Six Essential Aspects of Empathy, part 1

October 28, 2012

Hello again!

I’m writing my new book on empathy — The Art of Empathy (October, 2013) — and I’m organizing the processes involved in empathy so that you can identify your specific areas of strength and challenges.  Over the next few posts, I’ll talk about the six aspects that I’ve identified from the research and from my own decades of practice.

An empathic compilation of six essential aspects of empathy

Our understanding of empathy is undergoing extensive transformation, and there is not yet scientific consensus about the differing aspects of empathy. As I’ve studied the multidisciplinary research, I’ve taken it seriously and relied upon it – but I’ve also relied upon my lived experience as an empath (and my childhood as a hyper-empath) to bring an overarching structure to my inquiry. I’m also relying upon many decades of working with other empaths and helping them bring balance to their emotional lives – and these grounded, real-life foundations have led me to separate the processes of empathy into six essential aspects.

I’m organizing these aspects of empathy in a step-by-step fashion, and I’m focusing on the real-life experience of being an empath (rather than giving you an exhaustive overview of decades of multidisciplinary research) so that we can move forward with a tangible understanding of how to work with empathy in our everyday lives. I’ll quickly define these six interconnected aspects of empathy before we move into a deeper examination of each one.

  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 others 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 other person’s needs.

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) with the empathic skills you’ll learn in this book.

In this post, we’ll look at the first two aspects in a bit more depth.

Emotion Contagion

Emotion Contagion is central to an understanding of empathy, which always includes some form of transmission of emotion from one to another. There is currently debate about how this transmission occurs. Is emotion transmitted through the face and is it moderated through the mirror neurons in the brain – or both? Or is emotion copied in a more intentionally cognitive manner – such that I can only feel an emotion from you if I can understand it in myself? In current pop psychology and pop neurology books, everything about empathy is moderated by the mirror neurons in the brain, but my sense is that this is too simple an explanation for such an evolutionarily important capacity as empathy, and I am waiting for more nuanced explanations of this process. I am not dismissing an entire area of research here, but I’m not jumping on the bandwagon either. The story of mirror neurons is in its infancy, and there are other avenues of approach.

A fascinating aspect of emotion contagion is that many researchers argue that emotion contagion in and of itself is not empathic – and in fact may be counter-empathic. This was surprising to me, because for many years, my definition of an empath was someone who felt the emotions of others strongly in his or her own body – yet, I have to agree with this new approach. Let’s look at this distinction:

In experiments performed by German psychological researcher Doris Bischof-Köhler[i], infants and toddlers are presented with situations in which an experimenter shares either a teddy bear or a spoon with them, both of which are rigged to break – thus causing the experimenter to be distressed and to cry. Bischof-Köhler carefully watches what happens next. If the child notices the distress and cries alongside the distressed experimenter, Bischof-Köhler does not consider this to be empathy. Rather, she calls this self-centered, because the child merely becomes wrapped up in his or her own distress. It is only when the child offers some form of consolation (patting the experimenter, trying to fix the teddy or the spoon, or offering his or her own teddy or spoon to the distressed experimenter) that Bischof-Köhler considers the child to have developed empathy.

This assertion of Bischof-Köhler’s is currently an area of contention in empathy research – and some researchers want to roll back the definition of empathy to include only emotion contagion and emotion stimulation (in everyday English, the consoling actions Bischof-Köhler wants to see in her young subjects would be called compassion and not empathy). I understand their reservations, because it’s very helpful to make clear separations between the different aspects of empathy. However, for our uses as working empaths, I find this action component of empathy to be extremely important, and it’s something we’ll focus on throughout the rest of this book.

Here’s why: If your experience of empathy is primarily emotion contagion, such that you are overwhelmed by the emotions of others, you’ll probably be unable to provide much support to them. It may also be difficult for you to take the perspective of others if they are a continual source of emotional discomfort for you; therefore, your ability to engage perceptively may be reduced. Too much empathy is just as much trouble as too little, and if you experience hyper-empathy, we’ll focus on increasing your capacity to identify, understand, and work with your own emotional states and emotions in general (we’ll work on your Empathic Accuracy and Emotion Regulation skills).

