A new approach to empathy!
In my book and audio learning program, The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill, I focus on my Six Essential Aspects of Empathy model, starting with the first, which has a strange name: 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 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.
Empathy is hot; it’s a major topic, and it’s currently the focus of extensive review, research, and debate. Researchers all over the world are focusing tremendous attention on defining empathy, and many competing views of the components of empathy are being argued about in academic journals and conferences.
As I did my research for The Art of Empathy (in more than a half dozen academic disciplines), I was at first overwhelmed by the lack of consensus that I found — even about basic questions such as how to identify and name empathy. What was needed, I soon realized, were the observations of a lifelong empath!
An empathic compilation of six essential 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 four decades of empathic experience (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’ve organized empathy this way for two important reasons. First, I want you to understand empathy as a process that’s accessible and malleable (no matter where you currently reside on the empathic continuum) – so that if you have issues with empathy, you’ll be able to zero in on your specific area of concern.
Second, I rely upon these six aspects throughout The Art of Empathy to explain the purpose of the empathic skills and practices I teach – and to help you learn how to identify your strengths and challenges.
I’ll quickly define my six aspects of empathy before I move into a deeper examination of each one (each aspect will have its own post).
- 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.
In this post, we’ll look at the first aspect of empathy, Emotion Contagion, in a bit more depth.
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.
Currently, a great deal of our capacity to empathize is being attributed to a group of structures in the brain called mirror neurons. These structures are thought to activate movement-related areas in your brain when you view movement in someone else (for instance, if you see someone moving his or her arm, your brain may fire the same neurons you use when you move your own arm).
The mirror-neuron hypothesis puts forth the idea that these structures do the same kind of thing in response to emotions; when you see someone feeling happy or sad, for instance, your brain might fire the same neurons that you use when you feel happy or sad.
The hypothesis behind mirror neurons is that they help you empathize because you can actually feel the movement or the emotion of another in your own body – in a way, the idea is that you are can empathize because you can actually feel like the other person. However, I don’t find this to be a full enough explanation for empathy – and because it focuses so much attention on visual cues, I’m concerned that it leaves out a great deal.
It’s more than smoke and mirrors
Emotion Contagion is so much more than simply mirroring emotion; to accurately pick up on the emotion of another, you also have to understand social contexts and the specific display rules of your community (each family, community, and culture has a different set of rules about how emotions are displayed, which emotions are accepted, which emotions are denied, and how intensely we can feel and display some or all emotions).
You also have to be able to identify moods and multiple gradations of emotion, hear vocal tone changes, watch for subtle body-language cues, understand social relationships, read nuance, undercurrent, and gestural language – you even have to rely upon your sense of smell in many cases (however, we tend not to be consciously aware of the many decisions we make based on our very sensitive noses).
There’s a great deal more to Emotion Contagion than mirroring others – because you’ve really got to understand the full context in which the emotion occurs in order to sense which emotion it is. This contextual sensitivity is a part of the second aspect of empathy, Empathic Accuracy, but it’s important to mention it here as well.
Emotion Contagion can feel completely autonomic – as if it somehow happens to you without your involvement – but Emotion Contagion is also something you learn how to do as a social being.
In the academic realm, there’s a great deal of debate about the concept of Emotion Contagion and its relationship to empathy, because some researchers argue that Emotion Contagion in and of itself is not empathic – and in fact may be counter-empathic. This was very 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:
The sometimes counter-empathic aspect of Emotion Contagion
In research performed by German psychologist Doris Bischof-Köhler, infants and toddlers are presented with situations in which both the experimenter and the infant play with either teddy bears or spoons. In this study, the experimenter’s teddy or spoon is rigged to break – thus causing the experimenter to act 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 example of Emotion Contagion 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 true empathy.
This action-based definition of empathy is currently contested in empathy research – and some researchers want to roll back the definition of empathy to include only Emotion Contagion (in everyday English, the consoling actions Bischof-Köhler wants to see in her young subjects would be called compassion and not empathy). I understand these 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 focus on throughout The Art of Empathy.
Here’s why: If your experience of empathy is primarily unregulated Emotion Contagion, such that you act as an emotional sponge, to the point where you become overwhelmed by the emotions of others, you’ll probably be unable to provide much support to them. You’ll be like the children in the experiment who dissolve into the emotion of the experimenter, and can neither soothe themselves nor offer any support – you’ll shut down.
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 strong Emotion Contagion, hyper-empathy, and emotional sponging that is very uncomfortable for you, you can focus on increasing your capacity to identify, understand, and work with your own emotional states and emotions in general (specifically, you can develop your skills in Empathic Accuracy and Emotion Regulation).
Empathy is first and foremost an emotional skill
Emotions are tools for empaths, and learning to understand them, welcome them, and work with them skillfully is a central empathic activity. However, this empathic understanding is continually impeded in our everyday emotional training – to the extent that many people are afraid of emotions and actually try to avoid them altogether.
Most of us have been trained to view and approach emotions in a way that makes Emotion Contagion problematic – not because emotions are problematic in and of themselves, but because our training is so backward and unhelpful. We are actually trained to be emotionally avoidant and therefore empathically unskilled; accordingly, if our Emotion Contagion skills are naturally strong, we can experience a great deal of discomfort simply because we have no idea how to work with the emotions we feel and perceive.
If your current empathic condition is primarily one of uncomfortable emotion contagion, The Art of Empathy will help you learn to identify and work with emotions as tools so that you can become grounded in and comfortable with them – and with the other five aspects of empathy. With this empathic emotional grounding, you’ll be able to have a fuller and healthier experience of empathy instead of being stuck in an uncomfortable and unworkable level of Emotion Contagion.
Conversely, if your current capacity for Emotion Contagion is very low, I’ll teach you a new way to approach emotions and to clearly identify them as reliable responses to very specific situations and stimuli.
Why might your capacity for Emotion Contagion be low? There are many possible reasons, but the ones that I’ve seen most often are:
- Sensory hyper-awareness that is overwhelming and leads a person to turn inward and reduce his or her receptivity as a form of protection (this is true for many people on the Autism Spectrum);
- Early childhood experiences with depressed and low-affect caretakers who didn’t give the child enough experience with a full range of emotions (this is explored in Chapter 9 of The Art of Empathy);
- Early childhood experiences of (or extended periods of contact with) emotionally explosive or abusive people, such that the person learns to turns away from (or distrust) emotions as a basic survival tactic.
If you experienced any of these situations, The Art of Empathy will support you in retrieving and rebuilding your empathic capacities in a way that is understandable, accessible, and reliable for you – however, you may also benefit from the support of a trusted counselor or therapist.
The capacity to experience the full range of emotions (inside yourself and with others) is your birthright, and you can do a great deal to retrieve this empathic capacity no matter what kind of obstructions you experienced.
And of course, engaging with your artistic, literary, and philosophical Einfühlung capacities will help you explore your emotional and empathic skills in intentional and self-expanding ways.
Emotions are tools for empaths, and they’re wonderful tools at that. Learning to work with emotions skillfully is central to your empathic health and well being.
This website contains a great deal of information about emotions and empathic skills (see my Start Here page) to help you become a happy and healthy empathic presence in a world that needs you! Thank you for bringing your unique empathic artistry to a waiting world!
In Part 2: Empathic Accuracy