As a sensitive person, there is much to be grateful for: you are capable of experiencing exquisite passion and joy. You can perceive the big picture on a deeper level. You are attuned to the beauty, poetry, and energy of life. Your compassion gives you the capacity to help others. You are not callous or shut off or coldhearted. Your sensitivities allow you to be caring, vulnerable, and aware. You have a special relationship to nature. You feel a kinship with animals, flowers, trees, and clouds. You may be drawn to the peace of the wilderness, the quiet of the desert, the red rock canyons, the forests, or the vastness of the ocean. You may dance under the full moon and feel her loveliness in your body. You know how to become one with the serenity of nature. You want to protect the earth, our mother, and conserve her precious resources. Empaths have the power to positively change themselves, their families, and the rest of the world.
Empaths represent a new model for leadership by being vulnerable and strong. We can have a huge effect on humanity by promoting mutual understanding—the path to peace in our personal lives and globally. But such revolutions will stick only when the inner emotional and spiritual work is done by the revolutionaries. Then, outer positive changes—political, social, and environmental—are possible. Through our sensitivity we can create a compassion revolution and save the world.
Sensitivity is the path to nonviolence. We can be the healers and restorers and seers and lovers if we keep our sensitivities open and stay centered in our power. We don’t have to be afraid of who we are. My advice to you is: do good and be good—the rest will follow. A commitment to this goal is critical because there is a quickening in the world, a speeding up of time, and we need to take a stand. The more empowered you become, the more you can embody the change that the world needs. Here are three steps distilled from my new book, The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, to help keep you healthy, grounded, and empowered.
Step 1. Stop Absorbing Other People’s Distress
An empath’s body is different from other people’s bodies. We feel everything. Our bodies are porous, so we absorb the positive and negative energies around us into our muscles, tissues, and organs. This can affect our health in many important ways. On the positive side, we’re able to sense other people’s vitality, happiness, and love within ourselves. This feels amazing and is such good medicine! However, we can also feel other people’s physical discomfort, stress, and negative emotions, such as frustration, anger, and fear (even when they’re unspoken). As empaths, we can get tired and sick when we’re around toxic people, noise, violence, rushing, and yelling.
We can even manifest what I call “empathic illnesses,” where we experience someone else’s physical symptoms as if they were our own. As I child, when I’d get on the bus, my mood would suddenly change. I’d start feeling the anxiety or pain of the person beside me. Or I’d go into a giant grocery store feeling perfectly fine yet leave exhausted and tense or with an ache or a pain I didn’t have before. I had no idea then that I was being overwhelmed by dizzying aisles of food choices, noxious fluorescent lighting, and the long lines of people. What all this eventually told me about myself, and my patients, was that certain settings are more stressful for empaths and that other people’s emotions and symptoms can get stuck in our bodies. For instance, one of my patients, Alicia, actually felt her asthmatic sister’s shortness of breath in her own body, even though she didn’t have the condition. Another patient, Brian, was so connected to his wife that his hand would hurt in sympathy with flare-ups in her arthritis. Some illnesses are totally empathic.
More often, picking up other people’s disease will aggravate symptoms an empath already has. In severe cases, empathic illnesses can leave people chronically ill, housebound, and paralyzed by social anxiety. Empaths are prone to social anxiety because they’re overwhelmed by the multiple spoken and unspoken signals people give off in groups; empaths are also sensitive to rejection. These individuals become so exhausted and burned out from feeling the world’s stress that they can’t function. Because conventional medicine does not believe in the existence of the body’s subtle energy system, most doctors have no context for understanding what’s going on with empaths or how to relieve their suffering.
Over 20 years ago, when I first started treating empaths in my psychotherapy practice, I didn’t know how to adequately help them with their symptoms. I was just learning to cope with being an empath myself. However, when I took a careful history, I found that most of these patients were in close contact with a loved one or coworker in distress and were unknowingly absorbing that person’s emotions and symptoms. I could relate because I did this, too! Other empaths responded strongly to changes in the natural world. I had one patient whose back pain grew worse during thunderstorms. Some experienced seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a depression that occurs in the winter, when days are shorter and darker. Also, many empaths felt more restless and anxious on a full moon, while calm on a new moon.
Realizing the exquisite sensitivities of empaths and their inability to modulate them has significantly changed how I treat these patients. My job has become about teaching them to ground and to set healthy boundaries to protect themselves. The correct treatment for empathic illnesses is to train these sensitive people to stop absorbing the energy and stress of others, rather than medicating their symptoms. Then they can stop fighting exhaustion and overwhelm and experience vibrant health.
