How can I be less empathetic?
April 11, 2006 5:10 PM   Subscribe

How do I become LESS empathetic?

I have a problem with being overly empathetic. It's very difficult for me to watch films or read books in which awkward situations are portrayed, to the point where I've been unable to finish several such pieces. On the subway, if I am within earshot of people arguing, or even talking loudly, I become extremely stressed. When talking to others, I constantly second-guess what I'm saying, and often fear I have offended someone only to find that they a) didn't even notice what I thought was offensive, and b) didn't find it offensive even when I told them.
How can I be more relaxed about such encounters?
posted by 235w103 to Human Relations (36 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like more of an anxiety thing than an empathy thing to me. But if you want to be less empathetic, I suggest setting yourself for a long string of betrayals. It seems to work pretty well for most people.

Though, I tend to think that it's sort of a permanent, unchangable thing. A personality trait. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I felt true empathy in the last couple of years.

But, like I said, your main, more important issue seems to be anxiety. There's a plethora of help out there for that.
posted by cellphone at 5:15 PM on April 11, 2006

Sort of; I was put on clonzepam because I was having anxiety attacks. I guess it depends whether it's a anxiety thing or not. I thought that perhaps it might be the empathy causing the anxiety, though, since a lot of the anxiety comes from seeing other people having hard times. I'm actually hoping that it's just an empathy thing, because, on account of my old psychiatrist, I now do not get any insurance coverage for psychiatric care, so I can't go see anyone for anxiety. I guess I'm wondering if anyone else has any exercises that they do for this sort of thing, regardless of whether it's anxiety or not?
posted by 235w103 at 5:25 PM on April 11, 2006

Perhaps eat meat or kill something? If you can do those things then I think you've been able to turn off one of the biggest empathy switches. Once you can do those, I would speculate that you could do anything.
posted by Knigel at 5:31 PM on April 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

I have found that Coda meetings and Coda literature (Codependents Anonymous) provide a lot of help with sorting out feelings and boundaries. Codependent people tend to feel overly responsive to and overly responsible for other people's feelings. You can look up local meetings in your phone book or on the web. The meetings are free (they might ask for a small donation for the meeting space rent, like a couple of dollars or something, but the donations are voluntary).
posted by gt2 at 5:34 PM on April 11, 2006

When embarrassing or uncomfortable situations happen on TV we grab the cats and use them as 'Embarrassment Sinks', basically just holding them on your lap really seems to help.

On a more useful note, it's sounds like pretty common social anxiety to me, though ianap (psychologist). On an interpersonal level, i find that just forcing myself to be casual seems to help. Specifically, when i took a job where several of my co-workers suddenly became my direct reports, i found myself becoming very stiff and uncomfortable when talking with them. i was constantly running through what i just said in my head to make sure they couldn't misconstrue it. It was exhausting. Finally i just stopped acting like a boss and started talking trash with them. Soon enough i stopped worrying about what i said and just started being a guy that could solve their problems. Now i can say pretty much anything and not worry that they are going to 'take it the wrong way'.

For dealing with the subway, consider headphones. There is nothing you can or should need to do with strangers that should cause you stress when overhearing them. My personal pet peeve is people who talk unnecessarily loud on their cell phones to compensate for a weak signal. Rather than let it influence my mood, i find it easier to just tune them out.

YMMV though.
posted by quin at 5:37 PM on April 11, 2006

It might be a bipolar thing. I know I have what you describe (bipolar 2 here.)I tend to think it goes along with simply having extreme sensitivity.

I simply change the channel or put the book down or avoid the arguers. Not sure what to tell you about worrying about offending people. I guess I just come right out and ask-most of my friends know my diagnosis and know sometimes I just have to check my assumptions.
posted by konolia at 5:44 PM on April 11, 2006

There are times when I can't bear to watch awkward situations in movies or TV shows. I find myself physically unable to stay in the same room. This is sort of a rare thing (once a month maybe), but when it strikes it's a very physical flight reaction.

For me, it's part of a tendency to avoid conflict. Where the empathy plays in, is when I can see myself strongly in the on screen character's role. You're not going to achieve much by reducing your empathy -- or at least you won't be reducing your day to day stress. You need to get at the cause of the underlying emotional trigger that is set off by empathizing with what you see.

Just pay attention to it, and you'll start to see what's going on. Others have suggested codepency, and that might be it, but it also might be something else (like in my case).
posted by voidcontext at 5:46 PM on April 11, 2006

Read Lenin.
posted by slow, man at 5:48 PM on April 11, 2006

Many times in my life i've 'fixed' things such as this about myself efficiently and hassle-free through either hypnotherapy or NLP (neuro linguistic programming).

