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Thriving as an Empath

An Interview with Judith Orloff, MD

Illustration by Misty Mawn

For 20 years, Judith Orloff has helped make being an empath “something that caring characters would aspire towards.” She shares practices from a lifetime of overcoming shame and creating empowerment.

Spirituality & Health: How has being an empath changed over the years?

Judith Orloff: I was born an empath and I didn’t have any words to explain it. I thought there was something wrong with me. And my parents would say, “Oh, you’ll have to get a thicker skin.” I was ashamed of my abilities and wished that I could be taken on a spaceship to another planet where hopefully someone would understand me. When I started writing about being an empath in the late ’90s, it seemed nobody knew about them. But my previous book, The Empath Survival Guide, shot into the stratosphere. It’s been a major awakening of consciousness for many people. Empaths now have a name for their experience, and they can relate and they can say, “There’s not something wrong with me. I’m sensitive. I’m spiritual. I’m intuitive. I’m open. And isn’t this incredible?”

Recently I was watching my favorite show, Billions on Showtime, and one of the head Wall Street guys in a conference room says, “Well, I’m not an empath.” He said it in a derogatory way, but I got a thrill because the word “empath” has been integrated into our culture, and it was clear that being an empath is something that caring characters would aspire towards.

There’s a gift to being different. Now more people can identify themselves as empaths and understand that they need to practice self-care techniques in order to maximize the gifts and minimize their discomfort from it.

From my own life I know that there are empath tools that are incredibly empowering. But the tools are not something you do just once. It’s an ongoing practice. That’s why I wrote my new book, Thriving as an Empath: 365 Days of Self-Care for Sensitive People, to give people daily self-care tools to alleviate the challenges of being an empath and to provide strategies to optimize and stretch even further with your gifts.

These daily practices can help people to keep feeling stronger inside rather than like a wispy feather who blows over at the slightest challenge. Empaths can keep deepening their gifts.

S&H: One thing we’ve learned recently is that some people can detect the Earth’s magnetic field in the same way that migratory birds do. These people are so sensitive that they could potentially navigate a ship across the ocean. It’s a marvelous time to be exploring different kinds of sensitivities.

JO: It’s a revelation! And when empaths really begin to grasp how far they can go with this and how deep and powerful it is, oh, it’s fun. And it’s deeply spiritual.

I have a Taoist practice, and being aware of the cycles of nature is an innate part of it. My love of the seasons and love of the equinoxes and the solstices brought me to the question: how can I integrate that in a toolbook for empaths to make it practical and miraculous at the same time?

For example, the peaking light of the summer solstice: Is it too bright? Too hot? How does it help you expand your gifts? How can you maximize your life so you can use the solstices as teachers? I’ve also included the cycles of the moon in the book because the new moon and a full moon are particularly auspicious days to meditate. Nature and spirit and God, it’s all connected to me.

S&H: What was the shift when you realized that being an empath was empowering rather than something to fight against?

JO: When the shame began to lift. I had incredible shame about this aspect of myself because it was always minimized, put down—I felt almost like the bad seed. Now I want to offer people as much support as possible so they don’t have to feel the way I did. Often, we go through something in our lives that’s difficult in order to help others not have to experience the same thing. And I feel like my life has been that way. I’ve tried to use the difficulties I’ve had as learnings to help others.

S&H: I had always thought of people who are autistic as being cut off—the opposite of empathic. And it’s been a revelation for me to learn that autistic people are not cut off at all. I wonder about your thoughts on that?

JO: I often get asked about the difference between autism and being an empath. I think some people with autism are empaths, but there’s a separate process. The sensitivity is similar in the sense of being so overwhelmed that you can’t even talk. You don’t want to be near people because the energy is just too much. But it’s easier for an empath to say, “Okay, I’m overwhelmed. I need to decrease my stimulation.” Because of the neurological element with autism, they don’t really have that ability to say, “Okay, I’m going to use this tool.”

S&H: So being an empath is a much easier tool to use once you’ve figured out what it is?

JO: Exactly. The key is figuring it out because the traditional medical system will medicate and pathologize empaths. They won’t have the verbiage and terminology to say, “You don’t just have panic disorder. You don’t just have major depression. You’re an empath.” What the empaths really need to learn are self-care skills. Instead, the empath is typically left with, “Oh my God, I have a psychiatric disorder”—and a prescription.

S&H: What about the over-empowered empath? The grandiosity of sensitivity? What’s the process for reigning that in?

JO: That’s a big problem. The minute you get into that, you lose. That isn’t what this path is about. You know, your ego kicks in and you think, “Oh, I’m so sensitive, I’m so powerful, I’m better than other people.” When I work with patients or I mentor empaths, if that comes up, we openly talk about it. It’s something I talk about in my workshop as a potential challenge on the path. I always tell people, never get too impressed with yourself.

I warn people about this and a lot of times it works, but sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes audiences give up their power to somebody who says they have a power. And unless the teacher is working with that very carefully, that’s not a good thing. As a workshop leader, you always have to reflect back: “Mirror, mirror, what you see in me is what you have.”

S&H: How do you find balance?

