New York Times bestselling author and psychiatrist Dr. Judith Orloff shines on light on highly sensitive people, how to connect with them, and how to defend against forces that drain your energy.
- The difference between ordinary empathy, highly sensitive people, and empaths
- Two ways to avoid absorbing the emotions of your environment
- The important skills the rest of us can learn from highly sensitive people
Dr. Judith Orloff is a New York Times bestselling author who specializes in treating sensitive people in her Los Angeles based private practice. Dr. Orloff is on the psychiatric clinical faculty at UCLA. Her work has been featured on The Today Show, CNN, PBS, and in USA Today and The Oprah Magazine, and the Los Angeles times.
Items Mentioned in this Show:
- Judith’s book: The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People
- Judith’s website: www.DrJudithOrloff.com
- Book: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
- Tool: Sharpie
Dr. Orloff, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
You’re very welcome.
Well, I’m excited to dig into some of your wisdom and expertise here. Could you maybe tell us the story of your journey and how you came to understand the concept of sensitive people?
Well, I wrote The Empath Survival Guide because I’m a psychiatrist and an empath. Being an empath is being an emotional sponge. It’s being so sensitive that you literally can absorb the emotions and even the physical symptoms of other people into your own body.
I knew that I had this ability when I was a little girl. I couldn’t go into shopping malls or crowded places because I’d walk in feeling fine and walk out exhausted or with some ache or pain I didn’t have before. My mother who was a physician, my father also a physician – I have 25 physicians in my family – she would say, “Oh dear, you just don’t have a thick enough skin.”
I grew up believing there was something wrong with me in terms of my sensitivities rather than they’re a gift and they need to be managed in a positive way so that’s why I wanted to write the book was to give sensitive people and empath skills on how to be sensitive and open and caring without absorbing the stress of the world into your own body.
Now how do you do that? What skills do you need? As a little girl I knew that I had these abilities and then when I went through medical school, I went to USC. I went to UCLA. My empathic skills kind of went under. I became more immersed in the science of behavior and the science of the body and biological truths of what was going on. It wasn’t until I opened my private practice in psychiatry that I began to use them again.
In fact, I had a dream about a patient that she was going to – actually, it wasn’t a dream; it was a wakened intuition that she was going to be commit suicide. I didn’t see any evidence clinically for that, so I didn’t bring it up with her. I ignored the dream and she in fact overdosed on the pills that I prescribed for her and luckily she lived.
But that was my wakeup call as a physician that I had to listen to my sensitivities and my intuition because it could extremely affect my patients’ health and wellbeing if I didn’t. Since that point, which was a long time ago, I’ve really incorporated my own sensitivities and my empathy and my intuition into patient care and into my personal life.
Wow, that’s a powerful story. When it comes to the terminology, I just want to make sure we’re on the same page. When you say empath, I guess I’m thinking of Deanna Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation. You don’t mean that you can read people’s thoughts, but rather that you’re sensitive. Are these interchangeable terms, empath and a highly sensitive person, or how would you think about it?
They’re a little different. There’s a spectrum of empathy. Whereas, ordinary empathy, which is so beautiful is when your heart goes out to somebody and you feel what they’re feeling in joy or in pain. That’s kind of the middle of the spectrum.
Then if you go up a little bit on the spectrum you have highly sensitive people. These are people who are overwhelmed by sight, smells, sounds, noises, scratchy clothes, and like to be quiet. They’re usually introverts. They’re very sensorally sensitive.
Then if you go up one more notch on the empathy spectrum, you get the empath, who have all the sensory components of sensitivity to light and sound, etcetera, but their poor systems tend to absorb other people’s positive and negative emotions and other feelings into their own bodies and physical symptoms.
Intriguing. Now, I had heard in a previous conversation that the highly sensitive person has a different nervous system. It’s like biochemically structures are in fact different than that of a quote/unquote typical or non-highly sensitive person. Is the empath also have a nervous system that’s differentiatable from that of the highly sensitive person?
