Breaking the Rescuer Pattern


As a psychiatrist and empath, I know the challenges sensitive people have to be compassionate, empowered empaths without shouldering the suffering of others or trying to “fix” them. All people deserve the dignity of their own paths.

Empaths are blessed with open, loving hearts. We care deeply about others and the world. Many of us also have a special love for animals and all sentient creatures. Our emotions run deep, as does our intuition.

We empaths are helpers, lovers and caretakers who often give too much at the expense of our own well-being. Research suggests that our mirror neuron system (a part of the brain responsible for compassion) is hyper-active, which can burn us out. This is not how I choose to live. I want to be caring, but over-helping or absorbing someone’s distress just puts me on sensory overload which is painful to my sensitive body and soul. It also doesn’t serve the other person in any lasting way.

Here’s an excerpt from my book Thriving as an Empath, which is now available in paperback, to help you keep your empathy in balance.

Breaking the Rescuer Pattern

Sensitive people may want to help those who are struggling or in pain, including strangers. It may be hard to step back and refrain from rescuing them. This is where it is useful to understand the difference between empathy and being an empath. Empathy exists when your heart feels for someone–but being an empath is when you reach out to take away another’s pain. Healthy empathy is what is necessary to keep your center.

Naturally, you do what you can to assist loved ones. But there comes a point when they must do the work themselves. I know it is frustrating and painful to see someone you care about struggling. But getting caught in their frustration or offering unasked for suggestions is counterproductive for them and draining for you. To tolerate being in intimate relationships, you have to sometimes step back. Will the other person ever resolve the problem? You must live with that uncertainly. But always hold good thoughts and prayers for them while giving them space. In addition, a mantra I find helpful is: “I am not responsible.” As you repeat this, you will feel your need to rescue others lift.

Set your intention. It is not my job to rescue anyone or fix their problems. I will learn the balance between healthy empathy and stepping back.

Thriving as an empath means learning to love yourself as much as you care about the world. This includes realizing how profoundly important your empathy is in our over-intellectualized society. Your caring provides the crack of light in the darkness that will get us all through. Though loving so much can hurt too, your heart makes you strong and bright and pure.

Judith Orloff, MD is a New York Times bestselling author with the upcoming book The Genius of Empathy: Practical Skills to Heal Yourself, Your Relationships and the World (Foreword by the Dalai Lama). She has also written The Empath’s Survival Guide and Thriving as an Empath, which offers daily self-care tools for sensitive people. She integrates the pearls of conventional medicine with cutting edge knowledge of intuition, empathy, energy medicine, and spirituality. Dr. Orloff specializes in treating empaths and highly sensitive people in her private practice and online internationally. Her work has been featured on The Today Show, CNN, Oprah Magazine, the New York Times and USA Today. Dr. Orloff has spoken at Google-LA, TEDx U.S. and TEDx Asia. More information about Dr. Orloff’s Empathy Training Programs for businesses, The Empath Survival Guide Online Course and speaking schedule at

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4 thoughts on “Breaking the Rescuer Pattern

  1. Thank you so much for all of your work. This is exactly what I needed to read today. Your ability to define and articulate our experience is a blessing and a gift in our search for ways to understand it and communicate it to those around us. Thank you Dr. Orloff.

  2. Thank you, Dr. Orloff. I needed this today. I am struggling with feeling I am responsible for feral cats at work. It’s incredibly heartbreaking but it’s also putting a strain on me.

  3. Thank you for all your pioneering work on being an HSP, Judith!

    Many of my clients are high-sensitives, empaths, intuitives, etc., as well as healers. Whether it’s physical therapy, massage, Reiki, or any other type of energy work, they all suffer from the burden of taking on other people’s ailments, whether mental, emotional, spiritual, or physical, because they believe that’s the only way they will be able to address the “problem.”

    I often tell people that, not only are they not responsible, but since there is nothing broken in the first place, there is nothing that requires “fixing.” In fact, the single tool that has helped me the most going through my journey from “survive to thrive,” and the most revelatory for clients, is recognizing that our energy is like a psychic octopus, globbing onto other people’s. Reeling in our energetic (psychic) tentacles means we can still receive the messages and insight we want without accepting the energies we don’t want. We can understand it and address it without BECOMING it.

    Thank you once again for your brilliant contribution!

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