In this situation you'd identify the thing you don't like, and swap it for the characteristic or behaviour you would like. Simple as that.

Admittedly i've benefited from knowing someone very talented in the field, but this idiosyncrasy can more than likely be fixed in one session of NLP. If I was you I'd find a hypnotherapy of NLP practitioner in your area, ideally on personal recommendation, but if not just keep looking till you find someone you feel comfortable with, and trust your brain to do the right thing.

If you're interested this will answer all your initial questions, and IIRC contains an exercise that tells you how to fix it yourself.

Give this approach some consideration before you resort to meds - you'll be amazed how effective it is and how easy it is to modify the way your brain works.

Oh, and i totally agree with the previous poster - get yourself an mp3 player for when you're on public transport, you'll never look back =)
posted by chrissyboy at 6:14 PM on April 11, 2006

god that was full of typos, sorry. should read:

'If I was you I'd find a hypnotherapist or NLP practitioner in your area...'
posted by chrissyboy at 6:16 PM on April 11, 2006

Perhaps eat meat or kill something? If you can do those things then I think you've been able to turn off one of the biggest empathy switches. Once you can do those, I would speculate that you could do anything.
posted by Knigel at 5:31 PM PST on April 11 [!]

That is probably the best advice I've ever heard. I'm not into the taste of meat, but hot damn I'm gonna go kill me someone! I AM INVINCIBLE!!! Oh. I mean some thing.
posted by ibeji at 6:38 PM on April 11, 2006

Drink more alcohol. And no, I'm not joking. Alcohol has made my life so much better in so many ways, and one of those ways was in damping down my tendency to over-empathise and get over-involved with people and situations I could do little about. It amplifies the "oh-I-couldn't-give-a-fuck, I-feel-great" glands and it sounds like you could use a little of that.
posted by Decani at 6:45 PM on April 11, 2006

I am not a doctor, but I'd like to throw my 2 cents worth in too. :)

I don't interpret your problem as being overly empathetic. To me, your problem sounds an awful lot like an OCD issue. You are constantly spinning your wheels. You can't get your head to "shut up" or "slow down" and you can't stop worrying. I've been there and done that. It wears you down, that's for sure.

In my case, all the relaxation exercises in the world wouldn't stop it. And, IMHO, I could talk to a therapist until hell freezes over and not solve the problem. In fact, the OCD thing tends to run in my family. The stories I could tell...but I digress. In short, it's as a chemical problem. It's no different than if you had diabetes or a thyroid problem or any other medical problem and used medication.

And on the seventh day god invented SSRI's! Hallelujah! (just a little humor)

I am not familiar with clonazepam, but I am assuming that it's a lot like xanax or valium. If so, I have found xanax and valium to be quick acting drugs when you need an immediate solution -- like in a panic attack (that never really was my problem). And while xanax and valium certainly are relaxing, they pretty much tend to make you so relaxed you just want to sleep. I can't imagining using these continually and still being able to function well. They aren't a real good long term solution. And isn't valium on the controlled substance list? Some doctors hesitate to endlessly prescribe controlled substances.

My suggestion would be to just talk to your family doctor and see if s/he thinks you would benefit from an SSRI like zoloft or prozac or lexapro and such (in addition to or in place of your current drug). You don't need to see a mental heath professional to get a script for one of these drugs. Your family doctor can write you one. It's no big deal. And I assume that your insurance WILL cover drugs (in fact they'd rather pay for drugs than therapy).

In my case, zoloft has been a godsend. The wheel spinning has stopped, a LOT of stuff that used to bother me is irrelevant now. It sounds a little blunt, but I just don't give a shit about a lot of that old stuff. And that's a real good thing. I like it. It's life altering, my friend. And I'm not being knocked on my ass by xanax or valium (pleasant as they are).

Good luck. I hope you work this out. Life's too short to be miserable. Oh, and maybe it's just me, but skip killing something or becoming an alcoholic. Jeezus.
posted by bim at 6:51 PM on April 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

I sometimes have those feelings (feeling [inordinately] bad for people feeling bad, kinda... but I'll sometimes pick up empathic highs of success or happiness, &c - but I tend to be more sensitive to the negative stuff).

I don't think it was upping my drinking that did it for me, but as I'm getting older it's easier for me to think, "Well, what the hell have they done for me?" and that goes pretty far in severing the contact. Or "Stupid crybaby. They have it so much better than me why are they so upset with their pathetic problems?"

posted by PurplePorpoise at 6:57 PM on April 11, 2006

i'm going to take a stab at defending Decani's statement here because i don't think he was saying 'go out and drink to excess' or 'become an alcoholic'. The fact is, alcohol is a disinhibitor. It can make you do and say things that you might normally be too bottled up to do. On the surface, this sounds like the exact opposite of what you would want. But sometimes it helps to let the guard down and just have fun.

