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An Interview With Dr. Judith Orloff: The Empath's Survival Guide

by Laurie Sue Brockway


The Empath’s Survival Guide is a book that offers life strategies for sensitive people who need help staying centered and hopeful in a sometimes vexing world. But it also shows us how to hone our gift of empathy to make the world a better place.

     No one knows the joys and challenges of being an empath better than Judith Orloff, MD.  

She was born with second sight, into a family of 25 physicians and several generations of healers. She struggled in her early life to find a way to cope with and then finally embraced her gift of intuition. Her journey led her to devote her life to helping others.

Her latest 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, “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 universe because I can feel the energy of all things. 
Is being an empath something people inherit from their parents?

Many factors can contribute. Some babies enter the world with more sensitivity than others—an inborn temperament. You can actually see it when they come out of the womb. They’re much more responsive to light, smells, touch, movement, temperature, and sound.  Also, from what I’ve observed with my patients, some sensitivity may be genetically transmitted. Highly sensitive children can come from mothers and fathers with the same traits. In addition, parenting plays a role. Childhood neglect or abuse can affect your sensitivity levels as an adult. A portion of empaths I’ve treated have experienced early trauma such as emotional or physical abuse, or they were raised by alcoholic, depressed or narcissistic parents. This could potentially wear down the usual healthy defenses that a child with nurturing parents develops.

What is the difference between an empath and a Highly Sensitive Person?
 
Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) have all the sensory components of extreme sensitivity such as sensitivity to light, sound, touch, crowds, but empaths actually absorb emotions/energy/stress/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 active mirror neurons to increase our compassion.

In your book you explain there are many types of empaths. Which are the most common? 
 
· Physical Empaths. They are especially attuned to other people’s physical symptoms and tend to absorb them into their own bodies. They can also be energized by someone’s sense of well-being.

 · Emotional Empaths. They mainly pick up other people’s emotions and can become a sponge for their feelings, both happy and sad.

· Intuitive Empaths. They experience extraordinary perceptions such as intuition, telepathy, messages in dreams, animal and plant communication, as well as contact with the Other Side. Under this category you find a range of empaths with abilities from mediumship to empaths attuned to earth changes.   

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 marvel-ous 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 other’s 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. 

Do empaths have less ability to defend against stress and stressful people than other people? 

Yes, because empaths are so open they absorb the energy around them—so they are susceptible to stress. But when an empath uses the protection techniques I present in the book they have extra defenses against stress so empaths can be resilient and thrive.

What are some examples of protection techniques for empaths?

Empaths must learn to center themselves so that when stress hits they are not knocked over. Techniques I recommend are shielding your energy, meditation, Earthing (going barefoot on the earth), setting clear limits and boundaries with draining people, breathing techniques, and learning how to navigate intimate relationships so you don’t feel suffocated. These are all part of the empath tool kit. 

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.  

You write that there are introverted empaths and extroverted empaths. How does the feel-good hormone Dopamine come into play with each? 

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that increases the activity of neurons and is associated with the pleasure response. Research has shown that introverted empaths tend to have a higher sensitivity to dopamine than extroverts. Basically, they need less dopamine to feel happy. That could explain why they are more content with alone time, reading, and meditation and need less external stim-ulation from parties and other large social gatherings.  In contrast, extroverts crave the dopamine rush from lively events. In fact, they can’t get enough of it.  

Many empaths tend to absorb other peoples’ issues, energies, and emotions like a sponge. Is there an explanation for this?

Empaths don’t have the usual defense mechanisms that most people have. We don’t have the same filters. For empaths, it’s like holding something with 50 fingers instead of 5. Because of this, we tend to feel other people’s stress and symptoms in our own bodies. In addition, we can feel their joy, compassion and well-being in our bodies, a major advantage of being an empath. 

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 6000 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 by 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!

Are there certain things that agitate empaths almost all the time, like loud music, crowds, or people with vexing personalities? 

Many empaths like myself, can’t tolerate loud noise, bright light, crowded shopping malls, or draining people I call energy vampires. They also can’t tolerate yelling—it pierces right through them—so I have a “no yelling rule” in my house and life. Empaths also don’t like small talk because they prefer going deep. 

Why do empaths and narcissists often have a fatal attraction?

In the book I discuss the toxic attraction between empaths and narcissists. Narcissists are self-absorbed charmers who can feign empathy in the beginning but really have what science calls an “empathy deficient disorder.” They are attracted to the empath’s loving heart and desire to give. Empaths, who are so giving and often naive, are attracted to the narcissist’s charm and charismatic energy, feeling that all the narcissist needs is love. This is the trap that empaths fall into. Narcissists cannot usually be cured by love because they see others as “the problem’.  I tell my empath patients to run as far as they can away from narcissists so they don’t get involved!

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 our 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 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 get your copy of The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People 
visit http://www.amazon.com/Empaths-Survival-Guide-Strategies-Sensitive/dp/1622036573


To learn more about the power of empathy, Dr. Orloff’s book tour schedule, her weekend workshop July 20-30 at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA, and to sign up for her Empath Support Newsletter visit www.drjudithorloff.com.

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Maureen St Germain
Empaths Survival Guide
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Melissa Joy
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Alternatives For Healing
Holistic Educational Programs
Laura Norman Reflexology
Denali Institute
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