JO: If you’re an empath, you need to practice self-care. There’s no way around it. I was talking to an empath the other day and she said, “I can’t set boundaries. I can’t say no. I feel too guilty.” So I said, “You’re going to be miserable—until you practice doing something else.”

You have to learn to deal with the psychological dynamics of what stops you from feeling capable of saying no. If it destroys you to disappoint somebody, you have to learn that it’s inevitable to disappoint people. It’s hard for empaths to stomach that. It’s being a grown-up.

An empath has to learn that sometimes you can help people and sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you’re just too tired, and that’s okay. You can tell people, “I’m sorry, I’m too tired. I don’t have it in me. I wish I could, but I can’t.” That’s okay.

It all takes practice. I love Thriving as an Empath because if you have some dilemma, you can turn to any page and get your answer, almost like oracle cards.

S&H: Okay. I just opened your book to August 6. The practice for the day is “Ask Yourself: What Are My Self-Care Requirements and How Can I Meet Them?” So, doctor, what are your self-care requirements today, and how are you going to meet them?

JO: Alright. I thought about that already this morning. What came to my mind was this: I am walking by the ocean today. I am meditating by my altar with all the windows open so I can hear the surf from my altar. I am being quiet. That’s enough.

S&H: That’s lovely. And is that part of your daily practice—waking up and asking, “What do I need to do for myself today?”

JO: The minute I wake up, I go to my meditation space and I put my hands together and I start my day with reverence. And as part of that bow, as part of that sitting, I’m open to whatever guidance needs to come through for me that day. And every night before I go to sleep, I close the day with reverence. I go to my meditation space and I bow and I sit. That’s just how I do everything. I think it’s so important to show reverence to spirit.

S&H: The practice on the previous page is “A Small Dose of People.” What does that mean?

That means it’s okay to be with people for a half hour, five minutes, an hour, whatever feels right. If a friend comes to visit, you don’t have to visit for five hours and listen to the friend talk about everything under the sun if you don’t want to. When I went out to visit with a friend the other day, she asked, “How much time do you have?” It’s a beautiful question. A small dose of people is okay. Empaths are afraid they’re going to get trapped places because they can’t say no.

S&H: Okay. On February 21, it says, “Release Your Partner’s Stress.”

Well, one of the huge dilemmas of being in a relationship, living with somebody or being close to somebody, is that you as an empath can absorb their stress. It’s a process I go through with my own partner because it hugely affects me when he brings frantic energy in the house. Thank god he’s capable of listening to me and changing because stress in my home is toxic.

If I’m alone, I don’t have much stress. I just get up, eat, write, look at the ocean, take a bath, go to the gym. I usually don’t do much that’s stressful. But he’s involved in business stuff and wears it tightly sometimes. And his tension feels like radiation to me. It sounds like hyperbole, but it’s truly how it feels to me. You must have a partner who can at least hear you, and he does.

S&H: That’s very different from going off and living in a cave …

JO: Which I have. Except for long-distance relationships and shorter relationships, the six years with this man is my first real foray into intimate relationships. It’s like an art form really. And I don’t believe that people need to live with anybody or be in a relationship. It’s only what you do if you’re moved to do it—if it’s part of your spiritual path. Some empaths prefer living alone. I prefer being in a relationship. That said, we don’t live in the same house.

You don’t have to sleep in the same bed to sleep in the same house. You don’t have to eat every meal together. I want to give empaths permission to make themselves more comfortable and healthy in relationships rather than sitting there and suffering, which is what they do. And then they get anxious, then they get depressed, and they start feeling alienated and go to the doctor and get put on Prozac, which is all in the wrong direction.

Let’s say you don’t want to sleep with someone every night. Give yourself permission to be honest about that. Let’s say you feel better sleeping in your own bed three times a week or four times a week or one time a week. For empaths, it’s just so important. Otherwise the sensory overload starts to build and, believe me, it is painful.

When I’m in sensory overload, I feel like nothing is possible. I just want to get out of the relationship. I want to get out of the job, I want to just go in my cave and be alone. That’s it. When you’re triggered in sensory overload, you don’t want to risk saying anything to anybody.

Instead, before you say something you regret, you need to just go off on your own and take care of yourself. This book tells what to do when you go into sensory overload. What to do with your partner’s stress. What I love about this book, and I’ve never written a book like this before, is that it’s short and quick. You can just read the two paragraphs and that’s all you need to do.

S&H: I can already tell it works.

JO: I wouldn’t put it in the book if it didn’t work because these are the strategies I use and that are so dear to my own heart.

Excerpt: 

December 29 

All Is Well (and Getting Better in Every Dimension!) 

In the Buddhist tradition, “haola” (pronounced howla) means “all is well and getting better.” You can use this mantra to release worry and fear. During quiet moments, repeat “haola” inwardly or softly chant it a few times. I learned this inspiring practice from Master Mingtong Gu as he led us through the ancient movements of chi gong practice at his center in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

There is no need to worry or be afraid. Keep shedding layers of concern and anxiety. When you encounter obstacles and fear, keep breathing through them.

SET YOUR INTENTION

I am excited about what my life will bring and my ongoing learning as an empath. I will focus on the brightness of my future and the surprises that lie ahead.