Practicing Empathy


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Brené Brown is a researcher who has specialized in studying shame for most of her career. Her recent book, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough” covers the topic of shame and how to develop resilience. She writes about how shame separates us from everyone who cares for us; we often bury the shameful feeling deep and almost never bring them up to others.

In a previous post, I write about the shame people feel when they lose their jobs. They feel shame at failing at something important, being unable to provide for their family, and feeling shame associated with debt or having to take menial jobs to survive. The shame and desperation to find the next job can be overwhelming for the job seeker, but also for family members, friends, and others who care about them.

One of the most corrosive byproducts of shame, Brown writes, is the feeling of isolation it causes. “Shame is an emotion. It is how we feel when we have certain experiences. When we are in shame, we don’t see the big picture; we don’t accurately think about our strengths and limitations. We just feel alone, exposed and deeply flawed.”

Empathy, Brown writes is the key to helping bridge the gap with someone who is feeling shame. Shame makes us feel like we’re the only one who has experienced this failure. “Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes—to understand what someone is experiencing and to reflect back that understanding.” When someone practices empathy, they can help us see that we’re not alone.

But practicing empathy is challenging, especially if someone’s pain triggers similar feelings of fear and shame in us. Teresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar in England, identifies four defining attributes of empathy. They are: (1) to be able to see the world as others see it; (2) to be nonjudgmental; (3) to understand another person’s feelings; and (4) to communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings. It’s the non-judgmental part that’s hard for many people. How many times have you shared your deepest fear or shameful feeling, only to have someone say “That’s terrible – how could you have done something like that?” Immediately, your shame feels even more intense.

Brené Brown writes that effective empathy sounds like this:

  • “I understand—I’ve been there.”
  • “That’s happened to me too.”
  • “It’s OK, you’re normal.”
  • “I understand what that’s like.”

Empathy isn’t just dismissing someone’s feelings of shame. It doesn’t sound like this: “You’re making a big deal out of nothing—it’s fine. Don’t worry.” Shame is a deeply visceral and deeply personal pain. Brown writes about how a friend responded to an incident that left Brown feeling like a bad mother: “A joking response might have left me feeling unheard, diminished and even more ashamed because I was overreacting.”

In a future post, I’ll discuss the difference between seeking empathy and seeking sympathy.

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