Emotions are tools for empaths, and learning to work with them skillfully is a central empathic activity. If your current empathic condition is primarily one of emotion contagion, I’ll help you learn to identify and work with emotions as tools so that you can become grounded in and comfortable with the other five aspects of empathy.

Empathic Accuracy

Empathic Accuracy is your capacity to accurately identify emotions and intentions in yourself and others. This is an interior skill, an interactional skill, and an observational skill – and the quality of your empathic accuracy is dependent upon your own internal emotional awareness and your capacity for emotional self-regulation.

Emotions are a world unto themselves, and I call them a language. In order to learn the language of emotions, it’s very important to have a rich emotional vocabulary with plenty of words for differing intensities of emotion (which is why I offer a free Emotional Vocabulary List here on the website) so that you can become sensitive to and accurate about differing emotional states. If you know which emotions you or others are feeling, and you can gauge the intensity of those emotions, your empathic work will be more precise and skillful. But if you don’t know which emotions are occurring, or in what intensity, you will continually miss important social cues. Emotional awareness is crucial to skilled empathy.

It’s also important that you know how to work with each emotion in yourself. If you don’t, your empathic accuracy could be compromised. For instance, you might accurately pick up the emotions or intentions of another, but through a lack of your own emotion regulation, you might get the entirely wrong idea about what’s going on. For instance, let’s imagine that you have sensed fear in another; however, due to a trigger inside yourself, you might intensify that fear into anxiety or panic, and then imagine that you have picked up those emotions instead. Without realizing it, you may incorrectly attribute emotions, intentions, and reactions to another person based on your own difficulties with that emotion (or with that intensity of emotion).

The way to gauge your empathic accuracy is both very simple and infinitely hard: You ask people if what you’re sensing is true. This is simple, because it’s a very easy thing to ask, “Are you feeling (afraid, anxious, angry, sad, happy, ashamed) right now?” – yet it can be infinitely hard because people can be unaware of their own emotional states, embarrassed or confused by emotions, or unwilling to admit to what they’re feeling (worry not – we’ve got a number of ways around this in Chapter Six [Empathic Communication]).

For empaths, this lack of emotional transparency is a very sticky problem – because even though we’re surrounded by emotions, we tend to grow up without any clear or workable understanding of them. In fact, many of the things we learn about emotions are so backward (for instance, that there are negative or positive emotions, which is a completely unempathic and unhelpful fallacy) that it’s amazing we can function at all.

It is a fairly easy thing to become more empathically accurate internally, because it’s a simple process of tuning into your interior life and learning to articulate between your different emotional states. This can take a bit of practice if you’ve had bad training in one or more emotional categories (sadly, most of us have bad training in pretty much every emotion except happiness!), but it’s actually fairly easy to become more accurate about your own emotions once you have an empathic understanding of what emotions are and what emotions do.

However, the relationship others have with their own emotions can make empathic accuracy in interactions more difficult – and many empathic people grow up without much confidence in their skills because they’ve been told repeatedly “I’m NOT mad! You’re projecting!” Or “We don’t talk about grief in this family.” Or “Why would I be afraid? There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Or “I’m not laughing at you; I’m laughing with you.” Emotional subterfuge, emotional bait-and-switch, emotional squelching, and straight up emotional dishonesty are common everyday behaviors that can make empathic accuracy very hard to master[ii].

Another impediment to empathic accuracy is the unfortunate focus that’s been placed on reading facial expressions and body language as if they provide precise or reliable cues; they don’t. Frowns don’t always signal anger, yawns don’t always signal boredom (or fatigue), looking up and away doesn’t always signal lying, looking down doesn’t always signal insecurity, smiles don’t always signal happiness, tears don’t always signal sadness, fidgeting doesn’t always signal nervousness, crossed arms don’t always signal anger … faces and bodies are as individual as fingerprints, and while there are some things you can generalize about in regard to the bodies and faces of others, you can’t really know what a gesture or expression means until you know another for a while – or unless you ask.

