Empathic Distress

by barbaraluther on April 24, 2013

I was reading in my favorite magazine recently and ran across an article that really hit home for me as it relates to my ADHD and that of my inattentive clients.  The March/April 2013 issue of Spirituality & Health has an article titled “Unraveling Empathic Distress.”

I hadn’t heard the term ’empathic distress’ before.  They define it as “an emotional state characterized by the inability to tolerate the perceived pain or suffering of another.”

Instantly, I recognized many coach friends and highly sensitive ADHD clients.  Because highly sensitive people often experience great emotional intensity, it stands to reason that some will feel not only their own intense emotions but the incredibly strong emotional pain of others around them.   The article points out that “a hypersensitive person in a state of empathic distress could ‘feel’ another person’s pain even more intensely than the actual victim.”  I’ve seen this happen even when an ADDer is projecting what someone else might be feeling; it’s so intensely painful for them that they shut down.

The article indicates that scientists think empathic distress is a result of natural genetic predisposition or brain wiring and our personal history of unresolved emotional trauma.  They explain that unresolved emotional pain is almost always a factor for those who suffer with empathic distress.  Personally, I certainly have childhood emotional trauma that still affects me, and I expect most ADDers have some as well.  But my experience is that so many of us have tried therapy to resolve our emotional vulnerability and found that lacking.  In those cases, I would tend to believe it’s more a result of our brain wiring than anything else.  That’s just my two cents, of course.

When we live in empathic distress, we can’t be fully present to support someone in pain.  Empathic distress may actually cause physical sensations in our own bodies, and it may trigger us into inappropriate behaviors or cause us to avoid a friend or client in pain.  We may jump into fix-it mode rather than just being with our friend or client.  It’s certainly not a useful way to be.

The good news, according to the article, is that we can resolve our empathic distress and shift into being healthily compassionate.  The first step they give is to recognize that we are never fully responsible for another person’s feelings or their life path.  We must build emotional boundaries and separate ourselves from another’s responsibility for their own lives.  I would add that we must also be able to pause and notice that we’re getting triggered, be compassionate with ourselves, then listen and ask how we can support the person in pain.  Then we’ll be on our way to working from healthy compassion instead of being trapped in empathic distress.

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