I was really taken with Karla McLaren’s latest book, The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill (Sounds True), in which she explores the varieties of empathy in our lives. After I’d finished reading (and copiously underlining) I had a few questions, and Karla was kind enough to answer them.
AP: You call yourself an “empath,” which you describe as “someone who is aware that he or she reads emotions, nuance, subtexts, undercurrents, intentions, thoughts, social pace, interactions, relationship behaviors, body language, and gestural language to a greater degree than is deemed normal.” What a great job title! When did you decide that was the path you wanted to take in your work and in your life?
KM: It wasn’t a decision as much as a defense! As an extremely empathic child, I was often overwhelmed by the emotions and behaviors of others. I had to learn how to understand and work with my empathy so I could be comfortable in the world. Today, I help people learn how to manage their empathy. Intentional is the key word, because many highly empathic people live in a state of emotional overwhelm or empathic burnout—and often they don’t realize they have a choice. One of the most wonderful things I’ve discovered in my work is that your emotional and empathic skills are flexible: You can increase them at any age, and you can calm them down if they make you uncomfortable—again, at any age.
AP: You initially define 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.” So what’s the difference between being an empath and being empathic?
KM: The difference is intention. We’re all empathic, because empathy is a part of everything we do—it’s crucial to communication, and interactions, and being a social animal. For me, the title “empath” is a way to take ownership of my intense empathy and to work with it directly. However, one problem with the word is that people think empath means psychic. And it doesn’t! Not at all; empathy is a normal human trait, but because we aren’t taught how to work with our empathy, it can seem mysterious to people. Honestly, empathy is the most normal thing in the world. We’re all empathic, and we’re all empaths.
AP: What’s “hyper-empathy”? Why can it be dangerous? Tell me some ways we can learn to manage our empathic abilities.
KM: Hyper-empathic people are highly aware of and sensitive to social and emotional input, and though that isn’t dangerous, it can be very uncomfortable. I approach hyper-empathy in a number of ways. I help people learn how to get comfortable with emotions—to understand them and work with them intelligently—and I teach them empathic mindfulness practices so they can learn how to stay focused, calm, grounded, and emotionally stable in their everyday lives.
AP: You say that empathy is “first and foremost an emotional skill.” Tell me the difference between feelings and emotions.
KM: An emotion is a specific response to some sort of stimulus, and feeling is your capacity to identify which emotion it is. This may sound like an unusual definition, but if you want to learn how to work with emotions skillfully, it’s really important to understand the difference. It’s especially important for hyper-empathic people because they can sometimes be so overwhelmed by emotions that they can’t even figure out which emotions they’re feeling or why.
AP: You write quite a bit about “emotion contagion”—a sense that an emotion is occurring in someone else or that someone expects an emotional response from us—and you say this is an essential tool for empathy. How can we develop this if it’s low?
KM: Interestingly, I teach the same emotional awareness skills to people who are low in emotion contagion abilities as I do to people who are hyper-empathic (which means their emotion contagion abilities are highly activated). In both cases, I help people learn how to identify emotions, to feel them, to befriend them, and to work with them skillfully. In so many people I see, the problem isn’t actually that they can’t pick up emotions from others—it’s that they haven’t developed the emotional vocabulary or the emotional skills they need to become comfortable and capable with emotions. Many people who appear to be low in empathy are actually overwhelmed by levels of emotion contagion that they can’t understand or control. In my work, I help people become comfortable with emotion contagion so they can be healthy, happy, and intentional empaths in a world that needs them!
AP: You talk about how even our negative emotions—like shame and guilt—are valuable. Why are they important, and how should we process them?
KM: I don’t see any emotions as negative (or positive) because I see all emotions as necessary. All emotions bring us specific gifts, messages, and intelligence—if we know how to work with them. I teach people how to work directly and empathically with their emotions, to communicate with them, and to understand why they have appeared. When people can work with emotions in this way, they’re often amazed by the brilliance inside emotions.
Shame and guilt, for instance, are some of my favorite emotions, because when you can work with them empathically, they’ll help you understand your behavior, change it if necessary, and make amends if you need to. They’ll also help you identify the toxic shaming messages you pick up from other people (including the media) so you can clear those away and help your shame get back to its necessary and supportive work. Shame and guilt are wonderful emotions when you know how to work with them.
AP: Tell me about one of your Rewire Me moments. Can you share a time when you embarked on a new path, your mind changed, or you were transformed?
Learning to work empathically with emotions has been an absolutely life-changing experience. Before I learned how to befriend and communicate with emotions, I was in pretty bad shape. I was an overwhelmed hyper-empath, I couldn’t find a way to manage in the world, and I saw emotions as these horrendous things that just needed to go away. Learning to work with emotions empathically—to truly listen to them and to learn their language—completely transformed and enriched my life. Everything in my life—my inner life, my relationships, my psychological health, my social awareness, and my intellectual abilities—changed for the better. As I’ve learned to say, emotions rock!