Brené Brown on Empathy & Shame: Her Best Pieces of Advice

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What’s Brené Brown’s advice on empathy and shame? In her words, how does empathy help you overcome shame?

Brené Brown is a world-renowned author who’s known for her work on shame, wholeheartedness, and leadership. In most of her books, she discusses the concept of empathy, and where it falls in human nature.

Read below for more about Brené Brown on empathy.

Brené Brown’s Definition of Empathy

Brené Brown’s empathy definition says that it’s the ability to understand and echo what someone else feels. However, note that empathy 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. 

In Atlas of the Heart, Brown adds that compassion is empathy plus action: It’s the practice of relating to others and, as a result, acting to ease their suffering. 

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. 

Brown adds that pity is sympathy with a sense of hierarchy: We don’t just feel bad for the person suffering, we feel like he or she is somehow “less than” we are. For instance, drug addicts are common subjects of pity—people often feel bad for them, but also consider them distasteful or dangerous, and they may even blame the addicts for their own situations. 

Pity involves comparison: evaluating or ranking ourselves in relation to others. Those self-assigned “ranks” can affect everything from how we speak to others to how we feel about ourselves.

Brown notes a common misconception about comparisons: Thinking that others are “above” us makes us feel bad, while thinking others are “below” us makes us feel good. In fact, either type of comparison can cause positive or negative emotions. For instance, thinking that someone is stronger, smarter, or more skilled than you could be disheartening, but it could also inspire you to try to reach his or her level. Similarly, thinking that others are worse than you in some way might feed your ego, or it might frustrate you that they don’t live up to your standards. 

Empathy Overcomes Personal Shame

Shame is a large part of Brené Brown’s empathy research. In Daring Greatly, Brown writes that shame is the greatest obstacle to wholehearted living. Shame makes you feel like you’re not enough as you are, and it causes you to fear you’re not worthy of connection or belonging. It’s the result of living in a culture that encourages you to believe you must live an extraordinary life for it to be a meaningful one. You feel shame when the reality of your life doesn’t match your own expectations or the expectations of others. 

Shame kills your courage, impedes your ability to think or act in innovative ways, and prevents you from experiencing life meaningfully. Shame thrives when kept hidden and left unchecked. For shame to survive, it needs you to believe you’re not connected and don’t belong.

When you’re feeling shame, empathy is an important part of the antidote, and you need to connect with others to facilitate that. Once you have developed critical awareness of an experience, you can reach out to a trusted friend or family member and share how you’re feeling. This is critical because it supports you to know that you are worthy of being heard and that you are not alone.

Empathy in the Workplace

Overcoming shame and practicing empathy matters for leaders, according to Brown in Dare to Lead, because shame drives toxic behaviors,like bullying, at work. 

Brown explains that to overcome shame, you must talk through it. As a leader, you can support your team members in this process by encouraging them to discuss their struggles with you and responding to these struggles with empathy. By doing so, you’ll demonstrate to team members how they can practice empathy among themselves. Moreover, your team members will be more likely to take risks in the future if they know they’ll be supported if they struggle.   

To effectively practice empathy, Brown notes, you must understand that empathy is a connection with the emotions tied to someone’s struggle or failure—not just an attempt to make things better. So when your team struggles, focus on being nonjudgmental, understanding the emotions of the other person, and opening up the opportunity to talk about the feelings surrounding the experience. For example, after a team member has a tough presentation, you can respond with empathy by saying, “I’m really sorry for how that presentation went. I know it can be embarrassing. Do you want to talk about it?” 

Brené Brown’s Empathy Practices to Combat Shame

Now that we’ve explored what empathy and shame are, let’s look at some specific practices for overcoming shame and building empathy. There are three main practices that I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) recommends you integrate into your daily life:

Practice #1: Acknowledge Your Shame and What Causes It

First, Brown notes, to start building empathy and combating shame, you must recognize when you’re experiencing shame and what’s causing it. Recognizing your shame and its causes will allow you to separate from your negative thoughts and emotions before they can cause you to experience fear, react with blame, and become disconnected from yourself and others. Acknowledging your shame will enable you to practice 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.

Identify How Shame Feels

Brown explains that you can identify shame by reflecting on how it feels in your body. She says shame feels different for everyone—for some people, it might feel like a knot in their stomach, and for others, a pounding in their chest. 

To identify how you react to shame, think of a recent experience you’ve had with shame—where in your body did you feel its physical effects? What did they feel like? For example, you might have felt burning, throbbing, or numbness. Are there any other sensations you experience? For example, maybe you get a metallic taste in your mouth. Are there any instincts that pop into your mind? For example, you might want to run, fight, hide, or yell.

Remember how shame feels for you so you can recognize it the next time it crops up and stop it from controlling your thoughts, behaviors, and actions.

Identify the Root Causes of Your Shame

Brown explains that to identify the root causes of your shame, you must confront the disdained identities that trigger you. To do this, consider the identities that you value and want to uphold and the identities that you look down on and don’t want to be associated with. For example, if you highly value the identity of being smart, one of the causes of your shame might be being associated with the opposite—being stupid.

Identifying the identities you disdain is crucial for two reasons. First, it allows you to recognize situations that may trigger your shame so that you can respond productively with courage and compassion rather than being consumed by fear and blame. Second, identifying the identities you disdain will indicate which negative beliefs you need to work on overcoming so they no longer cause you shame—we’ll discuss this further in Practice #2.

Practice #2: Develop Critical Awareness of Shame 

Brown explains that a second vital practice in developing empathy and combating shame is to 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. Try to understand each of the disdained identities you identified in Practice #1 with critical awareness.

To develop critical awareness about shame, think of an identity that makes you feel ashamed. Which components of this shameful identity contradict society’s or your inner circle’s expectations? 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: Who suffers because of this ideal’s existence, and who profits from it?

For example, you may feel ashamed for looking “poor” rather than “upper-class.” Looking “poor” could mean wearing unfashionable clothes or owning outdated technology instead of always wearing new, fashionable clothes and having the newest technology—these are things that society expects “upper-class” people to do. On a societal level, the shame around this identity causes people to judge each other’s worth based on the materials they own. This materialism probably serves to benefit big businesses at the expense of average people who feel ashamed for looking poor.

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. Brown explains that this realization helps you combat shame in a few ways.

First, it makes you understand that failing to meet unrealistic or unfair expectations doesn’t make you defective (boosting courage). Second, it makes you realize that you’re not the only person suffering from these expectations and pressures—others are dealing with similar pain (fostering compassion). Finally, sharing this realization with others can decrease the prevalence of shame and help de-stigmatize “shameful” identities (helping you connect with others).

Practice #3: Learn to Talk About Shame and Connect With Others

Brown’s final practice for developing empathy and combating shame is learning 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 courage and compassion into action. Further, once you learn how to express your own shame and ask for support, you’ll be better equipped to listen to others and support them.

Final Words

Being one of the leading authors on emotional intelligence, Brené Brown’s empathy advice shouldn’t be taken for granted. Her advice applies to people from all walks of life, as empathy is a universal ability that everyone should have.

Is there more we can add to this article about Brené Brown on empathy? Let us know in the comments below!

Brené Brown on Empathy & Shame: Her Best Pieces of Advice

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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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