Well, I think empaths – interesting research on this that empaths have hyperactive mirror neuron systems, which means their compassion neurons are working overtime. They can see somebody they don’t even know who is in pain and they feel it in their own bodies. It’s too much. It’s overkill. It’s not healthy for the empath to do that. But it’s thought that the mirror neurons are hyperactive.
It’s thought in terms of the dopamine system in the body. Dopamine is a pleasure hormone that empaths need less of it to feel satisfied. That’s why they’re happy at home reading a book, whereas other people, extroverts require much more of a dopamine rush, so they love going to stadiums and big football games and parties and lots of dopamine there.
But it’s thought that empaths don’t need to have that dopamine rush because they’re satisfied with much less, which accounts for more of the quiet behavior.
Intriguing. All right, so if you find yourself in that situation, like you’re highly sensitive or an empath, what are some of your top tips in terms of just – you’ve got the book called The Empaths Survival Guide – surviving, not getting the illness or getting bogged down in feeling blue because of what you’re picking up around you?
Right, good question. The first thing that sensitive people need to do is conscious breath, where the minute you feel like you’re picking up something from somebody else, whether it’s their anger or their depression or their low energy, you have to begin breathing it out.
The breath is sacred prana. It’s a purification system in the body. The more you breathe, the more you can begin to circulate whatever it is that you picked up. That’s important because many empaths hold their breath. They get afraid and they get overwhelmed. They get on sensory overload, which is very common for empaths, and they just hold their breath. The first thing you do is breathe.
Then the second thing, I always teach my empathy patients, is to learn how to set healthy boundaries as you have to learn that no is a complete sentence and that you have to be ready to say, “No, I’m sorry. I can’t go out tonight,” or, “No, I’m sorry. I can’t take on that project, I’m too booked already,” something like that because empaths are people pleasers.
They wear an invisible sign around them that says, “I can help you,” so people flock to empaths from far and wide just to tell you their life story.
I could be sitting in an airport minding my own business in my little bubble and somebody will sit next to me and start up with the most intimate things, which I’m not really open to at that point. I’ve learned to set limits and say something like, “This is my time to be quiet and do my work on my computer, so I’m not really open to talking.”
But empaths are not used to speaking that way to people. They feel like it’s impolite. They feel like they’re going to sacrifice themselves just so the other person would be happy. Empaths need to set healthy boundaries. It’s often a process, where you just have to set a small one and then a bigger one and a bigger one, so you get used to it because an empath who doesn’t set boundaries is going to be exhausted.
That’s the downside of being an empath is you take on so much. You’re tired, exhausted, on sensory overload, too much is coming in too fast, you don’t know what to do with it. It affects your relationship. It affects your health. Empaths get fibromyalgia, adrenal fatigue because their stress response is going constantly because they’re always taking in stimuli.
That’s just not healthy, so the setting of the boundaries really helps to say no and narrow what you take in via your ears or your eyes or who you communicate with or how long you talk on the phone. You don’t talk for two hours; you talk for three minutes. You begin to understand and work with these very practical issues so that you can have a healthier life, where empaths can thrive.
We’ve got the breathing and the setting of boundaries. I’m also curious to get your take on if we don’t find ourselves in the categories of sensitive people or empaths, what are some of the potential ways that we can kind of tap into some of the wisdom or perspective or super power, if you will, that our counterparts have?
All right, well the first thing I teach my patients who are non-empaths is to listen to their intuition rather than just stay in their head because if you stay in your head and you’re analyzing and thinking all the time, that’s stopping you from empathizing and feeling.
It’s important if you want to empathize and develop that, to have good eye contact, not intrusive eye contact, but just really look at somebody in the eyes rather than having your eyes darting around or checking your texts or whatever to take you out of your sense of presence. Listen from your heart.
