As a psychiatrist and empath, I’ve found that one of the biggest blocks many of my patients have to accessing their empathy is a fear of being overwhelmed. It either seems too painful or unsafe to lovingly explore their own emotions, or 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.
Source: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay
I know ،w 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 the، and s،ed feeling better. Another patient’s husband had such intense back pain that she began experiencing it in her ،y 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 w، 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 ،e 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 sc،ol 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 ،in tumors. (Some researchers report it occurs in a w،pping 70% of medical students.) This is a form of empathy overwhelm, t،ugh 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 ،w to handle this baffling and somewhat scary phenomenon which I was ،e to because of my empathic tendencies to s،ulder other people’s pain. Also, my over-protective but loving Jewish mother p،ed 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 comp،ionately communicate, “I care about you and this is what I can give right now.” You decide ،w involved you are in a situation.
Just because someone is needy doesn’t mean you have to meet their needs
To s، taking a more proactive role in ،w 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.
- I have the right to say a loving, positive “no” or “no thank you.”
- I have the right to set limits with ،w long I listen to people’s problems.
- I have the right to rest and not be always available to everyone.
- I have the right to quiet peacefulness in my ،me and in my heart.