For HSPs and emotional empaths like me, your challenges with your sensitivity lie within the watery realm of emotions. As emotional empaths, there have often been times in my life where I have felt like a porous being, open to being invaded by whatever everyone else is feeling. Their sadness, worry or frustration jumps out at me, asking me to pay attention to it, asking me to take care of it. This makes it hard to demarcate a boundary between where I end and someone else begins.

It’s easy to get carried away by this ability to resonate with the energy around you. Sometimes, I have been like a bell, only bringing out the feelings of others. This is where empathy crosses over into unhealthy territory. Instead of being life-affirming, it becomes something that drains our energy.

Can Empathy Be Inappropriate?

It’s taken me decades to realize that there really is such a thing as inappropriate empathy. Over the past few years, I have come across ideas that cast a different light on empathy. Some of these ideas and questions might resonate with you:

Are you telling yourself a story about others that evokes inappropriate empathy?

There are two ways in which I empathize. One is a purely physical feeling, where I tend to experience what someone else is feeling. The other is putting myself in other people’s shoes and thinking of how I would react and sympathize with them.

In the past few years, I have started seeing how I can sometimes create entire story-lines about someone without really knowing them very well. For example, I might come to know of a traumatic incident in someone’s life by chance. I still don’t know this person very well. All I know is this one thing about them. But in my mind, I have often jumped many steps ahead and created a story about how this incident has affected them. I empathize and sympathize with them. The story resonates with my own wounds and with my own sense of wanting to root for the underdog. But later on, I see that this trauma did notaffect this person in this exact way. Just the fact of that trauma does not make that person a certain kind of person, or even more empathetic to other’s who might have their own wounds.

Emotional Empaths And Narcissists

Haven’t we all heard of those theories that say that an empath and a narcissist often have similar childhood wounds? The fact of the wound might be the same, but the way that we have dealt with them, the paths we might have taken, can be completely opposite. One person might deal with a wound by becoming so sensitive to the world around them that they pick up on even any minor signs of distress. Another might feel as if the world is out to get them and feel a sense of entitlement as if the world owes them something. Both these people see the world differently.

In short, similar experiences don’t mean that our journeys have been the same.

So, I am learning to fact check the stories that my mind spins, that makes me extend empathy to an imaginary story and an imaginary person. Maybe, it’s the shadow side of my creativity. I am an INFP, which means I live in the world of feeling and imagination. My feelings color my inner and outer world. But there are certain places in which imagination can serve us ill. It can make us too open when we should we discerning. It can make us fall for sob stories that we might later realize don’t hold up in the light of the day. It can cause us to over-identify and over-empathize.

Distinguishing Empathy And Resonance

It was in Dave Markowitz’s book Self-Care for the Self-Awarethat I came across the idea that empathy and compassion are two different things. I had never thought about these words and often used them interchangeably. Of course, sympathy was different. It is easy to sympathize with someone whose experiences or hurts might be similar. But I could put myself in different people’s shoes and feel their feelings. That was empathy. Wasn’t that always a higher feeling? Shouldn’t that lead to a better way of relating to others?

ReadingSelf-Care for the Self-Aware made me think about these questions. To me, it almost felt like empathy had a bigger second chakra component while compassion related to the heart chakra. It was possible to be compassionate without completely taking on the feelings of another. Of course, empathy was still required. How could you be compassionate without getting a taste of someone else’s experience? But there was more of an opening of the heart, less of the churning of emotions. You identified enough, but not more than enough.

So, empathy was necessary, but then you moved into action and you could do something about it. If I over-empathized, it seemed to me, there was something in the other person’s experience that was hooking something unresolved inside me. Maybe, what I was feeling wasn’t empathy at all, but actually, sympathy, even if our outside experiences or personalities were different.

I am still thinking about these questions, about how these feelings tie in with each other, how they segue into one another. When is it empathy? When is it empathy in which I resonate with a hidden kernel inside the other person’s experiences? When am I over-empathizing with them instead of seeing that something inside me has been activated? When is it pure sympathy, masking as empathy?

Am I getting taken in by a momentary feeling?

Owning The Challenge Of Being Emotional Empaths

It was a few years ago that I started owning the word empath. Before that, it had felt too woo-woo, too alternative, even for an admittedly alternative person like me. But as I read more and more descriptions of what it meant to be one of the emotional empaths, I saw that while the words that some people were using didn’t resonate with me, the experience they were describing was mine.

