‘I feel your pain’: confessions of a hyper-empath


park bench in rain one person holding umbrella over another
 Illustration: Nathalie Lees/the Guardian

Do you feel other people’s experiences and emotions as strongly as your own? It’s overwhelming being a hyper-empath, but you can also harness it for good

As a very small child, I returned from a weekend in Cromer with not only a collection of sea shells and a new bucket and spade, but an exceptionally broad Norfolk accent. At first, everyone found this highly amusing, but it was less funny when I was still talking that way several weeks later. My mother tells me a similar thing happened when they took me to Wales. And North Yorkshire. Because, like a sponge, I soaked up whichever accent I was exposed to. It wasn’t just accents, either. As a five-year-old, during a particularly boisterous garden game with a friend, I ran into the kitchen sobbing hysterically and clutching my hand. ‘“Whatever have you done to yourself?” my mother said. “It’s not me!” I frantically rubbed my wrist. “It’s Susan! She’s fallen over!” Because Susan’s pain was my pain and I felt it just as keenly as if I’d done the damage to myself. Back then, we didn’t have a name for this subconscious appropriation of other people’s emotions (and accents), but now it’s fashionably referred to as being an empath. Or in some cases, a hyper-empath.

Relating to someone else’s pain is a natural human response; we’re all empaths to a degree. But hyper-empaths are different. Do you sob when people win a large amount of money on a quizshow? Do you start to feel queasy if someone says they feel sick? Hyper-empaths take everything on (noise, colour, conversation), so often find crowds overwhelming.

Of course, there are many reasons why we might be flooded with emotion, but hyper-empaths are so tuned in to other people’s feelings that the sensation of taking on someone else’s experience is unmistakable. We do it quietly, though, not to draw in sympathy, or make “everything about ourselves”. Often we disguise it so cleverly that our own struggles may go unnoticed. Labelling yourself isn’t always helpful (once you’ve stuck one on, it can be difficult to remove) but understanding the idea of hyper-empathy might explain why life sometimes leave you emotionally exhausted.

woman surrounded by others’ feelings
 Illustration: Nathalie Lees/the Guardian

At first glance, a tendency to relate to others so keenly is wholly positive. “You’re so compassionate,” people say whenever I complain. The problem is that, along with your own issues, you end up dragging everyone else’s pain and anguish around as well, which can actually be quite draining. I’ve also been accused of thinking I’m special because I claim to feel everything very deeply. But hyper-empathy is so much more than caring and feeling, and the navigation of extreme emotional reactions is tiring. Compassion and empathy are positive qualities, but there is a tipping point.

Kerry Daynes, consultant psychologist and best-selling author, says empathy (like many sweet things) is fantastic in moderation but debilitating in excess: “As a forensic psychologist, often working on cases involving horrendous acts, I often find myself flooded with empathy. If I allowed it to, it would lead at best to some bad practice and decisions on my part, and at worst complete incapacitation.”

It’s a tricky balance, one I battled with constantly when I was a junior doctor. I eventually specialised in psychiatry for six years, where the balance was easier, and though now I’m a full-time writer, the memory of those days is still vivid. I remember watching my consultant deliver devastating news to a patient, and the many crash calls I rushed to proving futile. I could no longer run sobbing to my mum, so, on a regular basis, I would lock myself in a toilet cubicle at the Staffordshire teaching hospital, and very quietly cry.

I found working with elderly patients especially distressing, because they were often alone, and I found nothing more upsetting than an empty plastic chair at a bedside during visiting hours. Hyper-empaths relate heavily to other people, and perhaps the isolation I so often saw in older patients was something I could also see in myself. Medicine was an unexpectedly lonely job. I envied people who could leave it all behind at the hospital gates at the end of a shift, because I took everything home with me.

There were no doctors in my family, and although my mum and partner were supportive, it’s difficult to explain to someone else how it feels to walk the wards. My concentration was shot to pieces and the things that usually brought me comfort – watching a film or reading – became impossible. Instead, I would sit and ruminate, turning over the day’s events in my mind, even ringing the wards on my day off to see how a patient was doing. My hyper-empathy was at it outside work, too. In a supermarket queue, I once overheard a complete stranger discussing a lost dog. I was so upset for this woman, I spent five hours at home trawling internet rescue centres trying to locate it. (The dog came home, by the way – which I’m telling you because I know there will be fellow hyper-empaths reading who will be worried about it.)

