17 Brené Brown Empathy Quotes (+ Context & Explanation)

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What’s the difference between empathy and sympathy? How can we use empathy as a weapon to combat shame in ourselves and others?

Researcher and author Brené Brown studies and writes quite a bit about empathy. We’ve collected excerpts from several of her books to give you a quick but comprehensive look at what she says about the meaning and nature of empathy, the connection between empathy and shame, and empathy as a practice and skill.

Continue reading for 17 Brené Brown empathy quotes that will give you a glimpse into her insights.

Brené Brown Empathy Quotes

Everyone talks about empathy these days, but it’s not always well understood, much less practiced. These Brené Brown empathy quotes from several of her books will help you grasp the concept and start putting it into practice.

The Meaning and Nature of Empathy

“I define empathy as the skill or ability to tap into our own experiences in order to connect with an experience someone is relating to us.”

I Thought It Was Just Me

“Empathy is not connecting to an experience; it’s connecting to the emotions that underpin an experience.”

Dare to Lead

“We need to dispel the myth that empathy is ‘walking in someone else’s shoes.’ Rather than walking in your shoes, I need to learn how to listen to the story you tell about what it’s like in your shoes and believe you even when it doesn’t match my experiences.”

Atlas of the Heart

“The difference between empathy and sympathy: feeling with and feeling for. The empathic response: I get it, I feel with you, and I’ve been there. The sympathetic response: I feel sorry for you.”

Dare to Lead

“If we believe empathy is finite, like pizza, and practicing empathy with someone leaves fewer slices for others, then perhaps comparing levels of suffering would be necessary. Luckily, however, empathy is infinite and renewable. The more you give, the more we all have.”

Dare to Lead

“Empathy heals another at exactly the same time it is healing me.”

I Thought It Was Just Me

Brown says that empathy is the ability to understand and echo what someone else feels. However, as you can see from these Brené Brown empathy quotes, it doesn’t mean imagining yourself in someone else’s place, or “walking a mile in his shoes,” as the old saying goes—trying to do so will cause you to bring your own biases and experiences to the situation. Rather, it means that you understand and accept the other person’s feelings, even if they might not be the same feelings you’d have in his place.

Brown says that sympathy is the near enemy of empathy: It looks the same, but there’s no sense of connection. Just the opposite, in fact—sympathy draws a clear line between the person suffering and ourselves. In other words, sympathy is feeling bad for someone, but being unable (or unwilling) to relate to that person.

It’s important to note that Brown’s definition of empathy departs slightly from the definition commonly used by psychologists. Experts consider empathy as having two forms: affective and cognitive. Affective empathy is experiencing the feelings and emotions of another person. Cognitive empathy is taking another person’s perspective to identify and understand their emotions. While psychologists see affective and cognitive abilities as two separate forms of empathy, Brown asserts that both abilities are required to practice “empathy.” She also argues that empathy requires you to practice these abilities without judgment, a component not included in many definitions.

Empathy and Shame

“The antidote to shame is empathy. If we reach out and share our shame experience with someone who responds with empathy, shame dissipates.”

Atlas of the Heart

“If you put shame in a petri dish and cover it with judgment, silence, and secrecy, you’ve created the perfect environment for shame to grow until it makes its way into every corner and crevice of your life. If, on the other hand, you put shame in a petri dish and douse it with empathy, shame loses its power and begins to wither. Empathy creates a hostile environment for shame—an environment it can’t survive in, because shame needs you to believe you’re alone and it’s just you.”

Dare to Lead

“Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience. The only people who don’t experience shame are those who lack the capacity for empathy and human connection.”

Dare to Lead

“Shame is not a compass for moral behavior. It’s much more likely to drive destructive, hurtful, immoral, and self-aggrandizing behavior than it is to heal it. Why? Because, where shame exists, empathy is almost always absent. That’s what makes shame dangerous. The opposite of experiencing shame is experiencing empathy.”

Dare to Lead

“When we are honest about our struggles, we are much less likely to get stuck in shame. This is critical because shame diminishes our capacity to practice empathy.”

