While waiting in line at a store the other day, I was forced to listen as two people behind me engaged in a loud conversation. I felt annoyed by the disturbance, but not assaulted by it. Still, it made me think of a close friend of mine. In the same situation, he would have experienced the tense conversation as a sensory and emotional overload, and would have been unable to stay in line. His kind of sensitivity is beautifully addressed in Dr. Judith Orloff’s The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People (Sounds True, April, 2017). This meaningful new book explains the nature of being an empath, a kind of sensitivity that affects some 20 percent of the population. It also contains invaluable and practical coping tips for empaths who just want to make it through the day unscathed.
I was drawn to Dr. Orloff’s book precisely because of my good friend. The world is a minefield of potentially difficult interactions for him. As Dr. Orloff explains, empaths not only empathize with other people, they feel what others are feeling. While often gifted with special qualities — intuition, creativity, spiritual connection, and even telepathy — empaths lack the filters others have to block out stimulation. They have no protection against feeling another’s emotional or physical pain. In other words, they’re both blessed and cursed.
Dr. Orloff is an empath herself whose medical practice specializes in treating highly sensitive people. She’s uniquely qualified to provide guidance on how to get by. Much of The Empath’s Survival Guide is devoted to self-protection strategies for defending against sensory exhaustion, from taking daily vitamins and supplements to treat adrenal fatigue, to repeating the mantra, “Return to sender,” when unwillingly absorbing another’s negativity.
There’s a chapter devoted to empaths entering into romantic relationships: empaths should make sure their partners are sensitive to their need for quiet and alone time. A chapter on empaths and addictions offers solutions on how to stop leaning on alcohol or overeating to help mask the pain (it won’t work). There’s even a chapter for parents raising empathic children, which my good friend may wish his own parents had read.
This is a book that serves many readers, including friends of empaths. I found myself far better equipped after reading it to support and appreciate my friend’s sensitivities. It reinforced my instinct that there’s no use in arguing when he needs to change tables at a restaurant, or is instantly low after riding in the elevator with a stranger in emotional pain. I understand even more acutely the futility of making comments to distract or redirect his focus. Instead, I’ll give him the space to reset, or encourage him to go out into nature.
Sadly, as Dr. Orloff writes, the medical world often misdiagnoses empaths with sensory processing disorder, anxiety or depression, and treats them ineffectively with anti-anxiety medications. Parents of empaths often misunderstand childrens’ sensitivities, and tell them to “buck up.” Teachers may shame their students for overreacting. Such errors in judgment make this book all the more important.
The Empath’s Survival Guide contributes to a better awareness of just what empaths have to go through, and why they have such heightened perceptions. Empaths live among us —they’re our coworkers, neighbors, our family members, our icons. Albert Einstein, Princess Diana and Winona Ryder are on the list, as was Abraham Lincoln. We can learn much from their capacity compassion and mutual understanding — and we can help them better manage this hectic world. After I read this book, I went out and bought a pair of noise-cancelling ear buds for my friend, as advised by Dr. Orloff. I’m sure they’ll be appreciated.
Learn more about Dr. Orloff and her book at her web site.