The Empath’s Survival Guide: How to Thrive as a Highly Sensitive Person
BY JUDITH ORLOFF, MD
being an empath means that you will face unique challenges and opportunities in life due to your empathic abilities and with a little understanding of how it all works, you can do more than just hold it together—you can thrive.
Are You an Empath? An Introduction to Empathy
I’m a physician with fourteen years of conventional medical training at USC and UCLA.
I am also an empath. In my medical practice of over two decades, I specialize in treating highly sensitive people like myself. Empaths are emotional sponges who absorb both the stress and joy of the world. We feel everything, often to an extreme, and have little guard up between ourselves and others. As a result, we often become overwhelmed by excessive stimulation and are prone to exhaustion and sensory overload.
I’m so passionate about this topic both professionally and personally because I’ve had to develop specific strategies to manage the challenges of being empathic myself. These allow me to protect my sensitivities so I can maximize their benefits–and there are so many! I want to share with you how to become a balanced, empowered, and happy empath. To thrive, you must learn ways to avoid taking on the energy, symptoms, and stress of others. I also want to educate your loved ones and peers—family, coworkers, bosses, parents, and romantic partners—on how best to support and communicate with you. In this book, I will show you how to accomplish these goals.
I offer The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People as a resource for kindred sensitive souls to find understanding and acceptance in a world that’s often coarse, heartless, and disdainful of sensitivity. In it, I challenge the status quo and create a new normal for how to view sensitivity. Through this book, its companion audio program, and my workshops for empathic people, I want to create a community of support so that you can find your tribe, be authentic, and shine. I want to support a movement of people who honor their sensitivities.
My message to you is one of hope and acceptance. On the empath journey, I encourage you to embrace your gifts and manifest your full power. If you feel as if you don’t fit in this world, it’s because you’re here to create a better one.
What Is an Empath?
Empaths have an extremely sensitive neurological system. Empathic people don’t have the same filters that other people do to block out stimulation. As a consequence, we absorb into our own bodies both the positive and stressful energies around us. We are so sensitive it’s like holding something in a hand that has 50 fingers instead of five. We are truly super-responders.
Research shows that high sensitivity affects approximately 20 percent of the population.
Empaths have often been labeled as “overly sensitive” as children and adults and told to “get a thicker skin.” We are shamed for our empathic sensitivities rather than supported. We may experience chronic exhaustion and want to retreat from the world because it often feels so overwhelming.
But at this point in my life, I wouldn’t give up being an empath for anything. It lets me sense the secrets of the universe and know passion beyond my wildest dreams.
However, my empathic abilities haven’t always felt this incredible to me.
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The Empath Experience
Let’s explore in more detail the empath experience. See if you relate personally or have a loved one or colleague who qualifies as being an empath.
First, what is the difference between ordinary empathy and being empathic? Ordinary empathy means our heart goes out to another person when they are going through a difficult period. It also means that we can be happy for others during their times of joy. Being an empath, though, we actually sense other people’s emotions, energy, and physical symptoms in our bodies without the usual filters that most people have. We can experience other people’s sorrow and also their joy. We are super-sensitive to other’s tone of voice and body movements. We can hear what they don’t say in words but communicate nonverbally and through silence. Empaths feel things first, then think, which is the opposite of how most people function in our over-intellectualized society. There is no membrane that separates us from the world. This makes us very different from other people who have their defenses up almost from the time they were born.
Empaths share all the traits of what Dr. Elaine Aron has called “Highly Sensitive People,” or HSPs. These include a low threshold for stimulation, the need for alone time, sensitivity to light sound, and smell, plus an aversion to large groups. It also takes highly sensitive people longer to wind down after a busy day since their system’s ability to transition from high stimulation to being quiet is slower. Empathic people share a highly sensitive person’s love of nature and quiet environments.
