What is empathy? (Karla McLaren)
Learn the skill that could radically improve your relationships and emotional life. Empathic pioneer and author of “The Art of Empathy”, KARLA MCLAREN, shares four decades of empathic experience with current insights from neuroscience, social science, the arts, and healing traditions. Karla also shares the secrets of how emotions work and how you can connect with the astounding genius and vital set of intelligences within you.
Based on her own experience as an “Empath”, Karla defines empathy as a social and emotional skill that helps us feel and understand the emotions, circumstances, intentions, thoughts, and needs of others, such that we can offer sensitive, perceptive, and appropriate communication and support. Empathy is the basis of all communication in relationships.
However, there are many ways to define empathy in the research world, and according to Psychologist Mark Davis, there are 4 types of empathy – Perspective Taking, Personal Distress, Empathic Concern and Fantasy. The current debate among researchers is whether empathy only involves an empathetic feeling or whether it also involves being empathetically engaged with another person.
- Perspective Taking – the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see where they are coming from.
- Personal distress – literally feeling someone else’s emotions. For example, when someone says “I feel your pain” and they emotionally react to that other person’s situation.
- Empathetic concern – the ability to recognize and feel in tune with another’s emotional state and show appropriate concern.
- Fantasy – when we can imagine and transpose ourselves into fictional situations (e.g.- imagine being the main character in a book or movie).
VIDEO: What is empathy? https://youtu.be/1Mh6DAmu5Ak?t=1m31s
DOES EVERYONE HAVE EMPATHY?
Karla shares her belief that we all have empathy in one form or another. Everyone has a way of connecting, understanding and interacting with other people and with various social situations. While traditionally empathy is used to describe the ability to read and connect the social cues of other people, Karla believes that even narcissists, borderline, and autistic people have empathy, they just express it differently.
“Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. Empathy is known to increase prosocial (helping) behaviors. While American culture might be socializing people into becoming more individualistic rather than empathic, research has uncovered the existence of “mirror neurons,” which react to emotions expressed by others and then reproduce them.” Psychology Today (Empathy) https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/empathy
VIDEO: Karla shares her belief that everyone has some form of empathy here:
LACK OF EMPATHY – NARCISSISTS, AUTISM, AND BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER
Some may view narcissism, or borderline as mental disorders, but Karla sees these behaviors as a way to cope with challenging situations from childhood. She believes that autism is a form of hypersensitivity. She further explains that empathy can be taught to anyone of any age. The key is to understand where a person’s ability to empathize lies and to apply that awareness to other contexts. For example, if someone has empathy towards cars, then apply that sort of responsiveness to other circumstances.
VIDEO: Karla shares her thoughts on the form of empathy a narcissist has here. https://youtu.be/1Mh6DAmu5Ak?t=11m4s
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN EMPATHY, SYMPATHY, COMPASSION, AND LOVE?
Empathy is different from sympathy. Sympathy is using your own personal experiences to understand what another person is feeling (e.g.- “I know exactly how you feel”. “I remember when my dad died last year. You will get through it”).
Empathy, on the other hand, is trying to imagine what that person is feeling or going through emotionally (e.g.- “I can only imagine how you must feel about your dad’s death”. “I can feel your pain”), or perhaps you choose not to say anything and just be a witness to whatever emotion that person is experiencing..
Karla interprets the difference as related to a person’s receptiveness to feel another person’s emotions. Unlike empathy, sympathy is taking that person’s perspective without truly feeling an emotion.
Karla believes that love (not romantic love) is a fixed and enduring thing, whereas sympathy and empathy can change or fade away. Learn more here: (https://youtu.be/1Mh6DAmu5Ak?t=18m06s).
VIDEO: Karla explains the nuances of empathy, sympathy, and compassion via an illustration. https://youtu.be/1Mh6DAmu5Ak?t=25m18s
Brene Brown explains in this video that empathy fuels connection because it is feeling with people, whereas sympathy drives disconnection: (https://youtu.be/1Evwgu369Jw).
WHAT ARE BENEFITS OF EMPATHY?
Empathy is the basis of all communication in a relationship. The benefits of empathy include:
- Establishing a connection to see and experience the same emotions together.
- Developing a deeper understanding of how a person relates to the world around them.
- Helping a person in a therapeutic or healing experience (massage).
- Engaging with the world in a whole new way.
ARE YOU AN EMPATH?
Karla offers a quiz that you can take at http://karlamclaren.com/are-you-an-empath/#more-7081
5 TIPS: HOW TO STAY OPEN AND NOT GET OVERWHELMED AS AN EMPATH
If you are open or vulnerable and tend to pick up other people’s emotions, Karla recommends the following techniques:
- Setting Boundaries (A sense of your personal space around you)
- Conscious complaining
- A rejuvenation practice
EMPATHY IN THE DIGITAL AGE
Karla shares her observations of empathy on Facebook and other social media sites. https://youtu.be/1Mh6DAmu5Ak?t=34m00s
HOW DO YOU LEARN EMPATHY?
