Judith Orloff, MD is a psychiatrist, an empath, and author of the new book The Genius of Empathy, which offers powerful skills to tap into empathy as a daily healing practice in your life and relationships. She also wrote The Empath’s Survival Guide and Thriving as an Empath. Dr. Orloff is a New York Times bestselling author and a UCLA clinical faculty member. She synthesizes the pearls of conventional medicine with cutting-edge knowledge of intuition, energy, and spirituality. Dr. Orloff specializes in treating highly sensitive people in her private practice. She has been featured on The Today Show, CNN, Oprah Magazine, and the New York Times.
Learn more about this fascinating person in our latest MysticMag interview.
Why did you write ‘The Genius of Empathy,’ and what are the main points you would like readers to come away with?
I work as a psychiatrist, and what sets me apart is that I integrate empathy and intuition with my patients. I integrate this unique quality with my traditional psychiatric expertise to intuitively connect with my patients. I believe it’s essential for everyone to merge their logical minds with their compassion and heart. This fusion allows us to offer our best selves to others and, equally importantly, to ourselves. I view empathy as a crucial element in mental health, spiritual well-being, and the overall health of our world.
One thing I’ve noticed is that many people struggle to differentiate between empathy and sympathy. This is why I find it rewarding to share this book. The main takeaway I hope readers gain from it is a sense of empowerment. You can learn to treat yourself with kindness and empathy in any situation. Moreover, you can enhance your relationships by approaching them with empathy, rather than engaging in conflicts, quarrels, and divisions.
Empathy plays a pivotal role in my life. When faced with arguments or disagreements, I focus on understanding the other person’s perspective and finding effective ways to communicate. It’s too simple to resort to blame and righteousness without empathy. What most people truly desire is to be heard, understood, valued, and seen. Empathy softens challenging situations, creating opportunities for resolution instead of alienation or continuous arguments.
Self-empathy is a central theme in this book, as I believe it’s crucial. Whether you’re facing personal challenges, caregiving, or supporting a loved one in distress, showing yourself empathy 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 rather than enduring them.
It also delves into de-escalation techniques. People usually expect confrontation, but consciously using empathy as a tactic can take them by surprise, making them more receptive to dialogue and conflict resolution. This approach isn’t limited to personal relationships; it can be applied on a global scale, where empathy is often lacking.
I often hear questions like, ‘How can I have empathy for my critical mother-in-law or my narcissistic ex-lover who hurt me deeply?’ It’s important to understand that empathy doesn’t mean condoning heinous actions. Instead, it involves searching for the suffering behind such actions and recognizing the value of empathy in freeing yourself from resentment and hatred.
This book offers a different perspective and the option to interact with loved ones and even those you may not like more constructively and compassionately.
As a psychiatrist how do you combine your empath skills with traditional science?
When a patient seeks my assistance, I approach their situation by initially examining it through the lens of conventional psychiatric science. I aim to determine the underlying condition. Is it bipolar disorder, depression, or perhaps an adjustment disorder? I delve into their narrative, where they often describe their struggles as being solely tied to specific issues, like relationship stress with a boyfriend. While I acknowledge their perspective, I simultaneously engage my empathic abilities. My primary goal is to listen without judgment, for empathy is the opposite of passing judgment.
By creating a safe and accepting space for them to share their experiences, I open myself to their feelings. Simultaneously, I use my intuition and empathy to seek further insights. Sometimes, flashes of additional information emerge, such as past experiences of abuse or a pattern of needing to always be right, which may contribute to their relationship problems. I make a note of these insights, although I may not immediately discuss them, particularly when trust is still developing.
Frequently, patients bring up these points on their own. I want to stress that this isn’t a skill unique to me; it’s something I teach in ‘The Genius of Empathy.’ Everyone can use their heart and empathy to understand others on a deeper level. The connection achieved through empathy is personally fulfilling for me, as I greatly value relationships. Connecting with people or with nature in a heartfelt manner is a profound experience that’s only possible when your heart is open.
It’s essential to be selective in fostering empathic connections. Not everyone is a suitable friend, partner, coworker, or boss. In ‘The Genius of Empathy,’ I discuss individuals like narcissists, psychopaths, and sociopaths who exhibit what’s termed ’empathy deficient disorder.’ They lack the typical empathy we possess. It’s a form of emotional intelligence to discern who is genuinely healthy for us to engage with emotionally.
Empathy doesn’t equate to excusing heinous actions; it’s about acknowledging that individuals who commit such acts are likely suffering in some way. This expanded perspective can help free oneself from dwelling on past traumas.