If somebody starts sharing a lot of emotions – this happens with a lot of couples that I work with, where one is an empath and one is an intellectual. The intellectual has to learn how to listen from his or her heart and not try and get in there and fix things too quickly. That’s very irritating for an empath to have somebody do that.
In practice, how does one listen with your heart well?
Well, I call it holding space, where you can hold a space for somebody without judging them, without having to say anything, without intervening, just having a very loving countenance and sending loving energy from your heart and wishing the person well basically and not getting in there and doing anything other than holding a very positive energy for somebody and a loving look in your eyes.
It’s really liberating to have someone do that when you’re going – as an empath, I’ll just speak for myself, if I’m going through some intense emotion or if I’m going through something where I really need to be listened to and held and contained in a certain way with safety, just to have somebody hold a space like that, lovingly, makes all the difference.
Instead of reacting to me, instead of trying to fix me, instead of trying to solve the issue, just holding that space in the beginning is really helpful and calming.
Okay, so in a way it’s more about what you’re not doing than what you are doing it sounds like in terms of it’s not so much that we need to access some profound sense of connectedness to the particular emotions as it is just kind of keep your mouth shut and pleasantly smile and listen and allow the conversation to unfold without judgment or rushing to fix, analyze, solve something.
Well, that’s certainly a good beginning.
Great, okay. That’s good stuff. Then I want to get your take on, you have in particular, listed out, enumerated five emotional or energy vampires. Could you identify what those are and particularly how they might pop up in the workplace and how we should go about defending against them?
Yeah. Well, I hope I pick the five that you’re speaking of. There are a lot of different kinds of energy vampires.
But one of them is the victim or the ‘poor me’ person, who everything is not their fault. Everything is the world’s fault. Everything is falling apart. His mother doesn’t understand me. My boyfriend just broke up with me. My boss is not appreciating my work.
They keep you on the phone for two hours complaining and when you try and put in a solution, they say, “Yes, but-“ “Yes, you’re right, but-“ and then they start up again.
If you identify with having people like that in your life, the key is to set limits with the amount of time you talk to them. Don’t enable them because a lot times people enable these victims by saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” and on, and on, and on. Then they call you the next night with the same story, and the next night, and then you’re screening your calls, and you don’t want to pick up the phone. It’s a vicious cycle.
You have to begin to speak up. It’s the victim is the first one. It’s very common in the workplace.
Also the drama queen, that’s another type of energy vampire. This is somebody who wears you out with off-the-chart dramas, where everything is a drama. The little spot on my arm is cancer. The world is falling apart. I’m going to be fired at any moment. This person-
Right. Or they invent like someone said something and they kind of infer from that all kinds of ill will and “Could you believe that they think that blah, blah, blah, blah.” It’s like, “Well, they never really said that. You just kind of made that up. It might be accurate, but it might very well not be.”
Yeah, no, exactly. That’s a drama queen or king. It’s both sexes when they get into it. Most importantly don’t ask this person how they’re doing at work. You don’t want to – you see them coming, you just want to smile and not ask them because then they’ll start up.
Then you want to use the I’m-not-interested body language, where you just kind of subtly point your body in a different direction rather than looking deeply into their eyes or pointing directly at them and looking intensely at them as if you’re interested, which you’re probably not because you have your own work to do and you have other things happening. You don’t want to – you don’t have the time to take to listen to all this.
When you don’t give them juice, they go on to another victim. If you say, “I’m so sorry this is happening to you and I’ve got to get back to my work. I’ll hold good thoughts for you,” and you say it in a very matter-of-fact tone.
Now this is hard for empaths because they want to fix everybody. Coming from an empath soul, you see somebody who is in pain and you want to make them feel better. You just want to. You just can’t live that way. You can’t make everybody feel better. You can’t fix everyone.
