Six Essential Aspects of Empathy, part 3

November 8, 2012

Hello, part 3!

In part 2 of this post, we looked at the third through fifth aspects of empathy. In this post, we’ll look at the culminating aspect, which I call Perceptive Engagement. 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 contagion occurs, 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). Now that we’ve covered the first five aspects, let’s look at the culminating aspect — and also at an aspect that I left out intentionally.

Perceptive Engagement

Perceptive Engagement. In empathy research, the aspect that I’m renaming Perceptive Engagement is often called targeted helping (de Waal, 2009[v]) or consolation. In general, empathy researchers focus a great deal of attention on empathy as an active response to pain or need. However, this focus unnecessarily reduces our understanding of the totality of empathic responses.

Empathic responses are just as likely in situations of joy, laughter, and a lack of need as they are in troubling or consolation-requiring situations. Empathy is first and foremost an emotional skill, and skilled empaths work with all emotions – not just the painful ones. It’s just as empathic to laugh and joke with someone as it is to offer them a shoulder to cry on. Empathy is about perceptive emotional interaction and engagement; it’s not just restricted to consolation.

In renaming this aspect of empathy, I also chose the word engagement carefully, because many empathy researchers focus too much attention on action as a sign of empathy. However, action is sometimes the last thing you should do in many situations, and it is sometimes more empathic not to help or not to notice the pain of others (if they are signaling that they want to be left alone) than it is to make a great show of being outwardly consoling (you know, “Look at me; I’m being empathic!”).

In truly perceptive engagement, the choices you make are not about what you would like or what would work for you (or what would make you look most empathic!) – they’re about the needs of the other.

In a wonderful experiment[vi] done with toddlers, UC Berkeley researcher Allison Gopnik places an adult and a toddler at a table with two bowls of food between them. One bowl contains goldfish crackers, which the children love, and the other contains raw broccoli (which the children decidedly do not love). In order to determine whether the toddlers have developed perceptive targeted helping skills, Gopnik asks the adult to mime strong distaste for the crackers, and strong yummy love for the broccoli, and then ask the child to share some food.

At a certain stage in their development, the toddlers will offer crackers to the adult, because in their experience, the crackers are delicious, and therefore everyone should want some — and while offering the crackers would be very generous (since the children love the crackers), it would not be perceptive. Gopnik would call the giving of crackers a selfish act, and not a fully empathic one, because it is only when the child understands that the adult has entirely different needs that he or she can be seen as empathic. I was fascinated to see that, in Gopnik’s study, the age at which children offered broccoli to the experimenter was at around eighteen months – which would mean that babies develop the capacity for the most advanced aspect of our six-part empathy model even before they can speak full sentences.

In the culminating empathic act of perceptive engagement, you listen and watch carefully for what the other person wants and needs, and to the extent that you are able, you interact based upon those wants and needs. Perceptive engagement is built from the previous five aspects of the empathic process. In order to engage perceptively, you have to be able to share emotions, accurately identify them, regulate them in yourself, take the perspective of others, be concerned enough to want to engage, and finally, to engage from an unselfish position of empathic knowledge of the other.

That sounds like an incredibly complicated process, but we’ve all done it since early childhood, and we continue to do it every day – at home, at work, with animals, in e-mails, at the store, when we drive, when we walk down the street, when we interact with art – we’re in constant empathic contact with each other and with the nonhuman world. It’s important to remember this. We humans are an actively empathic species, and though our empathy is often problematic, hyperactive, or seemingly absent, empathy is the nonverbal language we all speak fluently.

Did you notice something missing?

There’s something I didn’t include in these six aspects, and you may find this omission rather startling, but hear me out. This missing aspect might be called self-care, self-love, self-empathy, or something along those lines. Because, to be a happy, healthy, and effective empath, you’ve got to take care of yourself first – in essence, you’ve got to be able to put on your own oxygen mask before you help other passengers with theirs. And obviously, developing and nurturing empathy for yourself is what The Art of Empathy is about. I want to help you develop self-awareness, self-care, and self-love as central features of your life. These are absolutely vital things.

But I have to be honest with you. You can perform effectively as an empath if you’re self-abandoning, and even if you’re filled with self-loathing. Some of the most amazing and hugely empathic social justice workers the world has ever known have been self-abandoning people who were running from the deep trouble in their own souls. Their homes, their love lives, and their family lives were often chaotic or nonexistent (and many died young). The process of empathizing skillfully does not require that you take good care of yourself.