Body language and facial expressions can provide a wonderful entrée into the empathic space of others, and we’ll focus on ways to utilize these signals in our communication. However, our focus won’t be on discovering secrets people think they’re hiding or becoming all-powerful body-language experts. Instead, we’ll learn to incorporate body language in a nonthreatening way to open conversations about emotions and empathy.

And I mean that literally, “When you curve your body downward and sigh out loud, it seems to me that you’re feeling discouraged, or maybe really tired, or both. Is that what’s going on?” “When you use very short sentences and don’t look at me when you speak, it seems that you’re feeling impatient and frustrated with me. Is that true?” Body language and facial expressions are extremely important, but empathic accuracy is built, moment by moment, in empathic interactions. What others mean and what they are signaling is individual, and the key to understanding those signals cannot be found in a book – you’ve got to get out and interact, make mistakes, be vulnerable and curious, and be deeply interested in the individual ways that others signal their emotional states.

Empathic accuracy is developed in interaction – with yourself as you learn to identify your own emotional states, and with others as you learn the multitude of ways that individuals signal their emotions and intentions.

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

I’ll cover the next four aspects of empathy in posts over the next week or so, and I’ll also talk about an aspect of empathy that’s missing, and intentionally so! Go to part 2.

[i] Bischof-Köhler, D. (2012) “Empathy and Self-Recognition in Phylogenetic and Ontogenetic Perspective.” Emotion Review Vol. 4, No. 1 (January 2012) pp. 40–48.

[ii] Being a fiercely stubborn and scathing social critic helps cut through this endless emotional subterfuge, though I have no idea how I would know this, since my own childhood was one of delicate good manners and rainbow fairy tales, snort.



Gail Kenny October 28, 2012 at 2:13 pm

This is fascinating, Karla! I look forward to future posts from your new book.

Michael E. Stumpf October 29, 2012 at 1:15 am

Very awesome, couldn’t have come at a better time Karla, as is par with your work in my life. Empathic Accuracy is one that seems to help me understand & be kind to myself & others as I engage in my daily life. Also enjoyed your YouTube Video with Nick, the phrase “Street Empathy” really relates to my schooling of rough & tumble Empathy. Thank You Karla for being a resource to broaden, deepen, grow & not go Un-Empathic.

Karla October 29, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Thanks Gail! And thanks, Michael, for not going un-empathic! We need as many healthy empaths as we can get, including the Street version, I’m telling you!

Alicia November 4, 2012 at 5:30 am

I loved what you said about body language, people always assume I’m feeling something I’m not because my body language is different, they never think about individual kinds of body language and asking if they get it right.
I hate that people think all body language is the same for everyone, it’s an individual and culturally diverse set of behaviours, it’s not something that comes in a manual.

Karla November 5, 2012 at 1:41 pm

Yes Alicia! I went for public relations and image consultation training when I was preparing for the debut of my book, and a lot of my body language reads as angry and nervous, because I frown when I think, and I move because I love to move. I tried botox, but my frown muscles are so strong that I could still frown easily, and botox wears off after 3 months anyway. Waste

I also tried not to move on stage, but that was absurd. I’m a kinetic sculpture, baby!

So now I just announce to audiences that frowning doesn’t mean anger for me — and that motion doesn’t mean nerves. Actually, when I’m angry, my face goes dead still, my nostrils flare, and I get dangerously silent. It’s hysterical! My anger postures look like I’m meditating or something. Body language is so individual.

Sybil November 29, 2012 at 8:58 am

Sounds like a wonderful and extremely helpful book that I will need to read. Seems like I often spend an inordinate amount of time trying to ” accurately identify and understand emotional states and intentions in yourself and others.”…probably due to the fact that I need more help with “emotional regulation”. It can be overwhelming at times.

