Mental Health: Hyper Empathy

Imagine you are out with your friends, maybe having a nice meal or something. When suddenly, one of your friend decided to bring a guest. Maybe its a sibling or a significant other. But it is your first time meeting that person.

Instead of being a normal individual and engaging in banal chit chat, you decide to there and then, announce your candidacy as the greatest douchebag in the world. You start insulting yourself, and telling this newcomer of all the stupid things you’ve ever done.

Or, you might go the other way and ignore the newcomer as just another body. You continue chatting, only really engaging with this new person when they directly motion for you.

Maybe you immediately engage in conversation. Deep conversation. Like, really, really deep. You start asking about their jobs and family, how they do things in excruciating details.

If this sounds like you, you might have a case of hyper-empathy.

Hyper-empathy is weird. It’s one of those things you don’t really think about, because of how prevalent and daily it is in the lives of people who have it. Slowly, you would just come to think of it as a personality trait.

It is what happens when a person has too much empathy. I’m not talking about just simply caring too much, but rather, able to read emotions and cues a step over what normal people do.

It’s also very hard to put it into an intellectual or practical explanation, as you end up having to try to break down actions, emotions, and social cues to a logical ending. But that is what I will try to explain here.

There’s a reason why I gave the above three situational examples. They are things that I would do, and are reactions that I have managed to somewhat break down into understandable bits.

The above three are what I deem as the optimal way of getting on someone’s good side on a first meeting. I’m not talking about becoming friends. I’m talking about making them happy and not hate me in the quickest and most effective way possible.

I do this in three quick steps. I take in the entire scenario, evaluate the newcomer’s personality, and react. This might seem like something that everyone does, but for someone with hyper-empathy it’s on a whole different scale.

How do you walk? Did you smile when we first meet? Was it a wide grin with teeth? What’s your tone? How are you dressed? Where did you sit? Did you sit first or after your friend? Are you seating closer to a stranger? Corner seat? Eye contact? Who starts the conversation? Fidgeting? Are you carrying a bag? Do you have a book in your hand? What kind of phone are you using? Sick? Runny nose? Lazy eye? Vocab? Mother tongue? Tone of voice? Who did you talk to first? How did you react?

Like I said, somehow, I take all those things and compress them into the few seconds and decide how to react, which is why when I’m within a large group, I freeze up, as I can’t analyse everyone fast enough. But in small groups of one-on-one, that’s a whole different story.

If you are someone who’s more self centred and unfriendly, I prod into your life, get you to talk about yourself. If you have low esteem, I make myself the butt of the joke to prop you up. It’s easy to like me if who I am is likable to you.

This is just one of the few small ways in which a hyper-empath leads their lives. Another quick example is this. I had an email exchange with Alden Tan (a fellow Singaporean writer and blogger) the other week, and he is a very vulgar-casual writer. He uses vulgarity as words without insults, and is very straightforward a person.

Even though I had never met him before in my life, after reading his blog, I took on more than a little of his directness and attitude in my email exchange with him, using vulgarities freely as well. In short, I changed my personality to suit his. And this changing of personality to suit others is done all the time, on the scale where two groups of people who know me will have completely different ideas of who I am as a person.

That doesn’t just mean that my family and friends sees me differently from co-workers. It means that my elder sister and younger sister will experience a completely different me. And I might be completely unrecognisable to a co-worker in a different cubicle.

Again, this is not just an ordinary want to be liked. It is almost a compulsion. And it’s not like you are being a people’s person either. More along the lines of being able to ‘read’ a person to an almost annoying degree. Imagine if every time you asked your significant other if the sex was good and they say, “Yes.” But you know they are lying, every single time! It’s kind of like that. Except it’s all the time when you don’t need it to.

Now you might think, “That sounds awesome! Understanding and getting people to like you on instinct!”

Normally, sure, it’s pretty great. I don’t consciously do it, but yeah, it’s nice not having anyone hate me on sight. But it also has it’s down sides.

It’s very hard for me to make friends. The process is excruciatingly long and painful, as once you are passed the point of merely ‘liking’ you, it becomes much more complex. You have to build on that first impression, get into arguments and fights and disagree. That’s very hard when your base instinct is don’t hate me.

You can go to great lengths to want to please people. It’s one of the reasons why I entered conscription without declaring that I was possibly mentally ill, an action that nearly killed me.

It also makes it hard to keep a job. I have an instinctual need to do my utmost best when a stranger (like an employer) is counting on me, and I would often work myself to the literal breaking point. And unless my employer is understanding, they would just think I am a hard worker.