Of course, you’ll burn out if you don’t take care of yourself, and your empathic work won’t be social activism as much as it is martyrdom. But you can empathize pretty effectively even if you have very little empathy for yourself. In fact, most of us have performed skillful empathy from a self-abandoning position – and many burnt-out empaths have turned away from empathy precisely because it can lead to martyrdom.

And this is a central reason why empathy is such a difficult subject – and why it can be in such short supply. To be good at empathy, especially in the Perspective Taking, Concern for Others, and Perceptive Engagement aspects, empathy is about the other. It’s not about you. If you’ve got a healthy inner life, healthy relationships, and clear-eyed emotional awareness, empathy can be fun and engaging and delightful – especially when it’s not about you. You can learn so much when you empathize – particularly when you empathize with people who are nothing like you. However, if your inner life is chaotic, if your personal life isn’t supportive, and if your self-care and emotional awareness are negligible, empathy can sort of drain the lifeblood out of you. Even so, you’ll still be able to empathize, because it’s an innate skill that develops naturally in early childhood – and it’s a skill we all possess to a greater or lesser degree.

So as we move forward to build skills, awareness, support, and multiple foundations under and around you, let’s know that all of these will make your experience of empathy more rewarding and more fun – but that even on your worst day, you’re already an empath and these six aspects are already a part of your life. What we’re doing in this book is making sure that your innate empathy is a beneficial and workable part of your whole life.

Bringing it all together

Empathy is a natural feature of human nature and human intelligence (and of course, it’s a feature in many other animals as well), so I don’t want you to think that all of the detailed information in this chapter means there will be a quiz later. There won’t be.

I separated empathy into six discrete (but interrelated) dimensions for two important reasons. First, I want you to understand empathy as a process that is accessible and malleable – so that if you have trouble with empathy, you’ll be able to zero in on your specific area of concern. Second, I’ll be using these six dimensions throughout this book to explain the purpose of the empathic skills I’ll be teaching you – and to help you identify difficulties before they occur.

With the foundation of these six aspects of empathy, you can move forward into a deeper engagement with the process of becoming an accurate, emotionally well-regulated, self-aware, self-respecting, perceptive, happy, and healthy empath. And I’m telling you, it’s not only possible to do this; it’s actually achievable.

If you have difficulty getting into synch with others, I’ll show you simple ways to learn to empathize more gracefully. If you over-identify with others, I’ll show you many different emotional and social awareness tools that will help you create effective boundaries and regulate your own emotions. If your empathy has been more like martyrdom than activism, and even if you developed empathic burnout a long time ago, empathy is an innate feature of human nature and human intelligence, and you can retrieve it – but this time, you’ll be able to access your empathy in ways that will work for you.

Goodness gracious, I’m glad you’re willing to try, because we need more healthy empaths! Empathy and the extensive sociability it makes possible helped early bands of hairless, clawless, small-toothed hominids become the dominant species on Earth. Now that we’ve reached a population of more than seven billion souls with wildly differing notions of what’s true and what’s important, empathy has become a crucial element in helping us learn how to live with one another. Empathy is what made us such a successful species in the first place; now, empathy is what will help us address our conflicts so that we can survive and flourish.

~~end excerpt from The Art of Empathy, © Karla McLaren, 2012~~

[v] de Waal, Frans (2009). The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. New York, NY: Harmony.

[vi] “Studies examining children’s concern for others had previously focused on babies’ sensitivities to people in distress. At the University of California, Berkeley, researcher Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., wanted to find out when children discover that other people feel differently than they do — a prerequisite for empathy…. This ability to acknowledge other people’s feelings — even when they differ from your own — is essential to understanding when (and how) people want to be comforted. “To become truly empathic,” Gopnik says, “you have to say not just ‘I feel your pain,’ but ‘I feel your pain, and I know it’s not my own. I should be helping you, not myself.'” From Whyte, J.E. The Emergence of Empathy in Babies:



Jane Strauss November 8, 2012 at 9:52 am

Rafi would have skewed their results. He is highly empathic, allergic to gluten and has known this since he was 3, and loved raw broccoli even as a toddler.

Karla November 8, 2012 at 12:27 pm

Hah! I’m reading the original study now, and they had three babies who preferred the raw broccoli. yum!

Neli December 2, 2012 at 2:38 am

My fiance is an empath and also an addict. She found out when she was a teenager and probably started using drugs not long after. Now she is a heroine addict currently in a rehab faculty in Utah. With more time on my hands, since I haven’t been able to talk to her, I began searching more about empaths. We haven’t had the best relationship but we have the best relationship. If that even makes sense. I want to help her deal with her gift, which she feels is not a gift. I strongly feel that if she can learn to deal with the bombardment of emotions that she will learn she doesn’t have to result to using. She has yet to tell anyone about her gift except for myself, her ex husband, and her parents and brother and sisters. SHE NEEDS HELP, I NEED TO HELP HER. Anything will be greatly appreciated.

