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Empathy Overload?

New research suggests we're hard-wired to be empathetic. Here's how to keep from getting overwhelmed by the pain of others.

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One spring morning, Janet White (not her real name) was having lunch on the San Francisco waterfront with her husband and her daughter Kate, when her daughter burst into tears, sobbing that she feared her recent engagement was a huge mistake. White, a 58-year-old graphic artist and the mother of six, had never seen Kate so distraught. Thinking it would help, she left with Kate to walk through the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral, atop nearby Nob Hill. But halfway up the hill, White became so dizzy and weak herself that she had to lie down in a park.

Her daughter’s emotional crisis came at a time when White, who lives in Lafayette, California, was feeling dangerously depleted. Her husband, a lawyer, was bringing his stressful workload home, and another daughter, a teenager, was cutting classes.

White tried to take care of herself by doing yoga or Pilates every morning, but she was plagued by stress-related health problems—high blood pressure and painful recurring outbreaks of cracking and bleeding on her hands.

White, it seems, was suffering from an excess of empathy, a quality that recent research suggests is hard-wired into our brains and bodies. When we empathize with the physical or emotional pain of others, specialized brain cells called mirror neurons start firing much the same way they would if we were experiencing the pain directly. Researchers suspect that people who are highly empathic, like White, have higher-than average numbers of mirror neurons in their brains, and that those neurons are especially active. What’s long been suspected in the mental health field—and what the physical sciences are just starting to understand—is that being overly empathic can be bad for your health.

“Feeling too much of others’ pain can lead to chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia,” says Judith Orloff, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles and the author of Positive Energy. Overly empathic people, she says, too often walk around feeling anxious, depressed, frightened, or as White did, just plain exhausted.

No one is suggesting that you try to rid yourself of empathy, just that you learn to use it appropriately. “Empathy is necessary for compassion,” says Nischala Joy Devi, an internationally known yoga teacher in Fairfax, California, and the author of The Healing Path of Yoga. “But if you lose yourself in others’ suffering, you can no longer be compassionate.” Fortunately, there are several ways you can remain sensitive to the pain of others without overwhelming yourself, draining your energy—or even becoming ill.

Set Boundaries

“If you’re overly empathic, you struggle when you see someone else in pain; you want to make it go away,” says Bo Forbes, a clinical psychologist, yoga teacher, and yoga therapist in Boston. But if your empathy extends to taking on someone else’s karma by trying to take away pain, you’re invading that person’s boundaries. The same is true if you allow others to invade your psychic space. It may sound callous, but sometimes letting others struggle to find their own way can be the greater gift.

Listening to your body can help you figure out how and when to draw the necessary lines. Pay close attention to the signals it’s sending you, says David Nichol, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who incorporates meditation into his practice, and the coauthor of The One-Minute Meditator. If, for example, you’re listening to the problems of someone who is anxious or depressed, notice if you feel a tightening in your shoulders, a heavy feeling in your chest, or a headache. Taking note of these sensations will keep them from progressing too far.

Be Honest

When listening to someone else’s problems is sapping your own emotional resources, it’s important to be clear with yourself and the other person about what you can and can’t do to help. Sometimes you might need to limit your time with someone who is draining you, telling that person, “I love you and care about your problem, but I have only a few minutes to talk with you about it right now.” It’s a way of practicing the yogic principle of satya, or truth-telling.

Pamela Kaplan, who owns a yoga studio in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, had an opportunity to put satya into practice when she had to fire one of her teachers. It was difficult all around, and the woman didn’t take the news well, crying and apologizing. Kaplan felt for her, but honestly believed the woman was not a good fit. She found a way to be truthful and empathic by assuring the woman that she would find better opportunities as an independent instructor. Sure enough, the teacher later told her she’d found a great space and had opened a studio of her own.

Learn to Detach

Detaching yourself from others may sound negative, as if you aren’t fully present. But the point is to develop a healthy detachment. You can be present for someone in need, but you needn’t tote that person’s problems with you.

Last spring, at the urging of her family, White took a vacation to Canada to visit her sister. They went to yoga classes together, and White finally had time to focus on her own mind and body. While she was away, her blood pressure returned to normal and the cracked skin on her hands healed. She felt renewed and energetic.

As soon as she returned home, though, her health problems started up again. That’s when it became crystal clear that she’d have to learn to practice detachment in the midst of her family’s problems.

When Kate broke the news about her engagement, it was an opportunity for White to work on her new intention. At first, she felt overwhelmingly sad about the heartache and guilt her daughter was experiencing. “I was so concerned that she was making the decision to break her engagement out of a fear of commitment,” White says. “I thought maybe she was waiting for a dream man who would never exist and that she would throw away her life in the meantime.” White’s initial instinct was to try to calm Kate’s fears by telling her they were a simple case of nerves.

But then she recalled an affirmation she’d learned from one of her yoga teachers: “I didn’t create any problems for others, and I cannot cure their problems. My only hope is to be there in compassion and love.” By allowing Kate to live through the crisis, she let her daughter make the right decision to break off the engagement.

These days, thanks to White’s practice of setting boundaries for herself, her health problems have been tamed: Her blood pressure is normal and the skin on her hands is smooth.

“There will never be a lack of stress in my household,” White says, “but I intend to be around when my daughter finally does get engaged to the right person!”

Jennifer Nelson is a writer in Neptune Beach, Florida. Additional reporting by Laura Browne.