This means I could finish three days worth of work in half a day using the exact same amount of energy as it would take in three, and my boss could go, “Good job. Here’s more.” While I was about to collapse.

Overworking has happened to me more than once, and on one such occasion, I managed to work myself to a heat stroke and passed out. That was after I managed to finish the work on hand though, so you know, props on that.

Because employers don’t usually need to care about their workers. They just need them to do their jobs. And if they can get more work done for the same amount of money without killing someone, so be it. All the better for the bosses.

Which is why I still do not have a stable job, as a stable job means stable work. Something which I can’t instinctual do without severely straining my body in the end. I used to do project-based work, but due to the stressful burst nature, I kept falling ill after each project, and I’ve now waned off it. At the moment, I’m doing part time and freelancing here and there. It doesn’t earn much, but at least I’m not halfway to death all the time.

(Would also help me, would you kindly, to buy my books.  hint* hint* nudge* nudge* cough* Patreon* cough*)

Hyper-empathy, for the above reason, is also why most people who have it suffers from some underlying mental illness or another. It’s sort of a defence mechanism in my opinion, where to prevent people from thinking you are crazy, you try your best to make them like you.

It’s great fun in the same sense as having bipolar disorder is great fun. Sometimes, it is amazing and helpful. And the other half of the time, you must be prepared to be strangled and killed by it.

Addendum 1: It has been pointed out to me that I might have been talking about codependency by one of my readers. While I do not completely agree on that statement, I find it a fascinating food for thought to put out there, and I encourage readers to draw their own conclusions base on research and information. 

Addendum 2: This post has gotten quite a high number of views, and is constantly growing. While I will not change anything written in the above post, as it is a blog of sorts, I would just like to point out that the term ‘Hyper-empathy’ is not a medical term, and merely something I came up with to identify the recurring life experience. It is my hope that being able to put a word to the feeling can help people come to better terms with their lives and conditions, and perhaps clear some questions and misunderstanding, and even help describe their problems to counsellors and therapists for better treatment. 

(Note: For more links on resources, blogs, or articles about mental health and services, visit the Links and Resources page.)

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34 Comments

  1. Hyper-empathy – I’ve never heard it called that before. Fascinating!
    I’ve always noticed I tend to be accommodating to people. I’ve struggled with it my whole life and only recently started to process why that might be – I grew up an only child, fairly isolated, with parents that had a host of their own problems. Both of them had very unhappy childhoods and carried a lot of anger, which they tried to manage but couldn’t always. Since they were so moody, as a little kid I learned how to read and accommodate their moods as a coping mechanism, and even then, they were so volatile that sometimes I couldn’t tell WHAT they were thinking. They were struggling to hold on to their anger and for a child to say something like ‘Mommy/Daddy why are you mad?’ would apparently push them over the edge.
    This post was a great read!

    Like

    1. Thank you for sharing such a personal story! This seems to be one of the common stories. A childhood with rough family life due to pressure or just family issues. The others are bullying, peer pressure, sexual assaults, and stuff like that. Now that we’re grown up, we realize that adults tend to hide emotions behind a façade of being responsible and mature, and often forgetting that children are often the most capable at reading emotions. Let’s hope that as we grow, we remember this, and not pass any of the negative things to our kids. Good luck with all you do and thank you for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh … Thank you so much for this. Still digesting it, but … yeah. (I bet you get that thing where someone in the room is radiating a negative emotion even though they don’t say anything about it and no one else notices it, and you have to fight really hard to push back the feeling that it’s directed at you and when/if you manage that, it feels like you need to help them, too?)

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    1. I do get that feeling, and I’ve managed to sort of break it down logically as to why. It’s not so much as an aura, but more along the line of when someone is in a bad mood, the people immediately around them gets discomforted. And that discomfort spread, dissipating with distance. So it’s kind of like minesweeper with emotions. Cause once you realize the people around you are a little out of sort, you’d naturally just look around to see if anything was wrong. I realized this to a greater degree when I was crewing for a stage show once, facing the audience, which makes it easier. I noticed a group of people that seemed oddly not as happy as the rest, and in the centre (well, more of an oval) of it all, was this man who looked as if he wanted to punch a walrus. The seat beside him was empty, so I guess his partner must have walked out on him or something. But yeah, most people like to say they can sense negative aura in a room or some other mumbo jumbo, but the closest is that they are likely empaths who could tell negative physical signs in a group.

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      1. That makes a lot of sense. Like you, I didn’t mean any mumbo jumbo. It’s all the little things in the body language and facial expression that some of us pick up on more easily (not that it’s easy) than others.

