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Six Essential Aspects of Empathy, part 2

November 2, 2012

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Empathic Accuracy: This is the ability to accurately identify and understand emotional states and intentions in yourself and others.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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

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

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.

20 Comments

Alicia November 4, 2012 at 5:10 am

Thank you for this post, your site has great information about empathy, I think it’s very interesting, I like reading about this because it’s a very personal subject.
I have suffered a lot because I have too much empathy and lack of emotional regulation. I feel like I absorb the feelings of others around me, I used to be punished for being highly emotional so I never learned how to deal with that, I wish I could use my empathy for others since I care about people, today I do the best I can for others while keeping self-care in mind but it’s hard since I’m an emotional mess.

I think it’s extremely sad and disturbing that the most highly empathic people I know are autistic and/or have borderline personality disorder but are accused of lacking empathy because of famous pseudo-science and prejudice, people are suffering because of this, I am both autistic and borderline and I know we feel too much empathy and most times can’t deal with the strong feelings with few skills in how to regulate them, we sometimes lack the ability to show that we care because we shutdown/dissociate to cope with those extreme feelings and other times we don’t know what to do when we wish to help and show that we care, this is not a lack of empathy. We feel too much, others don’t respect that.
I don’t see ‘normal’ people showing empathy for us since they can’t understand our different perspectives and judge us according to their own world view and preconceptions. Perspective taking with people that are too different is a little harder.

I agree with what you said about accusing any group of lacking empathy, that is used to dehumanize and justify abuse, sometimes I feel like I’m a monster because of what is said about people like me, people are hurt because of this, in my experience and conversations I also see that many people that show a lack of empathy as adults are abuse survivors, including people with personality disorders like Narcissistic Personality Disorder, I agree that many empathic people loose their ability to care about others, many times because they need to survive, I used to be like that and I lived with someone that didn’t showed empathy because of traumatic events in her life, people like that need help, not being turned into hopeless people that are less human.

The comment got a little longer than planned.

Karla November 5, 2012 at 1:54 pm

Well, some ideas take more room on a page because they’ve got more substance to them! Thanks for what you’ve written. Ugh, I’ve got some people in my life who call anyone they don’t like “borderlines,” and I’m all, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.” Then there are all the people who throw the word “autistic” around as if it means nerdy, unconcerned, smart, antisocial, or even sociopathic. WTF?

I’m sorry you feel like a monster, and I’m sorry that you’re in a category where the shadow lives — where people throw anything they can’t understand, don’t agree with, or can’t tolerate in their own souls. It’s creepy.

Also, what you write about abuse survivors growing up to have empathy issues, bing. When I went into the prisons to look for bad men and criminals, psychopaths and sociopaths, I found people of color, the very poor, the very uneducated, and fellow childhood abuse survivors. Yeesh. When you are willing to walk directly into the world of “the other,” you find fellow humans. We’re all bozos on this bus.

About your empathy burnout situation — I’m focusing on that a great deal in the new book, and I’ve got a lot of skills and suggestions to help hyperempaths re-engage with their innate empathy in ways that work for them. We need more empaths in the world, but only if they’re happy, healthy, willing, and able. That’s the art of empathy, my friend.

