Hello, part 2!
In part 1 of this post, we looked at the six aspects of empathy that I’ve compiled for my new book The Art of Empathy (October, 2013), and we delved into the first two aspects (Emotion Contagion and Empathic Accuracy). In this post, we’ll delve into aspects 3 through 5. As a reminder, here is my empathic compilation of the six essential aspects of empathy.
- Emotion Contagion: Before empathy can take place, you need to sense that an emotion is occurring – or that an emotion is expected of you. There is currently great debate about how emotion stimulation and contagion occur, and how we realize that emotions are required from us, but it is agreed that the process of empathy is dependent upon our capacity to feel and share emotions. Empathy is first and foremost an emotional skill.
- Empathic Accuracy: This is the ability to accurately identify and understand emotional states and intentions in yourself and others.
- Emotion Regulation: In order to be an effective empath, you’ve got to develop the ability to understand, regulate, and work with your own emotions; you’ve got to be self-aware. When you can clearly identify and regulate your own emotions, you’ll tend to be able to function skillfully in the presence of strong emotions (your own and others’), rather than being overtaken or knocked out of commission by them.
- Perspective Taking: This skill helps you imaginatively put yourself in the place of others, see situations through their eyes, and accurately sense what they might be feeling – such that you can understand what others might want or need.
- Concern for Others: Empathy helps you connect with others, but the quality of your response depends upon your ability to care about them as well. When you feel emotions with others, accurately identify those emotions, regulate them in yourself, and take the perspective of others – your sensitive concern will help you engage with them in a way that displays your care and compassion.
- Perceptive Engagement: This skill allows you to make perceptive decisions based upon your empathy and to respond or act (if necessary) in a way that works for others. Perceptive engagement can be considered the pinnacle of empathic skill, because it combines your capacity to sense and accurately identify the emotions of others, regulate your own emotions, take the perspective of others, focus on them with care and concern, and then do something skillful based upon your perceptions. Notably, in perceptive engagement, you’ll often do something for another that would not work for you at all – and might not even be in your best interests. Perceptive engagement is about the needs of the other.
These six aspects of empathy build upon each other, and while emotion contagion tends to occur instinctively, the rest are more intentional and can be developed (or calmed down in the case of hyper-empathy). In this post, let’s look at aspects 3 through 5 in a bit more depth.
Emotion Regulation is a vitally important aspect of empathy, because if you can accurately feel the emotions of everyone around you, yet you have no internal capacity to regulate those emotions in yourself (to understand them, work with them, and get some distance from them so that you can focus on others), you won’t be able to empathize perceptively. You’ll just be engulfed in emotion contagion, and you won’t be able to engage with much skill.
We’ll explore many emotion regulation skills in this book, and as an intrinsic aspect of those skills, we’ll have empathic conversations about emotions so that you’ll be able to approach every emotion as a specific tool that contains specific skills and gifts. Our deeply unfortunate tendency to divide emotions into positive and negative categories has dreadful consequences in our everyday lives – such that we focus most of our attention on the supposedly positive emotions of happiness and joy while ignoring, suppressing, trying to change, or running from the supposedly negative emotions (for instance, anger, hatred, fear, anxiety, sadness, grief, envy, jealousy, rage, depression, etc). This misguided pathologization of normal emotions actually makes us less able to work with emotions in intelligent ways – and it reduces our empathic capacities.
Earlier in the book, I defined an empath this way:
An empath is someone who is aware that he or she reads emotions, nuance, subtext, undercurrent, intentions, social space, interactions, relational behaviors, body language, and gestural language to a greater degree than is deemed normal.
In my work, this greater degree does not simply refer to a talent for emotion contagion and empathic accuracy; it also refers to an empathic understanding of emotions themselves. We’ll explore that understanding together so that you can learn to work with emotions – all emotions – with skill and grace. Emotions are tools for empaths, and you’ve got to know how to work with all of them – not merely the allegedly “positive” ones.
Perspective Taking: Skilled empathy helps you take the perspective of others and to imagine what life feels like for them – how they approach situations, what their intentions are, and how they will respond to others and to specific circumstances. In perspective taking, you’ll often imagine the emotion that others might be feeling (or might soon feel in response to an action you might take), rather than directly share that emotion. Some researchers make a sharp distinction between the concepts of affective empathy (directly feeling the same or similar emotion in concurrence with another) and cognitive empathy (the capacity to understand the emotion of another without currently sharing it). I am mentioning this separation because it’s central to some areas of empathy theory, but I don’t find it to be valid in actual empathic practice[iii].
