The Downside Of Empathy — 3 Ways People Who 'Care Too Much' Actually Hurt Themselves

Dr. Jonice Webb explains the hazards of empathy.

Last updated on Nov 05, 2022

downside of empathy care too much can hurt you Joabson Rocha / Pexels

Of all of the emotions that we humans experience, one is generally believed by psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists and neuroscientists alike to rise above the rest: Empathy. 

The actual definition of empathy is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner


We can get angry, we can feel guilty. We can be frustrated or anxious. We can grieve or feel sadness, regret or resentment. But none of these emotions makes a statement about who we are as a person or about the nature of the human race like empathy.

RELATED: If You Have These 30 Traits, Consider Yourself An Empath

Empathy is the glue that binds a family, the bond that helps two people resolve a conflict. It’s a salve for pain and an essential ingredient in resilient romantic love.

Study after study has shown empathy’s surprising power. Empathy can motivate a wife to protect her husband, spur a man to care for his elderly mother, and even reduce the pain of an electric shock. If you’re a parent, you must have it for your children in order to raise them to be healthy and strong adults.


Most people would never think of it, but there are also times when empathy is a problem. 

This best part of the human spirit can turn against us and, unchecked, it can damage both the empathizer and the recipient.

Being aware of the risks of empathy gone bad is both incredibly important and vastly helpful.


RELATED: How To Use Your Empathic Abilities As 'Superpowers'

The three ways people with empathy care too much: 

1. Feeling someone’s emotions so deeply that you are blinded by them

Too much empathy is a problem that can allow unhealthy or damaging behaviors to continue when they really shouldn’t.

Example: Judy’s empathy is getting in her way because it’s preventing her from setting limits with Tom.

Tom needs to hear Judy say, “I can’t take your drinking anymore. It’s hurting the kids and me, and it’s hurting you. I need you to deal with your drinking problem. Now.” And he needs her to mean it.

But Judy feels so much of Tom’s pain that she can’t make herself hold him accountable. This is where empathy becomes enabling and how it can harm everyone involved.


RELATED: 4 Ways Spiritual Empaths Can Protect Their Emotions From The World

2. Empathizing with the emotions of someone who doesn’t deserve it

Misdirected empathy makes the empathizer vulnerable to exploitation by the recipient.

Example: Now an adult, Todd is being unable to hold his father accountable for the damage he is doing to himself and his siblings.

He’s essentially giving his father a “pass” for his bad behavior because of his empathy for him. In this way, Todd’s empathy is misplaced.

By failing to protect himself from his father’s bad behavior, Todd is risking his own happiness and health (and that of his younger siblings). For this he will, all his life, pay a heavy price.




RELATED: How To Be Empathetic & Powerful At The Very Same Time

3. Being too indiscriminate with your empathy

You offer it too freely to too many people. When your empathy is free for the asking, you end up giving too much to too many people.

Example: Tina has multiple responsibilities in her life — her children, her husband, her ICU patients, and herself.


Yet none of these people gets as much of her time and energy as they deserve. That’s because Tina’s inability to let others manage their own stress and problems leads her to spread herself too thin.

Depleted by the demands, Tina often feels exhausted and irritable around her children and husband. She wonders why she keeps gaining weight and why there are dark circles under her eyes.

Judy is enabling her husband, Todd is failing to protect himself, and Tina is harming herself (and by extension, her family) by over-extending herself to others.


RELATED: 8 Signs You're A Psychic Empath & Can Sense Others' Pain

How to keep your empathy pure and healthy — and make it work for your benefit:

  • Be aware of when you’re feeling empathy and for whom. Make sure that the person receiving it deserves it.
  • Keep your empathy in check. Make sure it doesn’t prevent you from holding a loved one accountable for his or her actions.
  • Always prioritize your own needs. Take care of yourself before you care for others. That way you’ll be sure that your empathy can’t harm you.

RELATED: Why Empaths Are More Prone To Depression — And How To Protect Yourself

Jonice Webb has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and specializes in childhood emotional neglect. She is the author of the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. She shares more resources on her website