A critical task of addiction recovery is restoring empathy. By sharing stories and reaching out to help others in recovery, addicts gradually repair the empathy deficits caused by drug and alcohol abuse. But is it possible to have too much empathy? When does being “too nice” become a problem?
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine, and writes a blog about addiction. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of mental health and addiction treatment centers that includes a teen drug rehab at The Right Step and Promises young adult rehab.
Editor: Muhammad Talha
The Empathy Spectrum
Human beings have an innate capacity for empathy, but because of biology, environment and other factors, we each inhabit our own unique space on the empathy spectrum. People with autism spectrum disorders, for example, may struggle to interpret basic emotions whereas people with certain brain anomalies are hyper-empathetic. For instance, people with a condition known as mirror-touch synesthesia have hyperactive mirror neurons, cells that fire when we see others in pain. So they actually feel physical pain when they see someone else suffering.
The rest of us fall somewhere between these extremes. Healthy empathy allows us to step into another person’s shoes to understand their thoughts and feelings so that we can be better friends, spouses and citizens. Taken too far, empathy can blur the line between self and others. Here are a few examples of empathy on overdrive:
Codependency. Codependents lose themselves in their relationships. They are consumed by their desire to solve other people’s problems, control them or meet their every need, usually to the detriment of their own needs. Over time, the codependent individual becomes angry, lonely, or resentful, having sacrificed their own needs and feelings for too long, yet still they cannot detach. In some cases, codependency may point to a deeper issue with sex, love, or relationship addiction.
Enabling. People sometimes mistake enabling for empathy. Out of care and concern for a loved one, people may enable destructive behaviors like substance abuse. They loan money, provide food and shelter, and make excuses for an addict. While these behaviors may look and feel like empathy, they prevent the addict from experiencing the natural consequences of their behaviors, thereby perpetuating the addiction.
Helicopter Parenting. Similar to enabling, helicopter parents have the best of intentions. They love and care for their children and want life to be smooth for them. Sometimes they go too far in the name of empathy, doing their child’s homework, resolving disputes between friends and trying to shield them from every possible danger. Although well-intentioned, this style of parenting produces young adults who lack confidence and decision-making ability and who remain dependent on others.
Professional Burnout. In certain professions, having too much empathy can lead to burnout. Physicians, nurses and police officers, to name a few, have to balance healthy empathy with their ability to do their job. If physicians felt bad knowing patients would be in pain after surgery, they wouldn’t make great healers. If they couldn’t turn off or at least limit their empathy, one week on the job could be debilitating both personally and professionally.
People-Pleasing. The desire to make others happy may appear to be driven by empathy, but often motivations behind people-pleasing are based on a selfish desire to be accepted. People pleasers often end up feeling angry or resentful because they’ve given too much of themselves to others. They may base their self-worth on how well they are liked or how much they do for others, and in the process become someone else’s “doormat.”
Keeping Empathy in Check
When empathy goes into overdrive, people put themselves at risk for mental health problems such as anxiety and depression and physical complications such as heart disease and high blood pressure. In an effort to cope, some people turn to food, drugs and alcohol, sex, gambling, and other potentially compulsive behaviors.
So ask yourself: Are you really “too nice,” or is the real issue a deeper struggle with boundary-setting or low self-esteem? Keep your empathy in check by:
Setting Personal Boundaries. Do you have difficulty saying no? Do you give other people’s feelings and needs priority over your own? You may need to set limits on how you interact with the people in your life, even if it means pushing yourself to say no, share your honest feelings and confront problems when necessary. By setting boundaries, you can empathize with someone’s feelings or experiences and do what you can to help without feeling taken for granted or sacrificing your own needs.
Nurturing Healthy Relationships. Identify which relationships are draining you and which are enriching your life. Then limit the amount of time and energy you dedicate to the people who take advantage of your kindness or disregard your boundaries and invest in those who care about your well-being.
Practicing Mindfulness. To prevent yourself from becoming engulfed in other people’s feelings, practice mindfulness. Meditation, yoga and other mind-body practices can help you distinguish between your own thoughts and feelings and those of others.
Getting Help. Hyper-empathy can be a sign of an underlying mental or emotional problem and can also increase the risk of substance abuse and other risky behaviors. If you find yourself inching toward either unhealthy extreme along the empathy spectrum, talk to a therapist or treatment center that can help you set boundaries and resolve unhealthy relationship patterns.
Empathy is one of the fundamental capacities that makes us human. Having too little is a problem, but so is having too much. Striking a balance will help you hold onto your own identity so you are in a position to help – without damage to yourself or others – when someone else needs you.