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The Six Essential Aspects of Empathy, Part 3: Emotion Regulation

Learning to work with your emotions

Your Emotion Regulation skills help you feel, understand, and work with your own emotions. These abilities are crucial to your capacity to empathize skillfully; good Emotion Regulation skills can make your experience of empathy much more comfortable!

Let’s revisit the six aspects so that we can understand where Emotion Regulation fits into the larger picture:

  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 your ability to accurately identify and understand emotional states and intentions in yourself and others.
  3. Emotion Regulation: In order to empathize effectively, 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 – so 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 The Art of Empathy.

In this next excerpt from The Art of Empathy, we’ll look at Emotion Regulation.

Emotion Regulation

Emotion Regulation is a vitally important aspect of empathy, because if you can accurately pick up on, identify, and feel the emotions of others, yet you have no way to regulate those emotions in yourself (to understand them, work with them, and get some perspective on them so that you can focus on others), you won’t be able to empathize perceptively. You’ll be engulfed in Emotion Contagion, and you won’t be able to engage or empathize with much skill (or possibly at all).

We explore numerous Emotion Regulation skills in The Art of Empathy, and as a vital aspect of those skills, we’ll explore emotions empathically so that you’ll be able to approach each emotion as a specific tool that contains specific gifts and skills (see four empathic approaches to emotions, below).

This is admittedly a startling approach, because there are extensive problems in our understanding of emotions, such that many people are deeply suspicious of – or even outright afraid of or offended by – emotions themselves. This is a deeply unfortunate situation, because it means that people often avoid emotions, and therefore don’t develop skills that would help them become emotionally aware and empathically skilled.

Emotions are tools for us, and we’ve got to know how to work with all of them – not just the allegedly positive ones.

Emotion Regulation is vital to empathy

However, something that stops us from regulating emotions intelligently is that most of us have been trained to view emotions as annoyances to be avoided, rewards to be pursued, or problems to be eradicated. This is a real problem.

Intelligent, empathic Emotion Regulation isn’t about controlling, eradicating, or chasing down emotions – it’s about working with them as vital and irreplaceable tools.

When you can do that, all aspects of empathy become much, much easier.

Four approaches that will help you understand emotions empathically

There is a great deal of trouble in the way we’re taught to approach and think about emotions, and for highly empathic people (or for people who would like to increase their empathic skills), these troubling ideas actually prevent us from being able to approach our emotions — or anyone else’s — intelligently.

Below are links to four excerpts from The Art of Empathy which will help you challenge these troubling ideas and develop stronger Emotion Regulation skills and deeper empathic awareness.

  1. There is a problem with valencing emotions, or with imagining that there are positive or negative emotions, or pro-social or anti-social emotions. This idea is possibly the most responsible for creating emotional confusion and empathic conflict.
  2. There is a problem with learning only expression and repression of emotion, and of having only two options for working with your emotions, both of which can be unhelpful. There is another way.
  3. There is a problem with not understanding emotional nuance, or not realizing that emotions arise in a multitude of intensities, and are present in your every waking moment. Understanding emotional nuance can help you develop an extensive emotional vocabulary and deep emotional and empathic awareness.
  4. There is also a problem with not being aware of emotional quantity, or not realizing that it’s completely normal for emotions to arise in pairs and groups. When you can learn to identify emotions as an interconnected system that works continually and fluidly to help you think, feel, act, relate, and live, your capacity for Emotion Regulation and Empathic Accuracy will flourish.

When I work with highly empathic people, I focus on Emotion Regulation first, because it’s a reliable trouble spot for most of us; however, for highly empathic people who pick up tremendous amounts of social and emotional information, this trouble can get pretty uncomfortable.

The good news, which I’ve experienced in my own life as a hyper-empathic person, and in helping other hyper-empathic people become more comfortable, is that you can absolutely increase your Emotion Regulation skills at any age.

No matter where you start or what your current empathic situation is, you can become a healthy, happy, and intentional empathic presence in or world, and you can learn to work with emotions skillfully.

That’s the art of empathy!

In Part 4: Perspective Taking

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