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        1. I experience this too. I think the most frustrating part is not just the feeling of the other person(s) negative emotional its that I feel an extreme compulsion to “fix” it. Too many times I have gone so far out of my way for strangers just to make them happy.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi, I think you might be discussing codependency — not hyper empathy. You can be a hyper empath and not care about getting people to like you (pick up people’s emotional states and not do anything about it). But by wanting others to like you, one is definitely going to pay extra close attention to others in order to try and control their reaction (i.e. make them like you) so reading people becomes imperative. I’d suggest looking up CODA. Good luck!!

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    1. Hmm…you make some good points from an outside observation. I think codependency and empathy are linked, and though they could exist separately, it’s more likely to be stuck together. But I do get what you mean about being an empath yet not needing to care.

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  4. I can walk into a room full of people and immediately begin to feel and be bombarded with a full array of feelings that are not mine. To add insult to injury, I am a professional trainer and educator and frequently need to stand before large groups and expound on various topics. It is almost always an exercise in hell as I feel a wave of like/dislike, acceptance and disdain, everything from A to Z flow into my space. I have learned to largely ignore it and proceed but it is exhausting and as a result I tend to isolate myself unless I absolutely have to interact with others.

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  5. I’ve always suspected that I have too much empathy but when I discovered this It sounds a lot like me . I’m not sure that I have it but if this description sounds like it please let me know:
    So I was in a restaurant the other day and my meal came but the portion was really small so my mum was like going to tell the waitress . I said to her no it is fine but it was really small so my mum was just telling the waitress that it wasn’t worth the price because it was really expensive . Then suddenly I felt so bad and When the waitress left I felt like crying and I couldn’t stop myself from crying . It might have been also because I was hungry . But loads of things were going through my mind like how the chef tried his best and he probably doesn’t get enough recognition and that the prices might have been high because they needed the money and that he might have only put a small portion in my bowl because he was really busy and then I thought about how he might recieve the message from the waitress and be really upset because he tries really hard to please people and just wants people to enjoy their food. Then I felt bad for the waitress that she might think we are bad people so when she came back with the food I smiled at her and tried to look really grateful because I know it can be hard to be a waitress because you have to deal with complaints and they aren’t even your fault . Do you think I have hyper empathy disorder?

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    1. Hyper empathy isn’t a disorder. It’s a personality trait. It’s not something you should worry about. It’s just commonly associated with mental illnesses because hyper empathy is the result of living with one. But it is entirely plausible for someone without any psychological issues to develop hyper empathy. It’s simple a way of life. I would not worry too much about it. Yours just sounds like you have a big heart, and should be taken as such, and nothing serious.

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  6. I have Aspergers with hyper-empathy. What you are talking about here with taking on the traits of the people you are socialising with and then behaving differently depending on who you are with…sounds like Aspergers to me. Mimicing others, using an accent if they have an accent, copying them is all Aspergers. Have you looked into Aspergers with regards to yourself?

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    1. It’s possible. But highly unlikely. Most of the symptoms of Aspergers occurs within people who are bipolar,and vice-versa. This sort of hyper empathy is actually pretty common for high-functioning people with any form of mental health issues. It’s not so much a symptom of it, but rather, a result of it. Because of having a stigmatised problem, you tend to “blend in” so to speak. It’s similar to adopted kids of different ethnicity than their family, and so on and so forth. It’s not because they were born that way, but rather, circumstances forced them to adapt to it.

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  7. I completely diagram with this authors explanation of hyper empathy. I suggest he read Judith Orloff or refer to Psychology Today article on the subject. Or the DSM for that matter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Cindy,

      I’m not quite sure what you mean by ‘diagram with’. I assume you mean disagree (Edit: Ah, yes. Damn spellcheck. Haha). That’s a fine view to have, and I have no problems with you issuing that statement.

      Though I would like to state that at the end of the day, this is a blog, and not a medical journal, and that I trust my readers are intelligent enough to take things here with a grain of salt.

      I don’t actually study psychology, but rather, I speak from my own personal experience from having lived with a disorder since I was a child. Some of the terms I give are simply due to me not knowing the, if any, official medical terms for them. Some of them are just nicknames I have for coping mechanisms or events unique to living with a mental illness.

      Still, I thank you for your suggestion, and I hope you might find the other entries more to your liking and understanding. Thanks for reading!

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    2. Okay but I think you could be more respectable. He has told his personal story, which as a fellow hyper-empathy can relate to completely.

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    3. I agree with you, Cindy. It’s very confusing to be looking for information on hyperempathy syndrome—which is a diagnosable disorder with criteria listed in the DSM, and is considered to be a personality disorder—only to come across this, which isn’t about real hyperempathy at all.