Those of you who are sensitive people or empaths out there, if you notice you’re caretaker or you’re a fixer, you want to fix people, that’s something to really work on in yourself because you sacrifice your vital energy if you do that. You can certainly help family members who are in need or somebody who’s close to you, but not everybody. Empaths want to help everybody and then they end up exhausted in bed.
Okay. How about the next vampire?
The next vampire is a narcissist. The narcissist is someone who’s me, me, me. Everything is about them. They can be charming and seductive and intelligent, but the minute you don’t do something according to their program, they become cold, withholding, punishing, judgmental or give you the silent treatment. That’s what happens with some couples that I work with, who one is the narcissist and he or she just gives them the silent treatment for weeks as a punishment.
Narcissists have what’s called empathy deficient disorder. What that means is they’re not capable of empathy as we know it.
But there’s a toxic attraction between empaths and narcissists. I go into this in depth in The Empath Survival Guide because I want to warn people away from these relationships. They’re extremely toxic and dangerous to sensitive people. The narcissist, it doesn’t hurt them much because nothing much hurts them.
It’s so hard for empaths to grasp that because they think that everybody feels like they do in terms of caring. It’s so hard to grasp that there can be a human being who actually doesn’t feel things in that way. They’re wired neurologically differently than other people with regular empathy or being an empath.
They have to lower their expectations of narcissists, not confide in them, don’t get triggered by them in terms of asking them to understand deep parts of you that they don’t really care to understand, and just see them as being crippled in a certain sense in their hearts because they care about themselves and they’ll care about you as long as you’re doing something that pleases them, but the minute you go against them, they’ll wage war. This isn’t a good partnership possibility.
If you’re stuck with a boss who’s a narcissist, which is very common. I work in Los Angeles and work with a lot of people in the entertainment industry and it’s a real challenge to work with narcissistic bosses.
Are there a couple narcissists in the entertainment industry per chance?
Yeah, a little bit.
If you do have a boss, what are your key steps then?
Well, to lower your expectations. Go through the book and see the criteria for narcissists. The great thing is they fit the bill every time. They’re very easy to diagnose.
You have to be able to recognize them and not be prone to seduction because they can act like they have empathy, especially in romantic situations. They, “Oh, you’re so beautiful. Oh here, let’s go on a vacation. Let’s – you’re,” whatever they’re going to do to sweep you off your feet. But the minute they really have to be there in an intimate way, they’re not – it’s not possible. It’s a false front, which is so deceptive.
They do gaslighting when you’re in a relationship with them. Gaslighting is when they make you feel like you’re going crazy. Where you say, “Oh, the sky is so beautiful today. The blue is so pretty.” “What the sky is not blue. The sky’s magenta. What’s wrong with you?” That’s how they beat an empath’s self-esteem down in a relationship over many years.
Okay. What’s the next vampire?
The next vampire is the judger or the blamer, the criticizer, where they cut you down by criticizing you and saying, “Oh, you’d be so beautiful if it wasn’t for your hair,” or, “You look like you’ve gained a little weight, haven’t you?” Those kinds of cutting comments. They put you down to raise themselves up.
If you’re dealing with that at work, how we respond?
Well, work is always the hardest thing, but it depends who it is also. If it’s somebody who is an equal and you can speak honestly with them, you can say, “That really hurt my feelings when you said that. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t comment about my shoes or my hair or my appearance.” That’s when you can be honest with somebody. You have to keep setting those kinds of limits too with people because they don’t learn all at once.
But if it’s let’s say a co-worker who’s criticizing you, number one, don’t be emotionally triggered by it. You have to work on your own self-esteem and shift the topic away from that to a solution. It just depends on how honest you can be with somebody.
There are people at work you just have to put up with. Your work is to work on your own self-esteem, to meditate, to center yourself. Don’t buy into it, whatever they’re saying about you because people have all kinds of opinions and as it is said, opinions are the lowest form of knowledge.
You have to really strengthen your own self esteem if you can’t honestly give people feedback. But if it’s family members, if it’s friends, you better give them feedback because that’s not acceptable in a friendship or in a loving relationship to be criticized all the time.
