Six Essential Aspects of Empathy – A Conversation with Karla McLaren

photo by Fizkes

The following is a conversation between Bioneers Senior Producer Stephanie Welch and Karla McLaren, M.Ed., an award-winning author, researcher, and pioneer in the study of emotions, self-awareness, effective communication, and healthy empathy. McLaren is the author of The Art of Empathy (2013) and The Language of Emotions (2010). Her applied work, Dynamic Emotional Integration®, is taught online at EmpathyAcademy.org. Visit her website to learn more and to find tools, including a vocabulary of emotions and a quiz to see whether you are what she describes as an “empath”.

KARLA: Studying emotions and empathy wasn’t a choice for me. I was abused as a child. I was traumatized, and for a lot of kids who are traumatized, they turn up their ability to read people. Especially if it’s repeated trauma, which mine was. It’s basically a safety measure: read people to know who’s safe and determine when the next problem is going to happen. Then you get yourself ready as much as you can. 

I ended up being a very, very, hyper kid – hypersensitive, hyper-angry, just a little whirlwind of a kid. I was just responding to what had happened to me. All my emotions got really revved up. I didn’t feel a little angry, I would feel enraged or sad. I would be in despair. I needed to figure things out or life was just going to keep spinning out of control for me. 

So it started when I was young. I was aware of emotions, what we call “hyper-empathic”. I needed to learn how to identify what I was seeing and to sort of put boundaries around it, put it in an Excel spreadsheet, make it all make sense. 

Thankfully, it has grown with me. Now when I’m angry, I can get a tiny bit angry. I don’t have to go all the way to rage. So it’s been my personal life’s practice. I was able to open it up and ask, would this work for anybody else? And it did. 

Karla McLaren, photo by Michael Leras

STEPHANIE: How do you define the word “empathy”?

KARLA: In research for my book The Art of Empathy, I found that nobody can agree on the definition of the word. Mine is basically “Empathy is your capacity to engage with anything – with emotions, with other people, with animals, with ideas, with cooking, with art.” It’s your capacity to engage and be relational. 

A lot of people think empathy is just listening. For me, it is primarily our capacity to read emotions, but it’s also about reading undercurrent, social space, relationships, the sense of place. So there are all kinds of nuanced things you’re picking up with your empathy, which is why a lot of people think empathy is a psychic skill – there’s so much that’s unsaid. Listening for tones, reading the situation. You need to know how that person smiles. You need to know what that person’s signals are. It’s a very full-bodied experience of the world.

STEPH: In your book, you wrote about “empathy deficits”, what is that?

KARLA: An empathy deficit would be either the incapacity or unwillingness to engage. But everybody is empathic in their own way. One of the first things I did with the book was find a way to include all of what I call the “exiles of empathy” – men and boys, autistic people, and people with conditions – I don’t call them disorders, I call them conditions – sociopathy, personality conditions. Because for many people who have sociopathy or personality differences, it was a response to their early life when perhaps empathy was used against them. 

STEPHANIE: Can you give us an example of that?

KARLA: Let’s say someone was manipulated as a child into molestation, into a long-term relationship with someone who hurt them. So the person who was being abusive would make the child feel responsible, play up their pain and their need and their problems. That would be using the child’s empathy against him or her, and that child may grow up and think, you know what, people aren’t really worth it; they’re just not worth it. 

There’s a lot of decision-making in early childhood – there’s a sort of switch that may or may not turn on for people, or they may actually decide that empathy and engagement with people and that kind of intimacy is too much. So they may turn their empathy towards something else. 

So when people say, “This person isn’t empathic”, usually it means “They won’t do what I say”. Well, where is that person’s empathy, where are they engaged? Often it’s with animals or art or science, or philosophy or something. There’s always some place that people are engaged, just maybe not with people. 

People are sometimes a giant handful, I support the lack of engagement. [LAUGHS]. But my work is sort of teaching people about empathy as a process that you can learn, and that you have choices about. So if a person has way too much empathy and they pick up everything in the room and they can’t manage themselves, the book would help them calm it down. Or if they can’t get people, they just don’t understand, they’re always sort of putting the foot wrong in their relationships, then the book offers some skills to try to bring that part of empathy up, if they want to. 