When someone treats you poorly, it’s typically an indication of their inner unhappiness. In the chapter discussing narcissism, I emphasize that narcissists don’t gain satisfaction from isolating, mistreating, or manipulating you; rather, they derive a sense of power from these actions, not love. It’s a vital distinction.
Narcissists don’t operate from the same empathic perspective as you might. It’s crucial to understand that you can’t effectively heal them. Many empaths I encounter try to heal narcissists, but it’s essential to realize that this is extremely challenging, especially if the individual has a full-blown narcissistic personality disorder with a deficiency in empathy.
The inability to empathize with others is what characterizes individuals with empathy-deficient disorder. You must consider where they find their sense of happiness, and in their case, it often comes from having power over you. They cannot receive and reciprocate love in the way you deserve.
I always advise my empathic patients against becoming entangled with narcissists, despite the magnetic attraction that can exist. Narcissists can put on a façade, appearing to be the best thing that ever happened to someone. However, it’s crucial to look beyond this superficial charm. I caution my patients not to be overly swayed by charisma and seduction, as these can be red flags.
Being empathic doesn’t mean you lack emotional intelligence or good judgment in your decisions. Instead, it means you are more discerning and may not rush into things when you have reservations. Part of empathy involves tuning into your body and listening to the signals it sends. Many people experience red flags that indicate discomfort, fatigue, or a sense of unease when something doesn’t feel right in a relationship.
Safety is a crucial aspect of empathy. In relationships with two empathic individuals, a shared value for the care that empathy brings fosters a sense of safety. This mutual understanding is essential for maintaining healthy and secure relationships
What are some practical empathy techniques to heal your life and relationships?
Let’s explore a fundamental aspect that involves getting brutally honest with ourselves when we find ourselves grappling with a challenge, be it in a relationship, physical health, emotional well-being, or financial matters. Instead of resorting to self-criticism, where we label ourselves as losers or not good enough, it’s vital to recognize this self-doubt as an outdated tape playing in our minds, something we’ve absorbed from past experiences with parents or partners.
Empathy encourages us to pivot from this negative self-talk. It’s about acknowledging that during difficult times, we’re doing the best we can in that very moment. The key is to focus on the present, avoid getting fixated on the future with its worst-case scenarios, and regularly bring ourselves back to the present moment as an empathic practice. This entails recognizing our achievements for the day and permitting ourselves to feel uncomfortable while acknowledging our efforts.
Self-empathy is particularly challenging, as many of us have discovered. It’s often easier to assist others than to extend the same compassion to ourselves. Many mental health professionals find this aspect of self-empathy to be the most difficult.
So, I want to emphasize that it’s okay to start by practicing empathy with yourself in the easiest situations. Avoid tackling the most challenging ones right away. The courage lies in breaking the habit of self-criticism, which can indeed be undone. Shifting this perspective can bring about a sense of lightness, preventing us from dwelling on negative thoughts that wear down our neurochemicals, particularly serotonin.
We should strive for progress rather than perfection, aiming to be a bit less harsh on ourselves each day from an empathic standpoint. It’s not about achieving this every single day but allowing ourselves moments of kindness and self-compassion. I encourage all readers to grant themselves a break, to pause and breathe, and to choose kindness over self-criticism. People are often exceptionally tough on themselves, and I understand this well, as it’s something I’ve also worked on within myself. Empathy has significantly enriched my relationship with both myself and others.
Why do you think empathy is a superpower?
Empathy possesses the extraordinary ability to revolutionize every aspect of your life. It has the power to transform your worldview and how 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, rather than dwelling on the “why me” victim mindset, which often leads to self-criticism. It’s about dwelling on the answers and the solutions instead of getting trapped in problems.
Even if you’ve endured severe abuse or a challenging upbringing, which is unfortunately a common experience for many, it’s crucial to reframe the inner voices from your childhood. Practicing empathy involves working with your inner child to reclaim and nurture it.
In the book, I describe an exercise called “I’m sorry you were hurt.” In this exercise, I offer apologies to participants, saying, “I’m sorry you were hurt. I’m sorry your parents didn’t acknowledge your sensitivity, and I’m sorry that you endured hardships.” It’s a way of extending empathy and apologizing on behalf of those who couldn’t apologize themselves.
I extend the same apology to all the readers, and I encourage you to say this to yourself. Be the compassionate, empowered part of yourself that rescues and protects your inner child. An exercise in the book involves revisiting the place where you grew up, finding your younger self, taking their hand, and bringing them back with you, assuring them that you love and protect them. It’s about reclaiming what may have been lost, rather than feeling perpetually lost.