If you’ve ever felt happy for a newly promoted BFF or sad for a loved one who suffered a loss, you’ve been empathetic. But some people, called empaths, really feel those emotions. “Being empathetic is when your heart goes out to somebody when they feel joy or sadness,” explains Judith Orloff, MD, psychiatrist and author of The Empath’s Survival Guide. “But being an empath means you can actually feel their happiness or anxiety in your own body.” Best described as "emotional sponges," empaths don’t have the usual defenses or filters as other people, so they feel everything.
There's no clinical diagnosis for empaths. Dr. Orloff uses a self-assessment quiz consisting of 20 questions that can help people determine whether they fit the bill.
The quiz asks questions like:
- Have you been labeled "overly sensitive" or introverted your entire life?
- Do you prefer to take your own car to places so you can leave early if you need to?
- Do you prefer one-on-one interactions and small groups to large gatherings?
If you answer yes to the majority of the queries, it’s likely you have strong empath tendencies.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. Dr. Orloff, who is an empath and a psychiatrist (a tough combo!), says her ability to take on others’ emotions actually makes her a better therapist: “I’m able to tap into my gifts of intuition, depth of connection, and compassion to be really present with someone,” she tells Health.
Of course, absorbing others’ emotions is also taxing. “The key skill for an empath is to learn how to not take on the stress of others,” says Dr. Orloff. Here, she offers three simple self-care habits that can help you stay mentally healthy while you navigate your relationships as an empath.
The next time a friend is venting to you, kindly lay down some ground rules: “I suggest people do a five-minute phone call if their friend is in a 'Poor me!' mode,” says Dr. Orloff. “Lovingly tell them that you are happy to help them with solutions if they want that, but you will have to put a five-minute limit on a conversation if they’re going to continue venting. Letting them go on and on will destroy an empath.”
If your friend balks at the time cap, explain that you are trying to be supportive while also practicing necessary self care.
Make your home a sanctuary
Since empaths tend to be sensitive to crowds and loud noises, it’s easy for them to get overwhelmed when they're out and about. Making your home a safe haven can help you decompress.
“Be sure to have a sacred place at home where you can take deep breaths, calm down, and connect to yourself,” encourages Dr. Orloff. “Being alone can replenish an empath.” Candles, flowers, and soft music can also help turn your living space into the sanctuary it needs to be if you’re an empath who gets overstimulated during the day.
Spend time in nature
According to Dr. Orloff, empaths love the outdoors. “Nature has so much positive energy that when empaths are around it, they start to feel better.” Make it a point to spend time in the woods or a park regularly–as opposed to a busy city.
Water is also healing for empaths, adds Dr. Orloff. “They get very replenished in a bath, shower, or hot springs,” she says. “Besides just cleaning off dirt, water cleanses your energy fields so you feel like a different person afterwards.”