You also need to know what the names of emotions are. A lot of research shows that the more words you have for emotions, the better you are at working with emotions. On my website, I have a free emotional vocabulary list. I thought, Let’s do it! Let’s make everybody better at emotions.

STEPHANIE:  Yes, can you give us an example? Someone may say “I’m angry right now”, but perhaps that’s not the best word. 

KARLA: Peevish. Cranky. Critical. Sarcastic. Enraged. Steamed. To have as many words for your emotions as you possibly can so that you can start to think, well, actually how am I? Detached, indifferent, hateful, vengeful, vindictive. You know? There are so many cool words. 

It’s important to understand not just that you’re angry, but what is the level of anger that you’re feeling, because then you’ll know, Okay, this was a minor issue here. I’m just a little peeved, or no, I’m full of hatred and I want to set the world on fire. I would say, Okay, that’s a lot of anger right now. So understanding your emotions and how they arise. 

When I was little, anger would go immediately to rage, so I had to learn how to work anger at a lower level of activation so that I could start noticing earlier in the arc of anger when I was feeling peevish, cranky, critical or whatever, so that I didn’t get to a place where the anger was so powerful to where I was kind of a weapon. Right? Not many people can deal with intense anger with a lot of grace, they just go off. So grabbing emotions when they’re at their softer, more subtle place is a great thing for everybody to do. Let’s catch sadness before it goes to suicide urge. How would that be?

STEPHANIE: You talk about six essential aspects of empathy, what are those?

KARLA: They are from research, and I had to go to a lot of different fields. What’s funny is that empathy researchers are fighting with each other. [LAUGHS] So I had to look at child development, psychology, social psychology, anthropology, conversation analysis, linguistic anthropology. I went everywhere to see who’s talking about empathy.

Emotion Contagion: I say empathy is first and foremost an emotional skill called “emotion contagion”, or to use a non-research based term, I would say “emotion awareness” – you’re aware that you’re feeling an emotion or that someone is feeling an emotion, or that there is an emotion expected of you. That’s the first step. If you aren’t aware of that, then empathy falls apart right there, because you can’t engage properly. 

Empathic Accuracy: This means knowing for yourself and others what that emotion is, what the situation is, what the context is. Let’s say you pick up an emotion, but your empathic accuracy is off, so you’re not in the right emotion. Then empathy would end there as well. 

Emotion regulation: This is something we learn before we’re 2 years old, so it’s not difficult. It’s your ability to regulate your own emotions and the emotions of others so that you just don’t go into the emotion with them. So someone’s crying and feeling anxious and stressed about being late, and you start crying and being anxious and stressed. Now you’ve got two people who are anxious and stressed and crying, and nobody is helping the person get where they need to go. So if you can’t regulate your emotions, then empathy would also stop there because you can’t actually do anything for the person. 

Perspective taking: This is your capacity to understand, I am feeling this and you are feeling that, so if I want to support you, I need to focus on you and not go into the emotion with you at the same level you are, and just fall apart with you. I need to have regulated my emotions well enough to be able to take perspective and say, Okay, what do you need? Not “It’s all about me”. 

Say people who give you a gift that would actually work better for them. They bring you this big wrapped package, and you’re like, Oh my word! What is it going to be this time? It goes in the present area of a closet so that you can re-gift it to someone else because you really don’t need it. So perspective taking is really important. 

At each of these places you can spin off, you’re not in the correct emotion, you’re not paying attention, you haven’t taken perspective. So you’re not really able to be fully empathic.

Concern for Others: You actually have to care enough to do something. Have you ever been in a situation where you see someone, you read the emotion, you’re accurate about it, you regulate it in yourself, you think, That’s how that person feels. Don’t care! [LAUGHS] So that’s fine for you. So concern for others is the next step to the full six aspects blossoming of empathy.

Perceptive engagement: In the research, this sixth aspect is called consolation. So you’re walking down a street and across the street from you, a very well-dressed man with a briefcase trips on something on the sidewalk, and the first thing he does is whip his head around to make sure nobody saw him. The empath does not let him know you saw him. Right? You’re like, Look at that lovely bird, and you might keep him in your peripheral vision to make sure he hasn’t really been hurt. That’s why I call it perceptive engagement, because if you perceive truly what the needs of the other are, then your empathy’s going to look a lot different. 

