Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Karla McLaren. Karla McLaren is an empath and an award-winning author, social science researcher, and pioneering educator whose empathic approach to emotions has taken her through the healing of her own childhood trauma into a healing career and now into the study of sociology, anthropology, neurology, cognitive psychology, and education. With Sounds True, she is the author of the book and audio program The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You, as well as a new book and audio series, The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Karla and I talked about what it truly means to be empathic and the challenges of what she calls being a “hyper-empath,” as well as the challenges of being under-developed in our empathy. We also talked about people who are often considered exiles from the world of empathy and misconceptions about such people. Finally, our conversation focused on the six aspects of empathy that Karla defines in her new book, The Art of Empathy, and how we can develop ourselves in all six of these different areas.
Here’s part one of my conversation on the art of empathy with Karla McLaren.
Karla, it’s great to be with you here in the Sounds True studio and to talk about your new book, The Art of Empathy. Welcome.
Karla McLaren: I’m so happy to be with you again.
TS: Now, you talk about empathy as “life’s most essential skill,” which is, of course, a big statement. Life’s most essential skill. Tell me why you consider empathy to be life’s most essential skill.
KM: [Laughing.] Because that’s the subtitle you chose. Do you remember that?
TS: Well, that’s a very strong statement. It’s a bold subtitle. But, I know you well enough to know that you must be behind it, or it wouldn’t be in print.
KM: When I first heard it—life’s most essential skill—I went, “Are you trying to give me a heart attack?” because I felt that I had to write a book that was complete—that was fully realized, which meant that I needed to look at it in so many different ways. I agree that it’s the most essential skill—that and emotional awareness, because you can be as smart as Einstein, or as physically brilliant as an Olympic athelete, or as spiritual as the greatest spiritual leader, but if you can’t empathize with people and if you can’t work with your emotions, you’re just going to fall on your butt all of the time in human relationships.
I think there’s so much about emotions and empathy that’s kind of hidden behind the curtain and underneath the rug that we don’t really talk about it very clearly or very openly. And because we don’t talk about it openly, it tends to go into the shadow. Then it can come and sort of grab you wherever you are. So, when there’s trouble at work, it’s usually an empathy and emotion problem; people who are doing too much work and have lost their emotional fluidity.
If you have trouble in government, it’s usually an empathy and emotion problem. A lot of it’s about money; a lot of it’s about that sort of thing, but how money is allocated, how things are seen as important, is part of our capacity to empathize.
As we’ve seen in the recent times in our government, empathy is a big problem. We get into our little camps and we see the other person as the other—as not us. Democrats are not us. Republicans are not us. Whatever they say, we have to look at it with a tremendous amount of criticism, scrutiny, and a lack of empathy and think of them as being against us.
I look around at what problems happen with people and structures, and it’s almost always emotional and almost always empathic in nature.
TS: I want to be really clear that everybody is tracking with us. When you use the word “empathy,” what exactly do you mean by that?
KM: I have it written in the book. It’s very well-organized how I have it written. Empathy is our capacity to receive and understand the emotional state of others and their perspective and what they would like to have happen next. It’s the ability to really put ourselves into the place of the other and understand things from their viewpoint. We do it all the time.
For instance, you can’t drive your car without having a really good empathic sense for the other drivers. But we don’t call empathy, because, again, it’s in the shadow. It’s under the rug. If you’re at a four-way stop with no lights and all the four cars have come at the same time, nobody’s speaking to each other, but everyone is looking and making eye contact. They’re all figuring out who is going to go. There’s tremendous communication going on, and it’s emotional and it’s empathic, clearly, because people aren’t talking.
That’s how we dance with each other in the world is through this—what anthropologists call the paralinguistic signals—the things beyond, underneath, and beside language.
TS: Let’s say somebody is listening to this and their thought is, “You know, I wish I was more empathic.” I’ve gotten this feedback from people that they wish I was more empathic, for example, from a partner. What would be your suggestions to someone who finds that they fall on that side of the equation? “I wish I understood people better. Sometimes I’m in the room and it’s clear to me that I have no idea what’s going on with this other person.”
KM: What I did in the book was to break empathy down into six discrete but connected—I call them the essential aspects. When people say, “I am too empathic” or “I’m not empathic enough,” it really helps to look at it in terms of six aspects so that people can say, “Oh, I’m good at that one. I’m really good at that one, but here’s where I have a problem,” instead of “I’m not empathic,” because it’s not actually possible to be completely unempathic. You have to be in a coma. You’re always picking up signals from others.
I think, for a lot of people, the problems in empathy are problems in emotion identification and emotion regulation. For a lot of people, empathy is primarily emotional. It starts with what’s called “emotion contagion,” which sounds kind of icky, but that’s what it’s called in the research. Emotion contagion is when you start laughing and someone else comes off and starts laughing because you’re laughing so hard. That’s emotion contagion. It can be lovely. Or when someone starts crying, and you go [as well]. That would be emotion contagion.
For some people who would consider themselves unempathic, they may not be able to work with certain emotions in their own bodies. For instance, if sadness is in the room and they don’t really have a practice for sadness or they were taught when they were young that sadness was weakness, they may shut down simply because that emotion is not very workable for them. It’s not very comfortable. People would say, in that situation, “You’re not empathic.” Right?