In Karla McLaren’s blog post (http://karlamclaren.com/the-six-essential-aspects-of-empathy-part-1-emotion-contagion), she describes the six essential aspects that you need in order to develop empathy.
- 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 to realize when emotions are required from us. 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.
- Empathic Accuracy: This is your ability to accurately identify and understand emotional states and intentions in yourself and in others.
- 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 must 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.
- 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.
- 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, then will your sensitive concern help you engage with them in a way that displays your care and compassion.
- 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.
UNDERSTANDING YOUR EMOTIONS
Karla will help us understand and relate to our emotions.
WHAT ARE THE GIFTS ABOUT EMOTIONS?
Emotions are what motivate us and help us understand our world. They help us to become more cognizant of our feelings and more in tune with how life situations affect us. As such, they are constantly moving and changing. We are taught that emotions are scary and irrational versus seeing them as intellectual signals working to enlighten our internal experience of life at that moment. Instead of having a negative relationship to emotions, Karla encourages us to engage our emotions with curiosity and desire to decode what they are trying to tell us. Emotions are called forward when they are needed by us to act. For example, sadness comes up to motivate us to let go.
HOW TO CHANGE HOW WE RELATE TO NEGATIVE EMOTIONS?
Karla discusses how we can change the way we relate to our emotions as signals versus trying to repress or run away from them. She encourages us to not label emotions as negative or positive, but to view them as neutral and present so that we stay well, safe, and happy.
WHAT ARE YOUR EMOTIONS AND HOW ARE THEY INTERRELATED?
Sometimes, emotions function in a balance of power sort of way. For example, shame would keep your anger in check to prevent you from reacting to a situation in an embarrassing way.
Karla clustered interrelated emotions to the following groups. Check out the video links to get an in-depth understanding of each emotion cluster and to know what questions you can ask to decode what each emotion is asking you to do. Learn about specific emotions:
- Anger/Guilt/Shame/Hate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5i_2RNuN6Q
- Fear/Jealousy/envy/Worry and Anxiety/Panic and Fear: https://youtu.be/jRT4j4caRRw
- Happiness/Contentment/Joy: https://youtu.be/jRT4j4caRRw?t=4m28s
- Sadness/Grief/Situational Depression/Suicide Urge: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3hmCRtqqg3E&t=129
WHY DO WE HAVE EMOTIONS?
Your emotions are absolutely essential to every aspect of your intelligence and perception—yet few of us were ever taught how to work with them skillfully. Pioneer Karla McLaren brings together new findings from sociology, psychology, neuroscience, and her own in-depth empathic work to help you access and flow with every dimension of your emotional life.
Emotion is a noun, feeling is a verb.
PROCESS FOR UNDERSTANDING OUR EMOTIONS
Karla describes the short cut emotion flowchart to help us understand our emotions:
- Emotionally evocative stimuli (thought, actions of others, medical condition, or stories we may have created)
- Emotion Appears.
- Feel the emotion.
- Name the emotion (allow our whole body to calm down)
- Question the emotion (prevent misperceiving reality)
a. Anger: What must be protected? What must be restored?
b. Fear: What action should be taken?
c. Depression: Where has my energy gone? Why has it been sent away?
- Act on the information that the emotion provides, or decide not to act.
- Emotions are actions requiring neurological programs.
A COGNITIVE APPROACH IN UNDERSTANDING EMOTIONS
- Antonio Damasio, researcher and professor of neuroscience at the University of Southern California, takes a more perceptive look into understanding our emotions.
VIDEO: Emotional Theater- Secrets of how emotions work and how you can tap the emotional genius withing.
Karla McLaren- Award winning author, social science researcher, and pioneer educator
Karla McLaren, M.Ed is an award-winning author, social science researcher, and pioneering educator whose empathic approach to emotions revalues even the most “negative” emotions and opens startling new pathways into the depths of the soul. She is the founder and CEO of Emotion Dynamics LLC.
Karla’s lifelong work has been focused on the creation of a grand unified theory of emotions, which she has developed through her work with survivors of dissociative trauma, through her own lifelong experience as a hyper-empath, and through extensive research into the social and biological sciences.
Her applied work, Dynamic Emotional Integration™, is a nonclinical approach to emotional awareness that can be used by individuals, couples, and families, in schools, in the workplace, and in therapeutic settings. Dynamic Emotional Integration™ is taught in an online education and licensing program that will commence in April of 2015 (see the DEI course schedule and information here).
Karla has also developed a unified Six Essential Aspects of Empathy model that highlights all of the processes in empathy and makes them accessible and easily understandable. This new model explicitly and intentionally welcomes people who have been exiled from earlier models of empathy (such as men, boys, and autistic people).
Karla is the author of The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill (2013), The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings are Trying to Tell You (2010), and the multi-media online course Emotional Flow: Becoming Fluent in the Language of Emotions (2012).
Karla has taught at such venues as the University of San Francisco, Omega Institute, Naropa University, Kripalu Center, Hollyhock Learning Centre, and the Association for Humanistic Psychology. Additionally, as a prison arts educator with the William James Foundation, she has utilized singing, drumming, and drama to help men in maximum security prisons explore and heal long-held emotional traumas.