      I have also thought I’d made up a word many times, only to realize that it is a pre-existing term that means something entirely different. When that happens, I look again for a word that means the thing I’m thinking of, and if that doesn’t pan out, I make up a different word (and check to make sure that one isn’t already in use). Since hyperempathy is an existing condition that there is not enough information on, I think it’s especially important that we not confuse the issue.

      At the very least, I think Aden should put a disclaimer at the top explaining that he is not talking about hyperempathy syndrome. Because, although this shows signs of a personality disorder, it isn’t true hyperempathy.

      Links about hyperempathy:
      https://prezi.com/izpvrfixzvu6/hyper-empathy-syndrome/
      http://www.steadyhealth.com/articles/exploring-hyper-empathy-syndrome

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      1. Hi Jaimesroe,

        I need to correct you on a couple of things. Firstly, I have already listed a disclaimer in my post about this being more of a personal blog than a medical journal.

        Secondly, hyper empathy syndrome is not a recognised disorder, and it is definitely not listed in DSM-V. Of the two links you provided, the one from SteadyHealth is something I’ve already linked to in my blog. The other link from “Prezi”, should not be taken as fact.

        Prezi is a business, marketing, and presentation company. They specialise in helping people, well, present stuff. They are NOT a medical journal, blog, research group, or even news aggregate. The article you linked to from Prezi has multiple sources and quotes, but checking those sources shows that none of them directly mention it as medically relevant, and one of them is the previous article from SteadyHealth.

        If you wish, here’s a link to a PDF version of DSM-V:
        https://psicovalero.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/dsm-v-ingles-manual-diagnc3b3stico-y-estadc3adstico-de-los-trastornos-mentales.pdf

        Like

        1. First, you don’t NEED to correct me. Perhaps my comment made you feel defensive, which was not my intent. My intent was to offer my thoughts, findings, and to supply some constructive criticism. You should always try to suppress the urge to be defensive when people are trying to give you some constructive criticism. You could have simply said that yours is a personal thoughts journal, and that would have been correct and reasonable. Your attempt to discredit my position with vague arguments is insulting to both myself and you.

          Hyper-empathy disorder is recognized, but it has not been studied well enough to have its own entry, and is therefore classified under Personality Disorders NOS. It meets the criteria on both significant distress and classification fronts.

          Saying that Prezi is a business that helps people with presentations as a means to discredit the information therein is like saying that WordPress is a business that helps people articulate thoughts, and thus any information found on the site is not medically/scientifically sound. That link is a presentation by a woman who has multiple degrees in psychology and medicine, and has worked in the fields of both psychology and medicine.

          Hyper-empathy disorder is also referred to as overactive empathy, as well as other terms. It is absolutely a disorder that negatively impacts people on a day to day basis. It can be just as debilitating as any other neuropsychological issue. There is no need for you to call an entire disorder non-existent just to justify your use of the term in a different way.

          All I wanted to do was bring it to your attention so that you would understand why it may be confusing for some readers.And many people confused by a blog post or article will often go to the comments section to see if they are the only ones thinking it’s confusing, so leaving that comment was not solely for you, but those who are looking for more info on the actual disorder.

          I hope that clears things up for you.

          Like

          1. No no, I completely understood your reasoning for commenting the first time. And I was not being defensive, but merely playing a role to the responsibility. As you know, this blog writes a lot on mental health, and I do have people who needs help coming on here, sometimes messaging me for advice. It is critical that I give as accurate information as I possess, as this can be a matter of life and death.

            I have my own level of requirements needed to link outside articles and studies, and Prezi simply does not fit. And yes, it is because it is a business that helps people with presentations. And yes, I do think that WordPress is simply used to articulate thoughts, and any information found here that does not reference or links back to the original source which can then be verified is not medically and scientifically sound, and I will never quote them.

            My requirements for linking requires that the author has identifiable qualifications which can be officially confirmed from either the school, business, or program from which they attained from, or, is part of a larger community that has been and specifically been known to write or speak about a certain topic, such as SteadyHealth.

            I do basic search checks on the author of every article I read to make sure they are credited and/or qualified. If they are not, I do not post them. I had found the Prezi entry when I wrote the blog, and decided it was not accurate nor accredited enough to warrant posting, and I could not find enough information on Sharon Cummings to take her word for it. If you have sources to show that she is indeed a medically certified mental health and medicine practitioner, please do link them, and this conversation will be over with you being correct. I will also put the link to the Prezi article up if that is the case.