Obviously you wouldn't follow this path if you are taking other medication or have an addictive personality, but assuming neither of these is the case, getting a little bit out of your head might not be a bad thing.

On the other hand, if i've misread Decani's statement and he meant something else, i apologize.
posted by quin at 7:03 PM on April 11, 2006

Bim, the poster said he was dxed bipolar. An SSRI is probably NOT the med for him unless the doc is careful to add on some other meds to go with. I did my turn with Zoloft-altho it certainly did make me care less about things (in a good way) it made my previously undiagnosed bipolar worse.
posted by konolia at 7:18 PM on April 11, 2006

voidcontext, do you mean sitcoms where someone's been lying throughout the episode, and you know they're going to get busted, and you can't stand to watch the scene where that happens? If so, then, if it helps any, you're not alone!
posted by kimota at 7:19 PM on April 11, 2006

First, this question could have been posed by me. I completely (wait for it .... ) empathize. I cope by not letting the empathy prevent behavior I know needs to be done. For example, I hate (hate hate hate!!!) having to call customer service or ask for help because I'm worried I'll somehow disappoint them, even though I know that is a silly repsonse. I call anyway. I may have to spend 20 minutes preparing in my head what I'm going to say, but I do it. I do find that the anticipation is worse than the actual event, but still I've never found the event itself all that pleasant.
As for a specific solution, I think any behavior modifying techniques will work to make things better. I've had varying levels of success with rewarding "good" behavior, creating a plan, and oddly enough, having had children has helped a lot as well. Some of the other suggestions in the thread I think are useful as well.
I don't know about you, but I am certain that my situation has nothing to do with OCD or Bipolar. I may get stress or anxious, and my flight response may kick in, but that is due specifically to the empathy of someone being in an awkward position. It's odd, I actually feel worse if its someone else in the position, than if its me. Also, another suggestion that seems counter-intuitive, but I also agree with (in moderation) is taking some alcohol. Of course, that advice is only good when it is socially acceptable, no driving, not at work, etc. But I have found that alcohol will reduce the stress, I don't recommend it as a solution, but in certain situations it does help.
Finally, some unasked for observations. I've found my empathy to be an asset. I've found that I'm much better than my peers at understanding the emotional intent of a directive from meetings or supervisors, which usually results in me being able to more fully meet such directives. I've also found that my empathy has made me pretty adept at finding solutions that benefit everyone in the affected group without favoritism.
The point of the observations was to illustrate that you may have some positive behaviour patterns as a result of being overly empathetic that you may want to take note of, so that you can maintain the good behaviors while you dispense with the bad.
good luck ...
(and congrats on posting ... if you're anything like me, it took some effort just to put the question out there)
posted by forforf at 7:29 PM on April 11, 2006

konolia -- I see nothing above about being bipolar. But I stand corected if that's the case. I'm merely just relating my personal experieince, a point which I made many times. Anyway, the bottom line is that I hope the oringinal poster can sift among the many suggestions and find something that seem relevant to their particular problem. The ultimate decision is theirs to make. I think the folks around MeFi have a lot of experience to draw on, including yourself. Take care. :)
posted by bim at 7:37 PM on April 11, 2006

I can't really provide much advice, except to say that my younger sister experiences this to a mild degree - you're definitely not alone.

In her case, it manifests itself most in TV shows, movies, and theatre. If bad things (broadly construed, this often has to do with "getting in trouble") happen to people, she can't handle it. She's generally super good natured about things, and handles personal conflict pretty well, but otherpeople getting in trouble is bad. The other way in which this manifests itself commonly is that she hates being in the car when the driver does something sort of wrong, like running a yellow->red light, questionably legal u-turns, parking on spots that might get us ticketed, etc.

So, good luck dealing with it. We have this potentially delusional approach that continued exposure to these sorts of events will make them easier to deal with. Maybe that's helpful(?)
posted by heresiarch at 7:54 PM on April 11, 2006

I try to remember the ways in which being hugely-empathetic actually helps me, i.e. I'm a better musician since I'm sensitive to what other people are thinking . . I can make friends with a wide variety of people (since I can easily feel what it must be like to be them) . . I can figure out how to cheer people up . . . all that stuff. Also, I'm trying to figure out my boundaries for being empathetic -- for example, I can't watch movies and drama TV shows that feature people crying, violence, etc., but I like to watch kung-fu movies (for some reason, my brain doesn't translate that violence as "real"??)