STEPHANIE: So sometimes doing nothing is the most empathic thing?

KARLA: Right, if someone is crying in public and they don’t want anyone to know, you don’t go over and say, What’s wrong? Here’s a tissue. Everything they’re doing is telling you, I am trying to disappear at this point. So I might make eye contact for a second, wink, and that’s it. 

There’s so much about empathy that people think is a very active thing, that you have to perform empathy, and put on your rainbow empathy cape and tie it on. You see the man trip, and you run across the street, Sir! Sir! I saw you trip! And you’re so empathic and the man is just dying inside because you did the exact opposite thing he needed. 

So empathy has a lot of nuance in it. Often if you’re good at it, it doesn’t look like you did anything, especially with children. They’re like, I can do it myself! And you know they can’t. So you just do little things to the side, invisible ways to help the child not hurt himself with whatever’s he’s doing so that they don’t know and nobody knows that you made it possible. We call it “stealth empathy”. 

STEPHANIE: One thing that stood out to me as I was doing research about this topic was the feeling that we may have the least empathic president and legislative body, at least in my lifetime and my parents’ lifetime. What harm are we suffering as a society when you have leadership that’s exemplifying the very opposite of an empathic person or body?

KARLA: I’ve been doing a lot of work, a lot of stealth empathy with our president, and he has empathy with very specific things. He has it with money. Right? It’s not with people generally. He may have it with people in his family, or people who are close to him who don’t challenge him. I think he’s also very vulnerable to manipulation.

I look at 17 emotions, and I’m still not sure if he can regulate any of them, and that makes his life miserable and the people around him miserable, and it also makes our country miserable. We went from Obama, who’s one of the most emotionally regulated people I’ve ever seen in my life. I loved to watch him, his emotions, and watch what he said, because it was different. You may have seen Key & Peele [the comedy show], which had Luther, the “anger translator” for Obama, so I wasn’t the only one who saw this.

STEPHANIE: You talk about perceptions about empathy in terms of men and boys. There’s a resurgence of research seeking biological roots for differences between men and women, and even some people arguing that boys and girls should be separated in school because they learn differently. Do you agree that there is a dominant view that women are more naturally empathic and men have less of that capacity? 

KARLA: That’s nonsense, but it is the dominant view. Men are brilliant artists and writers, and dancers, and choreographers, and actors, and painters. One of the most empathic things you can do is art or music, or drama, or fiction writing, because you are engaging emotionally with a thing. I would call actors empathy professionals because they engage in emotion contagion constantly, and they transmit emotion to us. If you saw an actor who couldn’t transmit emotion, they would be a hack. If you listen to a musician who couldn’t transmit emotion, you’d say it’s got no duende, nothing going on. 

We talk babies out of their emotions. There’s a study where researchers put a baby in pink and when people see the baby, they say, What a sweet little delicate darling sweet bunny baby. Then they put the same baby in blue, and people say, What a strong baby; you’re a strong baby. If the baby cries, they say, Don’t cry, be tough.

Empathy is so misunderstood because there’s the connection to women and to emotions, which we don’t like. Right? [LAUGHS] Well we do, but it’s the lesser of the two, of emotions versus rationality, even though that is not how the brain works. They’re not separate, or men vs. women. We do a lot of damage to men and boys by not teaching them how to work with their emotions, or even how to identify them properly.

STEPHANIE: I hear a lot of discussion about Autism and Asperger’s being perceived primarily as a male condition, but that’s not true, is it? 

KARLA: Yes, in the research that I’ve looked at, even when they have the exact same symptoms as boys, girls are not diagnosed as autistic. There’s no test. It’s a group of clinicians getting together and deciding that the person has autism. Girls are generally left out of it, so they’re kind of the silent autistic community.

Simon Baron-Cohen believes autism is the extreme male brain. But that really throws men out the window and treats men as if their brains are unempathic and emotionally incompetent. So I fight with him on that, just in terms of protecting men from that kind of stereotyping. I don’t think this research really bears fruit when you see all the autistic women and girls. They’ve done studies asking do the girls or boys have more testosterone, are they really more male? No, it’s not bearing out. It was just something he floated. But it got taken up because it’s a part of our deep story, that men are one way and women are the other.