It could be—let’s look at all the other emotions. Can they support you when you’re angry? What about when you’re happy? What about when you’re feeling envious? It’s to articulate out exactly what’s happening so that people can understand [that] they have control and they have choices about how empathic they want to be.
TS: This is very helpful, I think, because you’re bringing a lot of precision to a topic that, as you say, has been in the shadows or hasn’t been looked at this carefully. So, it’s really helpful. If you would, could you lay out for me these six aspects of empathy and help me understand what they are? Because that might help me identify, or the listener identify, which area is challenging for them.
KM: The six aspects—and when I put them out for people, they sort of get overwhelmed as if there’s going to be a test later. So I just want you to know, there’s not going to be a test later! You do all of these six aspects of empathy usually without even thinking. The six aspects are—the first one is emotion contagion, which we talked about. I started with emotion contagion because that’s where empathy starts. You have to be aware that there’s an emotion in the room or that there’s an emotion expected of you or that there’s an emotion between you and the other person. There’s something needing to be felt. That is where it starts. Empathy is primarily an emotional skill.
TS: Is it fair to say that emotion contagion, this first aspect, is always happening? So, we may or may not be aware of it, but it’s always happening.
KM: What’s interesting is when a lot of people talk to me about, “I’m too empathic. How can I stop feeling the emotions of others?” I kind of back up and say, “Let’s talk about which emotions—I think this is not an empathy problem. This is a specific emotion problem.” Usually when we get down to it, I say, “Well, do you like laughing with people?” “Yes.” “Do you like going to sad movies?” “Yes.” “Do you like scary movies?” “Yes.”
It’s not that they’re too empathic. It’s usually that when there’s a certain emotion in the room, it’s almost always anger or anxiety. Then the person feels like that’s too much for me. Again, it’s that situation of not having skills in your own body for that emotion. Sharing emotions is delightful. It’s a wonderful thing. We have a whole group of professionals that we pay money to, to emote for us, and those are actors. If an actor can’t transfer an emotion to us, he or she is a bad actor. If a musician can’t transfer emotion to us, if a poet can’t transfer emotion, they’re bad at their jobs.
Again, it’s in the background. We don’t call these people emotion professionals or professional empaths. We call them actors, poets, and muscicians, and literary writers, but we don’t identify the emotion contagion.
TS: When you said there was a profession in our world that is all about communicating emotion, I thought you were going to talk about therapists, that that was the role that a therapist plays in our life. What do you think about that?
KM: I think we go to therapists—certainly we can call them emotion professionals and everybody would sort of know that. A lot of times we go to therapists when we cannot work with emotions in our own selves.
KM: What’s interesting is that it’s a secretive place. Many therapists have rules about never saying that you’ve been there, as if having trouble with emotions is something that needs to be kept quiet, in the background, behind the curtain, under the rug. Instead of saying out loud, “You know what? I’ve got problems with anger and I’d like some help with it in this family,” you’re sent out of the family. Or, if you’re in a classroom as a child and you have problems with anger, you’re going to be sent to the principal’s office.
When people have trouble with emotion, instead of understanding that we have emotions together as community, the emotionally intense people or the people who are struggling usually get pulled out and put into a separate place where it’s sort of secret and shameful to be there. Now, many therapists are trying to make it clear that it’s not shameful to go and need some support with your emotions.
It’s interesting that we see emotions as such problematic things, yet on the other side, we pay people so much money and we have awards ceremonies every year to say, “This is the best musician. This is the best writer. This is the best actor.” Because they help us feel emotion in a safe and bounded way. We love emotion contagion. We live for it.
If you see a baby or dogs—dogs love to play with emotions with you. They love—if you’re crying, the dog will come to you. The dog won’t run away. If you’re angry, the dog will probably go, “Oh, I’m sorry,” because something could happen. Animals and babies—everybody knows that we love emotions, but when we grow up, we tend to say, “Oh, don’t be emotional. Let’s be rational,” as if they’re two, entirely separate things.
After emotion contagion, the second step is empathic accuracy. That’s also from the research. What it means is if there’s an emotion in the room and you pick it up correctly through contagion, you know what it is. This is a really important step, because for many people, their emotion training, especially as children, was very poor and involved with shame. For instance, we tell children which emotions are correct just by the way we name them for them. We’ll say, “There’s no reason to be afraid. Don’t be a little coward.” Or, “You won’t talk to me that way, young man.” Or, “There’s that smile. That’s what I want to see.”
We tell children which emotions are acceptable and which emotions aren’t. Let’s say that you pick up anger in the room. You pick it up and in your body, in your psyche, you have no practice for anger, except don’t have it. Maybe you saw rage in your father or your mother. So, there’s anger in the room. You immediately go to rage—a place of your child self. You’ve got no skills. That would be poor empathic accuaracy, because that other person might be having just a small, simmering amount of anger that they could deal with. But you drop back 30 years, and you’ve lost your words. Empathic accuracy is really important—that you know which emotion it is and that you have an emotional vocabulary so that you can make articulations between what’s going on in the room.
