Concern for Others
Concern for Others is about caring enough — or having the time and energy you need to care enough — to skillfully empathize with others.
So far, we’ve looked at the first four aspects of your Six Essential Aspects of Empathy. Today, we’ll look at Concern for Others, which is your capacity to care enough to show true empathy and compassion for others.
Let’s revisit the six aspects so that we can understand where Concern for Others fits into the larger picture:
- 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.
- Empathic Accuracy: This is your 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 – so 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 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.
- 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 The Art of Empathy.
This next excerpt is from Chapter 2 in The Art of Empathy:
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 you essentially ignore your own.
On the other hand, if you show too little concern, your relationships may suffer because others won’t feel your interest – and they’ll assume that you don’t care about them.
Interestingly, I find that some people who actually have a great deal of Concern for Others may shut down their empathy pretty early in life because they simply don’t know how to meet all of the needs they perceive; these people can appear to be deceptively low in empathy when, in truth, they may simply be low in empathic self-care skills.
For an empath, others tend to be endless sources of fascination, frustration, confusion, joy, struggle, delight, exasperation, comfort, and discomfort (remember from our exploration of Einfühlung that these others can also include art, ideas, music, movement, literature, animals…).
In service to this empathic need for engagement, some of us will focus all of our attention on others and totally ignore our own needs until we burn out – and we’ll address empathic burnout throughout The Art of Empathy so that you can balance your Concern for Others with healthy concern for yourself.
The world needs empaths, sure, but your health and well-being 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, and I’ve put forth the proposal that unconcerned behavior may be masking or obscuring hyper-concern or hyperempathy (or empathy that has not been supported).
When I see an obviously sensitive and 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, unwilling to acknowledge, or both.
It’s 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 often 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 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 hyperempathic 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 complete and constitutional lack of empathy is rare. 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.
Welcoming the exiles
This gentleness is especially called for in regard to those people who have been exiled from empathy – men and boys, people on the Autism Spectrum, and those who have been nearly tossed out of the human race altogether: psychopaths, sociopaths (this is a dated term in the U.S.), narcissists, and people with personality conditions like narcissism or borderline (I know that these are called disorders, but I call them conditions instead; there’s a reason that these conditions arise).
I organized my six aspects of empathy, in part, to help myself think about and locate where allegedly unempathic people might have difficulties. Certainly, we can all have trouble with excessive Emotion Contagion abilities, and that’s definitely where I place people on the Autism Spectrum – many of whom are hyperempaths who take in a great deal, but often don’t have an easy time organizing (or even tolerating) all of the social and emotional (and sensory) input they receive.
Empathic Accuracy is also huge problem for many of us, in part due to our deeply unempathic and unhelpful emotional training that primarily confuses us about emotions.
Emotion Regulation is another area where many of us need help, because we’ll often pick up an emotion, then react to it – then react to our reactions – and then become completely overwhelmed with emotions about emotions.
We can also fall down in the area of Perspective Taking if our skills in the first three aspects of empathy are impeded in some way. If our own capacity to receive, identify, and work with emotions is not strong, then we’re not going to be able to develop a true and valid picture of others; we won’t be able to take their perspectives skillfully, and we’ll attribute thoughts, emotions, ideas, and intentions to them that might be way off base.
However, when I think about conceptualization of those who seem to lack empathy – and when I look at what scares people the most – I rest my gaze on Concern for Others.
Think about it: you can be an absolute clod in the empathic realm, taking in too much, being emotionally volatile, overreacting, being clumsy and emotionally imprecise – but if others know that you care about them, then a great deal of your empathic clumsiness will be forgiven.
But if people sense that you don’t care about them? Oh no, that will shut everything down. If you don’t seem to care about others, then every other aspect of your empathic skills will be discounted as unimportant at best and manipulative at worst.
Concern for Others is a deal-breaker: if you seem to have it, you can get away with almost anything, empathically speaking (fake Concern for Others is a part of what con artists use to manipulate people). But if you don’t seem to have Concern for Others, you’ll be exiled.
It’s interesting, then, to note which kinds of people are casually referred to as being absolutely anti-empathic and psychopathic; certainly criminals are[i], but so are bosses, ex-spouses, capitalists, and politicians – when in fact, these people have to be able to read us and meet our needs in order to manipulate us skillfully and get their own needs met.
There are many aspects of empathy working in all of these seemingly unempathic people – but where they fall down is in their Concern for Others. Anyone who doesn’t seem to have this concern gets exiled from our empathic community; we display a distinct lack of empathy for people who don’t demonstrate their concern!
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 (especially for people whose early lives were chaotic or abusive), so we’ll explore ways to maintain (or restore) your concern without throwing yourself away, and to temper your concern without abandoning your connections to others. This is the art of empathy.
In part 6: Perceptive Engagement
[i] I’ve worked one-on-one with men in maximum security prisons, including murderers and lifers – I actually looked for psychopathy – yet I didn’t find a lack of empathy there. I found not monsters, but people of color, the very poor, the very uneducated, the very disempowered, and fellow childhood abuse survivors. Not monsters.
I understand how important it seems 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 extended physical contact with a person whose clear intention was to dehumanize, control, and harm me.
I have strong empathic reservations about identifying seemingly unempathic people as nonhuman – especially since, through the everyday act of “othering” people, you and I can easily make ourselves scathingly unempathic about the plight of people we’ve identified as our enemies (or, hello, as psychopaths).
If you’re working with people who have difficulties with empathy and Concern for Others, there is a very humane and grounded book by Nancy McWilliams called Psychoanalytic Diagnosis: Understanding Personality Structure in the Clinical Process. She’s got some very important things to say about working with people who have difficulties with empathy, and deep insights into ways you can help people who had empathy used against them in childhood find their way back to healthy empathy in the present day.