Step 2. Get Grounded
The earth’s energy is medicine for stressed-out humans. Grounding is an essential skill to keep you strong. Focusing on your feet, not your fears or sense of overwhelm, is a quick way to center yourself.
The ideal way to ground is to take off your shoes, allow your feet to settle in the moist earth under your special tree or special place, and quietly soak up the energy of the Mother. Do this whenever you can. Whenever you feel overloaded, anxious, or fearful, take some quiet time to go back to that place in your mind and lower your stimulation level. Being alone to recharge will help you decompress. Remember to turn off the computer and phone. Sit in a comfortable position and take a few deep breaths to relax your body. Feel the stillness and ease as tension begins to melt away. There is nothing to do and nothing to be. Just breathe and relax. When thoughts come, let them drift by like clouds in the sky. Do not attach to them.
Focus only on slowly inhaling, and then exhaling. Feel stress leaving your body as you connect to a sense of serenity. In this tranquil inner space, visualize your tree, with a wide, strong trunk that extends down the center of your body, from head to toe. Take a few moments to feel its power and vibrant energy. Then visualize the tree’s roots growing from the bottom of your feet and rooting down into the ground, making their way deeper and deeper, creating a comforting sense of solidity. Focus on these roots when you are anxious or afraid. Let the roots anchor you into Mother Earth, stabilizing you. Rooting yourself in this way provides an inner strength that will keep you centered and protected when life gets overwhelming. As you gently and slowly open your eyes, continue to feel the sensation of grounding. Come back to the outer world knowing that you can use this visualization to anchor yourself whenever you get thrown off balance.
Step 3. Grow Your Community
Sensitive souls are, by nature, what I call “coempathic,” which means our sensitivities can be amplified in wonderful ways by being around other positive, sensitive people. To reinforce one another’s gifts and offer mutual understanding, I encourage you to form Empath Support Groups in your location, which can consist of a few people or more. The beauty of community is that we can help one another. Being “seen” by even one person brings great solace to a sensitive soul. A group also offers a healthy perspective on managing sensitivity. Empaths tend to take themselves quite seriously (which increases their stress) because life feels so overwhelming. However, veteran empaths who have traveled this path and have learned coping strategies can show others how to lighten up and find amazing solutions to overwhelming dilemmas. This can provide merciful relief and grounding when we are on sensory overload. Having a community of kindred souls helps empaths survive and thrive.
To create an Empath Support Group, invite empaths and other highly sensitive people with whom you feel comfortable. It’s best to meet in a private home or a quiet area in a park for 60 to 90 minutes weekly, semimonthly, or monthly, whatever works best. Decide if you want to limit the group to a certain size—and whether the group is by invitation only or open to the public. Your group can be anywhere from two people to 50 or more. Formulate a short mission statement. State that the purpose of the group is to focus on issues and solutions rather than turning the meeting into a pity party. (See an example of a mission statement under “Empath Support” at drjudithorloff.com.)
One member—that’s probably you!—should volunteer as the group leader, committing to this role for one to six months. Before each meeting, the leader invites a speaker from within or outside the group to share his or her experiences and solutions as a sensitive person. The leader welcomes everyone to the meeting and reads the mission statement to the group. Then have a two-minute group mediation or silent period to decompress and become fully present. For the first few meetings, the speaker should select and read pages from The Empath’s Survival Guide or choose a section of the audio program Essential Tools for Empaths for the group to listen to. Then the speaker discusses the topic for 10 minutes before the meeting is opened for sharing. Allow three to five minutes per person with no crosstalk and then finish with a group practice or meditation and a final empath affirmation. The goal of all this is for everyone to leave feeling healthy, grounded, and empowered for the ongoing work of the compassion revolution.
I will treasure myself and vow to have people in my life who treasure me. I will use my sensitivities to better my own life and the world. I will celebrate the adventure of being an empath.
- Remember Your Own Empathy-in-Action
- Remember a time when you were able to empathize with your spouse’s pain and you helped him or her with the depth of love you offered.
- Remember a time when you tuned into your intuition, and you just knew what the best choice was. By listening to your inner voice, you were able to pick the right job, the right relationships, or the right teacher.
- Remember a time when you were afraid, and you didn’t know what to do. But instead of putting yourself down or obsessing on the fear, you showed empathy and compassion for yourself. This loving attitude got you through the fearful period.
- Remember a time when a friend experienced a terrible relationship breakup and you were supportive and loved her though her pain.