All right, how about the final vampire?
The final vampire would be the passive aggressive. This is connected to the rage-aholic and the anger addict. It’s the flip side of it. The rage-aholic is one energy vampire, who cuts you down with anger and rage and dumps anger on you, which to empaths feels toxic and painful.
I personally have a no yelling rule in my house or around me because it’s just – I’m sensitive to sound first of all, so a yelling voice and somebody who’s dumping toxic energy all over me is just not acceptable. I set that limit for myself. I teach my patients to do that.
The way to deal with anger is to make an appointment to talk about it. Make a request. Say, “Is now a good time?” “No.” “How about tomorrow morning?” “Yes.” “All right.”
Then stick to one cause of the anger. It’s called venting versus dumping. You say, “I’m angry that you left me sitting in the restaurant.” You talk about that. You don’t bring in the kitchen sink with it and everything else you’re angry with. There’s a skill to dealing with an anger addict.
A passive aggressive is somebody who is angry but with a smile. They don’t have the angry affect, but they say these god-awful things to you that sting and feel like you’re being poked with a smile. It’s just the passive form of anger.
All right. Well, tell me Dr. Orloff, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?
Just that if you’re a sensitive person, you can deal with these energy vampires. I look at them as teachers. How can they teach you to learn how to set clear boundaries? How can they teach you to develop your self-esteem if you’re being triggered by them? How are they going to teach you to improve your communication skills?
Instead of feeling victimized, try and see what you can learn from them and choose people who are positive and loving and creative and supportive to be around you in your circle. Don’t choose these energy vampires.
If you have a choice, which you don’t always because sometimes they’re family members, choose to have the positive, loving people around you so you can get all that love, and the positivity, and the connection, and the fun because empaths feel that to an extreme as well.
It’s extremely pleasurable to have a good friend that you can trust or to have that level of connection with people that is so gratifying and fulfilling. You want to have positive people around you as much as possible and … that.
All right. Thank you. Well now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
Well, I love the Dalai Lama quote that “The most precious human quality is empathy.” It’s the most precious. Really think about that. The most – what is the most precious human quality is empathy.
Then also I love Emily Dickenson, “I am large. I contain multitudes,” just to remember how large we are and how multifaceted and vast our spirits are and how nothing can stop us and to feel that radiance in your spirit and the largeness of who you are and your connection to the universe. I’ve always loved that quote so much.
How about a favorite study?
A favorite research study?
I love the study that was done on making intuitive choices. When you make a choice where you’re about to make a big choice like buying a car, buying a house, that this study has found – and it was done in Sweden – that when you sleep on the subject, you get better information and make a better choice than when you just make impulsive decisions.
What that means to me is that the dreaming process and the replenishment process that goes on during sleep can help with decision making and that we need to depend on that more than just our waking minds or in addition, as a companion to the waking mind when we make our decisions.
I’m a big believer in dreaming and remembering your dreams, writing your dreams down and using that information for your life. I have dream journals that I’ve kept since I was a little girl. I write a lot about dreams. In fact, there’s a type of empath called a dream empath. A dream empath is somebody who’s very attuned to their dreams and can remember them and seeks guidance from them and lets the dream time help to guide their lives.
This study is an elegant way of pointing to that in terms of framing it around decision making. It’s a wonderful study.
Thank you. How about a favorite book?
My favorite book – I have a lot of favorite books, but my favorite book was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle.
I read that. That just saved me as a child because I’ve always been against conformity and I’ve always believed in the power of love, just – I don’t know if you saw the movie. Oprah actually made a movie out of it recently, where she was one of the magical female creatures that came to help the little boy find his father.
But anyways, they go to a planet where everything is censored basically. All the children have to bounce the ball at the same rate. Everybody has to look the same. Everybody has to do the same thing. That’s always terrified me. I always fought for originality and creativity. It’s a story about how you overcome that with the deep power of love and how you can reunite family and really create more love even when in the darkest of the dark situations. I love that book.