TS: This is, I think, a very, very huge step—huge step—for a lot of people. Meaning, I’m in a room and it’s clear that there’s a contagion going on. [Both laugh.] I feel quite strange—very strange. Maybe my stomach’s turning over or something. I might even have heebie-jeebies of some kind or something.
But, there’s a long way between knowing “I feel quite weird”—a place-holder word that means so many different things—to having the kind of accuracy that you’re talking about. “Oh, I actually know it’s this particular emotion.”
So how can you help people with this aspect of empathy? Because I think there’s a huge training gap in this.
KM: Yes, this is massive. That’s what my earlier book, The Language of Emotions, was about. How do you learn what emotions are, how to name them, how to identify them, how to work with them. Because we’re just not trained. We’re trained: happiness is what I want to see. There’s that smile. Everything else, you take it to the principal’s office. You take it to the therapist.
In our relationships with each other, we don’t have emotion skills, so our accuracy tends to be pretty low. When your accuracy is off, the rest of empathy goes off as well. If you, Tami, are feeling cranky about something that happened and I immediately go to rage, I’ve lost the whole thread of our relationship. I’ve lost the entire point of who you are. And I’m in my own story and overwhelmed.
TS: Is it fair to say that we’re at a time in our culture—maybe it’s only really in the past couple of decades—where this is being acknowledged that—and maybe it’s not even being widely acknowledged, but starting to be acknowledged—that this development of something like a language for emotions is just coming into the picture for people?
KM: It really is. There’s Daniel Goleman’s famous work. The neuroscientist of emotion, Antonio Damasio, said, in his own work in the 90’s, that he sort of had to keep his work quiet, because people are saying, “DeMassio, emotions? Come on.” It turns out that we’re finding now that emotions underlie all behavior—that emotions are continually motivating us. The word “emotions” knows what it does. It motivates us.
Emotions are underneath everything and they inform all parts of our cognition, but because they’ve been ignored and pushed under the rug, behind the curtain, that it’s only in the last 20 years that people have even been able to talk about emotions in neuroscience and in psychology, which is very strange. You would think psychology would be all about emotions.
In many psychology masters programs, The Language of Emotions is their textbook. I said, “What?!” It turns out, it’s the only book that talks about all of the emotions together in terms of how they work and what to do with them. I thought, well, this says a lot—that in psychology, which you and I would identify as the emotion professionals, they don’t have the language that they need to understand emotions. It’s a huge issue.
TS: What’s exciting to me, though, because we’re only on the second aspect here of empathy, we’re just starting the process, and here we’ve already identified that for many people there’s a critical gap. Certainly for me, I’ve been exposed to so many different teachers and trainings, but I still feel like I’m certainly not out of elementary school. I’m not sure I’m in kindergarten anymore, but I’ll put myself in elementary school when it comes to identifying accurately what emotional experience I’m having with a high level of nuance in any given moment.
Yet, if this is the ground of developing empathy, it means that we actually could go a very, very, very long way in training people in empathic abilities. That would be a huge shift in our culture.
KM: Simply having an emotional vocabulary that’s more than “angry, sad, happy” would do amazing things. There was a Russian study that showed that Russians— who have many different words for different colors of blue—for light blue, dark blue, and this blue—can actually see more colors of blue than we can, because we call them dark blue and light blue. We don’t have that gradation. Vocabulary informs perception.
So, if you have more words for your emotions, if you can say, “I’m angry, but I’m just in a soft kind of anger. I’m a little bit peeved. I don’t know if I’m perturbed, but, yes, I’m peeved.” Or something like that—to be able to articulate in your own self to that extent. You begin to be able to perceive more emotions, because you have the words for it.
TS: Help me understand, just in a very explicit way, how will increasing my sensitivity and vocabulary to the nuances of my emotional experience make me more empathic with others?
KM: Being aware of your own emotional experience means that your accuracy is going to be increased, because you’ll know what you’re feeling. In the situation where you were feeling cranky and I went to rage and got afraid and lost my focus, I could say—let’s say that I do go there. I could say, “OK, I think Tami is feeling cranky. I know her well enough to know this is cranky, and I’m not in danger. But, I’m feeling some anxiety, because I’m remembering my dad.” Do you know what I mean? I could start to articulate what’s going on.
So, Tami’s not my dad. This is not about that. I need to go have some therapy about my dad. But, right now, I’m with Tami, who’s cranky. And then, to check in. Then, when I say that to myself, the anxiety will release. And I’ll say, “OK, now I’m feeling some calm and a little bit of fear, but it’s not bad fear.” This seems like a lot, but what I’ve found is that having an extensive interior monologue really helps. And I can still be present with people. But just check in. “How am I feeling? What’s going on with me? Why did I just seize up? What’s happening?
I think one of the things with empathy is it is a relationship. You can’t have a relationship if you don’t know yourself very well. You’re just going to do your parents’ marriage, part seven. [Laughs.] To know who you are is really an important part of empathic accuracy. And it’s an important part of the next step, which is emotion regulation.
Let’s say I pick up your crankiness in emotion contagion.
TS: Did you just happen to pick this as—I mean, you could have picked anything.
KM: Well, crankiness is—it’s a feeling! I don’t want to say, “grief.”
TS: It’s fine. No, it’s fine.
KM: I’m saying “Cranky,” because it’s so nice for women to be angry! [Laughs.]