I‘ve focused instead on Emotion Contagion as the direct, affective dimension of empathy, and on Perspective Taking as the somewhat detached cognitive aspect; however, I don’t see them as distinct or separable abilities. I see your capacity to take the perspective of others as totally dependent upon your ability to feel, share, and understand emotions. It is not likely that you’ll be able to skillfully take the perspective of others unless you first have the capacity to feel and understand emotions yourself.
When you take the perspective of others, you essentially don their demeanor, attitudes, expectations, and intentions – you put yourself in their shoes so that you can see the world from their perspective and understand what they might do next (or what they might wish for). Skillful perspective-taking certainly relies upon your ability to share emotions with others, but it also relies upon your empathic accuracy and your capacity to regulate emotions in yourself (so that you don’t get triggered and go off on an emotional tangent that has nothing to do with the other).
In perspective taking, the point is not to ask yourself what you would do in the place of others; it’s to try and understand what they would do. If your empathic accuracy and your emotion regulations skills are strong, you’ll have the emotional range and depth you need to imagine attitudes, expectations, and intentions that may be very different from yours.
There is also a wonderful aesthetic and literary capacity in perspective taking that enables you to embody characters and imbue them with life, hopes, dreams, wishes, and attitudes. In perspective taking, you bring all parts of yourself to the process of trying to understand how others might feel and respond. Skilled perspective taking helps you see things clearly from another’s standpoint.
Concern for Others
Concern for Others is an empathic aspect that is both crucial and tricky, because if you’ve got too much concern for others, you may expend all of your time and energy on their needs while essentially ignoring your own. On the other hand, if you’ve got too little concern for others, your relationships may suffer because others won’t feel your interest – and they’ll assume that you don’t care about them.
For an empath, the other is an endless source of fascination, frustration, confusion, joy, struggle, delight, exasperation, comfort, and discomfort – the other is everything (remember that the other also includes art, ideas, music, literature, animals…). In service to our empathic fascination with the other, some of us will focus all of our attention on the other and totally ignore our own needs until we burn out. We’ll address empathic burnout throughout this book so that you can balance your concern for others with healthy concern for yourself (because the world needs empaths, sure, but your health and comfort are equally important). If you burn out, it’s very painful for you, but it’s also a loss in the larger sense. If you burn out, we’ll have one less healthy empath in the world. Self care and concern for others should and must co-exist.
On the other side of this equation is a lack of concern for or a lack of interest in others, but I’m going to put forth the proposal that unconcerned behavior may be masking or obscuring hyper-empathy (or empathy that has not been supported or understood). When I see an obviously empathic person who exhibits very little concern for others, my suspicion is that they’ve burnt out already; I don’t immediately think that they’re incapable of empathy. If you scratch underneath the surface just a little, you’ll find that some of the angriest, most anxious, most arrogant, and most antisocial people harbor a profound well of concern that they’re either unable to manage, or unwilling to address.
It is very easy for a highly empathic person to burn out and retreat inward, and I’d even go so far as to call that process an empathic tendency. In a world where emotional awareness is low-to-nonexistent, such that empathic accuracy is continually impeded and skilled emotion regulation is rare, being highly empathic can be a pretty grueling situation of uncontrolled emotion contagion. We’ll tackle this situation head on in this book, but just be aware: People (and animals) you might think of as uncaring and unempathic might actually be hyper-empathic and burnt out. And the way you approach them can make it better – or worse.
Most of us are gruff, cold, or angry toward those we’ve identified as uncaring – but I’ll tell you, empath to empath, that a true, constitutional lack of empathy is rare[iv]. It is hundreds of times more likely that seemingly uncaring others are burnt out or impaired in emotion regulation than it is that they are pathologically unempathic; therefore, approaching them somewhat neutrally is a more truly empathic thing to do. Too much coldness will only cement them in their isolation (and confirm their belief that others aren’t worth their time), but too much warmth might feel threatening. When a person is in empathic burnout, they can be likened to real burn patients; their defenses are down, and their emotional pain receptors may be hyper-activated. Gentleness is called for.
