June 23, 2014

Pathological Empathy

If you've never heard the phrase "Pathological Empathy," don't berate yourself. I invented it. I came up with it to describe what happens when empathy goes wrong. It may seem odd to think that something as great as empathy could go wrong, but I can assure you - from personal experience - that it not only can, but does.

Empathy is a wonderful trait. It's what allows us to walk this journey together and find common ground. It lets up put ourselves (mentally) into another's situation and understand them a bit better. It's what lets us find a space for compromise - to give and take instead of acting out our selfish tendencies. In other words, it makes us more human.

Pathological Empathy on the other hand is not healthy. It leads to such negative outcomes as enabling and allowing ourselves to be needlessly taken advantage of. We find ourselves "attempting" to manage another persons suffering. If I seem to be an expert - it's only because I am.

Let me give you some examples of what Pathological Empathy looks and acts like. It's moving someone into your house, filing an order of protection for them, finding them a job, babysitting while they work at the job you found for them only to find out that they lied to you about being abused. (To avoid doing anything even remotely this crazy yourself see:)

It's knowing someone you love is hurting and jumping it to "manage" things for them instead of being supportive and giving suggestions. It's finding yourself time and time again, in the middle of drama that you not only have no ownership of, but no business handling. It's feeling brokenhearted when your "good intentions" are misinterpreted.

If you see yourself in any of these tendencies, you'll also see yourself in these outcomes. The people you try to "rescue" don't appreciate your help, (mostly because they didn't need it.) You end up looking and feeling like an idiot. You say things to yourself like "I never learn" and "never again" only to realize you haven't learned and you've done it again!

It's taken me a lot of time (and personal restraint) to allow others the right to their own pain and suffering. Yes, pain and suffering is the God given right of every person who is born into this life. It's not a pleasant teacher, but it's a good one. Most of the knowledge and experience I hold most valuable was a direct result of having passed through the refiners fire and coming out (a little smokey) on the other side.

There is a fine line between empathy and pathological empathy. It's not always easy to see, but a good question to ask yourself to make sure you stay on the right side of that line is this: "Can this person handle this situation on their own." If the answer is yes, even if doing so won't be easy or pleasant, stay out of it. It's OK to offer suggestions or support, but we must (for our sake and theirs) allow people to grow through handling their own challenges. When we do, it shows them that we have faith in their ability to do so. Jumping in and taking over show's just the opposite.

I'm working hard at recovering from Pathological Empathy, but just like anyone else who's ever tried to recover from an addiction, I still slip back from time to time and it's most often when my heart is very invested. 

My name is Anita, and I'm a Pathological Empathetic.


  1. Love this post, Anita. It speaks directly to my heart. Thanks for reminding all of us P.E.s of the importance of staying vigilant.

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  3. I have struggled with "pathological empathy" since my early teens. It has been my greatest strength as well as my greatest weakness. I control it only with various strong psychotropic medicines.

    Please see:

    Empathy as a “Risky Strength”: A Multilevel Examination of Empathy and Risk for Internalizing Disorders

    1. Are you serious that you take medication for pathological empathy, really? What are the medicines, pot maybe? I know a lot of pot smokers that are total Bogarts. That would seem to be the first step in curing an extreme form of empathy.

    2. Hi Daniel
      I totally get what you mean about empathy being a strength and weakness. I've always called it a blessing and a curse. I've never required meds but I know that some people do. What has helped me is letting the wave of emotion that strikes first to wash by and then to examine what's left on the sand. I've found that asking myself a few questions before I act has helped a lot!

      1. Can this person handle this situation and should I trust them enough to let them.
      2. Am I really trying to help THEM or am I trying to calm my own anxiety over what's happening.

      People with high levels of empathy do feel anxiety for their friends or family members when they're in crisis...and just about anyone else who is too. I was shocked to find through self examination that sometimes what I believed was a super need to help others was actually a need to resolve anxiety I was feeling on their behalf. In those cases, my help wasn't really about them at all.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  4. You didn't invent "pathological empathy" any more than I did. It is the term I use to describe what my 17-year-old Asperger's son has done (and continues to do) with the indigent friends he manages somehow to find homeless or mostly so on the streets of downtown Fullerton. He has shacked up with a 26-year-old homeless, jobless woman who has only served to virtually tear our family apart by brainwashing him into hating me and my wife. This, I truly believe, is the essence of "pathological empathy" - when an empath lacks the wisdom to withhold their empathy from psychic parasites and their ilk to their peril.