Welcome to The Year of Empathy!

Hello and Happy New Year!

In 2012, I wrote The Art of Empathy, and I posted about my work, about the empathy research being done in over half-a-dozen different academic disciplines, and about ways that you can work with each of the six essential aspects of empathy that I defined and organized in this book.

To start us off, let’s look at the first aspect of empathy, which must occur before the complex latter stages of empathy can occur, and that’s Emotion Contagion.

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 you realize that emotions are required from you, but it is agreed that the process of empathy is dependent upon your capacity to feel and share emotions. Empathy is first and foremost an emotional skill.

As you think about your own emotional sensitivity — about your ability to pick up emotional and social cues from other people and to feel emotions alongside others — where would you place yourself on a scale of 1 (not particularly emotionally sensitive) to 10 (deeply  emotionally sensitive)?

Those of us who are on the hyper-empathic end of the scale tend to feel as if we are swimming in a sea of emotions, and if we don’t have a number of skills and supports underneath us, our strong Emotion Contagion skills can be pretty uncomfortable.

On the other hand, those of us on the less emotionally sensitive end of the scale can feel uncomfortable because we don’t feel as connected to people as others seem to be. We miss social cues and emotional undercurrent. We are often excluded from relationships because we don’t track with emotions in the way others do.

Surprisingly, the supports I suggest for people with low Emotion Contagion skills are similar to the ones I suggest for hyper-empathic people. Certainly, the Five Empathic Skills from The Language of Emotions (Grounding, Boundary-Setting, Burning Contracts, Conscious Complaining, and Rejuvenation) are helpful for people whose emotional awareness is currently low. But so is studying each emotion in order to understand why it arises, what it’s for, and how to work with it.

If you’re a hyper-empathic person, understanding emotions as messengers may save your sanity. But if your Emotion Contagion skills are currently low, this same understanding will help you create a workaround — you’ll be able to identify and work with emotions in a more intellectual way until your emotional sensitivity can catch up.

Your empathic skills are malleable

One of the most wonderful things I discovered in writing The Art of Empathy is that most of the aspects of empathy are malleable — changeable and manageable. If you’ve got excessive or under-exercised Emotion Contagion skills, there are ways to get them to the sweet spot where they’re enjoyable and workable for you.

There’s also a fun secret in Emotion Contagion: it’s one of the most important aspects of human interaction, but it also underlies your ability to appreciate art, music, literature, drama, science, mathematics, comedy, dance, movement, nonverbal communication, and animals. So as you think about your current Emotion Contagion skills, think about these nonhuman actors as well.

If you rate yourself very low on Emotion Contagion, but you have a deep passion for art, animals, science, or comedy (etc.), it’s likely that you’ve simply moved your Emotion Contagion skills into these areas and away from humans for the most part. This is something you can change, if you like.

On the other hand, if  your human-based Emotion Contagion skills are hyper-developed and sometimes uncomfortable for you, you can support yourself by turning toward nonhuman actors — toward art, music, literature, drama, movement, science, mathematics, etc. — where your Emotion Contagion abilities can be managed more easily.

One of the things I stress in the book, and one of the reasons it’s called The Art of Empathy is that art is a specific healing activity for hyper-empathic people — and it’s a specific learning and practice tool for people whose human-based empathy is currently low.

The empathic magic of art

dancing folks
From Dance Sweet Freedom in Glasgow, Scotland. Photo by Carmen Alvarez Photography.

Art is emotionally healing because it’s emotionally expressive. It’s a way for us to express and make tangible emotions, dreams, wishes, visions, and often wordless ideas that we might not even fully understand until we see, feel, or hear it as art.

Art can help us express things that cannot be expressed in our daily lives or through mundane channels. Art is a specifically healing activity for hyper-empathic people, and it’s a specific training ground for people who want to increase their empathic abilities. Art heals.

Art is also emotionally rich. For instance, there are some emotions that I really can’t express fully unless I sing or dance them. There are also some extremely complex emotional situations that I can’t understand fully until I write them out, often in a book-length work.

Art is specifically healing for hyper-empathic people for another important reason: It brings balance to their Emotion Contagion abilities. When a person is very emotionally receptive, it’s important to help them find an emotionally expressive practice so that they can balance all of the emotional input they receive.

If all you do is receive, receive, receive — and you have no healthy outlets for emotions and no place to express or work with emotions safely, you will probably burn out. In the book, I suggest that many people who rate themselves on the very low end of the Emotion Contagion scale may not be unempathic; in fact, they may be hyper-empathic and burnt out. How can you tell?