TS: It’s just fine. Let’s just work with crankiness. It’s a common enough experience that I have. It’s fine. Let’s keep going with this.
KM: OK, good. I don’t want to say, “Fear or sadness.” Women are always sad. Let’s have them be angry for a minute here. [Laughs.]
So, I pick it up correctly with empathic accuracy. I know that you’re cranky. Now, if I don’t have a practice for crankiness in my own self—I’m accurate, I’ve picked it up correctly, but I don’t know what to do, because when I get cranky, I start throwing things. I sort of escalate myself. Then, I’m also lost in the empathic thing, because now I’m in my problem with anger. I’m not in your experience, I’m in my problem.
So, emotion regulation is really important, and that’s what the skills in the book are about. It’s how to ground yourself, how to refocus, how to understand when you’re overwhelmed, how to soothe yourself, so that you can really be present. Emotion regulation is really crucial, and it’s yet another place where, when you say people are too empathic or not empathic enough, there’s usually an emotion regulation issue going on where they just don’t have skills in that emotion.
Luckily, as we’re finding in neuroscience research, you can change how your brain responds to emotion. I included the work of Richard Davidson in The Art of Empathy, because he has such a hopeful view of using mindfulness practices to actually change how you respond to emotion, how you respond to sensory input, how you respond to the social world. I was like, “Bing! This is awesome!”
I found it to be true in my own life. You can change. You’re not stuck. Emotions are so fluid and empathy is such a fluid skill, that it’s not as if you’re always too empathic or you’re never going to be empathic. You can change.
TS: You said something that I’m not sure people will follow, which is emotion regulation would be potentially problematic for someone who’s not very empathic, and that makes sense. But, even also for someone who’s supremely hyper-empathic, emotional regulation might be a difficult spot for them. Can you help me understand that?
KM: For people who are hyper-empaths, usually they’ve got intense emotion contagion skills—intense. They could have good accuracy as well. But, if they don’t have emotion regulation skills, then the experience of empathy for them is going to be pretty painful. It’s going to be sort of like being in the middle of the ocean getting hit by waves and the undertow at the same time. You sort of can’t make sense of it.
This is what I see in my friends on the autism spectrum who are thought of as unempathic. It’s one of the things you say about autistic people is they’re unempathic. Yet, in the time I’ve spent with autistic people, I was sort of horrified to realize that these are hyper-empaths who are getting so much emotional and sensory input but they can’t regulate it in themselves. So, they just shut down. They just shut down and focus on things that are manageable—on things that they can organize, they can systematize, they can figure out.
That was a huge piece for me in understanding the necessity of emotion regulation for everybody, but especially for hyper-empaths. Learning the language of emotions, learning to turn toward the emotions and work with them as a part of your cognition, as a part of your neurology, rather than things that happen to you.
For people with heavy emotion contagion skills, emotions can feel like a battering wave after battering wave. That was certainly my experience as a child before I had emotion regulation skills. Being with people was horrendous. I was so hyper and so angry and I lashed out all the time, because so much was coming at me and I couldn’t manage it.
If you saw me running around as a kid, you would never have said, “There’s a little hyper-empath.” You would have said, “That kid’s a hellion. That kid needs to get out of my house, becasue she’s going to break something.” Looking at empathy as, you know, it’s these lovely people who totally listen to you, that’s not it—not for hyper-empaths.
TS: There’s a couple of things here I want to tease out. I’m imagining someone who is a parent, at this moment listening, saying, “I think my kid might be a hyper-empath, maybe.” How would a parent know if their child was a hyper-empath or not?
KM: I would say that any child who has a lot of energy, a lot of attention deficit, a lot of hyperactivity, you could pretty much say this child is taking in too much. In the sensory world, with hearing, with vision, with movement, and with emotion. It almost always goes together that sensory-aware people are also emotionally hyper-aware.
For a child who has that much intensity, what my mom found to do was to help me find quiet places and forts. I made a lot of forts. I was like the queen of the forts. I was a fort empress. And to cover myself with things—put two chairs together and blankets over it, so that I could have some sense of having boundaries around my body, which was on fire all the time.
When you see a child acting out to that extent, rather than say, “Well, that’s just a bad child. That’s just a brat.” Say, “That behavior has a very specific purpose. It looks like they’re blowing out a lot of input.” Just watch the child in terms of input. What happens when they come home from school? Do they melt down? Usually they can hold it together during school. When they get home, where it’s safe, they’ll just fall apart. Or, they can’t handle it in school.
We don’t look at children in terms of their existence as poorly emotionally regulated, because they’re little, wildly sensory, and emotionally aware organisms. And for some kids, they just have to run, fight, and freak out in order to just make it through childhood.
TS: Thank you. That’s helpful. You describe yourself as a hyper-empath. Is that fair to say?
TS: Hyper-hyper, uber-hyper, super-empath?
KM: [Laughs.] Wacky-quacky. Yes.
TS: Yes. I’m curious. I know you teach in The Art of Empathy a series of skills to help people work with their empathic nature. But, I’m curious, in terms of emotional regulation, what you do now on the spot when you’re in an experience and you start feeling overwhelmed by emotional input? Do you have a self-regulation protocol that you use with yourself?
