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Toxic Empathy and ADHD: The Not So Obvious Connection

January 12, 2024

Call me Britney Spears cause I’m…toxic. Ha-ha…haaaa.

Cough

Today’s talk will be about toxic empathy and ADHD or why being too empathetic is not good. 

Not to give too much away (or you wouldn’t read all these pretty words I’ve made), but when you’re too empathetic, you are at a higher risk of emotional burnout and are more likely to end up in toxic relationships.

So, that’s a lot of things to talk about today!

Let’s dig in!

[Empathy and ADHD] Empathy and ADHD: A Curious Case of It’s-Not-What-It-Seems

So, here’s an interesting rocker about ADHD and...lack of empathy. According to some research, people with ADHD have comparably lower empathy than their peers1… no, no. 

Stop. You’re not “sigma male” just yet, so put away your Patrick Bateman costume for now. 

Keep in mind that research about ADHD is still in its infancy. Besides, this kind of research just seems to suggest that empathy works differently for ADHDers, not that you are incapable of experiencing it…you or your relationships ought to convince you of the opposite in any case. 

Alright. Then, which part of this “otherness” makes us susceptible to being toxic in how we express and experience empathy? 

Partially, I think it can be explained by a phenomenon known as…

Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

Rejection-sensitive dysphoria, a.k.a RSD is a concept that deserves a whole separate article to explore. Still, the gist of it is that people with ADHD respond really negatively to a perceived or an actual rejection. This feeling of rejection can be so strong and intense that it can be experienced as physical pain. 

Naturally, then, it follows that ADHDers will try to avoid this rejection as much as possible. While some do so by abandoning any and all pursuits of building relationships, others will maladapt through toxic empathy.

For someone with ADHD, who may already face challenges with emotional regulation, this can complicate interactions. We might find ourselves excessively worried about others' feelings or overly affected by the mood in their environment.

Empathy is a powerful thing to have; it’s the thing that makes us human. However, due to the lack of healthy boundaries and our unique ADHD-esque specifics of how our brains work, we can become too empathetic. Understanding the balance, thus, becomes the key. 


[Toxic Empathy] Recognizing Toxic Empathy: Examples

Roight. Now, let’s finally get to the meat of the issue: what is toxic empathy? 

Toxic empathy, distinct from healthy empathy, is an overwhelming absorption of others' emotions. It goes beyond understanding and resonating with others' feelings, leading to an encroachment and suffocation. 

 Suffice it to say toxic empathy has negative ramifications both for the recipient and the sender

Being emotionally overbearing can lead to becoming burned out, while also opening you up to manipulation and abuse from toxic actors. 

Plus, there’s always a risk of this suffocating relationship not doing it for the other party, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of abandonment and rejection…but more on that later.

For now let’s focus on what makes toxic empathy tick.

The signs of toxic empathy include:

  • Over-Identification with Others' Problems: Constantly taking on others' issues as if they were your own, leading to personal distress.
  • Emotional Exhaustion: Feeling emotionally drained due to the constant emotional involvement with others.
  • Neglecting Personal Needs: Putting others' emotional needs above your own consistently, often at the expense of your well-being.
  • Difficulty in Emotional Separation: Struggling to detach your feelings from those of the people around you, leading to a blurred line between personal emotions and those of others.

[Causes of Toxic Empathy] Toxic Empathy: The Triggers and Contributing Factors

Yes, ADHD and RSD do contribute to the manifestation of toxic empathy. Yet, they’re not the only thing that may cause it. Non-ADHDers, too, can develop toxic empathy.

Thus, understanding the triggers and contributing factors of toxic empathy is essential. To that end, multiple elements can contribute to developing toxic empathy. 

Hint: if these sound similar to a trauma response…well, you’re onto something. 

Environmental Factors

Chaotic or high-stress environments can exacerbate the tendency towards toxic empathy. Individuals with ADHD are often more sensitive to their surroundings, making it easier for them to absorb the emotional states of those around them.

Personal Relationships

Relationships, particularly those involving emotional dependency or imbalance, can be a significant trigger. For someone with ADHD, the urge to 'fix' or alleviate the pain of others can lead to over-involvement in others' emotional struggles.

Social Pressure and Expectations

The societal expectation to always be empathetic and caring can pressure us to overextend emotional resources. This is especially true when saying 'no' or setting boundaries is frowned upon. Especially when women are concerned. 

Because of societal pressures, ADHD symptoms manifest themselves a bit differently in women. And RSD, and by transference toxic empathy, thus becomes more prevalent. 

Recognizing these triggers and factors is critical, as knowing is half the battle. When we begin to recognize and perceive these triggers and catalysts for toxic empathy, we can work against them.

And why would we want to do that in the first place? 

Well…


[The Consequences of Toxic Empathy] The Consequences of Toxic Empathy

Toxic empathy, while often rooted in a desire to help, can have far-reaching consequences for you AND the people around you. 

