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This question arose out of the question Excessive empathy, social cues and adaptive behavior evaluation whereby excessive empathy was considered to impair interpersonal relationships. My question is asking if you can actually have too much empathy.

Empathy, not to be confused with sympathy is

the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another's position (Bellet & Maloney, 1991).

When empathising, you can actually feel the emotions the client is feeling, and you need to be able to compartmentalise these feelings by recognising that they are not yours to own. They are not your feelings, they are the client's feelings. In the psychological fields, they are there to help you to recognise congruency within the client (is the feeling the client expresses, the feeling the client should have?).

As I pointed out in my comment in Excessive empathy, social cues and adaptive behavior evaluation,

the need to break away at times is self-care

The moment you take on the feelings your client has, this is the moment where you are not exercising self-care.

Empathy is a necessity when working within the therapeutic environment and as Bellet & Maloney (1991) points out, it is important within the field of medicine. Therefore, self-care is paramount to practitioner wellbeing within the relevant fields, as I highlighted in my answer to Named conditions that are the result of exposure to psychopathic behavior of another person? to protect against instances of vicarious trauma caused by environmental psychological conditions.

When looking online, there is a PsychologyToday article (Reynolds, 2017) which proposes that you can have too much empathy but I have a problem following her train of thought on her hypothesis.

With empathy, you will feel their stress, anxiety, and anger in your body. You might feel their pain emotionally and physically. If you let these emotions sit in your body, your body and mind can be emotionally hijacked.

Unbridled empathy can lead to concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, making it difficult to release the emotions. Taking on other people’s feelings so that you live their experience can make you susceptible to feelings of depression or hopelessness.

With this passage, there was a citation for:

Blaszczak-Boxe, A. (2017) Too much emotional intelligence is a bad thing. Scientific American Mind [Online] Retreived from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/too-much-emotional-intelligence-is-a-bad-thing

My argument to Reynolds (2017) is that she is describing lack of self-care (lack of compartmentalisation), not excessive empathy, leading to mental health problems within the therapist.

Am I missing something or can there be such a problem as "excessive empathy"? If so, how much empathy is excessive and how would you be able to recognise this excess?

References

Bellet, P. S., & Maloney, M. J. (1991). The importance of empathy as an interviewing skill in medicine. Jama, 266(13), 1831-1832. doi: 10.1001/jama.1991.03470130111039

Reynolds, M. (2017). Too Much Empathy?: When empathy breaks instead of builds trust. PsychologyToday [Online] Retreived from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/wander-woman/201704/can-you-have-too-much-empathy

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  • $\begingroup$ The question hinges then on what is excessive? $\endgroup$ – AliceD Dec 5 '18 at 16:06
  • $\begingroup$ @AliceD - If there is such a thing as "excessive empathy" $\endgroup$ – Chris Rogers Dec 5 '18 at 17:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Chris Rogers Not to mention a clear differentiation between emotional and cognitive empathy. $\endgroup$ – Raised by Wolves Dec 5 '18 at 22:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Duckisaduckisaduck - I believe I am talking about a melding of the two forms of empathy, although science has not yet agreed upon a precise definition of these constructs $\endgroup$ – Chris Rogers Dec 7 '18 at 16:02
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    $\begingroup$ This definitely seems like a matter of definitions, and I feel Chris points out valid reasons for disambiguating between them. I therefore believe it would be most meaningful for answers to focus on: (1) what are common definitions for these concepts? (2) which are dominant? (3) has a case been made in literature on the need to disambiguate between these concepts? $\endgroup$ – Steven Jeuris Jan 18 at 10:59
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The risks of excessive empathy is sometimes conceptualized as "compassion fatigue" or "vicarious traumatization". The problem is not necessarily considered an excess in empathy, it can also be described as an excess in work load.

What could be considered excessive is most likely individual, not unlike our capacity for handling other types of work, like lifting heavy loads or work long hours at the office, for instance.

The most reliable measurement i can think of is how much time a day we spend working as a therapist, for lack of better constructs. Another example for conceptualizing excessive empathy would be the prevalence of fatigue/secondary ptsd symptoms.

Also i'd be curious to see how therapists ambitions/expectations on therapy outcome factors into the risk of compassion fatigue. I don't believe such research has been made.

More research is needed for sure.

https://proqol.org/CS_and_CF.html

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