Climbing a ladder into someone’s head
 Illustration: Nathalie Lees/the Guardian

It seems counterintuitive that people with hyper-empathy would work in a job where they’re exposed to extraordinary amounts of suffering, but the caring professions are knee-deep in empaths. Perhaps the ability to understand someone else’s pain means we’re especially driven to try to help them, to fix things. But it didn’t take me long to realise there are many things we are unable to fix. It’s a difficult lesson for an empath. The desire to help someone is overwhelming and, on a slightly less altruistic level, if you can make someone else feel better, you will – by default – start to feel much better yourself.

This was never more apparent than with one palliative care patient I met. Even thinking of her now makes me catch my breath. We were exactly the same age and we’d grown up in the same part of the world. We knew the same lyrics to the same songs, and we’d spent our teenage years with the same posters on our bedroom walls. If ever there was a patient to bring out my excess of empathy, it was her. The difference between us was that she had metastatic breast cancer and I did not. I was involved in her care for a long time, and I had the great privilege of sitting with her as she died. It was a moment I will never forget, and it made me realise I had to do something about my hyper-empathy or I would go under.

Daynes says it’s more useful to think of it as “rational compassion”, a concept which originated with author and psychologist Paul Bloom. She says it’s important to separate “feeling for” (the logical quality of caring for others and being concerned about their wellbeing) from “feeling with” (which epitomises empathy, and can be the component that trips us up). If we can let go of the feeling with, but retain the feeling for, we’ve pretty much cracked it.

The trick is identifying an incoming emotion, making a decision as to whether it’s useful, and adjusting our reaction accordingly. If you’re angry about animal cruelty, volunteer as a dog walker at your local animal shelter (there is always a need); if the report of a serious road accident upsets you, write to your local council about speed cameras. “It’s bloody hard, though,” Daynes admits.

It really is. I had no coping strategies as a doctor, and this was why I started to write. I sat in my car in my lunch break and began to write a story about two little girls in the summer of 1976 that eventually became The Trouble with Goats and Sheep.

At the time, it was just an escape and I didn’t ever imagine being published, but gradually, the same empathy that left me sobbing in a public toilet helped me become a better writer. I channelled my emotions into something positive, and feeling them so strongly I found I could walk in the shoes of my characters. With a little concentration, I could almost think myself into being someone else. The story I wrote as therapy won a competition, which led to a publishing contract, and being an empath became very useful when I started to earn a living making up stories. I still volunteered on the wards, though. I could never let go of a job I loved so much.

Being a hyper-empath isn’t all pain and misery. We can make great listeners, and great friends, because we understand others. We’re probably the first person you’ll ring when you’re having a bad day. We also have superb intuition: that gut feeling we get about something … most of the time it’s right. People often describe me as oversensitive, but I’ve always thought that was a strange phrase. Like saying a tree is over-green.

I still have a thing with accents, though. A few weeks ago, our Australian neighbour knocked on the door, asking for a favour. As she thanked me and walked back down the drive, I shouted “No worries, mate!” at the top of my voice, like I was auditioning for a part in Neighbours. I wasn’t taking the mickey, honestly. I’m just … quite absorbent.

Are you a hyper-empath? Here are five ways to make things easier

Step back from the situation
Whether that’s walking away from a conversation, taking a break or simply turning off the news. If you have time, allow yourself a rant or a cry. “If you don’t/can’t, bookmark it for later,” says Daynes. “No good ever comes from bottling things up.”

Try rationalising how you’re feeling
The simplest way to do this is to identify a feeling, then ask yourself if that emotion is actually useful.

Work out if there’s something practical you can do
If you’re upset about something, try channelling your feeling into action: sharing a petition, making a donation or even doing voluntary work.

Allow yourself to do something enjoyable without feeling guilt
For all of us (empaths or not), the landscape of the world can feel almost unbearable – but self-care and finding joy are still important. “We’re no good to anyone if we’re an emotional heap,” says Daynes, “and if we take care of ourselves, we can still affect the world in a positive way.” Walk the dog, read a book, watch the sunset.

Remember that not everyone is a hyper-empath
So if you’re excessively worried about someone or something, or feel too keenly about another person’s situation, chances are they’re more OK than you probably realise.

Joanna Cannon’s latest novel, A Tidy Ending, is published by HarperCollins (£16.99). To buy a copy for £14.78 go to guardianbookshop.com

If you’d like to hear this piece narrated, listen to The Guardian’s new podcast, Weekend, which is released on Saturday mornings. Subscribe on AppleSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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