Highly Sensitive Refuge
A woman covers her chest in empathy, looking stressed and overwhelmed from absorbing people’s feelings

HSPs, Do You Have ‘Too Much’ Empathy? (And What to Do About It)

Nearly 1 in 3 people are wired to soak up emotions. Here’s what to do when it goes wrong.

One of the remarkable parts of being a highly sensitive person (HSP) is their profound ability to experience empathy. And since HSPs make up nearly 30 percent of the population, that means there are a lot of empathetic people out there.

When the neural activity of HSPs was examined as they viewed images of human emotions ranging from positive, negative, and neutral facial expressions, researchers found heightened brain activity in HSPs across all emotional conditions, whether the image was of a stranger or someone they knew. The activated brain areas were associated with awareness and attention, action planning, and empathy. 

Because HSPs are emotional sponges and empaths by nature, they often are also highly compassionate. Interestingly, though, you can experience one without the other, because empathy and compassion are uniquely different.  

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Empathy vs. Compassion

Empathy precedes compassion, as it is the initial physiological response toward someone else’s pain. When we have empathy for someone, we literally feel what they are feeling — so if they are suffering, we suffer. 

This leads to a deep understanding of the other’s experience, such as “seeing or feeling” another’s pain. Understanding another’s pain is an important step toward being able to show compassion. However, empathy itself does not motivate action or the desire to help. If anything, empathy can lead to negative stress in the body, which is the reason I, as an HSP, may suffer a headache if my husband tells me he has one (more to come on how to protect your empathic energy if this happens to you!).

Compassion, on the other hand, happens when we have sympathy or concern for another’s suffering. While we are aware of what they are going through, we do not necessarily embody their suffering (unless we have already had an empathetic response).  

The brain also responds differently to compassion than it does empathy. Scientists, when mapping compassion in the brain, have found that when we feel compassion, our heart rate slows and our brain secretes the bonding hormone oxytocin, which helps activate pleasure centers in our brain.

So while empathy can cause stress in the body, compassion causes pleasure that inspires action. Studies have found this to be true, as well. The act of “showing” compassion comes from a place of helping. The amazing thing about compassion is that even if you do not have a specific way to change or fix a situation for someone, even wishing the person well and mentally lifting them out of their suffering can have a positive impact on your own stress levels and energy, researchers have found.

How HSPs Can Balance Empathy and Compassion

For sensitive people, the suffering of others and the world at large can feel crushing. As a result, knowing how to handle our empathic response can feel daunting. While empathy helps us connect with another’s experience, it can also be taxing on the mind and body. I say this not only as a therapist, but researchers have found this to be true, as well.

Knowing when you are experiencing empathy fatigue — which some researchers call “compassion fatigue” — can be a helpful step in managing it. The questions below help reflect on this experience. 

  • What do I feel in my body? Common empathy responses include tightening in the heart center, tension in the head and back, nausea, or lack of appetite.
  • Do I find this sensation tolerable? Keep in mind that even moderate stress in the body over a long period of time has a compounding effect on well-being, studies have shown.
  • Am I able to change or control what is happening to this person or group? Feeling stuck and unable to change the suffering of another is a major component to empathy fatigue.

If you answer “no” to questions 2 or 3 above, meaning the sensation is not tolerable and/or you are unable to change or help the other person, you will want to employ helpful tactics for managing empathy. 

Want to reduce stress and thrive as an empath? We recommend these online courses from psychotherapist and sensitivity expert Julie Bjelland. Click here to learn more.

4 Ways for Highly Sensitive People to Manage Empathy 

1. Create distance since closeness increases empathy.

Because closeness increases empathy, sometimes it can help to create physical space when you are feeling dysregulated. For example, as a therapist (who is also highly empathic), I ensure I have enough space between my client and myself so I can preserve my energy and emotions to support them. Something as simple as a deliberate step-back (think: personal bubble) can go a long way to help deal with empathic stress.

2. Honor your boundaries, which will help decrease your stress levels.

If you feel emphatic stress, it is okay to practice the power of saying “no” and eliminate potential situations that may create stress. This can feel difficult for empaths and sensitive people, as they feel pain if they believe they are hurting someone or disappointing them. (We are often people-pleasers, too, after all!) But it is important to remember you are not able to be compassionate (help) if you are feeling overwhelmed. So honor your boundaries, and practice enacting them often!

3. Connect with the power of your breath. 

When your body and mind are having an empathic reaction to suffering, you may find your breath becoming shallow as your body responds to another’s pain. Reconnecting with your breath (perhaps using four-count box breathing or paying special attention to a nice, long exhale) can help increase regulation in your body.

4. Try Metta meditation, also known as a loving-kindness meditation.

This form of meditation is very powerful for strong empathy responses. It can evolve the stress that empathy can cause into a more positive feeling of compassion. To perform this meditation, do the following: 

  • Find a comfortable position and spend a few moments focusing on your breath and concentrating on relaxing the muscles in your body. 
  • Once you feel ready, begin with focusing on yourself and slowly repeat the following phrases in your head: “May I be happy.” “May I be healthy.” “May I be safe.” “May I be at ease.” 
  • Next, you can repeat these steps, focusing on someone you care for and repeat: “May you be happy.” “May you be healthy.” “May you be safe.” “May you be at ease.” 
  • Then, if you would like, choose a neutral person, someone you see regularly but may not know well, and repeat the same wishes for them. (You can also choose to provide well wishes for a group of people, animals, a certain nation, and so forth.) 
  • Finally, you can choose a person who you are struggling with and provide the same wishes for them.

The key is to allow for space and time between each person you focus on. You can also choose to begin specifically where you feel the most need, i.e., with the person you are struggling with. 

Science shows that simply wishing someone well helps improve your mood and mental health, lower perceived stress, and help regulate your nervous system. These positive changes also allow HSPs, who find great value in their relationships, to enjoy being around others, even at times they may be struggling. 

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