Can empaths be toxic? (A complete guide)

In this article, we will answer the question ‘Can empaths be toxic?’. We will do that by defining empaths and toxic empathy. This will follow up by giving an example of toxic empathy and ways to manage it. In the end, we will answer frequently asked questions related to toxic empathy.

Can empaths be toxic?

Empaths are not toxic in themself. Rather they can engage in toxic empathy. This includes absorbing other people’s feelings in the process of trying to empathize with their experience. Such overidentification can lead an empath to carry the emotional burden of other people while ignoring their own emotions and needs. Doing so can affect their daily functioning negatively. In addition to that, too much empathy can lead to the accumulation of the stress hormone, cortisol which makes the release of emotions difficult. In other words, getting overly invested in someone else’s feelings i.e toxic empathy can make an empath vulnerable to developing depression and feelings of hopelessness.

Empaths

An empath refers to an individual who is sensitive and able to feel the emotional pain of other people.  People consider them to be a subset of Highly sensitive people (HSP). They have a good awareness of another person’s thoughts and feelings. They can put themselves in another person’s shoes and understand their perspective and worldview. It’s like empaths can hear the words and listen to the body language of other people including their tone of voice, posture, facial expressions, and even their silence. Such people are driven to help and heal others.  Usually,  they hold the other person’s feelings and help them process it together.

Toxic Empathy

Toxic Empathy is when a person overidentifies with another person’s emotions and feelings so much so that they start identifying them as their own. In other words, they absorb their emotions. Doing so can negatively impact an empath and affect their life. These people forget about their own needs. Due to being emotionally invested in someone else’s life, their own functioning starts to get affected. 

Example of Toxic Empathy 

Lets consider a scenario of toxic empathy. Suppose an empath’s friend is quite stressed due to workload at their job and is unable to perform well. As a result, he/she is given a warning by their boss. He/She is also facing stressors from home and is not able to manage personal and professional life. In a state of stress, they share their feelings with an empath. 

Here, toxic empathy would be when an empath gets emotionally invested in their friend’s troubles after hearing them. They absorb their feelings of stress, worry and discomfort. Although the empath’s worry is out of concern but it starts affecting their own life. Consequently, they are unable to perform well at their own job because thoughts of their friend’s troubles keep popping up. Similarly, they don’t sleep well due to the worrying thoughts. Such empathy is not beneficial or productive. It is limiting and toxic in its nature. 

How to Manage Toxic Empathy

There are a few ways empaths can learn to prevent toxic empathy. These are stated as follows:

  1. Learn to separate your own problems and other people’s problems. It is important that empaths learn to set boundaries while providing others emotional support. They need to remember to take care of their own mental health first before helping others and taking on their burden. 
  2. Avoid letting the emotions of other people from overtaking your body. Empaths need to learn the skills of being emotionally and physically aware of themself as well as of other people.
    This can be done by being mindful of your own emotions and physical sensations while listening to another person. Identify any tension in your body and let your self relax. Notice what you are feeling and observe your reactions. Gradually, let them go with the understanding that these feelings and physical sensations belong to someone else and are not yours to carry. 
  3. Ensure that your relationships have the element of reciprocity. Many times, people approach empaths in order to vent about their problems, seek guidance in processing their emotions, and solving them. It is important that an empath understands that relationships are not supposed to be one-sided.
    You need to have an outlet as well to channel your own feelings and problems by talking to someone. So, you should make sure that your relationships have a give and take aspect of it. Set boundaries and communicate your own needs in order to both take and give benefit from relationships and avoid toxic empathy. In short, learn to be able to be on the receiving end once in a while and not feel like a burden on others.
  4. Change your thinking about empathy being a skill rather than a feeling. This can help an empath manage their emotions while skillfully empathizing with others. 
  5. Develop an understanding that people have the ability to save themself. An empath can only support people at an emotional level. Whereas, covering for them, giving them the answer, and solving their problems will not heal them. The action needs to be taken by the person themself.
    It is not your responsibility to fix things for them.
  6. An empath needs to learn to say no especially when they are at their limit. This applies to an empath’s interactions with people who are over-dependent on them.
    You can start by a small step and gradually build it up. The important thing is to stop the spontaneous ‘yes’ approach to everything.
  7. Learn to be compassionate to yourself. An empath needs to recognize and validate their own suffering like they do with others. 
  8. Set an inventory of relationships and learn to ration time with people who drain your energy.
  9. Engage in self-reflective practices like meditation, yoga, walking etc. One can even try relaxation exercises to reduce stress from daily life. 
  10. Deal with one issue at a Time
    When dealing with people, cater to one emotional issue at a time to avoid from being overwhelmed. Set aside a time of the week or month where you can thoroughly discuss one issue, process it, and resolve it peacefully and effectively. Allow this the time and space it deserves instead of rushing through a lot of issues at once.
  11. Get professional support from a therapist if the situation gets too overwhelming for you to handle. Therapy can act as an outlet and a therapeutic relationship can balance the give and take of empathy. Figure out a plan with your therapist to avoid overidentifying with the feelings of others. 

FAQs: Can empaths be toxic?

What is toxic empathy?

Toxic Empathy is when a person overidentifies with another person’s emotions and feelings so much so that they start identifying them as their own. In other words, they absorb their emotions.

Why too much Empathy is bad?

Too much empathy can be bad as it can lead to the accumulation of the stress hormone cortisol. That makes the release of emotions difficult. In other words, getting overly invested in someone else’s feelings can make an empath vulnerable to developing depression and feelings of hopelessness.

How can empaths set boundaries?

An empath can set boundaries by learning to say no in a tactful and polite manner.

What does it mean to be emotionally drained?

Emotional exhaustion is a state of feeling emotionally worn out and drained due to stress from daily personal and professional life. It can be a sign of burnout as well.

What are empaths?

An empath refers to an individual who is sensitive and able to feel the emotional pain of other people.  They have a good awareness of another person’s thoughts and feelings. They can put themselves in another person’s shoes and understand their perspective and worldview. Such people are driven to help and heal others.  Usually,  they hold the other person’s feelings and help them process it together. 

Conclusion

In this article, we answered the question ‘Can empaths be toxic?’. We found that empaths are not toxic in themself. Rather they can engage in toxic empathy. This includes absorbing other people’s feelings in the process of trying to empathize with their experience. Such overidentification can lead an empath to carry the emotional burden of other people while ignoring their own emotions and needs. Doing so can affect their daily functioning negatively. In addition to that, too much empathy can lead to the accumulation of the stress hormone, cortisol which makes release of emotions difficult. In other words, getting overly invested in someone else’s feelings i.e toxic empathy can make an empath vulnerable to developing depression and feelings of hopelessness.

I hope you found this article interesting. If you have any queries or comments, please state them in the comment section 😊

Citations

https://www.mygbhp.com/blog/what-is-toxic-empathy/

https://thriveglobal.com/stories/how-to-deal-with-empathy-burnout/

Divya is currently a Clinical Psychology Trainee in a Master of Philosophy program and holds a Master’s in clinical psychology. She has a special interest in Personality studies and disorders, having researched the subject before, and Neuropsychology; with an additional interest being Mood disorders. She likes to write about Psychiatric issues, having worked in multiple specialty setups during her time as a clinical psychology student, and in her free time she likes to cook and read.