The Four Aspects of Empathy
Social work is an emotionally demanding job. In fact, as high as seventy percent of social workers will experience at least one symptom of secondary traumatic stress (STS); working in the human services is a risk factor in and of itself for developing STS, burnout, and compassion fatigue (Wagaman, Geiger, Shockley, Segal,2011). The good news is that compassion fatigue can be mitigated by developing all four aspects of empathy (affective sharing, self-other, perspective-taking, and emotional regulation) which in turn will yield compassion satisfaction. I found the results of this research to be immediately applicable and relevant to my future career as a social worker as well as to my current career as a Massage therapist. A wide variety of helping professionals from any demographic could benefit from developing these skills. I will use the term case worker to include the vast variety of human service workers to which this research is pertinent.
Before launching into a discussion of the research provided by Wagaman et. al. it is important to explore some definitions. Compassion satisfaction is the good feeling that comes from helping someone through a difficult time. On the flip side, compassion fatigue is feeling of despair and hopelessness from trying to help too many people with too many difficult problems. Burnout and secondary traumatic stress can exist alongside compassion fatigue: with the first the worker experiences overwhelming exhaustion and finds basic work tasks to be difficult, with the latter the caseworker has a physiological and emotional stress reaction to a trauma expressed by a client.
The four aspects of empathy are affective response, perspective taking, emotional regulation and self-other. Affective response describes the way that the nervous systems of the client and caseworker will sync up; simply put, when one person yawns the other will too. More broadly speaking, the caseworker upon hearing about a traumatic event or disturbing experience from a client feels agitation, fatigue, and physical ailments (Wagaman et al.,2011) Affective responses can be both physiological and emotional.
Perspective taking is the classic idea of “walking in someone else’s shoes.” This is a cognitive process which requires some imagination. The person in the environment approach is an example of perspective taking. Anytime we say, “I see where you are coming from” we are perspective taking
Emotional regulation is the ability to stay calm and collected when a person or situation is escalated. Segal et. Al. (2019, p166) calls it turning down the emotional dial. The case worker must use metacognition to track feelings as they arise to be objective and fully present for the client. They also need to learn more about their own emotional processes so as not to experience STS from a client interaction.
Self-Other is a way to counter the mirroring phenomenon of affective sharing. The idea is that while the caseworker experiences the feelings of the client they still keep a meta view on which feelings are not their own, which feelings are a reaction to the client’s feelings, and which feelings do not belong to the caseworker at all. Setting and maintaining boundaries is an essential component of self-other (Wagaman et al., 2011).
The researchers inquired into the relationship between empathy and compassion satisfaction, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress. The research was based on a survey of 173 social workers using the snowball method and multi-variable regression. This study found a strong correlation between compassion satisfaction and the ability of the caseworker to cultivate a strong sense of self-other as well as regulate emotions. Another finding was that therapists that had been in the profession for a long-time scored higher on the empathy assessment index.
Wegaman et al. (2011) addresses the power differential between social work supervisors and the social workers providing direct services to the clients. Resoundingly, those working directly with clients have a higher incident of burnout and compassion fatigue as opposed to those working in supervisory or administration positions. The supervisors must show empathy toward the supervisees to help them mitigate burnout and compassion fatigue.
Briefly touched on are strategies for strengthening emotional regulation and self-others; these included mindfulness techniques, boundary setting, and introspection to understand one’s feelings and triggers. Other strategies include self-talk, physically removing oneself from a situation, and practicing control of one’s physical or verbal reactions (Wagaman et al.,2011). The study also noted it was important for the therapist to share positive emotions like laughter with client. On the upside Wagaman et al, (2011) insists that empathy skills can be learned.
Is Empathy for Everyone?
I cannot think of a single reason why people of different genders, races, orientations etc. could not develop empathy skills. Afterall, a keystone of empathy is perspective taking and no matter one’s identity one can always try to understand those that are different than they are. It is worth mentioning that the study was very limited in its population sample; most the participants were White women with a master’s degree. Perspective taking is pertinent when working cross culturally
Some questions that came to mind. Could activating empathy be useful in anti-racism trainings? I posit that perspective taking is extra important for developing cultural competency. It is important for the caseworker to be aware of their own privilege so that they can get a better perspective on their client? Furthermore, I am curious if caseworkers that have experienced more adverse traumatic experiences have a harder time with emotional regulation. A quick search through the library database shows that this is a well-researched topic with much to offer.
Another question that arose about this research regards the finding that social workers with more years in the profession scored higher on all aspects of empathy. I wonder if those professionals had long careers due to innate empathy skills, or if being in the job a long time helped them develop those skills?
Learning more about the four aspects of empathy is worthwhile as there is growing research that this approach increases compassion satisfaction while reducing compassion fatigue. The biggest indicator of longevity in the profession is an ability to develop self-regulation and a sense of self-other as a form of self-care. Even though the four aspects are a new concept for me, I will be able to apply these ideas immediately to my work as a massage therapist. My job is high on afferent response because we are directly touching people in distress. Developing a better sense of self-other will be helpful.
Segal, E.A., Gerdes, K.E. & Steiner, S. (2019). An introduction to the profession of social work (6th Ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning ISBN 13: 978-1337567046
Wagaman, M.A., Geiger, J.M., Shockley, C., & Segal, E.A. (2015). The role of empathy in burnout, compassion satisfaction, and secondary traumatic stress among social workers. Social Work,3,201