No one knows the joys and challenges of being an empath better than Judith Orloff, M.D. She was born with second sight, into a family of 25 physicians and several generations of healers. As an empath, she struggled in her early life to find a way to cope, and then she finally embraced her gift of intuition. Her journey led her to devote her life to helping others.
Her new book, The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, is a guide for a wide range of empaths and all sensitive people who struggle with managing the gifts — intuition, creativity and spiritual connection — with challenges that overwhelm them. The book also offers a much-needed acknowledgment that empaths are not imagining the things they feel and sense.
As Dr. Orloff explains, “As empaths, we actually feel others’ emotions, energy, and physical symptoms in our own bodies, without the usual defenses that most people have.”
An assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, she synthesizes the pearls of traditional medicine with cutting edge knowledge of intuition, energy, and spirituality to achieve physical and emotional healing. Her bestselling books, The Power of Surrender, Emotional Freedom, Second Sight, Positive Energy, and Guide to Intuitive Healing offer readers practical strategies to overcome frustration, stress and worry.
We spoke with Dr. Orloff about The Empath’s Survival Guide and she shared wonderful insights.
So many people have been told “you’re too emotional” or “too sensitive” and they grow up feeling like there’s something wrong with them. Is it your experience that many of these people are empaths?
Absolutely! I wrote The Empath’s Survival Guide to legitimize the gift of sensitivity and teach sensitive people of all kinds to protect their energy so that they can thrive. As an empath, I know how demoralizing it feels to be labeled as “overly sensitive” or told, “Honey, you have to get a thicker skin,” by parents and society, as if we were some kind of weaklings who just need to “steel up.” The opposite is true. I believe that empathy is the human trait that will help all of us to save the world. Everyone who is an empath or who simply wants to lead a more heart-centered life in an often insensitive world can benefit from learning skills to protect their gift of empathy.
What are some of the common hallmarks of an empath?
Empaths are sponges who absorb the emotions and physical symptoms of others. They don’t have the usual defenses that other people have to filter out noise, light, sound, intense emotions or stress. So empaths often end up taking on other people’s stress in their bodies — and they feel exhausted, anxious, depressed or sick. As a psychiatrist, I’ve worked with many empaths who come to me totally worn out and misdiagnosed by mainstream medicine as being hypochondriacs, neurotic or with some “disorder” that requires antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication.
With the empaths in my private practice, I always begin with teaching them how to avoid absorbing other people’s energy so they can feel stronger and more grounded within themselves. The upside of being an empath — and there are many — is that empaths have depth, intuition, deep compassion, deep spirituality and are passionate lovers and mates. As an empath, I would never give up my sensitivities for the world. They let me know the secrets of the Uuniverse, because I can feel the energy of all things.
What is the difference between an empath and a Highly Sensitive Person?
Highly Sensitive People have all the sensory components of extreme sensitivity such as sensitivity to light, sound, touch and crowds, but empaths actually absorb emotions, energy, stress and physical symptoms from other people. As a result, empaths can become exhausted or ill and not know why. They are emotional sponges! Empaths also have heightened intuitions. Both highly sensitive people and empaths have very action mirror neurons to increase our compassion.
Can you share some of the gifts of being an empath?
I cherish being an empath and I’m grateful for the blessings my sensitivities bestow on me each day. I love being intuitive, feeling the flow of energy in the world, reading people, and experiencing the richness of being so open to life and nature. We empaths have many marvelous traits. We have huge hearts and the instinct to help others in need or who are less fortunate. We’re dreamers and idealists. We’re passionate, deep, and creative, in touch with our emotions, compassionate, and can see the big picture. We can appreciate others’ feelings and become loyal friends and mates. We’re intuitive, spiritual, and can sense energy.
We have a special appreciation for the natural world and feel at home there. We resonate with nature, plants, forests and gardens. We often love water. Whether we are soaking in the womb of warm water in a bath or living by the ocean or a river, it energizes us. We may feel special intuitive bonds with our animal companions and become involved with animal rescue or animal communication.
What is the biggest challenge for empaths in intimate relationships?
Empaths have different requirements in a relationship for it to work. Empaths need a lot of alone time. They sometimes need separate beds or even bedrooms. Empaths get overstimulated with “too much togetherness” and need to authentically communicate this to their partners. Empaths are often unconsciously attracted to “unavailable people” who don’t let them come close enough to have all their fears of intimacy arise. It’s possible to have loving, healthy relationships if empaths can define and express their special needs.
What exactly is emotional contagion? And how does it impact the empathic person?
Research has shown that we actually “catch” other people’s emotions, and empaths are more prone to doing this because of their high sensitivities and openness. Research has shown that many people pick up the emotions of those around them. For instance, one crying infant will set off a wave of crying in a hospital ward. Or one person loudly expressing anxiety in the workplace can spread it to other workers. People commonly catch other people’s feelings in groups.
A recent New York Times article stated that this ability to synchronize moods with others is crucial for good relationships. What is the lesson for empaths? To choose positive people in our lives so we’re not brought down by negativity. Or, if, say a friend is going through a hard time, take special precautions to ground and center yourself. These are important strategies you’ll learn in this book.
An old cliché is that women are more sensitive than men. Does gender play a role when it comes to being an empath?
I have a Facebook empath support community with over 6,000 people and most of them are women! Women tend to be more open in expressing their emotions, and take on a lot of stress and get drained. Men are also empaths (of course!) but sensitive boys have often been shamed for their sensitivities so they shut them off as adults. I embrace sensitive men, and urge them to come out of the empath closet and shine!
Do empaths have to be especially careful about exposing themselves to negative news coverage and social media?
Because empaths have such big hearts, they often hurt very deeply too. For all my empath patients, I suggest limiting their exposure to the news so they don’t start absorbing the suffering of the world. This doesn’t mean that we don’t keep informed. It means we get the basics and don’t allow sensitive selves to be demolished by the massive suffering. I also recommend news and technology fasts so that empaths can regenerate themselves in nature or during quiet time.
What is the neuroscience behind being an empath?
In the book, I discuss five intriguing research findings. Empaths may have hyperactive mirror neuron systems which heighten our compassion for loved ones and fellow humankind. Other findings include the possibility that empaths are reading the information in other people’s electromagnetic fields (such as those around the heart and brain.) Also, how we process dopamine, the pleasure hormone, is a factor. Empaths don’t require as much dopamine stimulation to be happy — but extroverted people who aren’t empaths do. They can’t get enough of parties and high stimulation events, whereas empaths love their alone time and quiet meditation. They need a lower amount of dopamine input to be content.
Why is empathy so important in our world today?
Empathy will help us know what it’s like to be in other people’s shoes. It will foster compassion in a divided world. It will help our families and the world come together in harmony. We all desperately need to develop and practice more empathy to bring our troubled planet together. Empathy is the most important quality we need in our world today!
To learn more about the power of empathy, Dr. Orloff’s book tour schedule, and to sign up for her Empath Support Newsletter visit www.drjudithorloff.com.