I Thought It Was Just Me

These Brené Brown empathy quotes indicate that empathy is the solution to shame. She explains that practicing empathy—in other words, connecting with someone—proves that they are worthy of connection and thus reduces their shame, or their feeling that they’re not worthy of connection. While we can’t entirely avoid experiences of shame, Brown says that strengthening our ability to empathize with both ourselves and others makes us less reactive to shame and combats the feelings of fear, blame, and disconnection that shame causes.

Brown says there are three components of empathy that combat the products of shame: courage, compassion, and connection.

She defines courage (what she calls “ordinary courage”) as the ability to be your genuine self and confidently share that identity with the world. Courage is important because it combats fear.

Brown defines compassion as the ability and willingness to empathize without judgment and face pain. Compassion means looking at your own actions with understanding rather than anger and doing the same for others. It requires you to reflect on your pain and empathize with others by sharing the pain that they feel. Compassion is crucial to overcoming shame because it combats blame.

Brown defines connection as the ability to share experiences and establish systems of mutual support with others. Practicing connection both requires and strengthens the elements of courage and compassion—to fully practice connection, you must be able to share your true self with others (courage), provide others with support and understanding without judgment (compassion), and request that they do the same for you. Connection is crucial to overcoming shame because it combats disconnection

Empathy as a Practice & Skill

“Empathy is a skill. Here’s the amazing news: With some skill-building, we can all learn how to practice empathy. That’s a huge gift.”

Dare to Lead

“Empathy is best understood as a skill because being empathic, or having the capacity to show empathy, is not a quality that is innate or intuitive.”

Daring Greatly

“The trickiest barrier to empathy? Take a look in the mirror. Being kind and extending the hypothesis of generosity to ourselves when we mess up is the first step. Resisting the urge to punish or shame ourselves when we make mistakes is true mastery.”

Dare to Lead

“We cannot practice empathy if we need to be knowers; if we can’t be learners, we cannot be empathetic.”

Dare to Lead

“Empathy can be conveyed without speaking a word—it just takes looking into someone’s eyes and seeing yourself reflected back in an engaged way.”

Daring Greatly

“Real empathy takes more than words—it takes work. Empathy is not simply knowing the right thing to say to someone who is experiencing shame. Our words are only as effective as our ability to be genuinely present and engaged with someone as she tells her story.”

I Thought It Was Just Me

These Brené Brown empathy quotes serve as both an encouragement (you can develop the skill of empathy) and a call to action (you should build the skill and put it into practice). To start combating shame and building empathy, Brown recommends that you integrate three main practices into your daily life.

First, recognize when you’re experiencing shame and what’s causing it. Acknowledging your shame will enable you to practice the three components of empathy: courage, compassion, and connection.

There are two parts to this practice. The first is to identify how shame feels. The second is to identify the identities and situations that cause that shame.

Second, understand shame with critical awareness. Brown defines critical awareness (as it relates to shame) as an understanding of why we deem certain identities as shameful, how shame around these identities impacts society, who’s most affected by the shame of identities, and who benefits the most from them. Critical awareness makes you realize that most disdained identities are unfairly demonized and stem from unrealistic expectations that harm one group of people to benefit another.

To develop critical awareness about shame, think of an identity that makes you feel ashamed. Then, think of the ideal you feel like you’re supposed to be living up to instead, and consider its impact on society at large.

Third, learn how to talk about shame and connect with others. We connect with others by sharing experiences and establishing mutual support. This is crucial to combating shame because it facilitates the empathy element of connection, which helps you put the other elements—courage and compassion—into action. Once you learn how to express your own shame and ask for support, you’ll be better equipped to listen to others and provide them with support.

To constructively talk about shame, explain the identity that’s causing your fear, how it makes you feel, why it makes you feel that way, and what kind of support you need instead. Once you’re able to effectively express your experiences of shame to others and ask for their support, Brown says that you can use these abilities to support others.

To support others, be willing to listen to their experiences and pain. When they share their story with you, you can laugh, cry, and feel their emotions with them by tapping into your own experiences. You can share your story with them and let them know that they’re not alone in their pain. You can reassure them that they aren’t defective and provide them with a critical perspective on shame to help them see the bigger picture.

Wrapping Up

We hope you’ve been both enlightened and encouraged by these Brené Brown empathy quotes. The universal experience of shame has a cure in empathy, and empathy is a skill that you can develop and practice to banish shame and help others do the same.

17 Brené Brown Empathy Quotes (+ Context & Explanation)

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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