KM: If I can, I will do what is called in the autistic world “stemming,” which would be hand-flapping, just any kind of movement to raise my heart rate and blow it off so that if I’m overwhelmed—I’ll also do grounding, deep breathing, that sort of thing, so that I help as a partner to my body. My body is going through some really intense things, and I have enough separation to say, “Whoa! I’m overwhelmed,” and then to soothe myself. That’s one of the most important things for anybody, but also for hyper-empaths, is to learn 40 to 400 self-soothing behaviors.
TS: Forty to 400?
KM: Four million to forty billion. [Laughs.]
TS: What if I just found one or two that worked? Would that be OK?
KM: OK, two are good, yes.
TS: The two that you offered—
KM: Those are my special ones.
TS: It’s like a shaking kind of thing. Shaking your hands?
KM: Do you remember Peter Levine’s work where he talks so much about the importance of shaking off? I think with a lot of kids who are hyper and they’re running and moving all the time, they’re trying to shake off; they’re trying to shake off all of the input. So anything where you can move the input, but a lot of times, if I start shaking and moving the way I need to, it goes—in emotion contagion, people read it as anxiety and they get anxious. For me, it is reducing anxiety. But for them, that kind of movement would mean [something else]. So, I’ve learned to be careful around other people, because they read it in their own way.
TS: Feel free to shake as much as you want here in the Sounds True studio.
KM: [Laughs.] The microphones are on, so I’ll do the quiet shake.
TS: It’s fine. Now, the second technique that you use personally, you said, is grounding. Can you tell me just quickly how you do that sort of on the spot?
KM: Taking in a deep breath and imagine breathing downward and into the ground. What happens for a lot of people when they get emotionally overwhelmed or overwhelmed with sensory input is they sort of lift out of their body and dissociate. What that [dissociation] told my body was, “You’re on your own, babe. I’m leaving. This is too unsafe.”
What I was doing was I was creating a kind of a post-traumatic stress disorder around my behavior when there was too much emotion or too much stuff going on in a room. I would dissociate, which is a lovely survival skill. It’s awesome. But, if you do it as a matter of course, it is very hard to live your life. So, I had to learn a skill that was integrating rather than dissociating. For me, it is simply breathing downward.
I had to learn this step-by-step, because my natural go-to skill was to just leave and float above my body. I have entire years of my life that I don’t remember. That’s just gone.
KM: Yes. People say, “Remember when we went to this place when you were ten?” Nope. I got nothing. People will remember their favorite teacher in school. I have maybe two names and that’s it. I was dissociated most of my childhood, because it was hard to be a kid and to have that much stuff coming at me that I couldn’t control.
When I would speak my emotional truth in a situation—it’s hard for adults to hear the emotional truth of a situation if they’re hiding it from another adult. It’s pretty awful for them to hear it from a child. I would get called out a lot. And I realized it’s just not worth it to speak the truth about what I see. I didn’t have a way to articulate. I didn’t have a way to manage. So, I just sort of left. I was gone most of the time.
With this breathing downward, with allowing my body to tell me how it needs to work, and how it needs to move, then I can work through it in a way that’s respectful to my body as a living organism that’s in overwhelm, rather than me going, “You’re on your own, pal.” It’s to continually refocus and then check in. “Well, what am I feeling? Anxiety. Well, what’s the purpose of anxiety? Anxiety tells me that there’s something coming that I need to get prepared for. OK, so what should I do?” Instead of, “I’m feeling anxious! Ahhh! It’s horrible! I need to go drink or get high!” But, rather, stay with the emotion.
TS: Now, one more question about emotional regulation. A lot of people have the sense that meditation or mindfulness practice, as you mentioned in the work of Richie Davidson, is a wonderful way to help them work with their emotions. They calm their bodies down. They’re able to witness what’s happening.
In the book, The Art of Empathy, you recognize this, but you also say that meditation might not be a good strategy for some people—that there may be better strategies. I’m curious if you could talk to those people who maybe never really connected with meditation or don’t find it particularly emotionally regulating.
KM: I grew up in the meditation culture. My mother was a yoga teacher. There was a lot of stillness meditation going on in my house, which I sucked at. Of course, that meant I was a failure. If you can’t meditate, you’re a failure and there’s nothing for you.
As I got into understanding that I needed to integrate, I started looking at what was happening in meditation. I looked at it empathically. What are they doing? What’s happening with their bodies? What are they trying to achieve? I found ways to do it in movement.
Our dearly beloved late Gabrielle Roth was one of those people who found her peace in movement. That is it for me. My meditative practices allow movement and emotion to happen. I am definitely doing mindfulness, but it’s just not stillness. My body can’t tolerate stillness. I’m a moving sculpture. This is not going to slow down. [Laughs.]
I’m achieving the same things that mindfulness does, but doing it in a quicker way, I would say, and a way that’s portable and you can do [it] at a second’s notice. I notice for some people, they will meditate in the morning to set their bodies, then maybe again in the evening to clear up whatever happened during the day. But, during the day itself, the meditative practice isn’t really as fluid as it could be. You have to sit in a place and you have to do this or that thing. You have to be away from people. Mine are very interactive, so that if I’m in a situation and I need to get myself integrated immediately, I can do it, and focus, and boom!—get myself peaceful.