I felt other people’s emotions in my own body.

As I started owning this term, it was as if my numbed down parts came back to life. After years, I again had that experience of feeling open, sensitive to everything around me. When I saw a movie in which someone fell or had an accident, it was as if I felt that pain. No wonder people online talked about how hard it was for them to see horror movies or shows with violence.

But as I thought about this, I realized that I was feeling something so intense in reaction to a made-up feeling on screen. Obviously, the people in the movie or the T.V. show were not really hurt. They were acting.

This was problematic. This meant that anyone who was affecting a feeling could con me. Being emotional empaths does not mean that one lives in another person’s body or could pull back the layers and see their intention, their beliefs or what they valued. I was just hyper-sensitive to changes in feeling, a feeling that might be the result of a value-system I did not believe in, or a feeling that might be completely put on. Haven’t we all met those people who try to intimidate others by appearing more angry and forceful on the outside than they are on the inside about their position?

This meant that registering feelings so immediately did not always serve you well. They were not an accurate map of what someone really felt all the time. It also meant that even when the feelings were real, the person behind them had reached them through a very different process. I over-identified with their feeling, responding to it because it felt uncomfortable even though I did not resonate with their ideas or their value system. Feelings are just one part of understanding someone.

This question has brought me a little more awareness of the problematic ways in which I use my empathy. Sometimes, it’s not empathy at all. It’s enmeshment. Sometimes, I am listening to people go “poor-me” and venting even though I am hurting inside. Then, I need to turn some of that empathy to myself instead of always giving it to others. It is showing me that while I am sometimes (not always) over-empathetic with others, I often don’t have enough compassion and empathy for my own hurt parts.

Do you consider yourself one of the emotional empaths? Did any of these questions resonate with you? Did they maybe give you some ideas about why empathy can become so problematic? When is your empathy helpful and when does it become something that drains you?

About Ritu Kaushal

Ritu Kaushal is a Silver Medal awardee at the Rex awards, co-presented by the United Nations in India, and given to people creating social impact through their work. She is also the author of a memoir on being a highly sensitive person, The Empath’s Journey, which TEDx speaker Andy Mort calls “a fascinating insight into the life of a highly sensitive person.” Get two Free Chapters of The Empath's Journey by signing up for Ritu's newsletter for highly sensitive creatives on her site Walking Through Transitions.

8 Comments

  1. Lisa Z on June 19, 2017 at 12:10 pm

    Oh my gosh, you say so much in this one article! Thank you for this. It’s very helpful and as an INFP empath like you, it gives me much to consider, including these definitions to ponder. Working mostly with my homeopath, I’ve been doing some work in this area of my life in which I am overly empathetic and need to set boundaries for my own wellbeing, but there is more to be done. You’ve made this very clear and concise, so thank you again.



    • Ritu Kaushal on June 21, 2017 at 4:47 pm

      You’re welcome ! I am glad you found it helpful Lisa.



    • Ritu Kaushal on June 21, 2017 at 4:59 pm

      Thank you Maria. Honestly, it’s about teaching what I am learning and need to learn.



    • Rita van den Boezem on October 20, 2020 at 5:13 am

      Thank you so much! During reading this something incredible happened. I know I am far in understanding my hypersensitivity and empathy but there was something I did not see until now: the question I had was: why I feel love for many people and why I mostly want to make them feel better…just with friendship, no more…but it always had a red tread…manipulation! While reading this article I suddenly got the answer: I just feel their NEED of love…this I took it for myself…what a release…! This isn’t finished: I head several years of anger, even had emdr for that…I realized my husband where in February I am merried for 50 years, has autism…already a release…but he was years and years an angry man and I stayed in the believe there has to be something….I didn’t understand my shouting, my anger …I am healthy, so why? Right here, right now I have got the answer: it was, it is Not mine? Living in pension, seeing every day , mostly 24 hours !!This is why he changed in this totally different man….he laughs, he never did…he has empathy…he never had! I cured him!! I have to cry now