However, empaths take the experience of the highly sensitive person much further. We can sense subtle energy, which is called shakti or prana in Eastern healing traditions, and absorb it into our own bodies. Highly sensitive people don’t typically do that. This capacity allows us to experience the energies around us in extremely deep ways. Since everything is made of subtle energy, including emotions and physical sensations, we energetically internalize the feelings and pain of others. We often have trouble distinguishing someone else’s discomfort from our own.
Also, some empaths have profound spiritual and intuitive experiences which aren’t usually associated with highly sensitive people. Some are able to communicate with animals, nature, and their inner guides. But being a highly sensitive person and empathic are not mutually exclusive: you can be both at the same time.
To determine if you are an empath, see if you relate to one or more of these types.
General Types of Empaths
1. Physical Empaths
You are especially attuned to other people’s physical symptoms and tend to absorb them into your body. You also can become energized by someone’s sense of well-being.
2. Emotional Empaths
You mainly pick up other people’s emotions and can become a sponge for their feelings, both happy and sad.
3. Intuitive Empaths
You experience extraordinary perceptions such as intuition, telepathy, messages in dreams, animal and plant communication, as well as contact with the Other Side. The types of these empaths include:
Telepathic & Psychic empaths. You receive intuitive information about others in present time.
Precognitive empaths. You have premonitions about the future while awake or in dreams.
Dream empaths. You are an avid dreamer and can receive intuitive information through dreams that helps others and guides your life.
Mediumship empaths. You can access spirits on the Other Side.
Plant empaths. You can feel the needs of plants and connect with their essence.
Earth Empaths. You are attuned to changes in the Earth, solar system, and weather.
Animal empaths. You can tune into animals and communicate with them.
Empaths have diverse and beautifully nuanced sensitivities. You may be one or more of the above types. In future chapters, I’ll also discuss specific kinds of physical and emotional empaths such as food empaths (who are attuned to the energy of foods) and relationship and sexual empaths (who are attuned to their partner’s and friend’s moods, sensuality, and physical health).
As you learn to identify your special talents, they can enrich your life and you can use them for the good of others.
Styles of Relating: Introverted and Extroverted Empaths
Physical, emotional, and intuitive empaths can have different styles of socializing and interacting with the world. Most empathic people are introverted though some can also be extroverted.
Introverted empaths, like me, have a minimal tolerance for socializing and small talk. They tend to be quieter at gatherings and prefer leaving early. Often they arrive in their own cars so they don’t feel trapped or dependent on others for a ride.
I love my close circle of friends and mostly stay away from big parties or gatherings. I also don’t like small talk, and I’ve never learned to do it, which is common for the introverted type. I can socialize in groups for usually two to three hours before I feel overstimulated. My friends all know this about me and don’t take it personally if I excuse myself early.
In contrast, extroverted empaths are more verbal and interactive when socializing and enjoy the banter with others more than introverted empaths. They also can stay longer in social situations without getting exhausted or overstimulated.
Many empaths don’t like small talk. It exhausts them.
How Does Empathy Show Up and What Areas Does It Affect in Our Lives?
Empathy can be present in the following aspects of daily life.
Health. Many people with empathic abilities have come to see me feeling overwhelmed, fatigued and downright exhausted before they learn practical skills to cope with their sensitivities.
They have often been diagnosed with agoraphobia, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, migraines, chronic pain, allergies, and adrenal fatigue (a form of burnout). On an emotional level, they may experience anxiety, depression, and panic attacks.
Addictions. Many empaths turn to addictions–such as alcohol, drugs, food, sex, or shopping–to numb their sensitivities. Overeating is common. Unwittingly, you may use food to ground yourself. You can easily become overweight because the extra padding provides protection from negative energy.
Parenting. Empathic parents often feel especially overwhelmed and exhausted from the intense demands of child-rearing because they tend to absorb their children’s feelings and pain. In addition, empathic children can feel overwhelmed by their sensitivities. Their parents need special education to help these children and nurture their gifts.
Work. If you are empathic, you may feel drained by energy vampires at your job yet be at a loss to know how to set boundaries. You can learn to center and replenish yourself in a work environment which may have little privacy or excessive stimulation.
