We have all experienced times when we’ve felt so overwhelmed that we just want to go home, lock our bedroom door, and hide beneath the covers.
Sometimes we’re overwhelmed not by challenges in our own lives, but by someone else’s problems, like money trouble or a devastating medical diagnosis. Other times it’s an issue of sheer quantity: when many different people all seem to bring their problems to us at once and we just can’t hear one more person say, “Listen to the day I’m having…”
Of course, we each have different thresholds for handling other people’s problems. One person may be the steadfast rock who others always turn to in times of distress, while another may be temporarily incapacitated by the story of a stranger on the evening news.
Personality type may play a major role in our response to these situations, but the good news is that most of us seem to handle them fairly well. When we asked our community to respond to the statement, “You often feel overwhelmed by other people’s problems,” less than half (43%) agreed that it applied to them. Interestingly, more than any other personality trait, it was the Identity aspect – in other words, how confident we are in ourselves – that best determined how well we deal with the misfortune of others.
Let’s explore in more detail how this response broke down.
Diplomats (54% agreeing)
We wouldn’t feel affected by other people’s problems if we lacked empathy, so it’s no surprise that Diplomat personality types, who are known for this quality, agreed with our statement more than the other Roles. Their Intuitive trait enables them to put themselves in another person’s shoes and imagine what they’re going through, and their Feeling trait makes them emotionally sensitive. That sensitivity can sometimes cause Diplomat personalities to internalize too much of the pain and stress that others are experiencing, and their natural impulse to help can become overwhelming if the problems are more than they can handle.
Advocates (INFJ) and Mediators (INFP) – tied as the personality types who agreed with our statement the most, at 61% – are highly empathetic and perceptive of others’ needs. Advocates are known for their idealism and their willingness to stand up and fight for others.
But consider that even some of the most famous Advocates – Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela – must have, at some point, begun their journeys feeling overwhelmed by the suffering of others and the problems of social injustice. Rather than give up, these individuals were inspired to harness their feelings of outrage and compassion and dedicate their lives to working for positive, meaningful social change. But it can also be easy for Advocate personalities to get carried away with their enthusiasm for helping others. Over time, Advocates can become exhausted and overwhelmed, both in their professional lives and in their friendships, which is something they must constantly guard against.
While Advocates may be more likely to struggle with the quantity of other people’s problems – due to their commitment to causes and broad-based change – Mediator personalities are more likely to feel overwhelmed by the intensity of others’ problems. Mediators tend to focus their attention on a small group of close friends or a single cause. Their idealism and altruism may lead them to bond with people who have intense needs – both emotional and material – and their strong sense of loyalty means that they are unlikely to abandon even the most troubled of friends. That kind of commitment can become overwhelming, so Mediators must be willing to step back and create space for themselves to recharge.
As Intuitive personality types, Analysts enjoy applying their creative, logical minds to challenges. When someone shares a problem with them, Analysts are more likely to propose a solution than to feel the other person’s pain, because their Thinking trait allows them some psychological distance from the situation.
But that distance can become a handicap when a problem is emotionally complex, does not have a practical solution, or is beyond human control. Finding themselves unable to fix the problem or to comfort someone else on an emotional level, Analyst personalities may experience a sense of helplessness or ineffectiveness, and that alone can be overwhelming for them.
Sentinel personality types typically have less trouble managing their friends’ problems, probably because they are guided by a strong sense of right and wrong. Sentinels are level-headed stabilizers who thrive on creating order out of chaos, which makes them adept at dealing with other people’s problems. In fact, it was a Sentinel type that was the least likely of all personality types to agree that they are often overwhelmed by others’ problems – Executives (ESTJ) agreed at a rate of just 24%.
Highly principled individuals, Executive personalities are confident that solutions can be found within established rules and processes, and they are more than willing to tackle big problems in order to make society work better. Sonia Sotomayor, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, is an excellent example of an Executive who approaches other people’s problems by considering facts, adhering to law and order, and administering justice. Someone seeking help from an Executive may find them less empathetic or emotionally sensitive than they expect, but those qualities also help keep Executives from feeling overwhelmed by other people’s problems.