  2. Sam Savage on January 8, 2018 at 2:19 pm

    It is the first of 2018 and I am so relieved to have found these post, Ritu. Wow. I’m dealing with having grown up in a household with an authoritarian father (Definitely ISTJ with, most likely OCPD) and a warm, cuddly mother for whom the answer, “NO”, really meant “Maybe” and, ultimately, “Yes”. My mother has always been his third child. She didn’t choose it to be that way. It just is. My sister, “The Warden” or “Snap & Clap” , as we jokingly call her, is in so many ways like my father, but possesses a more gentle a d sympathetic side. She has it together all across the board. Then there was/is me. I was the same bewildered child you described holding the cross-stitch piece for the entire class period while my shame increased exponentially with every minute that passed. I always knew I was different, and have, within the past decade, come to the realization that different is not bad. I am an INFP, HSP and most likely am Empath. I got spanked every Sunday after church for squirming on the pew bench. I was told not to cry. I was a defiant kid to some degree, but that was from never being given a voice. An INFP daughter kid with an authoritarian father is a bad combination, especially my “perfect” older sister. When I was about eight years old, I built this awesome tent in our basement with steps and winding tunnels and cool reading spots. My industrious and practically minded sister tore it down then re erected a blanket attched to four chairs. More space was her idea. You see, the main stream, majority rules folks EAT people like us for breakfast. Childhood was overwhelming enough for me. (I forgot to mention that jumping on beds listening to Rhinestone Cowboy, with my cousin, was bliss regardless of the punitive response that the act elicited in my father). I had a proclivity, even as a child. to weigh possible negative consequences of in a decision in terms of the “better to ask forgiveness than permission” method. Many times I had no idea that my intended actions could cause so much disharmony as a result, so getting permission ahead of time was irrelevant. I have really great and loving stories about my father and family, too. These relational dynamics are so layered and intricate which INFP types intrinsically understand, so I guess my being misunderstood is what I give in order to understand others. Now I just have to learn to move forward. I’ve bedn the same age for 30 years. Your posts are very personal to me and I’m grateful I found them today. I have a lot to work on in the upcoming year and I hope you continue to share your journey and what you have learned along the way!



    • Ritu Kaushal on January 14, 2018 at 4:40 pm

      Thank you for sharing about your journey Sam. Your building that beautiful tent in the basement and then it being replaced really spoke to me. It is obvious that you are an imaginative, creative person and I hope you express more of that this year. I completely understand being judged and discounted by the “TJ” or “xSTJ” types. As a child, we have nothing to compare it to, so we internalize these judgments. Like you, my path has been about unlearning them and seeing that it really is okay to be different.

      To whatever extent I have accepted myself more, I think finding like-minded people and people who value similar things has been an important element of my journey. I used to discount this earlier, this need for community. But I think it’s important in breaking away from the old. It gives you a safe space to be yourself.

      I am glad that you connect with my writing. I hope that you find all the resources you need this year and find many kindred spirits on your journey! Thank you again for sharing your own journey.



  3. Julie Ann on October 19, 2020 at 11:24 am

    Thank you Ritu, for this beautiful article. It articulates my feelings so well. I am also an INFP. I began caring for my mother when I was around ten years old and the caregiver years spanned until I was 43 years old. (My mother had Multiple Sclerosis and my father Esophageal Cancer.) Like you wrote in your article…my brother and I reacted differently…I became so aware of every little distress around me and in others and my brother became angry with feelings of being “cheated” and like the world owes him. It has also been incredibly disturbing to look back and remember just how INsensitive people were to me (and these people knew what I was dealing with at home with chronically ill parents) and oftentimes were downright rude and extremely judgmental. In fact, I can’t remember one kind, loving understanding person that offered a safe place and respite for me to visit with them or even meet them for a cup of tea. It is kind of shocking. You are so right that we need to extend more empathy to ourselves and less to others who do not deserve it. I have learned the importance of creating boundaries and being less trusting and more discerning with people. I trust that there are people out there in this world that are loving and caring, sensitive to others feelings.
    I hope to meet more of them as I move forward from my past. ❤️



    • Ritu Kaushal on October 26, 2020 at 1:27 pm

      It’s my pleasure, Julie Anne. I am glad to hear it connected with you. And I am so sorry to hear about the insensitive people who didn’t understand what you were going through. That’s really tough. It’s so great though that you have learned the importance of being discerning. If we can steer clear of the rocks that are the takers and the toxic people, there are good, kind people out there. I have started finding them in my own life, and I know you’ll find them by and by. With love, Ritu.