Meryl Streep once said, “The great gift of humans is that we have the power of empathy.” Empathy, or the ability to recognize someone else’s emotions and experience them yourself, is frequently thought of as a quality that one would want to cultivate in romantic connections. After all, research has shown that empathy is associated with greater intimacy and relationship satisfaction.
Although some of our capacity for empathy may be genetic, research also shows that if we believe we can change our level of empathy, we are more prone to make efforts to be more empathetic. And, while striving for empathy seems to be an admirable goal, there may be some people who are so empathetic that it can have negative consequences for them.
This begs the question: are there times when you can err on the side of too much?
The answer? Possibly. To know where you lie on the scale of empathy, read on for four signs that you may be too empathetic in your relationship:
1. You consistently put your partner’s needs before your own.
If you are so sensitive to your partner’s feelings that your primary goal is to make him/her happy, then you may be too empathetic. (This is true especially if you do so at the expense of your own happiness.)
In a healthy relationship, empathy should flow in both directions, with both individuals prioritizing the others’ desires, alongside their own, and mindfully negotiating between them. Because let's face it: if you are consistently putting yourself last, you may become resentful and ultimately dissatisfied with the relationship at large because you aren’t getting your needs met. It's ironic, but obvious when you think about it.
2. You avoid difficult conversations so as not to make your partner uncomfortable.
While there are a number of possible reasons for avoiding potential conflict in any kind of relationship, sometimes things just need to be brought to the table. If you are unwilling to talk about important issues in your relationship because you don’t want to make your partner feel uneasy, your empathy may be working against you.
Although it may not always be pleasant, some conflict is actually beneficial for relationships, as it allows potential problems to be discussed and differences to be reconciled. Using empathy to frame your concerns in a way that enables a productive conversation is positive; being so empathetic that issues never get worked through is not.
3. When your partner is struggling, his or her feelings become your own and affect your own sense of well-being.
When our partners are going through difficult times that result in feelings of stress or depression, it is natural to want to be there for them, to soothe them and help them feel better. However, if you are overly empathetic, you may personally experience that individual’s negative mood, making it difficult for you to cope with the demands in your own life.
4. You are out of touch with your own wants and needs.
Because you have become so focused on your partner’s feelings, you may find that you are no longer sure what you want in any given situation. You may find yourself overly reliant on your partner to make decisions, thinking more about what he or she would like to do instead of checking in with yourself and your own preferences.
Does this mean that you need to become someone who is an emotionally-detached narcissist, thinking only about yourself? Of course not!
Now, here are three tips that will help you to get a handle on your empathy so you can develop better boundaries and a healthier relationship.
- Be empathetic with yourself: If you find that you have become so identified with your partner that you are no longer able to distinguish your own emotions from theirs, work to get back in touch with your own feelings. Try journaling, self-reflection, and meditation for starters. And once you feel comfortable identifying your own needs, experiment with communicating them to your partner.
- Recognize that you are not responsible for others’ emotions: As renowned psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” In other words, we each have the ability to choose how we will respond in any given situation. No one is responsible for your partner’s feelings but him or her.
- Strive for compassion: Distinct from empathy (deeply experiencing the feelings of another), a compassionate approach is feeling warmth and concern for your partner, without taking on his/her emotions for yourself. When you approach the relationship in this way, you are simultaneously able to maintain a healthy sense of individuality in the process.
If you apply these strategies, I am certain you will enjoy a greater sense of peace and confidence in your relationship.
If you are interested in additional ways to improve your relationship, get Dr. Thompson’s free e-book “Working on Your Relationship … by Working on Yourself.”
Patricia Thompson, Ph.D., is a corporate psychologist, management consultant, executive coach, and author. She received a B.A. in sociology from the University of Toronto and later earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Georgia State University. Thompson works with organizations and individuals to help them meet their career and/or personal goals. Her advice has been featured in The Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Fast Company, and more. You can take her emotional intelligence quiz here.