Empathy is a wonderful skill to have, but too much of it can leave you feeling overwhelmed by others’ difficult emotions.  As social animals, we are made to relate to other people. In fact, we sometimes physically reflect back other people’s movements and expressions. This is caused by what are called ‘mirror neurons’ which are brain cells that imitate the behavior or emotions of those around us. This is why we tend to yawn when we see someone yawning or laugh when being around others who are laughing. While these help us learn and understand more about each other and also help us to bond, they can also cause difficulties when we reflect the behavior caused by other people’s emotional distress.

Although most people can generally cope well with their own daily stressors, individuals who feel that they are constantly being affected by other people’s stress might face physical and psychological difficulties. Burnout or compassion fatigue can be caused when individuals find themselves in situations where they often witness or hear about people’s hardships. If they do not take care of themselves, such individuals may then start suffering from chronic stress. This may suppress the immune system, increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, affect memory, cause anxiety, depression, and may also cause other physical and mental health problems.

Most people would agree that being there for someone or having someone who is there for you in difficult times may be very supportive, and may foster closer relationships. However, it is important to learn how to support others whilst still taking care of your health and well-being. Giving everything to others leaves no room for us to be true to our wants and needs, meaning that we cannot take care of ourselves well. Various studies show that when done properly, helping others can actually boost a person’s happiness and health levels, which is the opposite of what happens when a person is suffering from compassion fatigue.

Just as with all things in life, when listening to others, and when actively supporting friends, family, colleagues or clients, it is essential to know your limits and set boundaries. It is important not to let yourself become too consumed with other people’s problems. Create a time and amount of space for helping others, but when that space is full, allow yourself to tranquilly move on to other things without carrying any unnecessary guilt.

Claire Borg is a gestalt psychotherapist at Willingness. She works with adolescents and adults. She has a special interest in mental health. She can be contacted on claire@willingness.com.mt.