Extraordinary Perceptual Abilities. Your high sensitivities can make you more intuitive, able to sense people’s energy, and open to premonitions, animal communication, and dreams. In time, you’ll learn to become empowered by these empathic abilities in a grounded way.
Advantages and Challenges of Being Empathic
Being an empath has both advantages and challenges.
Common Advantages of Being Empathic
I cherish being and empathic person 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 marvelous 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, 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.
Empathic people often 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.
Common Challenges of Being Empathic
When you begin to deal with the challenges and gain more comfort as empath, you can really enjoy all the positives. The common challenges that I’ve seen with my patients and workshop participants include:
Becoming overstimulated. Since you don’t have the same defenses as others, as a person with empathic abilities you may often feel like raw nerve endings and can burn out easily. Without enough alone time to replenish or wind down each day, you may suffer from the toxic effects of excessive stimulation and sensory overload.
Absorbing the stress and negativity of others. Sometimes empathic people can’t tell the difference between your emotions or sensations from another’s. This can lead a variety of physical and emotional symptoms from pain to anxiety.
Feeling things intensely. You may be unable to watch violent or upsetting movies about people or animals because the brutality hurts too much. You may carry the weight of the world on your shoulders and feel the pain of others in your life or when you witness suffering in the news.
Experiencing emotional and social hangovers. When you’re around too many people or intense emotions, the malaise of sensory overload can linger long after the event when you are empathic.
Feeling isolated and lonely. Empaths may isolate themselves or keep themselves distant from people because the world seems so overwhelming. As a result, others may view you as stand-offish, but, in truth, you are hyper-vigilantly scanning your environment to make sure it’s safe. You may also freeze around inauthentic people, which can convey aloofness. But this is clearly a protective device.
Experiencing emotional burnout. The downside of being so compassionate is that people flock to you to tell you their life stories. Since I was a child, it was if I wore an invisible sign saying, “I can help you.” That’s why empaths must set clear boundaries with others and not “over-give.”
Coping with increased sensitivity to light, smell, taste, touch, temperature and sound. For myself and many empathic people, loud noises and bright lights are painful. They penetrate and shock our bodies. I hold my ears when an ambulance goes by. Also I can’t tolerate the explosive bomb blasts of fireworks. They startle me, similar to how a frightened dog reacts. Empaths have an enhanced startle response and are super-reactive to intense sensory input. Strong smells and chemicals such as exhaust and perfumes, make us feel queasy, allergic, or suffocated. We’re sensitive to temperature extremes, and may dislike air-conditioning. Our bodies can be energized or depleted by intense weather such a thunderstorm, gusty wind, or a snowfall. Many empaths get energized by a bright full moon; others are agitated by it.
Expressing needs in intimate relationships. You have specific empath-related needs when living in the same space or sharing a bed with someone. You may require separate space and sometimes separate beds to feel comfortable. It’s important to have conversations with your partner about your needs as an empath.
Empaths are not “overly sensitive.” They have a gift but must learn to manage their sensitivities.
Thriving as an Empath: Skills to Prevent Overload
Throughout this book, you’ll learn skills to manage the challenges and enhance the many advantages of being an empath. Although society may say you’re “too sensitive” and suggest that you “toughen up,” I encourage you to develop your sensitivities even more, yet stay centered with them. Being a person with empathic abilities is a huge asset when you learn to manage it. You’re not crazy, “neurotic,” a hypochondriac, or weak. You are a wonderful, sensitive person with a gift who needs tools to cope.
A skill that sensitive people must learn is how to deal with sensory overload when too much is coming at you too quickly. This can leave you exhausted, anxious, depressed, or sick.
Like many of us, you may feel there is no on/off switch for your empathy. This is not true. I’ll show you how to take charge of your sensitivities rather than feeling victimized by them. When you feel protected and safe, the world will become your playground.
To gain a sense of safety, recognize some common factors that contribute to empathy overload. Begin to identify your triggers. Then you can quickly act to remedy a situation.
