When we carry our own emotions — plus those of others — it can simply be too much.
I’m a counselor, and sadly, I see many clients who take care of others before they take care of themselves. The vast majority of them are introverts or highly sensitive people (HSPs). This very pro-social way of thinking comes from the vast empathy inherent in many introverts and HSPs; caring deeply is something that comes naturally to us. However, it’s this intense need to help that can lead us down the path of exhaustion and emotional burnout.
Let’s look at the science behind why some people take on the emotions (and burdens) of others, and how we introverts and HSPs can avoid the dangers of enmeshment.
Why We Absorb Others’ Emotions
In the 1990s, when a team of Italian researchers looked at the brains of macaque monkeys, they found something surprising: individual cells that fired when monkeys watched a primate grab an object, then fired again when the monkeys grabbed the object themselves. In other words, when a researcher picked up a peanut, some of the monkey’s motor neurons started to fire. Even more surprisingly, these same neurons also fired when the monkey itself held the peanut — thus the discovery of what we now call “mirror neurons.”
Although still not fully understood, mirror neurons are thought to help us imitate others. For example, if you watch someone take a drink, your own mouth might water, and you get thirsty. That reaction is your mirror neurons firing, creating the same conditions in your brain as in the brain of the person drinking.
In humans, mirror neurons are located in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain right behind our eyes that’s responsible for morality, planning, decision-making, and social behavior. As children, they help us learn by imitating others, explaining why toddlers are so good at mimicking their parents’ every move.
These same mirror neurons may also be responsible for mimicking emotional states. Neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti, one of the researchers at the University of Parma who discovered mirror neurons, says they could help explain how we “read” other people’s minds and feel their emotions. For example, when you watch a movie where the lead loses someone they love, you, as the audience, might feel sadness. Or when your friend is happy, you feel and understand that happiness, too, because your mirror neurons are mimicking what you’re observing.
Thus we experience empathy. And many introverts and HSPs are highly empathetic.
The Danger of Enmeshment
If you’re an introvert or HSP, you probably already know that this can have a downside. Empathy can turn into a situation we call enmeshment. This is a condition where, instead of simply understanding others’ emotions, we effectively take on others’ emotional burdens as if they were our own. Enmeshment is a blurring of boundaries, and when things get blurry, it can have catastrophic consequences for both people in a relationship.
For example, one of my clients recently discussed that she “has to” take care of her mother because she is sad so much. This client’s mother is more than capable of taking care of her own feelings, but because my client is so empathetic, she takes on her mother’s feelings as her own. This is an enmeshed relationship between a mother and a daughter. The mother doesn’t actively realize how much of her emotional state her daughter is taking on, and the daughter doesn’t realize that in “taking care of” her mother, she’s holding onto sadness and stress that isn’t hers to carry.
The consequences of enmeshment or blurry boundaries can be depression, anxiety, stress, and other mental health concerns. When we carry our own emotions — plus those of others — it can simply be too much.
Anyone — introvert or extrovert — would struggle with carrying “extra” emotions. However, in my experience, I’ve found that introverts tend to analyze and over-analyze emotions even more. When introverts can’t understand why they’re feeling sad or anxious, they may spiral downward into negative thoughts.
The worst part about enmeshment for introverts is that, once they start, it’s hard to stop. If we look at the case of my client, she began to take on the feelings of her friends, then her acquaintances, and then anyone who happened to have strong emotions around her. It became so bad for her that she started having stress-related illnesses, including GI issues and headaches. When the doctors couldn’t tell her anything but “reduce stress,” she came to me for help.
Together we discovered her blurred emotional boundaries with everyone around her. It was a lightbulb moment when we finally discovered that it was her relationship with her mother, coupled with her extreme empathy, that was the root of her concerns. We were able to start working together on which emotions were hers, and which were her mother’s.
How to Deal with Enmeshment
Not all introverts and HSPs struggle with enmeshment. However, if you do, it can help to take an inventory of your emotions. What are you feeling? Can you pinpoint the cause or beginnings of these feelings?
For example, if you’re angry or upset, could these feelings be traced back to a fight with a friend? A frustrating day at work? Being able to pinpoint the start of your feelings can help you to understand them and learn from them.
If you can’t find a catalyst for your feelings, or they feel distant or unreal, it may be time to look into which relationships are draining you. Are you taking on stress from your coworkers? Is your friend angry with someone, and she just vented to you about it? These may be clues that the emotions you’re carrying aren’t yours at all.
Pinpointing emotions and their roots is the easy part of this equation. The next step, though difficult, is the most important: setting boundaries. This means knowing when to say no, when to take a break from a relationship, and how to let others take care of their own feelings.
If you’re highly empathetic, this may be the most difficult part. It helps to remember that the kindest thing we can do for others is not to try to take away their feelings, but to let them learn and grow from them. This does not mean cutting off empathy or never helping others. It means doing the hard work of being there for them while taking care of ourselves, too.
One of the best ways I’ve found to help recreate boundaries is self-compassion. Because enmeshment and blurred boundaries can erode self-worth, self-compassion can bring us back to how valuable we really are.
Remember, your needs are just as important as those of anyone else.
Take a Self-Compassion Break
Kristin Neff is a self-compassion researcher and has many exercises and resources for self-compassion on her website, self-compassion.com. One of my favorite self-compassion exercises is the Self-Compassion Break. This is a short but powerful exercise to help you practice self-compassion in your daily life.
To take a Self-Compassion Break, first think of a difficult situation in your life and connect to your feelings about it:
- Acknowledge the difficulty of the situation with a short phrase: “This is painful,” or “I’m stressed.”
- Remind yourself that suffering happens to everyone: “I’m not the only one who feels this way,” or “I’m not alone.”
- Give yourself some kindness (it’s good here to think about what you need to hear or what you’d tell a friend in the same situation): “It’s okay to be stressed and to give myself a break,” or “I can accept myself as I am, failures and all.”
Staving off enmeshment can be a heady task, but with the right resources and the right people in your life, you can have healthy boundaries that allow you to be empathetic and caring while still holding onto your center. The empathy of introverts and HSPs is a precious gift that should be nurtured and prized. But for empathy to be effective, you have to first take care of yourself.
That’s a prescription — go fill it!