Empaths don’t get enough empathy.
An empath is a person who is naturally endowed with an overabundance of empathy. As I understand the term, a “natural empath” (my term, not Orloff’s) is an individual who is naturally endowed from birth or genetically “loaded” with a deep and extensive empathy, a hypersensitivity to the experiences of others.
This gift of empathy shows up as a mixed blessing, since the natural empath experiences the pains and sufferings of the world more intensely and deeply than do other individuals. Less charitable people redescribe the “natural empath” as someone who is “irritable” or “overly sensitive.”
Granted, the natural empath brings a deep sensitivity to the experience of human suffering and joy, the natural empath also lives through the nuances and delicate details of the experiences intensely. Too intensely?
Granted that the empath seems to be protesting, at least sometimes, that her empathy is working overtime and causing suffering—a breakdown—a book such as Judith Orloff’s The Empathy’s Survival Guide is a timely antidote. 
Such empaths seem to be challenged—lack skill—in tuning down their empathy. Indeed they often do not think of the possibility of such skillful tuning. They do not acknowledge such a possibility. There is nothing wrong, but there seems to be something missing. Hence, the need for Orloff’s guidance. Granted, individuals are born a certain way, and that, no doubt, can represent a challenge, but being born a certain way does not mean one always has to stay that way.
Meanwhile, the empath is experiencing a breakdown in empathic receptivity (my term, not Orloff’s). According to Orloff, instead of a well-rounded, mature, developed empathy, the empathy of the natural empath breaks down into emotional contagion (at least on a bad day). The suffering of the other person floods her or his empathy; indeed the suffering of the world inundates the individual. But that is not all, and the dominoes start falling.
Orloff gets into the details. Overwhelmed and under stress, the natural empath engages in defensive gestures that ultimately are self-defeating. These include isolating oneself, turning to alcohol or street drugs in an attempt to self-medicate, enacting other addictive behaviors (over-eating, restricting, sexual acting out), and so on. Furthermore, the chronic social stress experienced by the natural empath is a source of inflammatory disorders such as autoimmune diseases, allergies, clinical anxiety, depression, and so on, to which we are all susceptible, but the empath especially so. The result is a form of emotional burnout, compassion fatigue, empathic distress, emotional contagion, not empathy.
The empath is just being what she or he calls “empathic”; but it is not working for the individual in question. Why not? Orloff explains that due to natural endowment and/or adverse childhood experiences, the empath lacks experiential filters and sensory inhibition. The glass is both half empty and half full. The empath is endowed with intuitive abilities that may be exceptional. However, the trouble is that the empath’s empathy lacks inhibition. He is too open to the pain and suffering of the world. Heck, even a succession of sunny days can become burdensome, though in a different way.
In contrast to the natural empath, most people are too inhibited, including being inhibited as regards their empathy. Most of us are not sufficiently in touch with our feelings and experiences in relationships.
Not so, the natural empath. The natural empath endures too much “in touchness” with feelings and experiences of the pain and suffering of others. In this one respect, empathy, the natural empath is too uninhibited. In this one particular area of openness to the suffering and pain of other people, the natural empath may usefully increase her inhibition. Consider the example of Dr Brecht in Thomas Mann’s celebrated novel Buddenbrooks, a dentist who deeply experiences the pain of his dental patients, so that he has to sit down, exhausted by the suffering of his patient, and wipe his brow after each procedure. Dentistry – perhaps not the best choice of profession for a natural empath.
A sound scientific basis exists for this predicament. (We will shortly get to the scientifically debatable aspects of Orloff’s work.) People who are “natural empaths” have an acute sensitivity to in-bound sensations and perceptions. The function of what physiologists call “lateral inhibition” of sensory perception seems to be “lazy” and under-performing in these people. Lateral inhibition enables the nervous system to filter out the distracting background noise and intensify the relevant, salient sensations in the environment.[i]
That does not mean the natural empath should become hard-hearted or unkind, though paradoxically that is sometimes the sad result of burnout, compassion fatigue, or empathic distress. In order to overcome the breakdown of empathy, what does one actually do in order to expand or contract one’s empathic receptivity?
Orloff’s work is rich in tips and techniques for the struggling empath. Many of her best tips can be summarized in one phrase. Set firm limits and boundaries. The empathy lesson for such individuals consists in: Practice methods of “down regulating” one’s empathy. State a request; and use humor (p. 122). Remember that “No” is a complete sentence (p. 222). “Don’t try to fix others” (p. 230).
In a different category of tips and techniques are a long list of self-soothing, distress tolerance, and emotional regulation skills. Since this is self-help book, expect to encounter numerous recommendations about proper nutrition, regular exercise, sleep hygiene, and so on. All good recommendations, every one, but not specific to empathy as such. More problematic is the writing heavily weighted in the direction of “new age” interventions such as burning incense, holding healing gems, telepathic communication with plants and animals, and Epsom salt baths.
I hasten to add that I am a big advocate of Epsom salt soaking, especially in the form of sensory deprivation, though it tends to expand openness and sensitivity. More on the other “new age” interventions shortly. Empathy works to create a space of acceptance and toleration, so if the practice in question helps one regulate one’s emotions, do it.
The empath definitely can feel like he needs a survival guide – and Orloff’s work is a good place to start for the magical thinking free spirit. However, from the perspective of a rigorous and critical empathy, some real issues are going to get in the way of a serious appropriation of this book, outside the confines of a weekend retreat on telepathy and intuitive energy healing.
There are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies – and Orloff points at many of them. How shall I put it delicately? Orloff’s discussion proceeds as if subtle communications are undisputed medico-scientific-therapeutic facts, not compelling puzzles that should alert us to a depth of our emotions and thoughts that may usefully be plumbed in a rigorous and critical empathy.