It’s interesting to note that Defenders (ISFJ) (51%) were more than twice as likely as Executives to say that they are often overwhelmed by others’ problems. Defenders’ empathy and altruism make them an excellent resource for friends and family to turn to when they’re struggling. And since these personalities often go into service-oriented fields, like education and medicine, they can find themselves coping with others’ problems in the workplace too. Because they take their responsibilities so personally and hold themselves to such high standards, Defenders can quickly become overloaded and overwhelmed.
Explorer personality types were just as unlikely as Sentinels to be overwhelmed by other people’s problems, but probably for different reasons. Both Roles share the Observant trait, making them more practical and down-to-earth than Diplomats and Analysts. While Sentinels prefer to approach problems with rules, procedures, and principles, Explorer personalities are much more spontaneous and adaptable, making them excellent at responding to crises – and also at walking away from the situation once it’s been handled. Having done what they can to resolve a problem, Explorers are not likely to dwell on the misfortune of those involved and may distance themselves, moving on to new projects, new interests, and new friendships with relative ease.
Constant Improvement and Social Engagement (62% and 51% agreeing)
More so than the Roles, the Strategies we follow demonstrated the greatest discrepancies in our community’s responses. Introverted personalities were 14% more likely than Extraverts to agree that they often feel overwhelmed by other people’s problems, but even more striking was the Identity aspect: Turbulent personality types were 28% more likely than Assertive types to agree.
As Turbulent Introverts, members of the Constant Improvement Strategy agreed at a rate 11% higher than members of the Social Engagement Strategy, whose Extraversion goes a long way in helping them feel comfortable dealing with the troubles of other people. As Turbulent types, Constant Improvers and Social Engagers are emotional and very sensitive to stress, and therefore more likely to experience others’ stress as if it’s their own. Since these personality types tend to be less confident in their own abilities and decisions, they can be quite hard on themselves if they think they’re unable to help or feel like they didn’t help out as effectively as they could have.
Constant Improvers, as Introverts, can be exhausted by interactions that Social Engagers and other Extraverted personality types handle with ease. Regardless of how much empathy they feel for someone or how much they want to help, it takes a lot of energy for them to do so, and the mere thought of it can be overwhelming. It is essential for Constant Improvers to pace themselves and allow themselves time to regroup and recharge.
While Social Engagers may feel much more comfortable working with others to solve problems, they’re still prone to internalizing negative emotions, because they are highly sensitive to the moods of those around them. They’re also likely to be concerned about how another person’s problem may impact their own social environment. All that pressure can be overwhelming, and Social Engagers must be willing to recognize when they need to let go of other people and their problems.
Confident Individualism and People Mastery (33% and 27%)
Predictably, personality types belonging to the Confident Individualism Strategy were unlikely to agree with our statement. Intensely self-reliant, thanks to their Assertive Identity, they may see other people’s problems as a sign of weakness and avoid putting themselves in relationships or situations that threaten to overwhelm them. But when they do choose to get involved and help others, their Introversion tends to be a barrier that can sometimes make even a simple act of kindness feel like something of an emotional strain.
The Extraverted, Assertive members of the People Mastery Strategy, on the other hand, proved to be the most comfortable in the face of other people’s problems. Armed with a high threshold for drama, People Masters live for forging bonds with people, regardless of whether they’re experiencing the highs or the lows of life, and are unafraid of the stress such relationships can bring. Even-tempered and self-assured, these personalities have a special ability to bring people together, despite their problems, and rally them around a common purpose in a way that might help ease their minds.
All of us go through times when other people’s problems play a major role in our own lives. How we handle these situations is influenced by many personality factors. Extraverted personalities, particularly Assertive ones, may be able to avoid feeling overwhelmed because their higher levels of exposure to people and their problems are balanced out by their higher threshold for tolerating the stress that accompanies them.
It is clearly unhealthy for anyone to take on too many problems, but it may be just as unhealthy to wall ourselves off so thoroughly that no problems can ever penetrate – lest we miss out on the broader social good or deeper personal relationships that can come from conquering them.
How do you balance the impulse to be empathetic and helpful with the danger of being overwhelmed by other people’s problems? Please share your strategies below!