I had a chance to interview Dr. Judith Orloff, author of The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People (Sounds True, April 2017), which I reviewed on this site. Dr. Orloff specializes in treating highly sensitive people, known as “empaths,” in her medical practice.
In your book, you mention that some twenty percent of people have high sensitivities. How do they perceive the world differently?
Most people experience empathy, or the ability to feel someone else’s happiness or distress, but being an empath goes further. Empaths actually sense what others are feeling in their own bodies. The positive side of this is that they can take on the joy and well being in others.
The challenge is that they can also take on other people’s stress, anxiety and other unpleasant emotions as well. This can cause empaths to become exhausted or emotionally and physically stressed. As a psychiatrist and empath, I wrote this book to share with all sensitive people how to protect their sensitivities so they don’t become drained. Then they can really enjoy the benefits of being an empath.
Are empaths born with their heightened perceptions, or can these be acquired?
Many babies come in the world with this heightened sensitivity. There’s a chapter in the book on raising children who are empaths. It’s so important that these children get support so they can grow up to be caring, empathic people without becoming exhausted by compassion fatigue.
On my book tour, I’ve seen a rise in empaths. Everyone is being inundated with so much stress on global and personal levels, their defenses are beaten down. They feel more vulnerable, and don’t know how to practice self-care regarding their sensitivities.
What are the advantages of being an empath?
In my work with empathic patients, I try to maximize the advantages of being an empath and minimize the disadvantages. Empaths are compassionate, giving and intuitive, with big hearts. They can have deep, loving relationships with friends, family and significant others. They often go into the helping professions to satisfy their desire to do good and better the world. They feel a deep connection to nature and animals, and replenish themselves in the natural world.
Are there disadvantages?
Because empaths are so open and don’t have the same filters that other people do, they often take on the angst of the world. As a result, they may suffer from depression, anxiety, panic, agoraphobia or ongoing exhaustion. They also tend to become caregivers and tend to over-give, causing them to suffer from compassion fatigue and burnout. In addition, they’re prone to becoming drained by people I call energy vampires, who suck the positivity out of others. That’s why empaths need to learn strategies to avoid absorbing other people’s stress and emotions yet still maintain their own loving hearts.
What are some of the most effective survival strategies for empaths?
It’s important for empaths to learn breathing exercises. By slowly breathing in to a count of six and out to a count of six, then repeating this three times, empaths can relax and releases stress out of the body. It’s also important to learn to set limits with people who drain their energy, such as narcissists, chronic talkers and other types I describe in the book.
I also suggest a three-minute meditation to connect to one’s center during a busy day — becoming quiet for three minutes to focus on a beautiful, soothing image, and staying in this peaceful state for a short time to boost energy and clarity. Or head outdoors to replenish. And many empaths I know love taking long, luxurious baths.
Learn more at Dr. Orloff’s web site.