Consider this situation: a close relative just died and you want to hang around friends to soften the blow. You make plans with your best friend, and it happens that today is their up-day. Is there a problem? Maybe not at first. Even after you tell them why you’re upset, your friend can’t stop being upbeat and suggest that you could be optimistic about their death. All the while, you slowly get frustrated. You wish your friend had more empathy.

Fortunately, you know another very understanding friend who will be the perfect shoulder to cry on. However a day later, you find that your friend is still just as devastated by the news as you were when you first heard the news. What happens when a person’s empathy detrimentally affects their life as much as it does yours?

Hyper-empathy syndrome is diagnosable and filed under personality disorders by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). It is thought that the part of the brain that controls emotion regulation is in some way malfunctioning, causing the patient to lose control of empathy and emotions altogether.

On the flip side, some argue that hyper-empathy (and even depression) shouldn’t count as official, diagnosable illnesses. The argument is that people are either “too emotional” or “too lazy” to do their best. What do you think?

CC BY-SA 4.0 Is Empathy a Mental Illness? by Sharlee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

7 Comments
  1. Profile photo of Katelyn
    Katelyn 10 months ago

    I know tht we as humans are innately wired to respond to the emotional signals of individuals and larger groups around us a defense mechanism. As we are a community based species, and communication allows us to escape danger and to learn. In the brain there are mirror neurons that fire when we see another individual conducting an action so that we learn from it and can later mimic the action, this is why we have so many mirror neurons when we are children as it is a time of development through mimicry. There has also been study’s that suggest that mirror neurons may work the same way regarding emotions of other human beings, and perhaps even other species. For example neurons fire when we see someone get stuck with a pin, that are not quite the same, but similar to the ones that fire when we, ourselves, get stuck with a pin. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/do_mirror_neurons_give_empathy

  2. Profile photo of Cristina
    Cristina 10 months ago

    Dear Sharlee,
    I definitely believe that there is no such thing as being “too emotional” like I understand that there are pregnant ladies that do get emotional.But I do believe that depression is a illness.But I believe that everyone has a different way of feeling empathy towards others.

  3. Profile photo of Andreas
    Andreas 10 months ago

    I don’t know if this is true or not but I heard that serial killers lack empathy. It seems like you are interested in empathy so I though that that might be something you would want look up sometime. Again, I’m not sure on the fact but I have always thought about it whenever I’m watching serial killer movies or serial killers come up in a conversation.

  4. Profile photo of Paige
    Paige 10 months ago

    I’ve never heard this argument, and it’s really interesting. Of course depression is a mental illness. She isn’t saying that it’s not. People are wired differently, and some people simply feel more empathy than others. I don’t think it’s a mental illness, but I do think it’s different in everyone.

  5. Profile photo of Malia
    Malia 10 months ago

    I don’t think that there is such a thing as being “too emotional”. I believe that you can be hypersensitive and that talking to someone is always a smart solution whether it’s a professional or just a friend. I do believe that depression is rightfully considered a mental illness. You can’t downgrade the seriousness of an issue like depression and tell someone to “just be happy”. I believe that it’s as difficult as telling someone “to just stop breathing”.

    • Author
      Sharlee 10 months ago

      Sorry, there must be some misunderstanding. As a person with clinically diagnosed depression and anxiety, I do believe that depression should be considered a mental illness. If you are or think you are suffering from a mental illness, I strongly recommend seeking help.

      What I wanted to address in this article is the possibility of another branch of mental iillnes (hyper-empathy) and whether that should be considered a mental illness. I by no means wanted to argue the validity of mental illness. It is valid, and I as well as a lot of people are affected by it.

      Again, apologies if this was unclear!

  6. Profile photo of Martin
    Martin 10 months ago

    Well I could see how it could be true.

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