Terre Spencer November 13, 2012 at 2:21 am

Karla, I work with the victims of narcissistic sociopaths. And do you know what the very hardest thing of all is in working with this population? Getting the victim to really accept that the perpetrator of every kind of abuse, devastating subtle cruelties and horrific betrayals/deceptions has a disorder that in all likelihood will never, ever change. Personality disorders are pervasive—affecting all parts of the person and persistent—extremely resistant to all treatment. Therapists report that sociopathic narcissists learn to be even more deceptive and destructive in therapy.
I know, some therapists claim to be able to treat such types, but I am wholly unconvinced after seeing what they call “treated.”
To stay safe and sane, the rule is “no contact.” The victims who are able to do that fare the best and heal. Those that have to share custody or other forced contact get their wound re-opened over and over again. Those that keep trying to justify what a “decent guy he is under all that facade” are the ones that repeat the nightmare until they are too exhausted to get through a day. Suicide attempts are not uncommon. This is very serious stuff.
Is it “othering” the name the perpetrators and have no contact? Call it whatever, it is lifesaving for those who are preyed upon for years.
As for the question, “Do sociopaths have empathy?” Yes, they have enough to use it against their victims. Just as a good detective has enough criminal in him/her to get inside the mind of a suspect. But that does not mean that it is ever employed towards someone else for someone else. If a sociopath employs empathy, it is solely to benefit the sociopath—make him look good, gain trust which he will later exploit cruelly or some other entirely self-serving reason.
I understand what you are attempting and I applaud it. Please know that there really are evil souls out there—no matter what name that evil is called—that will destroy everyone in his realm and that boundaries, really, really ferocious boundaries are needed.

Karla November 13, 2012 at 9:13 am

Hi Terre!

Thanks for your input. I see your concern, and I’m working on the chapter on relationships. As you know, hyperempaths often choose people who have no emotional skills of their own, which often means that they can’t love. Many also choose very dangerous people to be with. I know I did! So I’m addressing that, to the extent that I can, because the empathic tendency toward wildly unsafe relationships can be a primal and nearly ritualistic process that can be hard to break away from. However, there’s a ritual there, so I’m looking at this tendency in terms of what might live underneath it.

As I read your comment, I’m looking behind it to the way that people who have empathy deficits (and deficits in the area of Concern for Others) are treated in therapy. In this population, conventional approaches to therapy have a very poor track record and have actually made things worse. What I’m seeing is that everyone is blaming the humans they’re calling sociopaths rather than looking at the approach as a thoroughly failed one. Sure, get the relationship mates and children out of the crossfire, but then what? Now you’ve got an isolated, shamed, and publicly identified subhuman. What happens next? Usually, things get worse.

Empathy deficits live in the deep shadow of human psyche, and people who get identified with empathy deficits are frankly endangered. I understand that in the triage-like situations you’re dealing with, you’ve got to make these designations, and when people are in twisted and codependent relationships with abusive people, there has to be that solid boundary: This person is a monster, get the hell away. I was there. I know the terrain.

But then what? For me, decades later, the process is very, very different. But I’m not in triage, and I have the time and space I need to study this in a unique way. There’s a very good book about developmental failures of empathy, called Born for Love. In it, the authors talk about the early process of developing empathy, and how and why it fails. They also talk about ways to support empathy, and in neuroscientist Richard Davidson’s book The Emotional Life of Your Brain, there’s step by step processes for increasing specific areas of social and emotional awareness and sensitivity. These are malleable processes. I’d really like to see work done with this population that is focused on these specific areas of concern. The problem is that if they’ve already been identified as evil subhumans, then it’s not very likely that they’ll be willing to try.

Thanks for being out there, working with people in pain and trauma, and thanks for protecting them. This book is not focused on pathological failures of empathy, but I had to approach the sociopathy minefield in order to let the reader know that I’m aware of it. I am, both academically and personally — but in studying the current approaches and their multiple failures, I’m not a fan of the entire categorization. However, if it works for you, and if it makes people safer, then I support you in your categorization process.

John December 29, 2012 at 10:14 am

Karla, I found it difficult just to read your parts about emotions and needing to interact with people to try to identify what you think they are feeling. It was all I could do just to get through reading your info. Made me very uncomfortable because of the well of emotions that are just below the surface. How to get around that fear?
Thanks

Karla December 29, 2012 at 10:45 am

John, do you think your issue is with too much Emotion Contagion, or not enough Emotion Regulation abilities, or both? My previous book, The Language of Emotions, is all about Empathic Accuracy and Emotion Regulation. Those two skills are central to making people more comfortable and skillful with emotions.

This post may help: How Much Emotion is Too Much?

Also, this one talks about how emotions arise and how to work with them: Is it a Feeling, or is it an Emotion?