Karla December 2, 2012 at 10:15 am

Hi Neli. The most important thing for a highly empathic person to learn is emotion regulation skills and empathic accuracy. Once you learn which emotions you’re picking up — and how to work with them, things calm down a great deal.

There’s a form of therapy called Somatic Experiencing, which is very helpful for sensitive and emotionally aware people. Trauma a specialist Dr. Peter Levine has trained many people, and there are practitioners all over the world. It’s a good first start. Most psychotherapies are not deeply emotion-friendly, and they just pathologize highly empathic people, so you have to find a modality that isn’t messed up. Somatic Experiencing is very emotion-aware and grounded in what it is to be a sensitive person in an insensitive world. Here’s his site:

And of course my book on emotions will help, but since she’s dealing with immediate trauma, somatic therapy is a good start. I hope that helps! Most empaths go through the dark night of the soul and come out on the other side with gifts from the other world.

A Mix Of Mish Mash | Tidbits of My Mind December 3, 2012 at 1:52 pm

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Hera April 6, 2014 at 3:54 am

Hi Karla
I have a question regarding receiving empathy. I find it extremely easy to empathise with others and am quite sensitive to picking up on other people’s emotions. On the other hand I find it very difficult to receive empathy from others. I am receiving counselling at the moment for complex trauma and my counsellor (who is amazing btw) recently had tears well up in her eyes and said she felt rage and sadness about what had happened to me. I am very numb emotionally and did not know how to respond. I also dissociate frequently and experience depersonalization. Anyway, I felt as if I had been given this beautiful piece of jewellery but didn’t know how to wear it or what to do with it. On an intellectual level I know that was true empathy that was shown to me but emotionally I had no template for how to receive it. I know that I was shown no empathy ever by my parents and as a result am very perfectionistic/anxious etc. I guess my question is- how do you train yourself to receive empathy when it is offered and what is the correct response because ‘thank you’ seems inadequate?
Kind regards Hera

Karla April 7, 2014 at 8:14 am

Hello Hera,

I’m so glad you’ve found a wonderful therapist who is modeling empathy for you so clearly! Now for how to receive it: The act of being empathized with in regard to a past injustice or trauma can be a very exposing thing — so much so that I tend to use humor when I empathize with other trauma survivors until I know that they have the capacity to remain integrated in the presence of sadness or grief. Both of those emotions are beautifully softening, and they ask that people let go completely. This may simply feel too challenging or endangering to you at this point. As you’re healing and learning to reintegrate, it’s very helpful to chronicle the times when you go numb and dissociate so that you can get a clearer picture of which emotions or situations are still acting as triggers for you.

It can also help to really study the emotions that you had a hard time feeling in that situation: Can you watch a movie or TV show where the characters are expressing those emotions? Can you stay integrated then, when the emotions are displayed toward someone else? Can you feel them in literature? The good news is that you certainly can learn to tolerate emotions at any stage in your life, and you certainly can learn to integrate yourself. This understanding you’ve reached with your therapist is amazing; it’s a clear area of difficulty, and it’s something you can work on now that you know it exists.

I would suggest working with the emotions in as many creative ways as you can think of, reading their chapters in The Language of Emotions, and using the self-soothing practice called resourcing from The Art of Empathy (pages 155-157) when you find yourself numbing out. Now that you have discovered a specific area of blankness or difficulty in your emotional realm, there are a lot of simple things to do to smooth it out. The good news is that you can support, deepen, and change your emotional functioning at any stage in your life, and you can reintegrate yourself no matter what kind of bad early training you got. Take care!!

Patrica Stevenson April 30, 2014 at 5:01 pm

Karla, I have recently gained an interest in my physical posture. I am also recently interested in what is called “the Alexander Technique” . What I know is that it is an old (read not recently invented or thought of) way of using the mind/ body communication circuitry in order to …what I understand as …get the body to do what the mind wishes or get the mind to do what the body suggests. Given the very current neurological basis of out every move,thought,action what do you think of this?

Karla April 30, 2014 at 7:08 pm

I’ve heard of the Alexander technique, but I don’t know much about it. It sounds like a somatic technique, which I like very much. There’s a wonderful somatic approach to trauma that helps people listen to their bodies and reintegrate, and it’s so supportive! My thought is that if it helps you integrate and welcome all parts of you, it’s worth a try.

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