One of the ideas about autism is that the person doesn’t have empathy. I worked with a group of autistic teenagers who were going to college, and my job was to support them academically – get them their books, their tutors, learn what classes they wanted, create this whole world around them so that they could go to college and be successful. As a hyper-empathic person, I was really concerned about this job, because I had read everything that said that autistic people are not empathic. Right? They’re little professors. I thought that when I went there to be with them, I would drive them nuts because they were the opposite of me. 

After watching them and being with them for about a week or two, I saw their movements and their regular repetitive movements, rocking, their struggle to figure out what humans were doing, and the hard work they were doing to read things. And I went Whoa. Because when I was little, this was me. I said I think these are hyper-empaths. 

If we talk about the six aspects of empathy, the emotion contagion is extreme. The emotion regulation isn’t happening. So their experience of neurotypical emotional functioning is that noise-to-signal ratio is much more to the noise. It’s a constant onslaught of other people’s emotions, and not being able to regulate. And if you can’t regulate, then you can’t take perspective and you can’t do perceptive engagement. So it’s not a lack of empathy, it’s hyper-empathy.

So a lot of the work that is done with autistic kids is grabbing their face, forcing them to make eye contact. It treats the child as if the problem is that he or she doesn’t understand human social behavior, and has to be trained. That is abusive if you look at the child as a hyper-empath who needs not to be touched, who needs not to make eye contact if that’s too much.

It took me a while, but I finally did research in the autism community, and things are changing, but we still have the idea that these kids are not empathic when they’re actually hyper-empathic. 

I’m seeing that when parents say, “Okay, this is who you are, this is how noises affect you, this is how you like to do eye contact, this is what soothes you, you need to take two hot baths a day, this is who you are”, the kids just flourish, grow up and find their way in the world. Their basic bodily movements and the way that they like to use their eyes weren’t continually being changed and manipulated. But the ones who said, “You can’t have two hot baths a day because normal kids don’t do that; and just get used to the noise and make eye contact with me” and did a lot to enforce neurotypical social behaviors, the child had more of a struggle.

There are many autistic adults running around performing neurotypical, or “normal”, but they don’t know how they feel. They don’t know what’s important to them. So I understand the reason for a lot of this early training, but it is very injurious to a sensitive, unusually hyper-empathic person.

STEPHANIE: It seems there is a real need for people to understand empathy more deeply than we do societally. People talk about our political situation and how they’re experiencing hostility or aggression or racism or sexism, these kinds of things. What do you think the value is for people learning more about and understanding their emotions, and to understand what empathy is on a deep level?

KARLA: I look at emotions as parts of your intelligence, not as the opposite of intelligence. I think it is good when people can understand their emotions and understand what their emotions are trying to tell them, to look at the people who engage hatred for them, because hatred is a powerfully damaging, dangerous emotion. 

Carl Jung found a way to work with it, which is called “shadow work”. People are like, I want to achieve enlightenment. I was like, Go look at what you hate and do your shadow work. Boom! You’re enlightened. 

We can look at what we hate or what we are being asked to hate. In my liberal Facebook feed, there are a couple of conservatives, but I’m asked to hate Trump every single day. I’m asked to hate him and dehumanize him. So my empathic work right now is, No, I’m not going to. I’m just going to try to just understand him. When I meet someone in my neighborhood who is a Trump supporter, I don’t spill my guts and try to talk down to them. “Well, if you were just intelligent, then you would have voted for Hillary.” Like, I need you to change. Instead I try to understand them. 

In order to be a good empathic activist or person in the world, I have to make sure I have my own emotional house in order, and that I know how to regulate my emotions so that I can be present for others. If I’m getting engaged with the hatred and dehumanization of Trump or anybody within the conservative sphere, I’m weaponizing myself and I’m not going to be able to engage with anybody who comes with a conservative idea as a human being. I’m always going to be condescending to them, even if I say things that are nice. I’m going to be less effective politically. Most of my hyper-political friends are saying what you have to do to be effective is to hate. And I was like: How’s that working for you? 

STEPHANIE: So you encourage them to do their own shadow work? 

KARLA: Yes, because people say, No! He’s not in my shadow, he’s just evil. People are burning out with extreme spikes of intense emotion, and as we all know, it’s hard to manage those. So down regulate. Find the humanity and speak to that. I think that’s going to be the giant movement of our time. 

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