Another thing about what I’ve noticed—and this isn’t true about all mindfulness practices, obviously—but, there’s a way that emotions are treated in some mindfulness practices that I find problematic. Because, people are asked to become witnesses to the emotion as if it doesn’t have anything to say. So, I see that I’m feeling anxiety, I’m going to breathe and just let it go. Going up to that place, I’m calming my body, I see that I feel the anxiety, I would say, “Stop there.” Listen to the anxiety and work with it in a meditative way. Bring emotions into the meditative process and listen to them, because they have so much wisdom.
I often say that emotions evolved over millions of years to make us socially successful primates. They are, frankly, smarter than any human who’s ever lived. Listening to the emotions, you will find out the most amazing things. If you’re taught to just witness them and watch them go by down the river, you miss so much. Certainly, you’re much calmer. That’s an awesome thing. You’ve got this lovely, self-soothing practice. My concern is that the emotions aren’t welcomed in as an intrinsic part of spirituality, cognition, and every part of our lives.
TS: Let’s go to the fourth aspect.
KM: The fourth is perspective-taking. That’s also from the research. Perspective-taking is the ability to look at the world from your perspective, not mine. What would you want in this situation? How would it work for you? One of the ways to do perspective-taking is to ask the person, “How would it work for you?”
If you don’t have these first three skills worked out in your own self, it’s going to be very hard for you to take the perspective of someone else, especially if your empathic accuracy is poor. You won’t be able to take the perspective, because you’ll be in the wrong emotional room. You’ll be in another room down the street. You won’t be with the person with what they’re doing.
If your emotion regulation is poor, you won’t have the spaciousness and the willingness to go and take the perspective of the other, because you’ll be in a four-alarm fire of emotional difficulty in your own self.
Perspective-taking is a really important thing that helps you really look at the world from the position of the other.
TS: I want to ask you a question about this. Sometimes I’ve found that it’s hard for me to take the perspective of another person when there’s nothing in my own experience that relates to what they’re going through. It’s just so different than any—if I have something inside that I can connect to, like, “Yeah, I’ve been through something like that,” I can get it. But when I don’t—something has happened to them and nothing in my experience is like that—how can you help me take someone’s perspective in that kind of situation?
KM: I think that’s the time when it’s important to move into a dialogue with them, because they’ve got a piece of the world that you don’t have. One of the most important things that you can do to increase your perspective-taking at any point in your life is read or watch fiction. Fiction, story-telling, reading stories to kids, watching movies, this helps your perspective-taking. It helps you increase it.
If you find that there’s a certain kind of person that you cannot take their perspective, I would say this is the place where practice is. This is the place where empathic practice is. A lot of times, it’s also the shadow. The things that we can’t see are things that we don’t allow in ourselves.
I will go into communities of people that I don’t agree with and become an insider in order to understand what’s going on. I go into lots of very troubling communities, because I’m like, “Wow! I don’t understand them and I don’t think anybody should, because they’re terrible people,” [laughs] or something like that. Or, “They’re so weak.” Anything where I refuse to understand them or I can’t understand them, I’ll go in and become a member of the community, almost in the way an anthropologist might, and then see what it is there that is—what am I missing? I think when we can’t understand someone, that is where practice happens.
TS: How might you take the perspective of someone who, let’s say, is suffering in a certain kind of way that’s totally outside your experience? You’ve never suffered like that. It’s even hard to imagine that kind of suffering.
KM: With care, I would just listen—just listen. Some people don’t want to talk about it. If the person doesn’t want to talk about it, then we’ll just do something fun. We’ll laugh and play until they want to. Or, we’ll sit and have coffee or whatever it is that they would like to do. When someone’s suffering, I see them as a living shrine. A shrine or an altar for me are places where things that have been made unsacred go to be made sacred again.
So if someone’s suffering, there’s a lot of unsacredness that is trying to be made sacred in the totality of that person. I become—I don’t know if you’ve been around dogs who have been abused or horses who are skittish, but there’s a way that you have to calm your body down and just make space and pretty much tell the dog or the horse, “I don’t need anything from you and it’s all going to be OK.”
Then, usually the dog will come right up to you. The horse will be like, “Oh, do you have a carrot?” They’ll totally read that you’re not out to get them.
The same thing with people who are suffering a great deal. I just get into a sacred space with them and slow down and just wait and know that I’m in the presence of sacredness that is trying to occur.
TS: OK, the next aspect of empathy.
KM: The next aspect is the big one, where we would say—this is called concern for others. This is the place where we would say “That person’s not empathic, because they’re not showing a concern for us.” They might be able to take our perspective, but it looks like they don’t care. It might be a person who says, “Look, I know you want more money for this job you’re doing, but I don’t think that’s realistic.” The message you might get is, “Not realistic? I don’t like you. What do you mean, not realistic? I think it’s realistic or I never would have asked for it.”
When someone doesn’t show concern for our position, we would identify them as unempathic.
TS: Oops! I think I might be unempathic. [Both laugh.] Let’s keep going. Obviously, I need to focus on this aspect of empathy.