            The NOS diagnosis has been eliminated within DSM V. It is only available within DSM IV. Hyper empathy does not fall under any category in the new DSM. Understand that NOS is used as a wide “catch all” net. Almost anything could have fallen under NOS. NOS should not be taken at face value until further research is done, and conditions initially diagnosed under NOS is often re-diagnosed later as something else with an official name. If ever Hyper Empathy were to be researched and identified in the DSM, I will be happy to include that footnote.

            It is extremely crucial to me that the information I present here has at least a certain level of strictness in facts-checking because of the type of people who will read these blogs can include those who are depressed, suicidal, and addicted to substances. It is a matter of life and death to some people here that I do my best to not present them with any misinformation.

            I have nothing personal against you, nor with you commenting and trying to expand on the subject. I encourage it, and hope you continue to do so. But information without proper sourcing is something I keep a close eye on, and Prezi simply does not fit.

            Like

  8. Hi, my name is Max and i’d just like to say that I can relate to everything you have just said! Thank you for giving me the words I needed to finally be able explain my curse of hyper-empathy to my therapist, who I think is ready to give up on me. Thank you, thank you!!

    Like

    1. Hi Max,

      I’m glad I could help you with communicating to your therapist. Thank you for reading, and I hope you good luck in whatever future follows!

      Like

  9. Aden,
    I found this very informative and confirming to some of my beliefs of what I may be struggling with. There is very little out about Hyper Epaths. I think the more we put it out there the better. There are probably tons of us out there struggling through life and trying to cope in all the wrong ways. We need to learn from each other and help each other as much as possible.

    Also, I totally disagree that hyper empaths are in any way shape of form in the same class as a codependent. Just my personal opinion though. I am no psychology major or Doctor. Just a girl trying to figure myself out in this thing called life.

    Like

  10. I had actually never considered something like this until I saw a post online with some traits associated with hyper empathy and had one of those, “Oh, that…sounds like me.”
    I don’t have any mental health issues (that I’m aware of, anyway), but so much of this really hit home for me. Last year I lived with two roommates who struggle with depression, anxiety, and the like, and I always somehow noticed the bad days. I knew when not to initiate a conversation because someone was having sensory problems, I knew when to make sure to remind them to eat because they wouldn’t remember on their own, and I don’t know /how/ I knew. There weren’t any super noticeable differences, but apparently enough to pick up on.
    And it’s like you said, that kind of thing is all well and good, it’s useful and it can help people, but there’s also the issue of just how much their moods affect me too. I have the constant desire to make it better, but I have no idea how and that just ends up dragging me down for the rest of the day, because somehow I end up feeling guilty that I can’t relate to what they’re going through.

    That got a lot more rambling that I anticipated, but all that just to thank you for giving me a name for things, at the very least.

    Like

    1. Oh, I doubt you need to have a mental health issue to relate or be one. It just depends one the method in which you were raised. That said, while ‘hyper empathy’ is not a medical term and simply a nickname I gave for this experience, I’m glad to have at least given you a way to put it into words.

      Like

  11. Aden,

    First off, thank you. For the first time I feel like someone gets it.

    I constantly asking myself the question “who really am I?”. I feel like I am a different person from one group I’m interacting with to the next. If I make a social mistake, I will ponder on it for days, sometimes weeks. I get very angry at myself for not really knowing who I am. I go to extreme lengths to make other people happy (even complete strangers). I never stay mad at people but am constantly mad at myself, critiquing every little thing I see in the mirror. This makes my relationship pretty difficult. I compulsively need to make her (and other friends) comfortable and happy, oftentimes at the cost of my own happiness. It’s like I have a motor that is constantly running, analyzing every situation. This is very tiring but I still always search for more social interaction (to cope with my fear of being alone). Can you relate?

    Like

    1. In a way. The fear of being alone might not be related to this, as it is not for me. I have no fear of being alone, and do not actually actively seek out social interactions. However, for the rest of what you described, yes, it is quite similar. The need to constantly please people is something that I can understand.

      Like

  12. Yeah — I understand/understood this completely … It seems to stem from a combination of low self esteem and being hypersensitive to our surroundings. I really relate to your thoughts of “Don’t hate me”. That was my biggest goal for the longest time whenever talking to anyone, I was so obsessed with it that I couldn’t make (real) friends at all — after all, the only reason I wanted them around was because I was lonely and they were available, not because I appreciated them!

    It gets better if you concentrate on your self worth. I hope you are also faring better with this as well.

    Like

    1. Thank you. Yes, I have gotten better. I have a good councillor now that is helping me get through the more negative aspects of my self esteem issues. Especially the ones related to, well, depression.

      Like

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