What makes empathic overload symptoms worse? Fatigue, illness, rushing, traffic, crowds, loud environments, crowds, toxic people, low blood sugar, arguing, over-work, chemical sensitivities, too much socializing, and feeling trapped in over-stimulating situations such as parties or cruises. Any combination of these forces intensifies empathy overload. Therefore, keep in mind: Stress + Low blood sugar = Drama and Exhaustion.
What makes empathic overload symptoms better? When I experience sensory overload, I need to slow everything down and unplug from all stimulation. If it gets really intense, I feel like a flower that’s wilting and in need sustenance from stillness. Then, I often retreat to a room without sound or light and sleep or meditate to recalibrate myself at lower level of stimulation. Sometimes, isolation for a day or weekend is necessary if my sensory overload is extreme. Still, during those times, I may take short walks out in nature or limited trips out to do chores. The problem is, empaths often see things as all or nothing. Either they’re on the go in their lives or reclusive in the safe haven of home. I suggest that you moderate that radical stance so that you can find balance and not suffer undue loneliness or isolation. Listen to your intuition about what feels right. Each of us has to find our own way in honoring our needs.
To deal with overload, one patient told me, “Only one-to-one contact with people is bearable. Groups just feel too intense.” Another patient explained, “I decompress at night when everyone is sleeping, and the whole world is resting. The invisible energetic buzz quiets, and I can relax and focus.”
In addition, shielding is a basic skill I recommend to prevent empathic ability overload. It is a quick way to protect yourself. Many empaths rely on shielding to block out toxic energy while allowing the free flow of positivity. I suggest that you regularly employ this skill. The minute you’re uncomfortable with a person, place, or situation, put up your shield. Use it in an airport, at a party if you’re talking to an energy vampire, or in a packed doctor’s waiting room. Shielding puts you in a safe bubble where you won’t be drained.
Protection Strategy: Shielding Visualization for Empaths
In a relaxed state, visualize a beautiful shield of white or pink light completely surrounding your body and extending a few inches beyond it. This shield protects you from anything negative, stressful, toxic, or intrusive. Within the protection of this shield, feel yourself centered, happy, and energized. This shield blocks out negativity, but at the same time, you can still feel what’s positive and loving. Get used to the sensation of the shield protecting your body. It’s an invaluable skill to have as an empathic person.
You can visualize the shield whenever you suspect you’re absorbing someone else’s energy.
Along with shielding, self-care for empaths involves eating well and minimizing stress each day. In addition, certain actions are a balm for your body and soul. They include: taking quiet alone time, associating with positive people, being in nature, immersing yourself in water to clear negative energy, meditating, exercising, and defining limits with energy vampires. Set your intention to regularly incorporate these forms of self-care into your daily life. Also I’m a big believer in personal rituals and meditations for people with empathic ability, such as the one below, to ground yourself.
The Power of Grounding and Earthing
Earthing is a way of connecting to the earth’s energy to ground yourself. Of course, it’s ideal to go barefoot in nature, but it’s also fine in a grassy backyard. Or you lay your entire body against the earth for a fuller effect. I love resting on my back by the ocean, gazing at the sky. The earth’s energy is medicine for stressed out humans and especially empaths and people with empathic abilities. Touching the earth lets you take its healing in through your feet and entire body. Your feet are especially good at grounding stress because of the high density of reflexology and acupuncture points in the soles, which get activated by walking barefoot, and also by massage. Your feet are perfectly positioned to transmit the earth’s healing to the rest of you.
But, if being in nature is not an option, you can use the following visualization technique at home, at work, or even in social situations. If you don’t have a private space, you can always take a break and sit outside or simply go to the bathroom for a few minutes. (For years, the bathroom has been my refuge when I need to escape a gathering to lower my stimulation level.) Practice this visualization to decompress and return to your center. I use it for at least 5 minutes daily and teach it to my patients, empathic or otherwise.
