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How accurate is your empathy?

January 16, 2013

How good are your Emotion-Recognition skills?

Last week, we looked at a vital part of the first aspect of empathy (Emotion Contagion), which is your capacity to feel your way into the emotions of others. And with the support of the concept of Einfühlung, we also opened up our idea of empathy to include your capacity to feel into and alongside nonhuman actors like animals and nonliving things like art.

With the help of your innate Einfühlung capacities, you can feel your way into nature, art, music, literature, and movement — and you can have intense emotional experiences and empathic relationships with things that are not alive. In my new book, The Art of Empathy, I rely upon this empathic capacity when people are hyperempathic and overloaded with the emotional needs of others. I have them begin to direct their empathic skills toward art, literature, music, dance, movement (etc.) — so that they can work with their skills in a safer and more manageable way. 

However, artistic expression also helps people who are currently low in Emotion Contagion skills — because it gives them a way to practice receiving and expressing emotions with something that is more emotionally reliable than humans tend to be. Whether a person is overwhelmed or underwhelmed in the area of Emotion Contagion, working directly with their Einfühlung capacities is a specific way to gain skills and awareness in this first aspect of empathy.

When people can get a handle on their Emotion Contagion skills, they can begin to gain skills in the second aspect of empathy, which is Empathic Accuracy.

As a reminder, let’s look at the six aspects of empathy again:

  1. Emotion Contagion
  2. Empathic Accuracy
  3. Emotion Regulation
  4. Perspective Taking
  5. Concern for Others
  6. Perceptive Engagement

Empathic Accuracy is your capacity to recognize and identify emotions

As I was reading through untold amounts of contradictory empathy research from more than half-a-dozen academic disciplines, I got so overwhelmed that I decided to gather all of the differing opinions about empathy in a step-by-step model (based on my decades of hands-on empathic work). This eventually led me to create an organized model of the six aspects of empathy you see above.

But as I was wrestling with these aspects and their order, I tripped over where to put Empathic Accuracy. Does it come before or after Emotion Regulation? Luckily, I found a study that suggested that Empathic Accuracy does not actually predict whether a person will engage in empathic actions. That was a wonderful find, because it told me that there’s a step between knowing which emotions you’re picking up and knowing how to empathically engage with others.

That step is Emotion Regulation.

Think about it this way. Let’s say you’re in a room with a very anxious person. You pick up the emotion and feel it in your own body — so your Emotion Contagion is working (maybe a little too much, but it’s working). You name the emotion and you know exactly what it is — it’s anxiety — so your Empathic Accuracy is fine. But if you have no practice for anxiety, and no way to regulate it, then you’re just going to get activated by the emotion, and possibly become agitated yourself.

If you’re agitated and you don’t know how to down-regulate and calm yourself, it’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to perform skillful Perspective Taking, Concern for Others, or Perceptive Engagement. You probably won’t be able to perform an empathic action, because you’ll be struggling to deal with the anxiety yourself. You’ll probably become self-focused (because you’re in distress), and you may even want to isolate yourself and get the heck away from the anxious person.

It’s absolutely crucial to know which emotion you’ve picked up (or which emotion another is feeling). You’ve got to have an extensive and nuanced emotional vocabulary, which is why I offer this free Emotional Vocabulary List on every page of this site. Your Empathic Accuracy is an irreplaceable stepping stone of empathy.

Book cover of The Language of EmotionsBut you’ve also got to know what to do with the emotions you identify. Otherwise, your empathic skills may fall apart before you ever get to Perspective Taking. Emotion Regulation is the bridge to skillful empathizing that protects you and takes the needs of others into consideration.

Luckily, you don’t have to wait to develop Emotion Regulation skills until The Art of Empathy comes out in October. As I wrote this new book, I realized that my previous book, The Language of Emotions, is all about Emotion Regulation skills. This site is also dedicated to sharing these skills, so if you’ve got difficulties with any emotion, or you’d like to gain more Emotion Regulation skills, use the tags on the sidebar to search through previous posts. There’s a lot here.

In the next months, I’ll focus on Emotion Regulation skills, and on viewing your emotions as unique and irreplaceable aspects of your cognition. We’ll learn to welcome emotions, identify them accurately, and work with them skillfully. This is the adventure.

This is The Year of Empathy!

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