The Six Essential Aspects of Empathy, Part 5: Concern for Others

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:

  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 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 – 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.

This excerpt is from Chapter 2 in The Art of Empathy:

Understanding 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 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 highly empathic people, 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 I 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 empathic people, 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 empathic presence in the world. Self care and concern for others should and must co-exist. 

When Concern for Others is low

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 hyper-empathy (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; 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 poor 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 my book, but just be aware: People (and animals) you might think of as uncaring and unempathic might actually be hyper-empathic 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 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 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.), 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 hyper-empathic people 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 our 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.

Low Concern for Others is a deal breaker

Think about it: you can be an absolute clod in the empathic realm, taking in too much, being emotionally volatile, overreacting, being emotionally clumsy – but if others know that you care about them, then a great deal of your empathic cluelessness 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 unempathic 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 many of them 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 people in your life are suffering, or repeating painful behaviors, or mismanaging their emotions and their lives.

Concern for Others can be very difficult (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 you’ll learn how to maintain 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 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 in a specific category of evil or irretrievable brokenness – but empathically speaking, I am not able to do so. 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 as narcissists).

If you’re working with people who have difficulties with empathy and Concern for Others, there’s a 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.


7 Responses

  1. Priscilla
    | Reply

    Recently this whole entire week so far has been emotionally rough for me. The cause of these emotions (anger, disappointment, frustrated, annoyed, stressed) stemmed from a situation my brother is in and I have no way to help him. I’ve always tried my best to help my mom and brother out with any situation they were going through. But this situation with my brother is out of my control and I feel bad not being able to make the situation any better right now. The more I got involved with my brother’s situation, the worse I felt and stressed out to the point my hands started to shake on and off for a couple of days now. Last night, I made a conscious decision to detach myself from my brother’s situation because its not mine to handle but his. But I still feel guilty for not being able to help him. I know I have to let this energy and emotion go and to stop hold on to it, but its difficult for me to do so at the moment.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Priscilla! I’m so sorry you’re dealing with a painful situation with your brother, but I’m glad that you’re able to identify your own situation of overwhelm. I’ve got two suggestion. First, I talk about the importance of securing your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs. If a situation spins you out and overwhelms you, it’s not a character flaw or a sign of empathic failure: It’s a sign that your unique organism needs support. Take care of yourself so that you can be available for others; we don’t need any more burnt out empaths in this world.

      And if you know from past experience that helping your brother just isn’t going to work out, honor your intuition and detach (which you did). Something that can really help in old and entangled relationships like this is the process I teach, called Burning Contracts. It’s explained more detail in the book, but this post will give you the gist of the process. It’s a way to free yourself behaviorally from old ways of acting, and it’s a lifesaver (says me, because it did save my life). I hope it’s supportive for you!

  2. Priscilla
    | Reply

    I just finished reading the post on reworking a toxic emotion and about Burning Contracts. Thank you for responding and caring enough to help me by sharing with me one of your techniques! I greatly appreciate it! I’m feeling much better now that I have burned up my emotional toxic contracts. My heart feels more clear and open. I no longer feel a knotball in the middle of my chest. My head pressure is gone and I feel happier! Thank You! <3

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Isn’t that an amazing process? I love it — sometimes when I can’t sleep, I start looking for relationships or situations that have gone off the rails, and I burn contracts until I find the one that’s really distressing (and keeping me awake!). It’s a wonderful skill to have in your life!

  3. Melissa
    | Reply

    Hi 🙂
    I am now 38 & have felt an awareness of my effect on people/family from age 1.
    I only just discovered the name of this ability through feeling the need to retreat inwardly and having lost a sense of self, so I did a google search on feeling others emotions.
    I want to climb out of this rapidly downward spiral but don’t know which way to turn. I have had the ability to feel what others feel even if they are showing a different side of themselves and give them words of comfort. I also can feel others emotions and they become mine. I’ve found that I’ve been an unprofessional counselor.
    I now feel used, burnt out, & physically ill.
    I know I still care for others but am unable to allow myself to feel due to my own emotional sensitivity. I just can’t handle it and have pushed just about everyone out of my life.
    Do you have a suggestion?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Melissa, and welcome. From what you write here, you appear to be a hyper-empath. So am I, and The Art of Empathy was written specifically to help people understand empathy more clearly so that they can live with it more easily and intentionally. It’s do-able once you know what’s going on with your own empathic abilities.

      There’s another book that can help, and I talk about it in my book. It’s called The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley, and it teaches specific mindfulness practices you can use to address all sorts of aspects of your emotional functioning. The good news: You can change many aspects of your emotional functioning at any stage in your life span and become more comfortable. Here’s the link to that book.

  4. Melissa
    | Reply

    Thank you Karla.

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