to give, and when setting a boundary with someone is called for.

Set your intention. I have a finely tuned mirror neuron system that is wired for compassion and empathy. I will continue to seek balance between healthy giving and self-care by learning to firmly and kindly set boundaries. This form of self-care will allow me to have healthier relationships.

Adapted from Thriving as an Empath: 365 Days of Self-Care for Sensitive People

17 thoughts on “Empaths, Compassion & Mirror Neurons

  1. Thank you for this informative and insightful post. I understand the importance of ‘boundaries’, and I try to maintain boundaries but since I get on sensory overloads very easily and it becomes very hard for me to maintain the boundaries then. I try not to take the pain ands suffering of the others, but sometimes I come to awareness after that I have already absorbed their energies before maintaining the boundaries, so what to do in that case?
    I am using most of the strategies given by Dr. Judith Orloff. I go with the intentions set in ‘Thriving as an Empath’ but still it is hard for me to maintain boundaries.

  2. Thank you for your comment. I too have the Empath’s Survival Guide (book) and have let it sit to the side for a while. Maybe it is time to start reading again. I am only sixty-six but needed to step away from a toxic work environment. In stepping away I knew I would need something to fill my life and took a position in a facility for independent and assisted living. The actual pay is a dramatic cut but in my heart it felt like a change that was needed. My go to is to try and help others achieve their dreams and goals and hopefully as I help them they too can help me.

  3. Dr. Orloff, I am a 75 yo retired neuroscientist. Could you send me links to scientific articles about mirror neurons? I don’t have library access anymore. Thanks.

  4. I recently followed suggestions from The Empath’s Survival Guide (book)
    regarding setting a boundary with a friend who is highly emotional/
    dramatic and I couldn’t take the angry reactions anymore. I said to
    her: “Please don’t unload your anger onto me. I am highly sensitive to
    it. ” She didn’t speak to me for a while so maybe I wasn’t kind enough but
    at least I said what I had to. She hasn’t unloaded on me since I said it,
    so I’m still feeling good about communicating my feelings. Thank you
    for the suggestions. I’m almost 80 y/o and just learning this now!

  5. I’ve been working on setting boundaries, it feels challenging to find my voice however; it is soo freeing when I do so. Boundaries , I understand now are about loving myself.

  6. This is so helpful. Your information is so confirming to me. Thank you so much for all the wisdom you share. I’ve learned so much from you over the years. Bless you!

  7. My issue is that I experience the empathic transmission of others’ pain automatically or osmotically, as in whereupon I enter a room or space I get hit by the energies of other people without making a conscious choice. In my mid-fifties now, I have developed a chronic pain disorder gradually over the years that now is restricting me to a near solitary existence. How do I block unwanted energies without becoming completely housebound?

  8. Knowing about setting boundaries has been miraculous. I’m 68 and only learned about boundaries and it’s link to self live. Honestly, it’s life affirming. I used to be resentful and fearful of saying no. Not now, it’s brilliant and when I let myself down by not having or holding a boundary, my self esteem plummets! Learn all you can about internal boundaries. It will change your life.

  9. Very excellent advice. What is most challenging is when.your energy gets drained and you figure out it is
    sometimes someone else’s
    negative thoughts or energies.
    They do not have to be with you.
    Any comments or wisdom on this?

  10. I’ve never set boundaries so I became everyone’s doormat, I was an easy target to be emotionally abused for 35 years but I’ve been free from that relationship now for just over 3 years and I’m still healing but now learning to set my boundaries which I must say is not easy… but I’m sticking with it now for my own well-being 😁
    I have the “thriving as an empath” book and will use this as my guide to s better protected me.

  11. My therapist told me I struggle with boundaries. It was a little surprising. I had never thought about emotional boundaries before.

  12. This is so true. I was at the ER yesterday and that is always difficult for me as an empath but having learned recently about my gifts I can modulate somewhat. However, yesterday there was one incident where a man in obvious distress came back through the ER in such emotional distress that without seeing, only hearing and sensing I was completely engulfed in emotions fear and distress on a level I have only experienced once before for myself. I began wailing and my husband immediately tried getting me headphones to drown out the sounds. It was a first for me of this magnitude. Once I settle I tried working on transmuting as much as I could throughout the whole hospital. That helped a lot. Has anyone ever experienced this?

  13. Thank you for having created helpful tools! I read your “daily” guide once a week (all the days of the week in one day) and it directly feeds my soul. Beautiful. Thanks again!

  14. My intention is to offer my heart and hands to my most respected divorced friend, if I can without condition stand up for his possible freedom of choice regarding his basic invidual rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness rid of heartbreaking devaluement he is imprisoned in currently.

  15. I just took a class at church aptly named “Boundaries “. It was taught by a two ministers that were actually married. There is a book by the same number. It has helped me immensely. They advise to take the class or read the book once a year. Couldn’t agree more.

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