For example, in 1779 the Viennese physician Anton Mesmer published a treatise on animal magnetism, describing a subtle physical “magnetic” fluid – analogous to but different than Newtonian gravity – that permeates the universe, connecting, men (humans), the earth, and the heavens. The imbalance of this hypothesized fluid in the body is responsible for such emotional disorders as hysteria and obsessive-compulsive behavior. Mesmer conducted “magnetic banquets” that provided the nobles and aristocracy with substantial relief from their physical and psychosomatic symptoms.
At about the same time, one of Mesmer’s students, Viscount Jacques Maxime de Castenet de Puységur, differentiated “magnetic sleep,” which we would today call “hypnotic suggestion” and seemed to offer relief, not to the nobles, but to soldiers, workers, and peasants. The word “hypnosis” does not occur in the text, but I speculate that many of Orloff’s tips and techniques are forms of self-hypnosis. Might be worth a try.
Animal magnetism, psychic energy, libido, the energetic Chi practiced in Tai Chi, the instincts or vasanas liberated in Yoga, the mystical heat generated by the Shaman, emotional contagion, and so on, are not grounded in any conventional scientific theory or practice. So such energy work is not exactly an objective fact, and yet it is not a fiction.
Speaking in the first person plural, since Orloff has diagnosed herself as an empath, she writes: “Since everything is made of subtle energy, including emotions and physical sensation, we energetically internalize the feelings, pain, and various physical sensations of others [….] [and] are even able to connect with animals, nature, and their inner guides” (p. 6).
Any one who owns a dog or cat knows from experience that we communicate with animals – exchanging feelings and experiences. But what Orloff has in mind is much more specific and goes well beyond provocative metaphors to questionable material instantiation. She provides an explanation where inquiry is still ongoing.
Orloff is captured by the materialist fallacy and forgets that factual reality itself is permeated with fictions and fantasies. Ignoring the power of fiction, she wants to make a compelling linguistic locution such as “psychic energy” into a material fact, thereby losing its power to enable us to describe and transform feelings and behavior. As demonstrated by many of Orloff’s imaginative and ”out there” statements, an idea does not need physical or factual reality to be effective – it just has to be expressed in a performative language powerful enough to motivate others to act or engage.
There is a fancy name for Orloff’s main fallacy – reification – making into a thing that which is otherwise an abstraction. The idea of psychic energy is a compelling one, and it does have many applications in describing the mental status, awareness, or ability to be present in a conversation, of a person in a would-be empathic relationship. But it is the name of a problem and a deep issue, not a physical reality.
For example, neurology assures us that the brain – and indeed the body – gives off an electro-magnetic field. But this is a blunt instrument enabling us to tell whether an individual is conscious or in a coma, aware of his surrounding or experiencing an epileptic seizure. Orloff does not say that perhaps someday the granularity and specificity will improve. This is not a “some day” survival guide. No, she is claiming to have that skill now in her practice and workshops – and perhaps you can get it, too, if you work with her and follow her guidance.
Ironically, Orloff’s empathy is off. Empath’s are also naturally endowed with intuition, and Orloff consistently confuses intuition and empathy. Intuition and empathy are closely related, but they are inversely related. More intuition often occasions less empathy, and vice versa. Intuition is the ability to make inferences, educated guesses, based on nuanced clues that are often barely over the threshold of perception. It is the kind of thing at which Sherlock Holmes excelled, and he was a notoriously hard case.
In contrast, empathy is the ability to take a vicarious experience, based on sustained listening to another person, and process it further cognitively, resulting in an empathic response. The properly empathic empath uses his empathic receptivity as to who the other person is as a possibility. The empath takes a walk in the other’s shoes with the other’s foot size, giving back and responding to the other individual her experience in a form of language such that the other person recognizes it as her own. As the empath learns to set firm boundaries and limits, her intuition is transformed into sustainable, usable empathy in the full sense from which both she and the community benefit.
Ours is a world in which pain and suffering are abundant. This does not make the would-be empath cold-hearted or the object of moral condemnation. Indeed such people might be more willing to engage in helping behaviors such as volunteering or donating money based on cognitive appreciation of the other person’s predicament rather than the experience of vicarious suffering. It means that the natural empath should practice taking distance from his own feeling in such a way that he gets a sample or trace of the other person’s feeling without being overwhelmed.
Expressed positively, if distance (or inhibition) were a medical drug, the natural empath may usefully increase the dosage. Take more of it. However, this is at best an imperfect analogy. Recall that inhibition is what enables the average person to get results in a world that the individual subsequently experiences as causing boredom precisely because inhibition is doing such a good job of down regulating the wave of stimulations that potentially wash over the person; and likewise the natural empath, hypothetically lacking such a filter, needs to down-regulate her empathy through self-distraction and abstraction to sustain emotional equilibrium rather than over-stimulation. The natural empath is an important and engaging case, and he may actually increase his good deeds in a particular situation by contracting his empathic receptivity, one particular part of empathy.
Note that Orloff considers herself an empath. She shares childhood experiences that indicate this was so as long as she can remember. I consider myself to be one of those “neuro typical” individuals, who used simply to be called “normal” (except that we no longer know what is “normal’). I hasten to add that I have expanded my empathic capabilities through extensive practice and training discussed elsewhere.
Being an empath is surely a mixed blessing – as is this book. If one can expand one’s empathy, one can also contract it. The power of the empath – and the ordinary person – consists in doing both in their proper time and place. That is an important point from the perspective of a rigorous and critical empathy, about which Orloff may usefully be more explicit. Empathy in all its forms works to create a space of acceptance and toleration, so I acknowledge Orloff’s commitment to empathy.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project