In my private practice many patients have shared that one of their largest blocks to empathy is a fear of being overwhelmed. It either seems too painful or unsafe to lovingly explore their own emotions, or that they risk getting burned out by other people’s problems, dramas and needs. Family, friends, or co-workers may ask more than you are prepared to give, but you don’t want to disappoint them. If you set healthy boundaries such as saying “no” or specifying “I am just able to give you this,” you may feel guilty, or fear being rejected.
As an empath, I know how uncomfortable it feels to be overwhelmed by emotions, especially from loved ones. You empathize with them. You care and want to help or even solve their problems, but it isn’t possible. For instance, one patient watched his mother experience depression, which began to make him depressed too, until his mother reached out to a therapist and started feeling better. Another patient’s husband had such intense back pain that she began experiencing it in her body too. When developing empathy, this is a predictable challenge that can teach you the importance of setting healthy boundaries and self-care.
In addition, you may feel overwhelmed by friends or team members who share too much information about their health, romances, or conflicts. Someone might ambush you with accounts of stress they’ve experienced at work or details of a harrowing illness. Your heart goes out to them but listening can be exhausting.
Like me, many sensitive people are prone to absorbing others’ emotions or physical symptoms. Too much coming at you too fast leads to the misery of sensory overload.To stay centered and prevent sensory overload, I’ve learned the importance of protecting myself so I don’t take on the distress of my patients or anyone else. Also, I try to bow out of a situation and decompress when external stimulation feels too intense.
During medical school at USC, we were warned of coming down with the “Medical Student’s Syndrome” where doctors-in-training would occasionally mimic the symptoms of a “dis-ease” we were studying, ranging from viruses to heart problems to brain tumors. (Some researchers report it occurs in a whopping 70% of medical students.) This is a form of empathy overwhelm, though we didn’t know to frame it that way. True, we were suggestable, but also, as new, idealistic healers, many of us cared so much and were so immersed in our patients’ treatment that our empathy exploded.
No one really discussed how to handle this baffling and somewhat scary phenomenon which I was prone to because of my empathic tendencies to shoulder other people’s pain. Also, my over-protective but loving Jewish mother passed down the anxiety provoking habit of “imagining the worst” about illness such as seeing a simple sneeze as the warning of a dire flu. Unfortunately, as medical students, we never learned to set clear boundaries or address our own fears about dis-ease that could get in the way of helping patients.
Empathy doesn’t have an on-off switch where you are either closed-down or maxed out. You can regulate it. When you empathize with someone you can compassionately communicate, “I care about you and this is what I can give right now.” You decide how involved you are in a situation.
Just because someone is needy doesn’t mean you have to meet their needs.
To start taking a more proactive role in how much empathy you give, I suggest that you keep in mind the following “rights” from my book The Genius of Empathy. They will help you maintain a healthy mindset and prevent or lessen overwhelm before it gathers momentum.
Set Boundaries to Prevent Overwhelm
Adapted from The Genius of Empathy ©2024 Judith Orloff.