Bill January 30, 2013 at 12:26 pm

Hi Karla
I’ve been jumping into your Language of Emotions material and I’m so grateful for it. Thanks for writing it, and all your work. I’m really started to appreciate my emotions and what they are trying to tell me.

I’m also really looking forward to this book you’re writing. I definitely would label myself as an empath, and have struggled with other people’s emotions (and my own, too). I’ve avoided many social situations because I’ve avoided other people’s anger, fear, etc. So getting some advice/coaching from someone who has been through it – will be very valuable to me.

Also, I look forward to reading your thoughts on sociopathy. I was in relationship with someone whom might get that label, lying to me and creating story after story. I read a few books on Sociopathy. However, reading an article in The Onion comedy newspaper gave me new perspective.

http://www.theonion.com/articles/new-study-reveals-most-children-unrepentant-sociop,2870/

Funny but true? The idea that perhaps sociopaths have not developed certain qualities the rest of us have?

Best
Bill

Karla January 30, 2013 at 8:41 pm

Hello Bill – I like your approach to sociopathy! I asked for advice from my friend Nick Walker, and he turned me on to a book called Psychoanalytic Diagnosis by Nancy McWilliams. Her approach is very humane and humanizing, and I really appreciate it.

It’s got some wonderful ways to look at designations of sociopathy, which she places in the personality disorder category (this is something I suspected but was not sure of). I’ll be referring to her book and quoting it in the final edit of The Art of Empathy.

One thing I’m looking at in the latter part of my book is the dark side of empathy, which is called “three-person empathy” in some research. It’s the phenomenon where you and I become very empathic and emotionally congruent with each other based on our shared distrust of the third person. So you and I bond tightly over our shared distrust of and hatred of, for instance, Madge — and it becomes a feature of our empathic communication — how much we mutually dislike her. And in these instances, strong empathy and an equally strong (perhaps even stronger) lack of empathy exist in the same person at the exact same time.

Interestingly, the hormone oxytocin, which is being heralded as a miracle by people who aren’t paying very close attention, increases this tendency. Oxytocin will increase bonding, but it will also increase distrust of and attacks against outgroup members. Poor Madge!

I told you that story so I could tell you this one: I’m interested in the ways people are fascinated by sociopaths, because it gives them a distinct “other” whom they can safely hate, fear, avoid, and show a lack of empathy toward. The sociopath is a kind of boogeyman, and I’m wondering if our collective revulsion about people with sociopathic tendencies might push them into an even more intense display of antisocial personality disorder than they might if their trouble in the area of empathy was handled more, well, empathically? I’m thinking out loud here.

Bill January 31, 2013 at 11:58 am

Hi Karla – thanks for your response.

Haha, yes, that landed for me what you wrote about how we societally in some way co-create their sociopath-ness.

One of the books I read definitely came from the point of view that sociopaths are the devil and should be treated as such. Maybe in the book In Sheep’s Clothing? I dunno, I couldn’t get through it, its tone was venomous.

It makes me think of all the labels – like Narcisstistic Personality Disorder. I can think of some people I know who might get that clinical label. And at first, it was helpful for me to use that label. Oh THAT’S why they do X,Y, and Z. Oh, what a relief, I get it. So in one way it brought me closer to acceptance of who they are. But then again, if I think of them as “Narcissists” (or myself, for that matter!), it is limiting and I treat them differently, and I am co-creating that they are narcisstic. To paraphrase Byron Katie, ‘It’s helpful. Except when it’s not.’

If I see them as whole and healthy already, or least see them as lovable people, I will interact with them very differently than if I see them as Narcissists. Or sociopaths, for that matter.

