The Empath’s Survival Guide: Helping Sensitive People Thrive in an Insensitive World

“You’re so sensitive.” “You need to grow a thicker skin.” “Buck up.” If anyone has ever said anything like this to you before, you know how unhelpful it is to hear. While everyone has a different capacity for handling difficult people or situations, according to Dr. Judith Orloff, some of us may be especially sensitive to other people’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions: Empaths.

Anyone is capable of empathy. However, empaths like Orloff aren’t just able to pick up on others’ feelings, they absorb them into their own psyche. This can be both a gift and a burden: Empaths are often incredibly passionate and thoughtful people because of their empathy, but they also suffer much more when surrounded by negativity.

A dog who looks very sad.
Do you find yourself sucking up other people’s emotions like a sponge? You might be an empath.

In her book The Empath’s Survival Guide, Orloff explains what an empath is and offers tips, tools, and strategies for empaths to filter and repel the buzzing emotions around them, detect and minimize exposure to “energy vampires,” and, most importantly, embrace their gift.

What is an empath?

The sensitivity of people exists on a spectrum and empaths are often at the most extreme end. Empaths absorb the emotions around them like a sponge. They take on the joy of others but also the stress. They can easily be overwhelmed by emotions and are prone to sensory overload, exhaustion, and burnout.

There is no clear cause for empathy but many possible explanations. For some, the cause may be genetic; empathetic children tend to have empathetic parents. Other empaths may be more affected by their upbringing and their emotional self-defense mechanisms have simply been worn down after years of misuse. Hyperactive mirror neurons, increased dopamine sensitivity, and emotional contagion—the idea that emotions can “spread” between people in a group like germs—are all other possible explanations for empathy.

A young dark-skinned woman looking up in a pensive sort of way.
The cause of extreme empathy is unclear. It may be genetic or social.

Empaths are prone to overstimulation by their environment. Bright lights, loud noises, and large groups of people can be overwhelming. As a result, many empaths tend to be seen as standoffish or aloof because of their need to retreat and recalibrate from highly stimulating situations. Empaths may also have trouble with intimate relationships; their giving nature and naivete make them a prime target for people with little or no emotional sensitivity. Alternatively, they may avoid relationships altogether if they are unable to cope with the intensity of their partner’s emotions.

For as many drawbacks as being an empath has, however, there are just as many advantages. Empaths are incredibly compassionate and caring people, who often want to give as much as they receive. They can be intuitive to an almost supernatural degree, picking up on the emotions of young children and even animals with precision. They are passionate and creative, capable of thinking outside the box, and great at managing conflicts and maintaining peace in a group.

What are some coping strategies for living as an empath?

Life as an empath can be extremely difficult in a world that sees sensitivity as a weakness, but this view is not only damaging, it couldn’t be further from the truth! Empaths are no more or less strong than non-empaths; they simply perceive the world more intensely.

Empaths absorb the emotions around them like a sponge. They take on the joy of others but also the stress.

Because of this intense perception, empaths need coping strategies to help them during periods of high stimulation and when dealing with people who either don’t understand or don’t care about their needs.

Dr. Orloff offers a variety of these coping strategies for empaths to try as a means of shielding themselves from negative energy and coping with overstimulation before it can damage their health. Some examples include:

  • Shielding meditation. Find a quiet space and meditate comfortably while visualizing a shield of light surrounding and protecting you from anything negative or unwelcome.
  • Spend time in nature. “Earthing” involves the act of physically interacting with nature, such as standing bare-footed on grass or sitting under a tree. Natural settings are often tranquil and much quieter than the densely-populated cities most of us live in.
  • Practice good daily health. Empaths are prone to adrenal fatigue. Eating well, exercising, meditating, and getting enough sleep are all ways to prevent it.
  • Eliminate “energy vampires.” Ridding yourself of toxic people will limit your exposure to negativity tremendously. If you can’t cut energy vampires out of your life completely, at least establish clear boundaries with them, or limit your interactions with them.
  • Determine your personal boundaries. For example, if loud noises and yelling make you feel anxious and overstimulated, establish a no-yelling rule in your house.
  • Take time to yourself. Daily periods of rest and decompression can help you recalibrate your emotions, but also consider yearly retreats or vacations to give yourself some much-needed alone time.

Meditation can be a great way to keep yourself grounded and stave off the influence of others. Try adding a meditation habit to one of your daily rituals today!

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