The Dangers of Being Overly Empathetic

Updated: Apr 18


How can we deal with tragic events? Last week I wrote about The Importance of Empathy, but is there a way to be empathetic to those who suffer, yet not let our empathy cause us to be so upset that we can’t function or become ill?


These past few weeks have been difficult for many of us, feeling helpless watching the plight of the Ukrainians. Those of us who are empathetic might feel what it would be like to suddenly have to leave our home or lose a loved one in the bombings. By caring and being empathetic to those suffering in the war, we might find it difficult for ourselves to function.


Here in Israel, during the past two weeks we have all been shocked by the terrorists who have gunned down innocent people. Everyone here feels pain and mourns all who were killed as well as feels for the families who are grieving. How can we be empathetic to these tragedies yet continue to function and live?


We can care, but we also need to be aware of our emotions and know how to disconnect from them so we can continue with our own lives.


When We Allow an Emotion to Define Us

I have sadly watched people decline because they have let an emotion define them. I have seen young adults get so involved in a cause that their emotions begin to eat them up from the inside. I have seen older adults turn into grumpy old people.


Many incredible young people give their all when they are upset about the injustice of a situation. As they delve deeper, they may also become extremely angry or upset about the situation. These deep emotions can often affect their own health.


I’ve seen young people become ill with Crohn’s, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue, and other illnesses that normally are seen in much older adults. It’s not always from supporting a cause. Illnesses may also be due to stressful situations, but from my experience, the strong emotions are causing or exuberating their illnesses.


I have watched older adults become angry over political stances, especially during the past few years with conflicting views over how to deal with the covid pandemic. I have watched anger engulf people who believe that only their view is correct. They turn into angry people who also become angry at their neighbors, salesclerks, and family.


It happens so easily too. I’m vegan and I’m spoiled to live in a country where almost every restaurant has vegan options that are listed on their menus. Last week I was at a restaurant and after looking at the menu and seeing there was nothing vegan, I asked the waitress if there were vegan options not listed on the menu.


Instead of saying she doesn’t know, the waitress started looking at the menu to see if she might find something after I had just told her there isn’t anything listed. It made me angry, and I was curt with her, even though it was the restaurant I was angry at.


Luckily my husband called me on my behavior, and I related to the waitress in a much more friendly manner. It turns out the waitress herself loves animals and had been vegan for several years. We must be aware of our emotions and the behavior they may cause.

It is perfectly normal to feel various emotions, but we need to learn how to deal with these emotions, so they don’t define who we are. I fear, that in very old adults, when emotions get the better of them, it can also lead to dementia. Also remember that an angry old person may be in early stages of dementia as I describe in a previous blog Is It Anger or Dementia?


Let Go of the Anger and the Hurt

I think many of us know people who hold grudges all their lives. They seem to be living more in the past, remembering an event, rather than living in the present. Besides not being able to enjoy their present life, these people very often suffer from illnesses.


Learning to forgive is what one needs to do to get on with their life. According to Karen Swartz, M.D., director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at The Johns Hopkins Hospital,


“Chronic anger puts you into a fight-or-flight mode, which results in numerous changes in heart rate, blood pressure and immune response. Those changes, then, increase the risk of depression, heart disease and diabetes, among other conditions.”


When we are so angry, it seems difficult to ever be able to forgive. It is a learning process, but when we can let go of our anger and grudges, we can stop living in the past and enjoy the present again. We can also regain our health.

Studies have found that the act of forgiveness can reap huge rewards for your health, lowering the risk of heart attack; improving cholesterol levels and sleep; and reducing pain, blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress. And research points to an increase in the forgiveness-health connection as you age.”

I knew two sisters who were the sole holocaust survivors of their large family. They lived next door to each other, but sadly, because of an argument between the families, they did not talk to each other for over 25 years. The sister who held the grudge, suffered from pain and several illnesses. She also later developed dementia and died without ever talking to her sister again.


I found this situation so very sad. Due to a grudge they missed being able to enjoy the closeness they once had, and their families lost the chance to know and love their only cousins.


Learn to forgive for you own health and for the sake of those you love.


