Empathy is good, but what if you care too much? Dr. Judith Orloff has advice for empaths

There’s a cost to caring too much. 

Two prominent mental health counselors – a resilience expert at an Ivy League college and a megachurch pastor – died by suicide in September. At the 2017 U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Health Means Business summit, Arianna Huffington, sleep evangelist and author of “The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time,” said people who toil in the charitable space often have the most trouble detaching from work and, well, going to bed. 

Meanwhile, Justin Phillips, a mother who lost her son to a drug overdose, is trying to start the #chooseempathy movement. She founded Overdose Lifeline to raise awareness that addiction is not a choice and requires empathetic responses. 

Dr. Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist and self-described empath, agrees society needs more empathy given the rising rates of addiction, suicide and mental illness, among other challenges. But she cautions those who choose to be empathic – or find it comes naturally – about the need to care for themselves first. 

More:Oprah Winfrey reveals latest book club pick: ‘I’m in awe’

The New York Times best-selling author’s new book, “Thriving as an Empath: 365 Days of Self-Care for Sensitive People” (Sounds True publishing), is now in stores.

Dr. Judith Orloff is a Los Angeles area psychiatrist, author and empath.

Here, she talks with USA TODAY health policy reporter Jayne O’Donnell, who calls herself an “overempathizer.” 

Question: How do you know if you are an empath? What are the character traits?

Dr. Judith Orloff:Ordinary empathy is the ability to feel someone else’s pain as well as their joy, the ability for us to be open-hearted. It’s such a beautiful trait. Being an empath, however, goes further. Empaths have extremely sensitive neurological systems and don’t have the usual filters that other people have, so they feel things intensely and often are emotional sponges who take on other people’s stress if they don’t learn how to set boundaries and practice other self-care techniques … Most empaths are introverts like myself, but some are extroverts who love socializing but still need to decompress afterwards to take care of themselves.

As part of my research on empaths, I developed a 20-question self-assessment test in my earlier book, “The Empath’s Survival Guide,” to determine if you are an empath. Some of the questions include: Have I been labeled as overly sensitive? (in a derogatory way). Do crowds drain me, and do I need a lot of alone time to replenish myself? Do I take on other people’s stress or emotions? Do I replenish myself in nature? Am I super-sensitive to noise, smells and excessive talking?

Empaths have many special challenges and also many gifts. 

Q: There’s a clear need for more empathy in our country, isn’t there?

Orloff: I believe empathy is the most precious trait in human nature. We need more of it in our country and in the world. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes so you can see their point of view. Empathy is so powerful because it opens our hearts. It allows us to try to understand another person’s position, even if we don’t particularly like them or if we disagree on an issue. This gives us the best chance of successfully communicating with them and resolving differences. 

Q: But there are risks in caring too much, aren’t there? 

Orloff: Yes, I’ve seen many of my patients, including empaths and all sensitive people, care too much and become burned out by empathy overload – or get involved with addictions, including substances, food and sex to numb themselves out. In my psychotherapy practice, there has been an epidemic of empathic patients consulting me who are exhausted, anxious, depressed and overwhelmed by added stress in their personal lives, which is aggravated by our world’s non-stop stress.

Arianna Huffington reports that over two-thirds of doctors in the U.S. say they are burned out, depressed or both! Plus the general suicide rate in our country just keeps going up. Those in the helping professions have trouble turning stress off so they also tend to experience impaired sleep and increased anxiety.

Q: What are the most effective ways for empaths to establish boundaries? 

Orloff:Taking adequate alone time is essential to decompress. When my empath patients go nonstop in their jobs or as parents – without periodically slowing down – they risk chronic exhaustion, anxiety and overwhelm. Scheduling mini-breaks in your life to take a few deep breaths, spending some quiet time without phone calls, demands or over-stimulation, taking a walk or meditating for even a few minutes will break the momentum of stress and prevent sensory overload.

Also I teach all my patients that “no is a complete sentence.”

Shouldn’t we all try to be better listeners and responders to those going through hard times? 

Orloff: Being a caring listener is one of the great empathic gifts we can give others. But we don’t have to listen for hours on end to be effective. Giving someone your caring attention for five to 10 minutes can be very potent, as opposed to getting hooked into repetitive two-hour phone conversations that wear you out. “I love you and I will be thinking of you” is a wonderful thing to say after responding to the person for a limited time. Also, I recommend having short check-ins with the person. A technique I suggest in “Thriving as an Empath” is the “3 Minute Phone Call.” This is when you tell the person you’re available for this period of time and you want to support them.

As an empathic person, you adore giving, but what I hope my book will provide you with are strategies to give in healthy ways – but also practice self-care so you can be a balanced, happy person.

If you or family members are struggling with issues mentioned in this story and you would like to connect with others online, join USA TODAY’s “I Survived It” Facebook support group. 

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