If I force myself to not 'rehearse' a conversation before I talk to someone, it helps: "I trust myself enough to know I won't bust out with something stupid." And I'm learning that, like the original poster said, other people tend to be semi-oblivious to what you think might be objectionable.

There's another book which might be helpful to you (I've heard of it but never read it, sorry).
posted by oldtimey at 8:00 PM on April 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

Perhaps eat meat or kill something? If you can do those things then I think you've been able to turn off one of the biggest empathy switches. Once you can do those, I would speculate that you could do anything.
posted by Knigel at 8:31 PM EST on April 11

Maybe not anything, but it's a step in the right direction if you want to harden yourself a little bit. [Caveat: I believe that given the right situation, we are capable of anything anyway.]

Seconded, if one is killing, cleaning and then eating them it [please note depersonalization of the victim meat.

Make sure you look into its eyes first.
posted by exlotuseater at 8:30 PM on April 11, 2006

I guess I'm wondering if anyone else has any exercises that they do for this sort of thing, regardless of whether it's anxiety or not?

It is absolutely anxiety, and you should treat it as such.

There are a lot of resources around the web that talk about how to deal with anxiety. Here's an example, but keep looking around if it doesn't speak to you.

I have been exactly where you are now, and while medication for anxiety certainly helped, by far the most helpful thing I did was learn to meditate. Meditation has many benefits, but as a very practical matter you end up training both your body and your mind to unclench on cue -- the cue usually being deep, measured breathing. Having this 'out' for when things become emotionally overwhelming for me has changed my life in too many ways to count.

With regards to your empathy, you can indeed dull it with alcohol or become traumatized to the point where you are numb. That's your choice to make, but I'd encourage you to learn to deal with the extra anxiety the gift exposes you to, rather than destroy the gift.
posted by tkolar at 8:31 PM on April 11, 2006

Perhaps eat meat or kill something? If you can do those things then I think you've been able to turn off one of the biggest empathy switches. Once you can do those, I would speculate that you could do anything.

I eat meat and kill things all the time and I couldn't sit through Meet The Parents if you paid me a million bucks. I hate that kind of humour, it makes me SO uncomfortable I feel physially nauseous. I hate even being in the vicinity of an arguement and 'm also supernaturally sensitive to offending other people.

What really helped me was having a job that involved interacting with people a lot and having to mediate some very contentious groups and issues. Listening to people talk about each other to me privately and then watching them interact later in a group was interesting. I learned that people can be really nasty or really offended and then forget all about it 2 minutes later. Most people expect and accept a certain amount of friction in their everyday dealings with others, and quite a few think it's the only way to get things done. They certainly don't go home and worry about it. It was really an eye opener for me.
posted by fshgrl at 8:59 PM on April 11, 2006

These are all great answers.
I've tried meditation, but ever since I was a kid I've never been able to physically relax- my muscles don't untense.
I was diagnosed as bipolar, but it was by a psychiatrist who sort of fucked me over and got me hooked on some Bad Pills, so I don't know what to do about that.
I do think it's related to avoiding conflict, but once I know that, what do I do about it? I mean, even if I know the reason why (yelling alkie grandparents when I was a kid, I think), I'm not sure if it helps.
Oh, but alcohol and other chemicals help a bit. But I don't want to get TOO into that.
In any case, thanks for all of the answers, and it's great also just to see that there are so many people who have the same difficulties.
posted by 235w103 at 9:08 PM on April 11, 2006

I do think it's related to avoiding conflict,

i can't speak to your bipolar issues [sorry], but i can say this; the thing that helped me was that i sought out conflicts albeit in a very controlled way (that's what i meant when i was talking about 'trash talking' with my co-workers.) Friction is inevitable in our lives. My choice was to make that friction a source of amusement rather than a source of discomfort. i admit, that it puts me in sort of a weird place, i am a boss who regularly insults and threatens his employees, but i am consistently scored highest as the 'boss people want to work for' (my team is like, psychotically loyal.) i'm sure it's a personality thing, and i'm sure it will not work for everyone, but even the 'sensitive people' on my team throw down and get in on the fun.

The thing is, to play this game you have to be willing to be the Bad Guy once in a while when someone crosses the line. i dunno, it works for me, i [now] can sleep at night, and my team seems to enjoy coming in to work with me and they regularly get high marks from upper management for quality of service.

i still have a lot of job related stress, but it's not from bantering with my co-workers which, to me, was the most important thing.
posted by quin at 10:29 PM on April 11, 2006

Weird, I am happy that other people feel uncomfortable watching certain situations in movies/tv and such.

