Mental Health and Empathy

Who are Highly Empathic People?

Neuropsychology research has shown us that we are wired for empathy—that we literally have brain circuits devoted to trying to understand how another person is feeling and to “feel with” them.

Highly Empathic People (HEPs) are highly sensitive individuals, who have a keen ability to sense what people around them are thinking and feeling. Psychologists may use the term empathic to describe a person who experiences a great deal of empathy, often to the point of taking on the pain of others at their own expense.

There are many benefits of being highly empathic. On the bright side, empathic folks tend to be excellent friends. They are superb listeners. They consistently show up for friends in times of need. They are big-hearted and generous. They also tend to be highly intuitive and emotionally intelligent.

However, some of the very qualities that make them such fantastic friends can be hard on the empaths themselves. Because they may literally feel what others are going through, they can become overwhelmed by painful emotions, such as anxiety or anger. Empaths have a tendency to take on the problems of others as their own. It is often difficult for them to set boundaries for themselves and say no, even when too much is being asked of them.

It is common for empaths to feel drained after spending a lot of time around people. Empaths can present as introverts, because they require a certain amount of alone time in order to recharge. A fascinating study from 2011 suggests there may be a link between highly empathic individuals and ‘symptoms’ of social anxiety. Crowds can feel particularly overwhelming to HEP, who are often extremely sensitive to certain noises, smells, and incessant chatter or small chatter. They often feel their best when they are surrounded by animals, quiet, plants, or nature.

Types of empathy may include:
Cognitive Empathy
Cognitive empathy refers to thinking processes called perspective taking. Perspective taking is an essential part of the definition of empathy. It means that you think about a situation from a different viewpoint than your own. To do this, you have to imagine what the situation is like from someone else’s perspective. Rather than thinking about how you might feel in that situation, you picture what it would be like if you were the other person, with their beliefs, emotional health, relationships, and personal history. In short, you see things from their perspective.

The brilliant writer, George Orwell, most known for Animal Farm and 1984, worked for several years as a colonial police officer in British colonized Burma. In the 1920s, after his colonial stint, Orwell returned to England determined to discover what life was like for those living on the social margins. “I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed,” he wrote. He lived on the streets of East London with homeless individuals over the next year. The result, recorded in his book “Down and Out in Paris and London”, was a radical change in his beliefs, priorities, and relationships. He not only realized that homeless people are not “drunken vagabonds or scoundrels”—Orwell developed new friendships, shifted his views on inequality, and produced exemplary literary material. He eloquently wrote that ‘empathy doesn’t just make you good, it’s good for you, too’.

Emotional Empathy
Emotional empathy, also called affective empathy, is a subjective experience in which you pick up the emotions of others and feel them yourself. For example, if they show their sadness, you feel sad, too, even though you may not feel have felt sad before. You share in their feelings.

This may include:
Recognizing suffering
Understanding that everyone suffers
Feeling for the person who is suffering
Allowing yourself to feel the uncomfortable feelings that result
Doing or wanting to do something to alleviate their distress
How to rejuvenate if you’re a Highly Empathic Person (Recovery Acts)
Give journaling a try

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with emotion, it can help to get it out in some way. There are lots of different options. Dr. James Pennebaker is a clinical psychologist who has shown that putting pen to paper for at least 10 minutes a day, without editing, actually reduces depression and stress. Just writing whatever’s on your mind, can not only be a release, but can also reconnect you with your own emotions, and help you not feel so full of everything. To get into the habit, perhaps start by writing a few lines every evening or morning to process the day.

Start a mindfulness practice
While mindfulness has often been associated with meditation or breath work, there are many other strategies that can be used in this practice. For example, we all have to take out the trash. Taking out the trash mindfully can mean you are mentally removing the detritus of the week, or letting go of ballast. You can walk mindfully, cook, eat a meal, do a tea ritual, garden, or massage your dog or cat. Mindfulness is just paying attention to all of the intricate steps in any given activity.

Try visualization techniques
Visualization is a great strategy, because you can use it as a tool anywhere you go. One that I teach is called ‘the relaxation place,’ in which we use our individualized images of soothing to make makes this so powerful.

Other visualizations you could try include picturing yourself in a protective bubble, imagining other people’s emotions as water that flows over you, or even seeing their emotions as a balloon and letting that balloon go.

Be in nature regularly
Nature has a wonderfully grounding effect, helping you to clear your mind and feel closer to the earth. If you can, aim to get outside often and seek out green areas. Taking time to notice the leaves on a tree, or clouds in the sky, can help you anchor yourself in the moment and feel more connected to yourself and your emotions. Nature includes your green babies, your companion animals, your favorite tree on your street, everything around you.

Plan ahead for emotion overload
Being prepared can help to avoid unexpected emotion overload. If you know you’re going to be in a draining situation, make sure you give yourself plenty of time and rest the next day to get back to baseline.

Practice release mantras
Dr. Judith Orloff, a physician who teaches other doctors how to be more empathic, has taught what I call ‘release exercises’ in my practice. For example, at the end of the day when feeling full from the energy or hurts of others, she suggests chanting ‘ send it back, send it back, send it back.’ There are many release exercises, and like mindfulness and visualization tools, they are highly individual.

Therapy, in whatever form that fits you
In addition to talk therapy, art therapy, movement therapy, expressive therapy, spiritual counseling, life coaching, and more, are all very helpful for highly empathic individuals to maintain their vibration without damage.

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