Interview with Judith Orloff, MD, Author of The Genius of Empathy: Practical Skills to Heal Your Sensitive Self, Your Relationships, and the World (with Foreword by the Dalai Lama)
Growing up as an intuitive empath, Dr. Orloff struggled to find a way to cope with her empathy and intuition, and eventually learned to embrace her gifts. Her journey has led her to devote her life to helping others develop empathy and intuition.
Her new book, The Genius of Empathy, is a guide for anyone who wants to awaken their empathy and for all those who struggle with managing their empathic sensitivities, overthinking, and absorbing the stress of others.
Here are some insights from Dr. Orloff.
Why did you write The Genius of Empathy?
I wrote The Genius of Empathy to support readers’ healing journeys. Reading it and using the exercises in it will provide ways to approach each day and love yourself through anything, even if you feel lost now. It answers practical questions such as, “How do I have empathy if I’m getting a divorce? If my family treats me unfairly? If I’m overwhelmed or in chronic pain?”
One of the most challenging situations for me is when a loved one is suffering. I share what I’ve learned about coping with this so you can apply it too. The book provides a roadmap for how to use empathy at work to improve your communication with coworkers who may be hard to get along with, and how to model grounded ways to support kindness and innovation in your team.
In these tumultuous times my goal is to convey that there is great hope, and that a key to thriving and surviving is empathy.
Who would benefit from reading this book?
If you’re ready for a change that will accelerate your healing process in all areas of your life, empathy is your everyday superpower. It’s within everyone’s reach — at work, with family and friends, and in all kinds of situations. Empathy is a practical daily skill that can be learned, not simply an idealistic goal that “sounds good.” Its genius is attainable for everyone.
Empathy itself is a healing act, whether you’re on the giving or receiving end. It’s a way of saying “You matter to me, the earth matters to me, being kind to myself and others matters to me.” You’re not invisible or forgotten. You are seen. You are heard. You are appreciated.
Whether you’re facing personal challenges, caregiving, or supporting a loved one in distress, showing empathy to yourself can aid in healing and smoothing the rough edges in your life. The book isn’t theoretical; it’s about practical skills that can help you heal, enhance your relationships — even with difficult family members or coworkers, and improve challenging situations, including empathy burnout.
Why do you think empathy is a superpower?
Empathy possesses the extraordinary ability and power to transform your worldview and the way you perceive yourself. It empowers you to shed the victim mentality and, instead, to embrace empathy while establishing firm, healthy boundaries. These boundaries safeguard you from those who might exploit your kindness.
This shift involves making conscious decisions, paying attention to your gut feelings, and recognizing what feels right and what doesn’t. It’s about incorporating these insights into your life. It’s about celebrating the answers and the solutions instead of getting trapped in problems. This book is full of surprises and many ah-ha moments that keep you close to your inner wisdom.
Stop Empathy Overwhelm
Excerpt from The Genius of Empathy by Judith Orloff, MD, with Foreword by the Dalai Lama
One of the biggest blocks to empathy is a fear of being vulnerable and then overwhelmed. It either seems too painful or unsafe to lovingly explore your own emotions or that you risk getting burned out by other people’s problems, dramas, and needs. Intimates or coworkers may ask more from you than you are prepared to give, but you don’t want to disappoint them. If you set healthy boundaries, such as saying “no” or specifying “I am just able to give you this,” you may feel guilty or that you’re a bad person and fear being rejected.
As an empath, I know how uncomfortable it feels to be deluged by emotions, especially from loved ones. You empathize with them. You care and want to help them, or even solve their problems for them, but it isn’t possible. For instance, when one patient watched his mother experience depression, he began feel depressed, too, until his mother reached out to a therapist and started feeling better. Another patient’s husband had such intense back pain that my patient began experiencing it in her body too. When developing empathy, this is a predictable challenge that can teach you the importance of setting healthy boundaries and self-care.
In addition, you may feel overwhelmed by friends or coworkers who share too much information about their health, romances, or family conflicts. Someone might ambush you with accounts of stress they’ve experienced at work or details of a harrowing illness. Your heart goes out to them but listening can be exhausting.
Like me, many sensitive people are prone to absorbing others’ emotions or physical symptoms. Too much coming at you too fast leads to the misery of sensory overload. In that state, one exasperated patient said, “How am I supposed to explain to people that I can’t be around them because I hear the dryer beeping and the car alarm going off or that everyone is too noisy, and I can feel my toes too much!” They were not exaggerating.
To stay centered and prevent sensory overload, I’ve learned the importance of protecting myself so I don’t take on the distress of my patients or anyone else. Also, I try to bow out of a situation and decompress when external stimulation feels too intense.
To start taking a more proactive role in how much empathy you give, I suggest that you keep in mind the following “rights” to help you maintain a healthy mindset and prevent or lessen overwhelm before it gathers momentum.
Set boundaries to prevent overwhelm
- I have the right to say a loving, positive “no” or “no thank-you.”
- I have the right to set limits with how long I listen to people’s problems.
- I have the right to rest and not always be available to everyone.
- I have the right to quiet peacefulness in my home and in my heart.
Observe, don’t absorb
A principle of self-empathy is to observe a loved one’s emotions but not absorb them. Stay in your own emotional lane and don’t jump into theirs.
Your loved one’s experience is exactly that: their experience. It’s not yours! This may be hard to grasp initially. However, if you truly want to help, you must see the person you cherish as separate from you. This protects you from compassion burnout. Allow them to find their own healing path with the support of a therapist, a coach, or other health-care practitioners. If their situation isn’t severe or life-threatening, give them time and space to work through the issue on their own, if that’s their choice. You are not their therapist, nor is it healthy to try to be.
Emotional and physical healing typically involve some suffering. Tolerating a loved one’s discomfort can stretch our hearts, but we must learn to be patient with their aches, pains, and struggles without taking them on. Even so, to be clear: you are not just sitting there doing nothing. Offering your loving presence is a supremely compassionate, healing act from which the other person will benefit.
Finding empathy for yourself and others is a slow but sure change. As a psychiatrist, I’m aware of how hard all of us can be on ourselves. When things go wrong, you blame yourself. Or maybe you’ve taken on your parents’ judgmental voices or painful emotions, though you swore you’d never be like them. It’s all okay. Despite the traumas, neglect, or pain you might have endured, little by little, you can begin to empathize with your own human plight — and your emergence. The most unfamiliar part may be beginning with yourself. Nevertheless, this is the sacred starting place, the break of day.
Sign up for Dr. Orloff’s online webinar about empathic healing techniques based on The Genius of Empathy on April 20, 2024 11AM-1PM PST HERE
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Judith Orloff, MD, is author of the new book, The Genius of Empathy: Practical Skills to Heal Your Sensitive Self, Your Relationships, and the World with Foreword by the Dalai Lama (Sounds True, April 9, 2024). Dr. Orloff is a member of the UCLA Psychiatric Clinical Faculty and a New York Times bestselling author. She’s a leading voice in the fields of medicine, psychiatry, empathy, and intuitive development. Her work has been featured on CNN, NPR, Talks at Google, TEDx, and the American Psychiatric Association. She has also appeared in USA Today; O, The Oprah Magazine; Scientific American; and The New England Journal of Medicine. She specializes in treating highly sensitive people in her private practice. . Find other upcoming events here.