Why Empathy Is The Medicine The World Needs

Why Empathy is the Medicine the World Needs
by Dr. Judith Orloff

What is empathy? It is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes—even if you don’t agree with them. The great healing power of empathy is that you can see things through other people’s eyes, which gives you the best chance at communicating with them.

Our world desperately needs healing. Our world is wounded and in pain. Our earth, our climate, our global relationships are not being honored and protected. I feel strongly that division, polarization, and an Us versus Them mentality are not the answers. Rather, empathy is the sacred medicine the world needs.

What is empathy? It is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes—even if you don’t agree with them. The great healing power of empathy is that you can see things through other people’s eyes, which gives you the best chance at communicating with them. Empathy doesn’t make you weak, sentimental, or cause you to make the wrong decisions because you’re too “soft.” To the contrary: it opens your heart so you can combine the insight you gain from empathy with the reasoning mind to know what path to take towards global and personal peace. Being empathic doesn’t mean you’ll always succeed bridging the gap between yourself and others. But it does give you the best chance at successful relationships with others and with all of humankind.

I’m a UCLA trained psychiatrist—and I’m an empath. An empath is wired differently neurologically than many people. Empaths aren’t born with the same filters and defenses that others have. Everything hits us more strongly. Without the proper self-care techniques, we become emotional sponges who absorb the stress and pain of the world. Understandably, this period of history has been particularly rough on empaths and all caring people who want to keep their hearts open in difficult times. Learning to nurture your empathy is key, and so is finding balance so you don’t experience compassion fatigue or burnout. 

Lately, in my psychotherapy practice there has been an epidemic of patients coming to me who are exhausted, angry, depressed, and overwhelmed by what’s happening in our country and the world. They have become addicted to cable television news, but it only makes them sick to keep watching so much. The dilemma is that caring people may want to do something to help, but they are inundated by negativity and become exhausted.

Here are five tips for empaths and all caring people to keep your empathy alive and take good care of yourself:

  1. Take periodic news and Internet fasts. Do not watch news before going to sleep, so you can have a restful night. Limit your news—TV, radio, and print—intake to 15 minutes per day max.
  2. Go outdoors. Regularly spend time in nature replenishing yourself.
  3. Mediate at least three minutes daily. In quiet time, focus on the power of love, not hate. The power of the good will win if we all mindfully concentrate on it rather than on fear.
  4. Spend time in water. Take daily baths or showers to renew yourself and wash away negativity and stress.
  5. Be grateful. Focus on what you have to be grateful for every morning rather than on your worries.

The gifts of an empath are many. For instance, having deeper insight into people, having a loving heart and experiencing the wonder of connecting with all living things—and the Earth—with compassion and respect. Yet empathy requires us to “go higher.” What does this mean? You must be the wise one who says “no” to fear and division and “yes” to the power of goodness and unity.

This isn’t always easy, as one of my patients, Linda, found out. Every time Linda had a dinner with her extended family, an uncle would lash out at her when she expressed her beliefs in the importance of solar power to help us use green energy and ward off global warming. Her uncle loudly claimed, “Global warming is a hoax.” He was angry about a lot of things, but most angry that he’d been laid off his job in the auto industry. Despite his attempts to find a new job, he hadn’t worked for two years. But, to Linda’s credit (and with help practicing a positive approach to dealing with him in our sessions), she didn’t go for the bait. She took a deep breath and paused instead of reacting in a triggered way. She could empathize with the pain he felt at being unemployed. Rather than arguing, she simply told him, “I love you. I don’t want to fight with you. I think we need to agree to disagree. I know how hard it has been trying to find a job. It must be really difficult for you.” My patient was surprised by his response. For a few moments, her uncle became very quiet. Then he broke down crying at the table, sharing his grief about being out of work. Linda and everyone at the dinner comforted him. They all felt more bonded as a result.

Even though Linda didn’t change her beliefs and her uncle didn’t change his beliefs, the door was open for a loving relationship of understanding for the future. As a psychiatrist, I know well that when people are hurt—and don’t have the emotional skills to express the hurt in a healthy way—they can get combative and angry. Empathy gives you the skill not to react to their wounded selves but instead to try to win them over with your heart. You won’t always succeed, but empathy will give you the greatest chance of success.

As the Dalai Lama says, “Empathy is the most precious of human qualities.” If you want peace, you must be the messenger. If you want to see change in the world you must believe in goodness and work in small ways every day to build peace. Empathy lets you come from your highest self rather than simply reacting from your “lower self” which is defensive and wants to lash out. Staying in your lower self won’t create the changes the planet needs. Having empathy for yourself and others will help you change the destructive patterns in the world. When you get discouraged, your mind might say, “change is impossible,” but don’t stop there in your thinking. Remember to check in with your heart. It will always tell you that the good is more powerful than any darkness, and that even in times of darkness, your belief in the good will ignite the light of others. One light becomes two, which become millions. It might take a little time, but have faith. With empathy, we have the power to change the world.

***

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.

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Judith Orloff, M.D. is a psychiatrist, an empath, and author of the new book, The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People. Dr. Orloff specializes in treating empaths and highly sensitive people in her private practice. For more information about Dr. Orloff’s books, a free empath support newsletter, and her lecture schedule, visit drjudithorloff.com.