Do you care excessively about others? Do you absorb others’ feelings & pain? Having empathy and being sensitive is crucial for connecting with others. But too much of it can make you feel overwhelmed, burdened and even guilty. This is known as hyper empathy syndrome.
What is hyper empathy?
Empathy is an essential part of the human experience. It allows us to relate to others, feel and experience what they are going through and help them resolve their issues. However, when empathy for others engulfs our own needs and emotions, it can easily become hyper empathy syndrome. People with such extreme high levels of empathy can not only get in tune with the feelings of others, but can feel their emotion as if it were their own. This can cause emotional dysregulation making them drown in negative emotions. It can affect their sense of self leading to a painful mental and emotional experience. This syndrome can make you feel so sensitive that you may feel sad simply by seeing others in distress.
Hyper empathy is our inherent capacity to be in tune with others’ feelings which causes a sense of extreme alertness towards negative emotions. The condition became widely known and accepted after researchers reported that a woman developed the syndrome after resective epilepsy surgery. It was found that after a section of her brain, including the amygdala, was removed to treat severe epilepsy, the patient started experiencing a “new, spectacular emotional arousal,” and above-average levels of empathy. Neurologist Dr. Aurélie Richard-Mornas, who initially reported the case, says that although epilepsy patients tend to experience mental health issues like anxiety and depression after surgery, “the case of this patient is surprising because her complaint is uncommon, and fascinating: hyper empathy.”
Read also: What Is Your Level of Empathy?
The psychology of hyper empathy
Before we can further delve into what hyper empathy syndrome is and how it can affect us, let us understand what empathy truly is. Empathy refers to our innate capability to feel or understand what another person is feeling or experiencing from their perspective. It means putting yourself in someone else’s metaphorical shoes. According to a 2017 study, it “plays a critical interpersonal and societal role, enabling sharing of experiences, needs, and desires between individuals and providing an emotional bridge that promotes prosocial behavior.” Research also shows that empathy is a “powerful communication skill.” This “skill” enables us to build strong relationships by experiencing and sharing the emotions of another individual.
Psychologists believe that there are two primary types of empathy –
- Cognitive empathy: Our ability to understand someone’s mental and psychological state and observe things from their perspective.
- Affective empathy: Our ability to feel & experience someone’s emotions and show appropriate compassion.
Hyper empathy syndrome emerges from affective or emotional empathy. When we put aside our own feelings and absorb someone else’s emotions without maintaining any protective boundaries, it can cause painfully elevated levels of empathy and compassion. This extreme level of empathy is known as empathic reactivity, and is defined as “an index of how strongly one mirrors another emotion of any type,” by Stanford University School of Medicine’s Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Individuals with hyper empathy syndrome are often identified as Highly Sensitive People or empaths.
Signs of Hyper empathy syndrome
Wondering if you over-empathize with others? If you are having difficulty identifying empathic reactivity, then here are some common signs of unhealthy, toxic and excessive empathy and hypersensitivity:
1. Absorb emotions
You instinctively devour other’s pain like a sponge when anyone shares their emotions with you. You carry the pain for a long time and feel distressed due to someone else’s pain.
2. Physical response to pain
You can feel so overwhelmed by others’ pain & emotions that you can have physical reactions, such as headaches, muscle pain, stomach pain etc.
You feel obsessed about helping the other person and feel uneasy & frustrated when you can’t relieve others’ pain. Being unable to resolve their problems affects your sense of self and makes you feel unworthy, empty, guilty and inadequate.