Too Much Empathy?

too much empathy hspIs there such a thing as too much empathy?  Sometimes I think I’m pathologically empathetic.

I refuse to have pet fish in the house because it’s like pressing a little sadness button every time I walk by the tank.  I feel awful if they are looking bored or sick or if they just don’t have a sparkle in their eyes.  But I thought I could handle having pet fish for Sisi outside in a little container pond.  Ponds are peaceful, right? Zen?

I must have checked on them 20 times a day expecting them to be dead.  They looked scared and were hiding under the plants.  Did they hate our pond?  Did I set it up wrong?  Was this a big mistake?

As I vented my concerns to Joe he said, ” They were supposed to bring you joy.  They only cost 79 cents, please don’t spend too much time and energy worrying about them.”

He’s right!  Being super emotional about goldfish is like being super emotional about worms or crickets. But I felt a connection to these fish and a deep sense of responsibility.

How much time and energy have I spent (or wasted?) empathizing with pet fish, roadkill, fictional characters and strangers?  This level of empathy is a heavy burden to bear. I really wish I could turn it off sometimes because it’s draining. Here’s a quote from a study about HSPs’ increased brain activity in response to emotional stimuli.

This survival strategy is effective as long as the benefits of increased sensitivity outweigh the costs (such as increased cognitive and metabolic demand). In addition to potential costs, those with the sensitive survival strategy will always be in a minority as it would cease to yield special payoffs if it were found in a majority (Wolf et al. 2008). (source of quote).

There are times when the benefits of increased empathy DO outweigh the “cognitive and metabolic costs”.  Motherhood, for one! I am definitely in tune with my kids’ needs and emotions.  My empathy has helped produce secure sleepers.  My empathy has helped dissolve so many conflicts and tantrums.  My empathy has helped me establish good communication with my newborns before they can even speak.  And anticipate their needs before they turn into meltdowns.  And much much more.

But I have to remember, empathy has a cost.  I do not have infinite amounts to dispense.  How can I keep from “wasting” my empathy on things that I just cannot change or aren’t worthwhile or that just aren’t my business?  I’m getting better at this the older I get.

Here are some of my HSP empathy energy savers…

  • No super disturbing, emotional, or scary movies.  Just not worth the stress.
  • Letting go of dysfunctional and drama-prone relationships.  Or at least putting up strong, healthy boundaries to protect myself from the drama.
  • Choosing my causes: I can’t save the whole world, but I can carefully choose causes that speak to my heart and do what is within reach to contribute.   For example, a few causes that speak to me are North Korea, ethical shopping, and sustainable farming.
  • Prayer:  God made me extra sensitive to the needs of other people and creatures, but that doesn’t mean I am able to meet all their needs.  So I can lift up those needs to God who IS able, instead of dwelling on them myself.
  • Mind yo’ business:  I’m such an eavesdropper.  I get wrapped up in peoples’ conversations. I’m in a coffee shop right now, half-typing, half-listening-to-the-saga-at-the-next-table.  Seriously, I don’t need to be empathizing with the college girls next to me.  I need to learn to tune out what doesn’t involve me.
  • Therapy:  My therapist is really good at helping me cope with my overactive empathy and find outlets for it.
  • Pep talks:  Sometimes all I can do is coach myself through the moment, “Yes, you are feeling an overwhelming burden right now.  You were designed this way.  Sometimes your empathy is beneficial, sometimes it’s a hindrance.  Which one is it right now, and what can you do about that?”

Update on the Pet Fish:  The recent heat wave took both of their lives.  I guess Southern California is not the place for a small container pond.  I cried and felt so awful that I didn’t protect them from the elements.  Sisi looked at me with such empathy and said, “It’s ok mommy, we can draw pictures of them to remember them.”  Gotta love my HSC 🙂

container pond

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