KM: On the other side of concern for others, people who show us concern for others can be wolves in sheep’s clothing, because they figured out that if I just show concern for you, I can pretty much get away with anything. So concern for others is a very interesting place. For instance, con artists have figured out how to take your perspective and show you a lot of concern so they can get you to do whatever the heck it is they want. Manipulative people who are good at it—abusers can show fake concern for others—and Bernie Madoff. Everyone thought he was the most lovely man ever, because he made everybody feel witnessed, welcomed, loved, and wanted, and it was not true.
Concern for others is something that you have to tease out. A lot of times, people who don’t show concern for others are fine with their empathy. They just need to tell you how it is. They just need to be honest and straight with you. I actually prefer those people to the ones who show a lot of syrupy concern for others. I’m like, “Really? What are you trying to do? Are you trying to manipulate me?” Like people who use your name in the middle of a conversation or they touch you on the arm.
TS: I know exactly what you mean, Karla.
KM: Yes. And Tami, what do you think about that? And I’m like, “Uh-oh. Here we go,” Or, people who touch you on the arm in the middle of the conversation. You’re like, “I didn’t come toward you. What’s going on?” They’re trying to create a connection where one doesn’t exist.
This is an area that’s really interesting. What is most interesting in the research is what they’re saying is “healthy shame,” which is your capacity to monitor your own behavior and make sure that you’re not hurting yourself or others. Healthy shame is crucial to concern for others. If you have healthy shame, you will tend to show a healthy and appropriate concern for others, because you’re not trying to manipulate them.
If you don’t have healthy shame, if your shame is twisted, unfocused, or immature, you won’t have the shame that would say, “I don’t need to sell this person a car that they can’t afford. I don’t need to get this person to sign up for my multi-level marketing. I don’t need to use this person for whatever my ends are.”
If you don’t have healthy shame, you will tend to be a manipulator. You will tend to not have functional or worthwhile concern for others. It’s a very interesting area.
TS: I get the pitfall—the manipulative, con artist side—and I definitely get the side that says, “I take your perspective, but sorry, Charlie.” What is this other thing that is concern for others where I actually really care? How do I make that step to really caring, if instead I’m just like, “I get it, but it’s kind of your problem”?
KM: “I get it, but it’s kind of your problem.” I don’t know if that’s not concern for others, because there’s a way that I can have so much concern for you that I will do things for you that you need to learn how to do yourself, if you know what I’m saying. It would almost be pity. There will be too much.
For people who are very empathic, sometimes their concern for others goes on overdrive. They see that this person needs something to eat and that person needs to be left alone and that person needs a book and this person needs a blanket. It’s four hours later and they never ate lunch, if you hear what I’m saying. There’s so much concern for others that they lose a sense of their own selves.
For me, concern for others is this very almost like a tai chi or aikido place where you really have to get into a balance with it. It’s something that I have to do a lot. Especially anybody who has a family, anybody who’s in relationship with people who are having difficulties, a concern for others can get—that’s where empathic burnout can happen. That’s where, “I don’t have anything left for you…sorry…” The key to that is concern for self.
TS: OK, so I’m going to ask this now one more time, because actually you are pointing out some really important things. I definitely see in people who are hyper-empathic that they’re over-concerned with others. I definitely get this manipulative con-artist archetype too. But, I’m curious, what would you consider the healthy expression of concern for others?
KM: The appropriate concern for others.
KM: To follow their clear signals, understand what would work for them, and within your capacity to give, to provide that for them. That’s a lot of steps. For instance, when we talk about the final step, which is perceptive engagement, sometimes the most empathic thing to do is nothing. A lot of people think, “I’m going to do something empathic. I’m going to put on my empathic, diaphanous gown and I’m going to go do something for you. Rainbows and sparkles will come out of me and you will realize I’m an empath because of how nice I am and how loving.”
For instance, if someone’s walking along the street and they trip, and the first thing they do is whip their head to make sure nobody saw them, then concern for others would say, “You do not see them.” You turn away immediately, like, “Look at that bird. Wow!” until they have recovered. Because what they’re signaling to you is that they’re more concerned about the shame of being seen than that they maybe hurt their leg or they stubbed their toe. For them, the most important thing is not to be seen. So, your job as an empath is not to see them.
I think that’s the point with concern for others, is that there’s not a recipe for it. It is completely dependent on the person and the situation and how you’re feeling at the time. Sometimes I’ll go to the Safeway to go grocery shopping. There’s people around and they always seem to need something. For some reason, whenever I’m in a store, people think I work there, no matter what I’m wearing, and they ask me where stuff is. Usually I know, so I take them there.
People are always wanting to interact. I check in with myself and see, how do I feel when I go to Safeway? If I don’t feel like I have the energy to help people, then I look at concern for me, and I don’t make eye contact. Some people don’t know they have that option. They go to Safeway, everybody needs them, and they do what they can to help every single person. There’s not that awareness that concern for others can also coexist with concern for self.
Another piece I want to add about concern for others is sometimes what people ask for and what they think they want is not actually what would be the best thing for them. Let’s say somebody comes to me at work and says, “I am on a deadline and I can’t do it. Can you please finish this project for me?” And I’ve got a whole desk full of stuff. I could do it, but I have to say, this is the fifth time that she’s done this and she’s done it to other people, and this is a big issue in the workspace. Sure, I could take that, but my concern for her would be, “We need to talk about this. We need to have an intervention. Let’s talk about what’s really going on.”