How about a favorite tool?
A tool? You mean – what kind of a tool are you referring to?
Just something you use that helps you be awesome at your job.
A pen because I’m a writer.
Is there a particular pen that you love?
I love the very thin Sharpies.
Oh yes, me too.
Love the thin Sharpies. I take notes on everything, on napkins, on random pieces of paper. If I’m in the gym on the treadmill and I get an idea for my writing, I’ll stop and go get a piece of paper, write it, put it in my bra until later, and I’ll pull it out. I’m a big believer in writing, journaling, and having paper around and getting those dreams down, getting those ideas down.
I use the computer when I write. I use the computer way too much, but there’s something so elegant and wonderful about the written word and writing it with your hand, having a pen in hand. It‘s so archetypal. I would say those thin Sharpies. I have a bunch of them all over my house, and my office, and my car.
All right. How about a favorite habit?
Meditation. It’s a practice. I meditate first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening before I go to bed and hopefully during the day as well. It’s a way to center myself.
It’s a wonderful tool for empaths to decrease stimulation, to connect with your own heart, to quiet the stress response and all the adrenaline rushing through your system and to connect to a higher power, connect to spirit, however you want to define it by sitting and breathing and putting your hand on your heart and letting thoughts go by, not attaching to them.
As you reconnect to your heart, your breath, and your body, you can calm your whole system and you can begin to feel a sense of love that is sometimes hard when you’re just in your head, you’re thinking all the time. But you can feel a sense of love and connection, universal connection.
I have kind of an altar, which is very precious to me where I meditate. It has flowers and incense and fruit, candles, pictures of various spiritual teachers and Guan Yin, the goddess of compassion. It’s a place I love to go. I have cushions, so I sit and meditate. It’s very, very important to me, that ritual or habit as you call it.
Thank you. Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect, resonate with folks and gets sort of quoted frequently about—from you?
Yeah, it’s a revelation to find out if you’re an empath. Ever since I’ve been discussing this I get so many emails and calls and workshop participants who are waking up to the fact that they are not crazy. There’s nothing wrong with them. They’re not being neurotic. They’re just sensitive. Empaths have a wide open sensibility and sensitivity, which is empowering. There’s nothing wrong with you.
I think that’s the nugget. There’s nothing wrong with you. There’s something right with you. If you can awaken your intuition and your empathy, the deep empathy for yourself and other people and begin to learn strategies, some of which we’ve talked about to protect your energy from getting exhausted, worn out or from energy vampires, I think that’s the nugget.
This is a particular personality type. If you fit in, then if you go into therapy, you don’t want to go on medication right away. There’s other strategies to dealing with this. It changes everything when it comes to freeing yourself from exhaustion and fear, negativity. You can then get stronger, energetically and emotionally so that you’re not absorbing so much angst from the world.
All right. Dr. Orloff, if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
You can go to my website. That’s www.DrJudithOrloff.com. I also have an Empath Survival Guide online course there that people can watch at their convenience. It’s a video course explaining different aspects of being an empath. I do videos for each lesson, which can be very helpful to explain how do you be an empath at work, how are you an empath in love relationships, empaths in health. There are different areas to really understand yourself in a much deeper level. That’s also at DrJudithOrloff.com.
Do you have a final challenge or call – let’s just try that again. Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?
Dare to be empathic. Dare to care for people and not be self-absorbed with all of your own issues. Let your empathy and caring show. Tell someone, “You look great today,” just go out of your way for somebody else because everybody’s struggling with their own things. I can guarantee you that. When you just say a simple kind word to somebody or are empathic with them for just a moment, it can shift everything for them and it also, it gives back to you.
All right. Dr. Orloff, this has been a lot of fun. Thanks so much for sharing the good word and good luck with all you’re up to.
Thank you very much.