Coming back to empathy

Yesterday I wrote a post on shame, inspired by the wonderful Brené Brown.

It was too difficult to press publish.

This is why I was drawn to her video in the first place – it is hard to talk about shame.

Brené says: “if you put shame into a petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgement.”


It is interesting to observe that my own shame evolves from feelings of inadequacy rather than feelings about the content I was trying to discuss.

Brené talks about this critical voice, about how the assault is on you, rather than on your action. She says, “shame is the gremlin that says ah-ha, you’re not good enough….” and, once you’ve got over that, “who do you think you are”. That 99% of the time, that “critic” is us.  I think she is talking about women because it emerges, later, that although the hot knotted feeling is universal, shame is different for men.

The antidote is the same: “douse it with empathy, it can’t survive”.

It has been a while since I thought about empathy and how talking can change the world. I believed it, deeply, a few years ago when I witnessed what happened when I started talking about the things that I thought were untalkable and realised that, actually, I wasn’t alone. The “two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: Me too.”

In order for “me too” to happen in the first place, you have to have the courage to lay your heart on the line. I hadn’t fully appreciated that shame was inherent in the disclosure. That it is present at the moment when you acknowledge a vulnerability. That, often, in order to have difficult and important and life-changing conversations, you need to be prepared for shame to make an appearance, and to talk in spite of and through that emotion.

I guess it is hard to talk in spite of and through an emotion if you can’t even bring yourself to contemplate it fully in the first place.

I guess this is a tentative first step.

I’m not sure that I have found the answers that I am looking for yet. I have been left thinking about where shame comes from, particularly if Brené Brown’s suggestion that it is an “epidemic”, at the moment, is correct. About how you stop it becoming destructive, both personally and socially. About whether it is sometimes useful as a moral pointer – and how you use that emotion constructively rather than automatically shying away.  About empathy. Again.

It is easy, in some ways, to respect the power of empathy when you’re in periods of “struggle”; harder, I think, to keep it going when you’re just going about your daily life.


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