Empathy means being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, seeing from their perspective and feelings. It is a beautiful thing, and arguably the most needed quality in our world right now. We as a human race are more polarized and divided than ever. A hearty dose of empathy would go a long way to resolving many conflicts, great and small.
When Empathy Turns Toxic
There is a flip side, however. As with anything, it can become too extreme. This creates toxic empathy. While a bit more rare, it does indeed exist. When your empathy for others interferes with your ability to function, feel well, or care for yourself, it has turned toxic.
Possessing a more than average amount of empathy is where the term empath comes from. As you may know, empaths sit on the opposite end of the spectrum to the pervasive lack of empathy that unfortunately characterizes society right now. They not only have great reservoirs of compassion for other people (and animals), but they tend to feel EVERYTHING. Empaths can even sense unseen energies and suppressed or unrecognized emotions in others at times. Because of this intense perceptive awareness, empaths become drained or overwhelmed easily. For guidance on protecting yourself from triggers as an empathic person, read my blog here.
Toxic empathy is a risk for all empaths, givers, healers, and sensitive people. Sometimes without even realizing it, their strong ability to show empathy becomes unhealthy. Also, in the worlds of self-help and spirituality, being psychic, clairvoyant, or overly compassionate is glorified and seen as part of the “ascension” or awakening journey.
How To Prevent Toxic Empathy
Here are 5 ways to deal with toxic empathy, or prevent it before it takes root. Remember that being empathic is wonderful, but you need to learn to put some boundaries around it. That way, it doesn’t become extreme and wear you down. And when worn down, you are no longer able to offer that gift of empathy to the world!
Evaluate how you feel
Your feelings are a barometer. When you are giving too much or engaging in toxic empathy, the signs will start to appear. They might be subtle and take a while to build up. Be aware so you catch it.
Are you noticing physical symptoms like headache or even small changes in your routine? For example, maybe it’s harder to socialize or get out of bed in the morning. How are you feeling emotionally? Take a step back for self-care if you feel depressed, defeated, resentful, exhausted, or anything out of the ordinary. Reflect on or journal about where this may be coming from. Kindness toward self is the prerequisite to healthy kindness toward others.
Take a pulse on relationship reciprocity
Reciprocal relationship dynamics are a sign of healthy – not toxic – empathy. Do you give about as often as you receive? Or is someone always asking you for favors or guilting you into doing or saying things that don’t feel right?
A good question to ask yourself when you feel empathy: is this care and concern, or more so distress? If you feel a nagging sense of stress or guilt, toxic empathy is present.
Pause all giving
The next step after the above points is to simply stop. You might need a minute to catch your breath and take stock. If no more of that outflow is happening for a time, you can get a better sense of what is happening.
Any requests can wait. That’s always true. When something is asked of you, you aren’t obligated to reply immediately or say yes. Tell the person you will get back to them so you can sit with it. Do you genuinely want to help and have the time/energy for it? If so, oblige. If not, politely decline.
It’s not your responsibility
Many empaths and kind people consciously or unconsciously assume that other people’s burdens need to be transferred to them. Not so! Ask yourself why you feel this way.
If you feel like you must take on other people’s problems or emotions, you may have codependent tendencies. Codependency means caretaking other people to allay your own anxiety or receive approval. Healthy giving isn’t done to achieve validation or “tit for tat.” Read more about how to help people without being codependent in my blog here.
Watch for love bombing
Another way to look at the term toxic empathy is from the lens of narcissism and other personality patterns, including the idea of a “dark empath.” This definition refers to the appearance or illusion of empathy, when it is in fact not really there. Unfortunately, disordered individuals like narcissists are often able to present an effective facade.
A common first stage of a relationship with someone like this involves love bombing. Just as it sounds, that’s when the person literally covers you with (false or extreme) empathy, love, mirroring, and attention. If you’re noticing this or something doesn’t feel right, step back and seek support.
Address Toxic Empathy Right Away
You owe it to yourself to address toxic empathy ASAP. Remember that valuing others has to come after valuing yourself. You have to give from a full cup, as they say. If not, you will likely become burnt out, resentful, or sick. Reach out to me for more support if you need it.
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