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Help Arrives for Mirror-Touch Synesthetes

Pioneering therapist Dr. Judith Orloff counsels the highly empathic

We synesthetes have been comparing notes for years about how to manage the extreme empathy or mirror-touch synesthesia many of us experience. From internalizing the moods (good or bad) of others, to feeling sensations in the same part of our bodies where others are injured, there are many expressions of this trait, borne of special neurons which are only now beginning to be understood. Our conversations often end with someone lamenting that there is little advice for us about a gift that can be hard to navigate at times.

Well, synesthetes, help has arrived.

Dr. Judith Orloff of California is highly empathic herself and has many mirror-touch synesthetes in her practice, which exclusively serves empaths. (Many synesthetes are empaths, not all empaths are synesthetes.) "This is incredibly challenging and exhausting for them," she explains. "But I teach them strategies to stop absorbing other people's stress by using visualizations, emotional boundary setting, meditation exercises, and practical exercises."

One such visualization is to literally conjure in your mind's eye a shield between yourself and the person whose energy you don't want to absorb, the doctor explains. Setting emotional boundaries can include cutting an evening short when out at a loud party or limiting time spent with negative people.

Meditation is crucial for the empath, Dr. Orloff says, by centering us and helping to relieve stress.

And a practical exercise includes taking one's own car to group gatherings, as Dr. Orloff herself does, so you can leave whenever you've had enough.

Here are some useful guidelines from the doctor:

Have I been labeled as too emotional or overly sensitive?

  • If a friend is distraught, do I start feeling it too?
  • Are my feelings easily hurt?
  • Am I emotionally drained by crowds, require time alone to revive?
  • Do my nerves get frayed by noise, smells, or excessive talk?
  • Do I prefer taking my own car places so that I can leave when I please?
  • Do I overeat to cope with emotional stress?
  • Am I afraid of becoming engulfed by intimate relationships?

If you answer “yes” to 1-3 of these questions, you’re at least part empath. Responding “yes” to more than 3 indicates that you’ve found your emotional type, which is "the Emotional Empath." Recognizing that you’re an empath is the first step in taking charge of your emotions instead of constantly being overwhelmed by them.

The Empath’s Positive Side (Adapted from Emotional Freedom by Judith Orloff, M.D.)

  • You’ve got a big heart, are gifted in helping others.
  • Your sensitivity makes you passionate and exquisitely sensual.
  • You’re intuitive about people’s thoughts and feelings.
  • You’re emotionally responsive, can relate to another’s feelings.
  • You’re in touch with your body and emotions.
  • You have a palpable sense of spirituality.

The Empath’s Challenging Side

  • You’re an emotional sponge, absorbing people’s negativity.
  • You’re so sensitive to emotions, you feel like a wire without insulation.
  • You’re prone to anxiety, depression, fatigue.
  • You may feel hemmed in living in the same space with other people.
  • You may have chronic, debilitating physical symptoms.
  • You have difficulty setting boundaries with draining people, get run over by them.

Orloff recently took the time to answer several questions:

Dr. Judith Orloff. Photo used with permission.
Source: Dr. Judith Orloff. Photo used with permission.

What should parents, partners, and friends of empaths know or do?

JO: In my psychiatric practice, I educate the loved ones of empaths about an empath's special sensitivities. Loved ones need to know how to respect an empath's alone time, which is so needed for an empath to decompress and regroup. Instead of thinking that an empath is crazy, a hypochondriac, or in need of Prozac, people need to realize that an empath's sensitivities are precious. They need to respect the boundaries that an empath sets in terms of time management. For instance, if they go to a party they may want to stay for only one or two hours because they are overstimulated. As an empath myself, I take my own car places so I can leave when I please. I educate my friends about this so they don't think I'm being rude or take it personally. When empaths stick up for their own boundaries they can enjoy their lives more and their loved ones can understand them better.

Can you envision a time when this is more widely taught than your pioneering practice, say, in grammar schools?

JO: Yes! My dream is that education about what it means to be an empathic child begins at the earliest stages. Instead of shaming children about their sensitivities, teachers, parents, and authority figures can support these abilities and help the child and the child's loved ones understand them so an empath can flourish. I have dedicated myself to educating as many people as I can about empaths through my workshops and books so that we can begin to embrace sensitive people and learn from them. I imagine the world will be a very different place if our leaders were highly sensitive people with big hearts and increased intuition and compassion.

Are empaths often gifted in other ways? How is their intelligence?

JO: Empaths are gifted in helping others, so many of the empaths who come to my workshops are in the healing professions. Their sensitivities allow them to tune into their patients more to have a deeper understanding of who they work with. Empaths have heightened intuition and have a deep connection with nature. They often excel as teachers and educators. I have not seen the association between empathy and increased IQ.

Emotional Freedom by Dr. Judith Orloff
Source: Emotional Freedom by Dr. Judith Orloff

Orloff would like to invite synesthetes to take part in the online community she has built through her website: She also counsels via Skype should you need her services. Her latest book is the New York Times bestseller Emotional Freedom.

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