Empaths, Compassion & Mirror Neurons

As a psychiatrist and empath I’ve always been intrigued by the science of empathy.

Research has shown that our brain has a specialized group of cells called mirror neurons, which is responsible for empathy and compassion. Studies suggest that empaths have a hyperactive mirror neuron system which places them high on the empathy scale. When someone you love is in pain, you may feel it as if it is actually happening to you. (Whereas malignant narcissists are thought to have empathy-deficient disorder which puts them low on the empathy scale.) Sometimes, you may even feel the pain of strangers and the world. Similarly, when someone has been compassionate or hopeful, you absorb the intensity of these positive expressions too.

Understanding the responsiveness of your mirror neuron system reminds you of the importance of protecting yourself from discomfort that is not your own. It’s a gift to be so caring, yet it’s also necessary to set healthy boundaries. To conserve your resources, use your empathy well. Know when the time is right to go inward and refuel.

What is a healthy boundary? Modulating your mirror neuron response

Your actions can modulate your mirror neuron response so you’re not overwhelmed with feeling empathy or take on other people’s pain. In my book Thriving as an Empath, I explain that a boundary means communicating your preferences about how you want to be treated. For instance, “It would be great to see you tonight, but I only have an hour.” Or “I’m sorry, I can’t take on another commitment now.” Or “Please stop raising your voice.” If you are wishy-washy you won’t be taken seriously. To successfully express a boundary, be kind but firm. Then others will know you are serious and will be less likely to feel offended.

If you are reluctant to set boundaries, what holds you back? Is it low self esteem? Are you afraid of being rejected or hurting others’ feelings? Maybe you didn’t feel safe expressing yourself in your family. Or perhaps you think compassion means being a martyr and not setting any boundary at all? Some of my sensitive patients initially start psychotherapy feeling too timid to speak up in their lives. Before they were able to set boundaries, they’d always been the designated doormats or victims in their relationships.

To shift his pattern, practice the adage, “Feel the fear but set the boundary anyways.” Start with easier people, such as a telemarketer or a supportive friend. (Don’t begin with your mother!) Learning this protective skill will help not become overwhelmed by your mirror neuron response. Then you have a choice about how much you want to give, and when setting a boundary with someone is called for.

Set your intention. I have a finely tuned mirror neuron system that is wired for compassion and empathy. I will continue to seek balance between healthy giving and self-care by learning to firmly and kindly set boundaries. This form of self-care will allow me to have healthier relationships.

Adapted from Thriving as an Empath: 365 Days of Self-Care for Sensitive People

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Author Information

Dr. Judith Orloff

Judith Orloff, MD is author of The Empath's Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, upon which her articles are based. Dr. Orloff is a psychiatrist, an empath, and is on the UCLA Psychiatric Clinical Faculty.

Books from Dr. Judith Orloff

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