Yes, there is something ‘fun’ about talking about sociopathic behavior though, isn’t there? 😉 It’s as if their sociopathy gives us freedom carte blanche to speak of them however we want – after all, they’re not human, they’re sociopaths. Though I also wonder if our desire to do this comes from general anger about what sociopathic behavior corporations can get away with. But I suppose that is another conversation altogether. 😉

Bill

Karla January 31, 2013 at 12:51 pm

Yes, if you look at the 6 aspects of empathy, I’d say that a person designated as NPD or with sociopathy would have trouble specifically in the area of Concern for Others. But if those others are demonizing toward and frightened of the person, then wouldn’t this aspect of Concern for Others tend to be even harder to muster? Could it be a very unfortunate, socially-moderated feedback loop that, as you say, co-creates a person with low concern levels?

I’m also wondering about the earlier areas of empathy — Emotion Contagion and Emotion Regulation specifically. Could a person that we designate as a sociopath be a hyperempath with no Emotion Regulation skills, and for whom regular people with all their emotional detritus are actually painful (and therefore must be neutralized and dehumanized)? Or could they have such an iron handle on their own emotions that they don’t receive the messages and gifts their emotions provide, and therefore miss out on the socializing effects that a healthy set of emotions bring us?

Or are they like bullies, whose self esteem is actually quite high, but whose connection to the moderating influence of shame is quite low?

I went into prisons to find sociopaths, but I only found fellow childhood trauma survivors, people of color, people with few resources financially, and the undereducated. I didn’t find an alien type of nonhuman there. So it’s not for a lack of trying, but I really can’t say from direct experience what is going on with a person designated as a sociopath. But thanks for having this fun sociological and critical perspectives exchange. Strenuously questioning the dominating paradigm; it’s empathic activism!

Terre Spencer February 1, 2013 at 3:44 am

Hi Karla, I am just now seeing your 11/13/2012 response. My apologies for the delay. First, thank you for the book recommendations, they now reside on the Kindle app in my iPad. I always welcome title suggestions on related topics.

The sociopaths that I am referring to have no shame. You call them bullies in the previous 01/31/2013 post. They operate quite freely in this world and are frequently in corporate, church, community and organizational leadership positions. Their opinions of themselves are quite high. They rarely go to prison or to mental hospitals. They are much better at sending others to those fates.

These sociopaths continue through life damaging everyone around them. Even their work is likely to be exploitative—Hugh Hefner and predatory commodities traders comes to mind for a specific and a generalized example. They see everything as a competition and winning every competition is the highest virtue. Rules, decency and the welfare of others are hinderances that must be discarded in order to assure themselves of whatever they have constructed as “winning.”

Thank you for mentioning the realm of these sorts. So many writer/educators do not because they are so difficult to write about. Therapists are not taught about them in school because nothing can be done about them treatment-wise.

Instead, therapists tend to pathologize those affected by these types. Which is a whole ‘nother topic.

I am very much looking forward to you book. 🙂

Karla February 1, 2013 at 3:36 pm

Hi Terre,

I think you’ll really like the book I mentioned below, called Psychoanalytic Diagnosis by Nancy McWilliams. She talks about how therapists have to change their approach to work with clients who don’t value or understand empathy (often seeing it as weakness, which tells me a lot about their early lives).

She also points out that the earlier DSM designations were based on prisoners, which is a socially constructed category that grabs the poor and the disenfranchised and skews the diagnosis in all sorts of dehumanizing and unscientific ways. I’m really glad Nick Walker suggested her book to me!

But here’s something freaky: There’s a test for sociopathy connected to a very breathless book that purports to be scientific but is actually pretty exploitative. They’re testing for psychopathy (I thought that term was going away? But maybe not in Britain, where I think some of these researchers are from). Their eight facets of psychopathy are absurd — you’d find most of them in a bungee jumper. It’s bizarre. I scored myself on their traits, and it’s funny, but very strange. I really don’t think they’re measuring what they think they’re measuring — at all. You should take it just for the weirdness factor: http://www.wisdomofpsychopaths.com/