Only You Can Decide How to Feel

The first time I met someone whose life had totally changed due to a traumatic event was the day before I got married. A couple, who were friends of my husband’s parents, came to visit the day before our wedding because emotionally they could not attend weddings. Sadly, 15 years earlier their daughter tragically died a few days before her own wedding and ever since this tragedy this couple has lived in a state of grief. My own parents also met this tragic couple and I thought about the difference between how these two couples lived their lives. My parents were both Holocaust survivors who survived the horrors of Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Their parents, siblings and relatives were murdered. My parents went through hell and had many scars from their experience, yet they chose to embrace life.


What causes the difference between these two couples? What makes one person feel their life as they knew it has ended and another person lives life to the fullest? In my opinion it is a choice that one makes. A person can always choose how they want to live their life.


We must remember that it is not an event that causes us to behave in a certain manner, it is how we react to an event that is the factor in our behavior. Two people may experience the same event and each one may react totally differently.


An example one of my teachers one gave was a situation of a break-in. One person comes home and sees that they have been robbed and their belongings are tossed all over the floor. They are upset that someone invaded their personal space and will never feel safe in their house again. They live in fear of being robbed again for the rest of their life.


Another person comes home after being robbed. They take a deep breath and sit down on the couch. They look around and say, well, now I have reason to finally clear out that closet…


Of course the example is two very extreme cases, but it shows the point that we are responsible for how we feel.


I have had tragedies in my personal life and I remember, after grieving, making a decision, to not go down that dark hole. I decided that despite what happened, I was going to enjoy this life.


The decision of how we want to live our life is always in our own hands.


Feeling Guilty About Being Happy

How can we enjoy our life when others are suffering? How can we celebrate while others are mourning? This is always difficult, but at some point, we need to all move on.


A month and a half ago we were ready to launch our new Hands-on Dementia website. It was a time for celebration after months of working on it, but Russia had invaded Ukraine and we all watched in horror as the war progressed. How could I celebrate launching my new website in the middle of this tragedy? I didn’t.


So I waited. But sadly the war didn’t end. I posted about the new website but didn’t launch it with the full fanfare I had hoped to. It was more just a notice rather than inviting friends, families, and colleagues to celebrate the launch.


Canceling the launch did not accomplish much. It didn’t stop the war, it didn’t make anyone feel better, but it did cause less people to know about our site which means we are helping less people who are living with dementia.


We can be empathetic to those who are suffering, but we don’t have to suffer too. We also need to learn to disconnect after being empathetic.


Learn to Disconnect

I have written previously about the importance of centering, clearing out our own thoughts so we can connect to another person. We also need to know how to disconnect.


Professionals who work in nursing homes and in memory care need to learn how to disconnect so they don’t take the difficulties they have seen and heard home with them.


This is important for preventing burn-out. These are techniques that all of us can use to help us when we are affected by tragedies around the world.


I suggest to my students these two ways to disconnect at the end of a workday and after giving a reflexology session.

1. Wash your hands with soap and water up to you elbows. It is mentally a way of disconnecting and energetically a way to disconnect from your clients or someone you have connected to.


2. As you leave your place of work, rub your hands together and imagine you are discarding all the difficulties of the day outside to the ground or into a trash can. The idea is to leave all your troubles and thoughts at your place of work and not take them home with you.


You can also do this at home if you feel you are getting too upset from the news. Turn off our computer or TV and go wash your hands up to the elbows. Then either go outside or to your trash can and rub your hands together and throw out the difficult feelings.


My other suggestion is to be empathetic in feelings, but do not put yourself into the someone else’s situation.


In order to be empathetic -

  • You do not need to imagine one of your own family members being hurt.

  • You do not need to imagine what you would do in a horrific situation.

  • You do not need to imagine having to grieve.

We can be empathetic, and connect to the feelings of another person, but we do not need to imagine ourselves where they are. This is very important to learn to do so that you can continue being a person who cares.


We can be empathetic to the those who are suffering, but we must also take care of ourselves by:

· Not allowing our emotions to define us

· Letting go of anger and sadness

· Realizing that we make the decision about how we are going to react and feel

· Not feeling guilty about being happy

· Learning to disconnect

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