If a person is not empathic with people, but has intense interests in art, music, science, or any of the other nonhuman actors, you’re probably looking at a hyper-empathic person who is choosing to stay out of the whole human emotional mess right now. Fellow hyper-empathic people, I salute you.

But I have to ask: What is your art form right now?

Next week: Einfühlung and Empathy


30 Responses

  1. Suavita
    | Reply

    I am a sensitive person. I have become more able to control it as I have aged. I hope that doesn’t mean I am now wearing a shell. I am enjoying this topic and will get your book as soon as it comes out.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Gail and Suavita! Thanks for sharing the changes you’ve made to your Emotion Contagion abilities — they really are very malleable, thank goodness. I also made huge changes in my abilities, because my extreme hyperempathy was so painful for me. But I’m not wearing a shell now – I just have better boundaries and a better sense of myself. I can drop back into hyperempathy when I need to, but it’s a choice now, whew!

  2. Gail Kenny
    | Reply

    Karla – Yay for the year of empathy! I’m really looking forward to your new book. I’m one those people who had to relearn how to feel emotions instead of automatically resist them. But I consider myself a sensitive person, so I can relate to the hyperempath model who is burned out. The boundary setting tools in The Language of Emotions have really helped me. I don’t have to fix or save everyone any more and that feels really good. Thanks for helping me understand and heal myself!

  3. Beth Lenco
    | Reply

    Hello Karla,
    I’ve been reading and practicing your work for a few years now. Your research and words continue to help me understand my highly complex and sensitive nervous system. I would say I’ve been a burnt out hyperempath most of my life. As soon as I began opening myself up to humans I would receive shock waves of overpowering emotional energy that would completely derail me. I have a long way to go still, but without your work, I’d still be in in the dark about all this. THANK YOU KARLA. Your writing continues to inform my life.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Beth! I’m glad my work is helpful for you. Question: Do you have any humans in your life who have good emotional hygiene — who don’t leak all over you and who can maintain their own boundaries? They’re few and far between, but if you can find people like this, it can really help!

  4. Kaitlyn
    | Reply

    I’m so excited for your new book! Will it be released through Sounds True?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks Kaitlyn, yes, it’s a Sounds True book, and we’ll be doing an audio learning set as well. I’ll be recording the audio in March for the October release. I’m really looking forward to it!

  5. Edwin Rutsch
    | Reply

    congratulations Karla,
    I’d love to have some recorded dialogs about your book chapters. how about a series of empathy dialogs?

    you mention art. here’s an interview I did with Diana Castle who is a acting instructor “Diana Castle’s THE IMAGINED LIFE – Acting As The Art of The Empathetic Imagination- is a creative philosophy and practical application of your natural empathetic imagination to the art of acting…


    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thank Edwin! Yes, let’s look into chatting again. You’re fun.

      I like Diana Castle’s approach! I call actors (and artists, writers, and musicians, of course) “professional emotionologists,” and it’s fascinating to me that we pay actors very handsomely (and celebrate them every year with awards) so that we can feel alongside them. Empathy is so vital to us that we have any number of empathy professionals who can help us feel emotions in concert with others. Yay for the Year of Empathy!

  6. Niamh
    | Reply

    Hi Karla

    I have just finished reading your book ‘The Language of Emotions’ and I can honestly say that it has spoken to me like nothing I have ever read before (and I read a lot of books). I am about to re-read it again so I can slowly disseminate and practise the depth of information and wisdom that it contains.

    I look forward to using your tools in my relationships with myself and others.

    Thank-you so much for sharing your wonderful knowledge!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Niamh, and thanks! Thank you for bringing your emotional awareness and your empathy to a waiting world!

  7. Tyler
    | Reply

    Hi Karla!

    You know, there is one feeling (or emotion? which would you say it is) which I find no where either here or in your book, and that is LONELINESS. Your book has been fantastically helpful to me- really! But loneliness is absent from all proceedings. Would you be so kind as to write something about this topic? Of all the feelings/emotions, this one is the very hardest for me. I am trying to learn to live alone after many, many years of being surrounded by people, and if you had any wisdom to share on the subject I would be most grateful. I bet alot of folks would! 🙂


  8. Louise Lobinske
    | Reply

    Funny, this post makes me want to play piano. I’m horribly out of practice, but I have taken lessons in the past and used to be moderately good. I’ve missed it recently and been looking, perhaps, for an excuse to get back into it. Thanks, Karla.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Yay Louise! You make me realize that I need to start playing again, too. Piano playing offers a different kind of Einfuhlung experience than writing does, and I’ve missed it!

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