That might feel really awful to her. That might feel like, “Wow, you weren’t empathic with me at all.” But, I don’t agree, because this is causing a lot of trouble and it’s just going to get worse. My concern for her would not look empathic, if you know what I’m saying. It wouldn’t look nice.
TS: I’m going to ask this in a very direct way before we move on to the final aspect of empathy. You know my partner, Julie, and she is, in our family, considered the hyper-empath, and I’m considered the kind of empathic person, sort of. We have a saying, “You know, Tami, you always put your oxygen mask on first.” That’s the thing. I put my own oxygen mask on first and then help other people. Whereas, I think that she would put on other peoples’ oxygen masks first, in general.
I think what’s underneath my question about concern for others is, am I just being self-centered here or is this a healthy way of navigating a balanced level of concern for others?
KM: I think you have to put on your oxygen mask first, because if you have your oxygen mask on, you can help 40 people. If you put other peoples’ oxygen masks on [first], maybe you can get four or five done, then you’re going to pass out. Then there are these 30 people back there who can’t get helped because now everybody’s rescuing you. You have to put your mask on first. That is the hardest thing with empaths, because empathy is about the other. To be good at empathy, you really have to understand the needs, the experience, and the emotions of the other.
Because we have such poor training about it—for instance, I was on a—in my [personal] Facebook feed, I have a lot of really intense activist people, because I’m watching that behavior. I’ll go with my friends and I’ll get in fights on Facebook. I’ll be like, “Yeah, whatever.” Not cruel, but I’ll definitely stand up for people. Some people called me out and said I couldn’t be an empath because I swear and because I wasn’t being nice. I said, “Well, if you think empathy means being nice, you don’t understand empathy. You don’t understand it and if that’s what you’re expecting from people, you don’t want empathy, you want a doormat.”
For me, what empathy means is I can feel any emotion at any level of intensity and I will not abandon you. That’s what it is and that’s not nice. It’s love, it’s empathy, it’s concern, but what it means is I have to have this huge emotional vocabulary, so that whatever you’re feeling, we can share it and you’ll know that you’re not going to tear me up, that it’s going to be OK. A lot of people who say that they’re empathic, if I say I’m feeling a really hard emotion—I’m feeling suicidal—the empathic person would fall apart, because she doesn’t know how to fix it.
There’s a lot of people who think of themselves as empathic that I wouldn’t share intense things with, because I know that they would fall apart, if you hear what I’m saying.
TS: I do. OK, I want to talk about this final aspect of empathy that you referred to, perceptive engagement.
KM: In the research—because researchers have to see actions so they can write it down and say that it happened, it’s called targeted helping, or consolation. As I said, you would have to do something that would show that you were helping the person with something that they had requested or that you were consoling the person who was troubled.
The reason I changed it to perceptive engagement is because, as I was talking about the person who trips in the street, the pseudo-empathic person would make a big show of going over and saying, “Are you alright? Are you OK?” and increase the shame of the person who showed, so clearly, they did not want to be seen at that moment. Do you hear the difference?
It’s not always action. Perceptive engagement means that you’re engaging in a way that shows that you really are focused on what the person wants and needs.
TS: We began this conversation about the six aspects of empathy by saying that for somebody who wants to develop more empathy, it’s important for them to know which of these six aspects they might want to work on. Talk to me a little bit about that, how understanding these six aspects helps me know, where do I go if I want to increase my ability to be an empathic person?
KM: With emotion contagion, if you do it a lot already, then you’re going to want to make sure your empathic accuracy and your emotion regulation are really quite good, because you’re taking in so much. You need lots of skills. If you don’t pick up emotion from others, then fiction, especially drama and movies, so that you can sort of get your organism understanding what it is when emotions move back and forth. Looking at art, music, anything where it’s a controlled space where you can uptake emotions in a way that feels safe and workable.
Perspective-taking—fiction, again. Concern for others—that one is a difficult one, because for so many people, concern for others has, as I said—there were like nine things in concern for others. That’s something to look at in terms of therapy sometimes, if you just cannot muster concern for others. Also, a lot of our talk, especially for women, about concern for others is, [don’t] give up your life. So, a lot of women have a very conflicted relationship with that area.
For the rest of them—the skills in the book—I talk about specifically. If you have trouble here, let’s look at this. If you have trouble there, let’s look at this. Using Richard Davidson’s work as well—talking about the way that your brain can change. That each of these things, even though you feel like, “OK, this is just who I am and this is how it is and I’m stuck.” It’s actually not true. You can definitely make changes to each of these areas.
TS: Now, Karla, there’s a lot more that I want to talk to you about, because we’ve actually only dug into the first one-eighth of the book, The Art of Empathy—or something like that, which is only the first couple of chapters of the book—where you lay out the model of empathy that you’re working with. So, let’s have a part two to our conversation.
Karla McLaren is the author of a new book called The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill. She’s also written a book published by Sounds True on The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You and offers an online course on Emotional Flow: Becoming Fluent in the Language of Emotions.
This is part one of our conversation on the art of empathy. Thank you, Karla.
KM: Thank you!
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.