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Can extreme empathy and compassion get to a point where it is considered a disorder?

For example, if someone is so empathetic, when feeling someones pain it negatively affects their life to the same extent as the person they are feeling for?

Or that someone is so compassionate, that they make choices that ignores their own health and well being because they are taking care of others?

Is this ever diagnosed and if not, why?

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Philosophical, but to consider extreme compassion disorder seems very wrong to me personally. World would be much better if everyone "suffered" from extreme compassion. –  GrizzLy Dec 6 '13 at 12:37
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@GrizzLy I think the operative word here is "extreme". And suffering comes in all colours; even what results in "good" for other people can be extremely self-destructive to the individual. –  Benteh Dec 6 '13 at 19:05
    
@GrizzLy: I agree with you..but in this world it is not rewarded... –  Greg McNulty Dec 10 '13 at 3:57

3 Answers 3

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Yes and No

By the standards of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (or DSM-IV in its current form), perhaps the most prominent all-in-one manual to assist physicians in accurately defining a patient's disorder, has specific criteria for a disorder, including:

  • is associated with present distress (e.g., a painful symptom) or disability (i.e., impairment in one or more important areas of functioning) or with an increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom

A level of empathy such that you've described could certainly fit this definition. In practice most physicians don't consider culturally/socially sanctioned actions as symptoms of mental illness (whether they are is an age-old debate for philosophers, anthropologists, and sociologists/psychologists). Indeed, even the DSM-V has proposed changing criteria C (which rules out acceptable responses to loss/stress) to exclude "a culturally sanctioned response to a particular event." It seems that most cultures value empathy enough that it's unlikely to be viewed as a disorder. In fact, even the most extreme examples of empathy (complete self sacrifice) are often considered admirable things in books and movies.

If, however, empathy is directed toward someone who abuses the relationship, it could result in codependency. While the DSM doesn't list codependency, it is still often diagnosed as a mental illness. In the case of codependency, the empathetic person often cannot bring themselves to end the relationship, due to their concern over the negative effect it would have on the other person. Since this relationship is dangerous to the empath and caused by said empathy, this could be a case where too much empathy in an individual is a mental disorder.

Then again, if the other person had more empathy, the situation wouldn't occur. I think it's safe to say that in theory empathy shouldn't be a disorder but in practice it can lead to disordered behavior.

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very god points, thank you... –  Greg McNulty Dec 10 '13 at 4:01

Yes there is a condition which often causes extreme acts of empathy. Its the hero disease: extreme altruism, x-altruism or pathological altruism. Its not in DSM 5. x-altruism occurs when people are compelled to act on the basic feelings of empathy or sympathy they have toward others. Its common among police officers, firefighters and soldiers who have received the Purple Heart Medal as well as other high risk jobs which frequently place themselves in harms way to help others.

Unlike a normal person the x-altruist cannot resist the urge of empathy and will do seemingly irrational things to fulfill their need to help others. x-altruist are not perfect people but they do extraordinary things for the good of other people.

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I experience empathy to the extent that it causes massive social phobia and other such problems. Other human beings end up being a constant sort of noise even when they're silent and being around them too often drains me of all my energy, but I don't actually produce my own emotions a lot of the time (or I can't recognize them as well not sure) so being left alone causes me an extreme feeling of emptiness and leads to massive depression. No medical health professionals have ever listened when I've brought it up as a potential problem. They tend to tell me not to worry about it and seek other causes for my anxiety instead of trying to help me learn to cope with it. I would say it's problematic especially in the sense that no one takes it seriously. I mean it's seen as such an unerringly positive thing that normal people cannot possibly imagine it being detrimental in any way but it is.

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User 4807 to a milder degree I experience most of the same things you are describing except not feeling empty when alone. When alone I feel peace, and happiness, but if around anyone else, it's almost as though my feelings are completely over ridden by the person I am around. I get jumpy because of noises, and also am careful to choose my social settings because of my fear of what moods I might pick up on. But it's hard to recognize what I am feeling when around other people, unless I am picking up anger from them or other harsher feelings because those trigger fear in me most of the time. –  user4834 Apr 16 at 4:53
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@Guest. Everyone I've met who claimed similar experiences has been older than me and has referred to themselves as and empath. Try googling that. Course it'll all be spiritual stuff but you may find some answers. –  user4807 Apr 16 at 17:41

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