Protection Strategy: Grounding and Earthing Visualization: Focus on Your Feet, not Your Fear
When you feel overloaded, anxious, or fearful, create some quiet time to lower your stimulation level. As an empathic person, being alone and being left alone to recharge will help you decompress. Close the door. Turn off the computer and phone. Then, sit in a comfortable position and take a few deep breaths to relax your body. Start to feel still and at ease as tension melts away. Nothing to do. Nothing to be. Just breathing and relaxing. If thoughts come, let them drift by like clouds in the sky. Do not attach to them. Focus only on slowly inhaling, then exhaling. Feel stress leaving your body as you connect to a sense of serenity.
In this tranquil inner space, visualize a large tree with a wide, strong trunk extending 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, rooting down into the ground, making their way deeper and deeper, a comforting sense of solidity. Focus on them when you are anxious or afraid. Let the roots anchor you into Mother Earth, stabilizing you into your empathic abilities.
Rooting yourself provides an inner strength that will keep you centered and protected when life gets overwhelming, which can happen easily as an empathic person. As you gently, slowly open your eyes, keep feeling the sensation of grounding. Come back to the room knowing, that you can use this earthing visualization to anchor yourself whenever you get thrown off.
Grounding is an essential skill to keep you strong and centered in your empathic abilities. Focusing on your feet, not your fears or sense of overwhelm, is a quick way to center yourself. (Foot massage also works wonders to get you out of your head and into your body). Regularly practice this meditation and others I’ll discuss to reduce sensory overload.
The Blessing of Being an Empath
As you begin your journey, remember that your presence, your sweetness, your tender appreciation for people and all of life are gifts to you and to others. Your intuition and your refined sensitivities are healing. I want you to appreciate yourself, your openness, and ability to feel. Realize how special and perfect you are. When you really see yourself, you can connect with the wholeness and depth within. Then you can enjoy your empathy—that’s the point. Not everyone will understand you, but that’s okay. Search for kindred spirits who will, and you will understand them too. It’s a beautiful feeling of connection. In my book, The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, I discuss how to create empath support groups by using the book and its companion audio program, Essential Tools for Empaths. In the group, you can read sections of the book or listen to the audio and then discuss how they relate to your issues as empathic people. It’s amazingly freeing to give and receive such support.
We are in the midst of an evolution of human consciousness—and you, as an empathic person, are the path forgers. A sacred responsibility comes with being an empath that demands more of you than simply retreating into isolation. It’s vital to learn how to avoid feeling overwhelmed so you can fully shine your power in the world. You are a pioneer on the forefront of a new way of being for humankind.
You are Generation S, for Sensitivity—those people who salute compassion and lovingkindness. You represent a vital opening for humanity to grow into a more heart-centered, intuitive place. You can model for others how to be sensitive and powerful as empaths.
I am passionate about helping you manage your empathic abilities and sensitivities and showing you how to use them for your personal and the greater good. Just as I’ve learned to honor myself as an empath, an incredible feeling of wholeness, I hope you can honor your empathic gifts too. I want the information in this article to empower you so you can be more yourself than you ever were. To begin your journey, I offer you the following affirmation.
I vow to honor my sensitivities and treat myself lovingly as I explore what it means to be an empath and embrace my gifts. I will appreciate myself each day.
This article on being empathic is excerpted with permission from The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People by Judith Orloff, MD.
About The Author
Judith Orloff, M.D., is New York Times best-selling author of the new book The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, upon which her articles are based. Dr. Orloff is a psychiatrist, an empath, and is on the UCLA Psychiatric Clinical Faculty. She synthesizes the pearls of traditional medicine with cutting edge knowledge of intuition, energy, and spirituality. Dr. Orloff also specializes in treating empaths and highly sensitive people in her private practice. Dr. Orloff’s work has been featured on The Today Show, CNN, the Oprah Magazine and USA Today. She is also author of Emotional Freedom, The Power of Surrender, Second Sight, Positive Energy, and Guide to Intuitive Healing. To learn more about empaths and her free empath support newsletter as well as Dr. Orloff’s books and workshop schedule, visit drjudithorloff.com