Personal Consequences:

  • Emotional Burnout: Continuously absorbing others' emotions can lead to emotional exhaustion. This burnout can manifest as fatigue, anxiety, depression, or a feeling of being emotionally drained.
  • Loss of Self-Identity: Constantly prioritizing others' emotional needs can blur the lines of personal identity. You may struggle to distinguish your own emotions and needs from those of others.
  • Physical Health Impacts: Chronic stress from toxic empathy can have physical consequences, including headaches, digestive issues, and weakened immune responses.
  • Relationship Strain: Ironically, the over-involvement in others' emotions can strain relationships. It can lead to co-dependency, resentment, or feeling overwhelmed and misunderstood.

Interpersonal Consequences:

  • Enabling Unhealthy Dynamics: Toxic empathy can lead to enabling behavior, where the empathetic individual may inadvertently encourage or prolong unhealthy patterns in others.
  • Creation of Dependency: Others may become overly reliant on the empathetic individual for emotional support, leading to imbalanced and unhealthy relationships.
  • Conflict and Misunderstanding: Over-empathizing can sometimes lead to misunderstandings or conflicts, as intentions may not always align with the needs or desires of the other person.

So, yeah, it’s not just a quirk that you should latch on to. I mean, you certainly can, but it certainly won’t do you any favors. 

Talking from experience, I will say that crawling out of this rut is often easier said than done. Oftentimes, I refused to let go when I should have out of fear of how others would have felt. This sometimes reached ridiculous proportions as my assumptions about the reactions of others didn’t align with reality.

In other words…I imagined what they would react like. So much for empathy, eh?

In any case. I hope it became crystal clear by now that this giga empathy is something we need to deal with.

How? Well, that's an excellent question! 

Managing Toxic Empathy – Strategies and Tools

Managing toxic empathy is crucial for emotional well-being. Here are (some) of the strategies and tools you can use to help in mitigating its effects:

  • Setting Boundaries: Learning to set healthy boundaries is vital. Understanding your limits and communicating them clearly may seem a bit robotic and unauthentic at first, but it’s better than the alternative of drowning in the whirlpool of emotions. This might mean not taking on others' emotional burdens or limiting time spent with people who drain your emotional energy.
  • Mindfulness Practices: Mindfulness can help you remain grounded in your emotions and exist in the present moment. Such presence is key as there’s a certain overlap between toxic empathy and anxiety. We imagine scenarios that send us into these mother goose spirals when being rational would have shown us the absurdity of our reactions.  Meditation or mindful breathing can provide a mental space to process and release absorbed emotions.
  • Self-Care Routines: Prioritizing self-care is essential. Regular activities promoting relaxation and well-being, such as exercise, hobbies, or leisure time in nature, can replenish your emotional reserves and give you fulfilling outlets. 
  • Emotional Regulation Techniques: Techniques such as cognitive-behavioral strategies can help manage the intense emotions that come with toxic empathy. These include challenging negative thoughts or practicing emotional distancing techniques.
  • Seek Professional Help: If toxic empathy is significantly impacting your life, consider seeking support from a mental health professional. Therapy can offer personalized strategies to cope with and manage these overwhelming, empathetic feelings.
  • Educate Yourself and Others: Understanding the nature of toxic empathy and ADHD is empowering. Educating those around you about your emotional needs and limits can also foster a supportive environment and explain your - maybe abrupt - change in priorities and behavior. After all, if you’re known as “the overbearing one” in your friend group, your sudden distancing might be perceived as coldness. 

And speaking of education! 👀

[Numo: App for NON Toxic Empathy] Numo: App for NON Toxic Empathy

If life has taught me anything, it is that the only people who can truly understand the goopy brain nonsense of ADHD living are the other goopy brain havers 🤓

Thus, Numo was born. It's an app that has many applications - a very kewl ADHD planner, among other things - but right now, I wanted to talk about our crowning jewel - tribes and squads

In the most basic terms, these are the community forums where you can find solace, advice, and memes of fellow ADHDers.

And if you ever had a question like: “Hey, do you think that thing I did is an example of toxic empathy?” Then you will find an answer here!

So, hop along if you’d like! We are cool kids, I promise 🕶️

[Conclusion] Conclusion

Aight! What have we learned today? 📚

  • Heightened Empathy in ADHD: ADHDers often experience a heightened sense of empathy, which can be both a gift and a challenge, leading to deeper connections but also potential emotional overwhelm.
  • Understanding Toxic Empathy: Recognizing the signs of toxic empathy is about distinguishing between healthy empathy and when it becomes detrimental to one's mental health.
  • Identifying Triggers: Awareness of the triggers and contributing factors, such as environmental stressors and personal relationships, is essential in managing toxic empathy.
  • Strategies for Management: Implementing strategies like setting boundaries, practicing mindfulness, and prioritizing self-care are effective in managing the effects of toxic empathy.
  • Recognizing Consequences: Understanding the personal and interpersonal consequences of toxic empathy helps acknowledge its impact and the importance of addressing it.

So, as always, it's about finding a balance where empathy remains a strength without it compromising personal well-being or leading to unhealthy dynamics in relationships. By embracing these discoveries and incorporating the strategies discussed, we can master our empathetic selves, leading to a more balanced and fulfilling emotional life.

Sources

1 Journal of the Korean Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Disrupted Association Between Empathy and Brain Structure in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
2 HHS Public Access. Rejection sensitivity and disruption of attention by social threat cues 
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