An Interview With Judy Orloff
An Interview With Dr. Judith Orloff
by Elissa Melaragno
Elissa Melaragno (EM): Dr Orloff, when I first saw the prepublication materials about your new book, The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, I immediately realized the importance of what you are doing. I can see now how much an empath’s body can feel the stress of others. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Dr. Judith Orloff (JO): One of the exercises in the book is how you know if the stress is yours or another persons. A simple way to know is if you’re in a conversation and you’re suddenly feeling stressed out, remove yourself and get 20 feet away to see if your stress level goes down. If it does, then that’s a sign that you’re absorbing it from the other person. The point is that empaths have to start asking themselves different kinds of questions so that they can be better at self-care. Who teaches that? In medical school, I never learned that you can take on other people’s emotions or that there was emotional contagion, which is now documented by science. If someone is anxious in the workplace, it can spread like a virus to everybody.
EM: “Who teaches that?” That’s such an important question. I know many people who work in social justice, in various areas of both small and large organizations. My feeling is that many of these deep-hearted people are empaths. Very often, these organizations are led more like corporations than empathic or compassionate organizations. What would you say to these people about how they can protect themselves from burnout or other forms of suffering?
JO: Well, first of all, I think people who are of service in this way should be commended. They are blessed and are doing much to help others. But what they have to be careful of is not taking on the pain and suffering of the people they’re helping because that will cause them to burnout. There are strategies not to do that. One strategy is that you have to program your mind with the belief that its none of your business to take on other peoples suffering; that isn’t how you’re going to be of help to them; that is more of a codependent archetypal vision of suffering and helping, which I don’t support. Where I think we’re needed right now is to hold our own center, to give to other people, to be empathic, and to give them solutions, but also to just say, “Namaste. I respect the spirit within you, but I’m not going to take on your pain.”
I see so many psychotherapists and physicians burnout because they take on other people’s pain. If you want longevity in the helping professions or those of service to our world right now, you’ve got to be really discerning in terms of your giving. You must see to it that you have self-care, that you replenish yourself, that you practice the strategies in the book, which are meditations, setting limits and boundaries, and learning how to let negative energy go if it lodges in your body. Now, all of that is a skill set one has to learn if you’re going out to be of service to the world. You can’t just throw somebody out there with a good heart. You know, that’s kind of dangerous. They have to be educated and given at least one class on what to do—or they could read the book—but they need a little bit of education so they’re not just giving, giving, giving, and burning out from everything, including, perhaps, from the horrors they see.
Within the corporate organization people are people. You just have to accept the situation that this is how these organizations work and no one person will change that. It’s always wise to find one really good person you know you can go to. Also, learn how to accept that maybe these are not the most giving people in the world, but they’re doing a job. Set limits and boundaries with them especially if they are energy vampires: people who drain you, such as narcissists who get into things for their own self-aggrandizement rather than the desire to really help people. You have to notice, lower your expectations, identify who you’re dealing with, and just make the best of it in terms of accepting the reality. Acceptance helps enormously because then you’re not fighting and wondering, “Why aren’t these people being more [fill in the blank]? Why aren’t they more giving?” Perhaps they just aren’t that way, but they’re in it for another reason.
If somebody who is a narcissist is in charge of a wonderful service organization, which often happens, you just have to realize that it isn’t your mom or dad. This is somebody who’s running the organization, and you’re never going to get him/her to love you because narcissists are not capable of unconditional love.
Also, I have worked with some activists to help them interpret their dreams and help them express some of the difficulties they were going through. I saw a lot have survival guilt. “I have food; I have shelter; I have all these blessings and the people I’m helping have nothing.” Recognizing and working with your own survival guilt is very important.
EM: You also mention that people who don’t learn how to process the fact that they’re highly sensitive or empathic tend to repress who and what they really are and can develop unhealthy characteristics such as isolation, codependency, bad relationships, or addictions to substances, sex, love, food, or anything else. You even recommend that it might be beneficial to join a 12-step program. Why do think a program like that is beneficial?
JO: Well, what I’ve seen is that many empaths are so overwhelmed by sensory overload from the world and their intuition that they reach to addictive behaviors or substances to numb themselves and self medicate their feelings of overwhelm. A lot of empaths are in 12-step programs. I’ve been in a 12-step program for almost 30 years because I would turn to substances in an attempt to deal with and squash my own empathic abilities and intuitions. They were just too much for me, and I write about this in the book. The 12-step program is a beautiful spiritual process to allow yourself to not hold on so much; to turn your life and well being over to a higher power; to be able to begin to trust your intuition and empathy without codependency and without wanting to take away someone else’s pain. That’s key for an empath. Because empaths are so sensitive, they want to just reach out to your pain and take it away from you. That doesn’t work for empaths; it just makes them sick.
As a psychiatrist and an empath, I don’t sit around with my patients wanting to take away their pain. If I did, I would never enjoy my work or want to do it again. Because I’ve been in practice so many years, I’ve learned how to sit with my patients, to tune into them, empathically and intuitively, and to be there for them and help them as their guide without absorbing their stuff. That’s actually why being an empath in a helping profession is so gratifying.
There is a section in the book on empaths and helping professions. I love giving. It is what I was meant to do here on earth; to give and teach and write. I’m in my power when I do that, but I have to be very very careful with self-care and not overdo anything. As an empath I need a lot of alone time, so in between my patients, I meditate in order to center myself and come back to spirit.
The 12-steps have been a very key part of my own evolution. Empaths have to learn to deal with their sensitivities without numbing them so that they can be empowered.
EM: Surrendering to a higher power seems to be an important key for a person with an addictive tendency.