Becky July 10, 2013 at 5:47 am

Hi Karla,
I’ve just recently been working with the Language of Emotions and it is so helpful! I never thought I could “take up” as much space as you describe my boundary. I grew up in Bangladesh, the daughter of missionary parents, and still carry a deep burden about the people I saw and knew there. Even writing those words makes my heart race and my sadness?, anger?, guilt? helplessness? rise up. I really don’t know how to deal with the feelings. Others have suggested that I just find a way to be active in helping: donations, volunteering, etc. I believe that witnessing that much human poverty, suffering, etc. as a child and knowing I could not “make it all better” may be a trauma that I need to heal. I am an empath who has struggled for years with feeling overwhelmed by other’s pain and trying to help. People have confided in me since I was a child. In your experience, what can I constructively do with the pain of feeling other’s emotions? Having a boundary helps me function but it is still so sad and hard to watch/feel someone else suffer.
Thanks for any wisdom you may have! Looking forward to your book on Empathy.

Karla July 10, 2013 at 1:55 pm

Hello Becky, the new book will be very useful for you, because it contains all sorts of information on how to create a healthy empathic life for yourself. For now, I’m wondering if you’ve ever worked with somatic therapy? It’s a body-based therapy that can really help sensitive people reintegrate themselves. I talk a lot about the work of somatic psychologist Peter Levine, and though he focuses on trauma healing, the field of somatic therapy is useful for many issues. Dr Levine has a practitioner referral page on his site, but his is not the only school of somatics. You might find the somatic approach very supportive.

Bill July 10, 2013 at 4:46 pm

I’m enjoying Peter’s audio book “Healing Trauma.” It is resonating as very true for me. Thank you for the recommendation, Karla. What do somatic practitioners do? Lead the client in exercises to heal past traumas, using body awareness?

Karla July 10, 2013 at 7:35 pm

Hi Bill, yes. I did the work on my childhood trauma alone, with the help of Peter’s book. But I had another trauma that I really hadn’t integrated (a fall with a head injury), so I worked with a somatic therapist this spring on it. It was a really interesting process, very gentle, but very powerful, integrating, and grounding. It was awesome!

Bill July 10, 2013 at 8:40 pm

ooo, sounds magical. Peter’s work really resonates as true for me. The modality still is a bit fuzzy to me, though I’m only about 2/3 through the program. It will be clear to me in time. 🙂

I received my Language of Emotions cards today. Beautiful! Thank you.

Karla July 11, 2013 at 10:35 am

Thanks, Bill, for supporting my work in the world!

Mike Skinner November 15, 2013 at 10:49 am

Firstly, thank you for writing your book, and doing interviews! When I learned what anger was it explained so much, and is changing my life.

Secondly, your commitment to directing empathy towards sociopaths was really interesting, inspiring and surprising when I originally read it. The estimate that 1 in 25 of us are born with an empathy/emotion deficit has been a very challenging thing to reflect on for me.

I came across this video I’m linking with psychologist Joesph Newman, and he believes that psychopaths/sociopaths do have an emotion deficit, but more importantly they have an emotion recognition deficit. And he proposes that methods of treatment for early intervention are better focused on increasing emotion recognition. I thought his hypothesis would resonate with you.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kmZgnCHweLM#t=2

It’s interesting that not long before discovering that hypothesis I’ve become interested in people like yourself and Marshall Rosenberg who emphasize the benefits of increasing personal, interpersonal and cultural recognition of needs and emotions. It seems developing a culture of emotional intelligence can possibly increase empathy and behavior regulation in people predisposed towards sociopathy/anti social personality disorder.

P.S. Please can you do a series of posts on the emotion of lust? I was sad to not find it in your book.

Karla November 15, 2013 at 8:00 pm

Hi Mike, and thanks for your link to the video — excellent resource! I do agree that everyone benefits from emotion recognition and Empathic Accuracy, since both tend to help people become more emotionally aware, and therefore more empathic!

About lust: Sorry, it’s not categorized as an emotion anywhere in any of the literature I’m familiar with! If we think of emotions, as Antonio Damasio does, as action-requiring neurological programs, perhaps we can think of lust as an action-requiring hormonal program? Hah!

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