Karla November 29, 2012 at 9:50 am

Hi Sybil! Yes, you hit the nail on the head — Emotion Regulation is the big stumbling block. If it helps, I’m working with a cyclical model that relates to how babies learn emotion regulation skills, which goes: Emotion Contagion, understanding which emotion it is, ramping up into the emotion, completing that emotion’s correct action, and then settling or soothing.

The game of peek-a-boo, as it turns out, specifically teaches this skill to babies in relation to shock, delight, and fear. Stories teach it, too, as do movies and literature. Dramatic play is based on emotion cycling as well. But we don’t know that, and miss the process.

So the book teaches Emotion Recognition from that idea: what is an emotion, which emotion am I feeling, and what action do I need to take to down regulate it? Then, how do I settle and soothe myself? The five empathic skills from The Language of Emotions are specifically cyclical, though I didn’t realize that until I wrote this book, and went whew! I get to keep them for this new book!

Angela November 30, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Karla, I found your youtube video about empathy today and decided to reach into the world wide web for more information, because you felt like the most humble empathy enthusiast I’d come across in a while. There was no “Miss Cleo” pretentious overtone to your video and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I am 19 years old and I’ve been aware of my empathy and what it is for some years now. Your research(just on the website, even! Excluding the books!) is extensive and I find myself nodding in agreement. I hope to buy the books soon as part of my collection, and I appreciate all the work you’ve done to help empaths such as myself move forward despite the differences between them and the mainstream populace. 🙂 Thanks!

Karla November 30, 2012 at 10:24 pm

Thanks Angela! We empaths have to look out for each other. 😉

Ariana December 29, 2012 at 5:25 pm

Hi Karla-

I have ordered your book the Language of Emotions. Will there be specific exercises to help “hyper empaths”? Absolutely loved your video. Thank you for your efforts!

Karla December 31, 2012 at 10:54 am

Hello Ariana, yes, the five empathic skills in the book were created to help hyperempaths manage their sensitivity and learn how to identify and work with emotions. The Language of Emotions is focused on Empathic Accuracy and Emotion Regulation, and these are the two areas that can really help people manage their empathy skillfully.

Happy New Year!

Rita April 3, 2013 at 6:56 pm

I am having a hard time with the past. I keep getting images of mistakes I have made. They pop up at all times.
I am busy doing things and they pop up and when I am trying to sleep. All of the mistakes I made come up and I would like to know what you would suggest for this.

It is a real problem.

Karla April 4, 2013 at 2:29 pm

Hello Rita, I think you’re thinking ahead to my next post on shame! Shame is a wonderful emotion that can help you make amends and change your behaviors, but it can easily get to a place where it’s too much (How Much Emotion is Too Much?). Especially if the shame isn’t truly authentic to you, but instead comes from shaming messages you picked up from others (Reworking a toxic emotion).

Here’s an older post on shame that might help (The Gifts of Shame).

Shame is a wonderful emotion when you can get it back into balance.

strollingturtle June 25, 2013 at 1:41 am

Great post!! I appreciate all of this information and explanations so much…It is validating of my own experiences in the past and present and instructive. I can’t help but be reminded of what you say in your LOE book when you describe how our emotions are the energy that supports the thinking, behaving and visionary aspects of ourselves. It only makes sense that becoming aware of our emotions and learning how to work with them, rather than deny, squelch or express then unskillfully, can and will do wonders for how we operate in the world and relate to one another. Thanks again, Karla.

Karla June 25, 2013 at 8:15 am

Thank you! Yes, emotions, those despised and distrusted things, are actually the very things we need to understand in order to live well and empathize skillfully. Isn’t it funny? It reminds me of the fable of the pearl of great price that a man searches for all of his life, and it turns out that it was in his home the whole time.

Empatia Come Svilupparla July 14, 2015 at 9:00 am

[…] il modello unificato “Six Essential Aspects of Empathy” di  Karla McLaren,  importante ricercatrice delle scienze biologiche e sociali che si è dedicata con passione alla […]

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