JO: Oh, definitely! Because if people, and especially empaths with addictions, try to do everything on their own through self will, they’re going to be terribly burned out and depressed and anxious. But when an empath gives what they can and also enlists a higher power, their capacity for giving is manifold. If you really want to give, and you’re an empath, co-partner with a higher power and see what happens with your helping capacity.
EM: You mention that some empaths may become reclusive or just want to give up and the reason to put yourself through the healing process is because the giving and the results are so rewarding, correct?
JO: Oh, yes, definitely. I mean I could have personal problems or be going through a conflict or a crisis and after a day working with patients, I’m fixed. And the reason I’m fixed is because I set myself aside, and I’m able to help others. The key is helping without taking their stuff on, without taking their emotions on, and this is the purpose of learning those skills in the book: to be a happy, joyous, and free empath.
EM: What you seem to be saying is that a happy, joyous, and free empath can make a tremendous contribution to our culture. Is that right?
JO: Oh boy, yes, they are empowered; they are ready to go and make changes in the world. I believe that empaths can change the world once they get some tools to support themselves.
EM: You also have a chapter in the book where you talk about parenting. How might a parent recognize an empathic child? I would think that would be a huge gift to a child to have that recognized at an early age.
JO: It’s such a huge gift because when you recognize it, you can support his or her sensitivities through life from the very beginning. If only I had that kind of support, who knows what would be different? But I had no support of my sensitivities. I was just told to get a thicker skin, which isn’t helpful. That isn’t what you want to do. My parents were both physicians, and they loved me more than anything. I was their only child, but they knew nothing about this ability nor how to support it, which is true of a lot of parents. So, I wrote this section in the book on empathic parenting and raising empathic children as a guide to parents and children. How do you support your child? Does your child feel things deeply? Do people, crowds, and noise stress and over stimulate your child? That’s typical of empaths. Does your child have strong reactions to sad or frightening scenes in movies or books? Does your child want to escape or hide from family gatherings because there’s just too much going on? Does your child feel different from other kids or complain about not fitting in? Is your child very compassionate and a good listener? Does he or she have a strong connection to nature, to plants, or to animals? And do they require a lot of alone time rather than playing with other kids? So, those are just a couple of the questions from the self assessment quiz, “is your child an empath?” in the book.
Once you identify that your child is an empath or sensitive person, you will support him or her when he or she wants to be alone. You don’t have play date after play date. You don’t over schedule empathic kids. They don’t like that. They don’t flourish in that environment, so you schedule one play date versus three so the child can be alone for awhile and play alone. The empathic child is extremely imaginative, creative, and has an inner world that isn’t just dependent on external stimulation. It’s a whole different mentality and neurology than other kids, and they stress easily.
EM: That’s great information for parents. Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
JO: Yes. Let’s say someone is reading this who didn’t realize that they’re an empath. It doesn’t matter what age you are or what situation you are in; you can always start to become empowered right now. It’s never too late even for those who have become agoraphobic or just don’t like going out of the house anymore because it’s too much stress. You can start at any point to begin to awaken your abilities and learn how to take care of yourself and protect yourself more. And, if you’re empathic, you need to awaken. You need to see these aspects of yourself so that you can fulfill your destiny here; you need to become more enlightened about who you are as a person and honor that.
EM: And thus help to alleviate some of the sadness and grief that exists just being in this world?
JO: Oh, absolutely! This is a place of so much darkness and light, so much suffering and goodness. There’s such a mixed bag here on Earth. Once you tune in, you begin to see and manifest all of this beauty and strength. You begin to see how evident it’s been in your life. It’s really beautiful—the awakening process—it’s really, really beautiful! I hope this book serves to awaken a lot of people who may have been retreating into themselves because it’s all too much.
EM: Well the book certainly is powerful, and I want to thank you for sharing your insights.
JO: You are welcome.
To find out if you are an empath, take the following 20 question self-assessment, answering ‘mostly yes’ or ‘mostly no’ to each question.
- Have I been labeled as overly sensitive, shy, or introverted?
- Do I frequently get overwhelmed or anxious?
- Do arguments or yelling make me ill?
- Do I often feel like I don’t fit in?
- Am I drained by crowds, needing alone time to revive myself?
- Am I over stimulated by noise, odors, or non-stop talkers?
- Do I have chemical sensitivities or not tolerate scratchy clothes?
- Do I prefer taking my own car places so I can leave early if I need to?
- Do I overeat to cope with stress?
- Am I afraid of becoming suffocated by intimate relationships or do I choose emotionally unavailable partners?
- Do I startle easily?
- Do I react strongly to caffeine or medications?
- Do I have a low pain threshold?
- Do I tend to socially isolate?
- Do I absorb other people’s stress, emotions, or symptoms?
- Am I overwhelmed by multitasking and prefer doing one thing at a time?
- Do I replenish myself in nature?
- Do I need a long time to recuperate after being with difficult people or energy vampires?
- Do I feel better in small cities or the country than large cities?
- Do I prefer one-to-one interactions or small groups rather than large gatherings?
Now calculate your results:
- If you answered yes to one to five questions, you’re at least partially an empath.
- Responding yes to six to ten questions means you have moderate empathic tendencies.
- Responding yes to eleven to fifteen means you have strong empathic tendencies.
- Answering yes to more than fifteen questions means that you are a full blown empath.
Adapted from The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People by Judith Orloff, MD. Copyright © 2017 by Judith Orloff. To be published by Sounds True in April 2017.
Elissa Melaragno (Editor) has been a professional visual artist for thirty years with her works primarily on display in public and healthcare settings. She uses her training in spiritual direction and several holistic healing modalities to inform her work as an artist, art instructor, writer, and consultant in the area of the arts in healthcare.