Concern for others is vital and life-affirming, but it can be a very difficult aspect of empathy – especially when those in your life are suffering, or repeating painful behaviors, or mismanaging their emotions and their lives. Concern for others can be very problematic, so we’ll explore ways to maintain (or restore) your concern without throwing yourself away, and to temper your concern without abandoning your empathic connections to others.
~~end excerpt from The Art of Empathy, © Karla McLaren, 2012~~
In the next post, we’ll look at the culminating aspect of empathy, Perceptive Engagement, and at a surprising thing that I left out — intentionally. Go to part 3.
[iii]I have deep concerns about the way this distinction is being used to sort people into greater or lesser levels of humanity. For instance, in his book Zero Degrees of Empathy (2012), the British psychopathologist Simon Baron-Cohen categorizes autistic people as being affectively empathic yet cognitively incapable of empathy, and he places sociopaths on the opposite end of this continuum (where sociopaths allegedly have no capacity to empathize affectively, but can do so cognitively). This theorizing is very alarming, both in its willingness to identify people as sociopaths (which is a very rare condition, and not yet fully understood) – and to continually exclude autistics from the realm of normal humanity. As a disability rights advocate and friend of many autistic youth and adults, I can’t state strongly enough how dangerous this theory is to the lives of autistic people, who are often wildly empathic rather than less so – both cognitively and affectively. As an empath, it is very easy to see that autistics are absolutely empaths (and often hyper-empathic), although their sensory processing differences can make their ability to decipher social cues problematic.
My problem with the categories of affective and cognitive empathy is certainly based on social justice – in that they are used to classify people as more or less human, but it is also based on empathic awareness of the actual processes of empathy. In my experience, affective and cognitive empathy are not separate or separable states; rather, I see cognitive empathy as a function of affective empathy, in that you can’t effectively perform the process that some people identify as cognitive empathy unless you already have the capacity to feel what’s going on. In my view, the capacity to separate oneself from the direct feeling and to stand away from the direct experience (and to view it from a kind of emotional eagle’s-eye view) is a function of emotion regulation and perspective taking added to a pre-existing capacity for emotion contagion. Simply put: If you can “cognitively” appreciate the emotional perspective of another, I assert that you already have the “affective” capacity to share and understand emotions.
[iv] I also have deep concerns about designations of sociopathy, which are used as a kind of overarching description of criminals – who are by and large a socially constructed category rather than a measurably distinct kind of person. Criminal behavior is socially defined – and identified criminals are even more socially defined by their lack of access to money, influence, and social capital, not to mention their racial characteristics, which determine in large part whether or if they will be arrested and charged or enter into the criminal justice system at all. I’ve also got strong empathic reservations about the whole category of sociopaths and psychopaths – especially since these definitions change based on the source and are often thrown around casually in regard to bosses, ex-spouses, capitalists, or politicians. There is also disagreement among researchers and clinicians about antisocial personality disorder and where it fits into other forms of mental illness, and to my eye, the entire subject is just rife with problematic interpretations of antisocial behaviors that might be applicable to, for instance, outsiders, artists, monks, geniuses, hermits, and visionaries.
I’m still looking for more definitive research, especially in neurology and child development, and in my research on children who grew up in cults and escaped (in a book I’m writing with cult expert Janja Lalich, PhD), I’m also I’m looking at Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which has a lot of manipulative and sociopathic overtones – yet utilizes powerful empathy as a tool of manipulation. As of now, with the changing DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition) definitions coming into play, I can only say this: I don’t know enough about the construct of the sociopath to be able to definitively say anything about whether it is a valid category, or whether sociopathy can be characterized primarily by a lack of empathy.
I understand how vital it is for many to isolate cruel and brutal people from the rest of humanity – to place them decidedly in a specific category of evil or irretrievable brokenness – but empathically speaking, I am not able to do so in ways that are intellectually and empathically grounded. I’m still studying this, as I have done since toddlerhood, when I endured years of physical contact with a person whose clear intention was to dehumanize and harm me. I have empathic reservations about identifying people as sociopaths and therefore as nonhuman – especially since, through the everyday act of “othering” people, you and I can easily make ourselves totally unempathic about the plight of people we’ve identified as our enemies. For me, designations of sociopathy feel like a powder keg of possible crimes against a subset of humanity, and I’m not comfortable with that. I’m still engaged in the research process, and I’m not ready to make any definitive conclusions.