Empathy is the ability to understand and share in the feelings of others. Such sensitivity helps us bond with each other, and most humans have that capability to a greater or lesser degree. An empath is someone who falls on the extreme end of the empathy bell curve. Such a person is usually extremely intuitive, open, and hyper-sensitive to others — often to their own detriment.
People who have this heightened awareness are often misdiagnosed as having anxiety or depression. However, what some may see as anxiety could in fact be a case of being on that far end of the empathy spectrum, according to Dr. Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist, best-selling author, and empath based in Los Angeles.
Her newest book is called The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People. It explains how an empath can improve their quality of life by balancing and prioritizing their own well-being.
"The downside to being an empath and why I wrote [the book] is to give empaths skills how not take on the stress of the world into their own bodies," Orloff explains.
She adds, "Empaths get overwhelmed, they go on sensory overload, they get autoimmune disorders, they feel tired a lot. And this is, in part, due to being an emotional sponge and taking everything on."
Orloff's own traditional medical training never touched upon the topic of empaths, and there is not yet official context within the field to diagnose or treat them. But after years of experience within her own practice, she knew she needed to combine her scientific training with her own empath intuitions in order to best help patients — and believes that the future of medicine will involve integrating these in order to achieve total wellness.
"It's a travesty in traditional medicine that empaths go to a traditional doctor and get labeled with all kinds of diagnosis," notes Orloff. "[Empaths have] been misdiagnosed as agoraphobic, panic disorder, major depression, malingerers — all kinds of things that they aren't."
Often, being labeled as "sensitive" is not beneficial to the individual and inhibits the growth people can experience that may benefit many aspects of their life — both personal and professional — according to Orloff.
"I think we live in an over-intellectualized culture where everybody's living in their head most of the time and they're not connected to their bodies or their intuition," she says. "I think we have to let go of old stereotypes and really begin to embrace a new way of being a sensitive man and a sensitive woman."
"If you have empaths on the world stage or as parents or as teachers, and you can feel what's going on in someone else and begin to ask them about their perspective and their feelings, that's a sign of deep respect, and it's a way to bring people together," adds Orloff.
While empaths are an asset to every environment, often possessing deep insight, amazing hearts, and a giving nature, they must strive for better balance and personal wellness, according to Orloff. She offers these tips for sensitive people struggling with self-care:
- Schedule alone time to replenish and decompress: "Empaths need alone time. They can't just be overscheduled, go back-to-back day in and day out without suffering sensory overload or some kind of physical fatigue." Orloff recommends finding an activity that helps you relax at any time of day, from taking a shower to exercising.
- Set boundaries: Whether it be in your professional or personal life, "that's one thing empaths are very reluctant to do because they're afraid of being impolite and they so want to help people all the time. They want people to be happy but they often do this at the expense of asserting their needs."
- Say "No": Orloff wants you to understand that "no" is a complete sentence.