All this time I thought it was just me....
posted by AaronRaphael at 12:02 AM on April 12, 2006

On the topic of meditation - there's a good book by Pema Chodron called Start Where You Are that has specific meditations for working with "bad" feelings. It's not about making yourself relax, but about trying to accept that you are having those feelings and letting them work through you and out again.

I came to this from the other end of the spectrum - I was suppressing my feelings because I was afraid of my reactions to them. For that reason I'd say you want to be wary of anything that will shut down your empathy or reactions to others' emotions. Manage them, sure, but you don't want to swap one problem for another.
posted by crocomancer at 12:39 AM on April 12, 2006

I think you should get a new psychiatrist. There are medications that can help you feel things less acutely. When I started taking Prozac in the months before my wedding, I found myself thinking, "Oh, wow, that totally would have made me cry a month ago." It didn't change my reactions to things, just the intensity. It was liberating.
This might be a good short-term solution to discuss with your psychiatrist while you work on a long-term solution.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 4:45 AM on April 12, 2006

I think you should get a new psychiatrist.

I second that motion.

She sounds a bit callous -- from what little was said about her above.
posted by bim at 5:04 AM on April 12, 2006

It is a symptom of Bipolar 2 that you emotionalize things that are strictly intellectual to others, so there's a chance that this is biological and will be hard to treat without medication, though I wish you the best in trying anything and everything else. Note, that as konolia said, an anti-depressant can really mess up someone who is bipolar, so you might want to discuss this thoroughly with any prescribing doctor in the future.

I also cannot stand the things that you are talking about, and mostly I just have to avoid them. For me (but this might only be me, I've never asked anyone else), if I can make the uncomfortable thing QUIETER, it makes it better, and I can get some emotional distance from it (obviously this doesn't work so well with reading). Sometimes if I'm out at the movies, I will put my fingers in my ears, which actually makes the movie more tolerable. You might also try wearing some of those weak earplugs stuffed with feathers/down, especially at movies or in crowds. They are weak enough not to make you a walking target, and strong enough to take the edge off the sound.

As far as the iPod on the subway goes, you might do a check with a friend which will help you determine the correct listening volume, such that you can be confident that no one is annoyed by the sound escaping your headphones (now THAT'S overempathizing for ya).
posted by unknowncommand at 5:30 AM on April 12, 2006

I recommend that you take control of yourself.

Start with whatever you can do, and build.

When you start to feel uncomfortable in a social situation, count to 10, and then leave. When this is easy, count to 20 and then leave.

While many people suggest drugs and alcohol as tools to help you get control, they don't really. They might make life easier, but they don't increase control.

To get control of yourself there is only one thing: practice.

You are going to have to work harder than other people. If you fail, life will be harder for you than most. If you succeed, you will understand that most people don't bother to control themselves.

Remember this: If you can control your bowels, you can accomplish anything. Seriously. You are able to relax with complete control whenever you go to the bathroom... now you need to learn to impose that discipline on the rest of your mind/body. Mastery over the body and the mind occurs through focused practice.

Start small. If success is easy, advance. If success is elusive, take smaller bites.
posted by ewkpates at 7:36 AM on April 12, 2006

Kimota - yes, those situations exactly.
posted by voidcontext at 7:48 AM on April 12, 2006

I think you need to be careful. I don't think you should want to be less empathetic than you are as this is a gift few people have. Becoming stressed by these situations is a separate issue, but I think you should be careful about (medical) measures that lessen your sensitivity.

The good news is that measures to decrease stress are more widely known about than methods to lessen your empathy. If you have a good doctor they might be able to give you some sound advice that does not involve medication.
posted by nthdegx at 8:32 AM on April 12, 2006

This might strike you as cheesy, but: the most recent issue of Yoga Journal (May 2006) has an article on how too much empathy can hurt your health, with some suggestions on yoga /meditation techniques that can help. Doing yoga or meditation is certainly relaxing, so it could at least help with the anxiety part.
posted by medusa at 5:31 PM on April 12, 2006

Woah... I forgot about this one, and you won't see my reply I'm sure, but...

i don't think he was saying 'go out and drink to excess' or 'become an alcoholic'.

Absolutely right, sir. I wasn't saying that at all. I was saying reasonable alcoholic indulgence can be very helpful for this sort of thing. And fun, too. Thanks for clarifying in my absence. I was probably out getting pissed somewhere.
posted by Decani at 5:11 PM on May 10, 2006

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