Empathy: A Ladder into Dark Places

November 11, 2015 § 5 Comments

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When Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, discovered that “the way to live is with vulnerability,” it flew in the face of her training as a researcher. She had been taught to control and predict, the antithesis to being vulnerable.

She voiced this in a 2010 TED Talk, and the video went viral. Two years later, she followed it up with another TED Talk, this time on the topic of shame. While not as popular as her first video, it’s powerful in its own right. In it, she shares about the response to her earlier talk and stresses two basic points: “Vulnerability is not weakness,” and “We have to talk about shame.”

To combat shame, she says, we need empathy, because “empathy’s the antidote to shame.”

If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too.

That brings us to a third video. This one is a short animation, adapted from a presentation Brown made on vulnerability to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). The RSA piece is titled “The Power of Empathy.”

“Empathy is a choice,” says Brown, “and it’s a vulnerable choice.”

In this short, embedded below, she refers to four attributes of empathy, identified by nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman:

  1. Seeing the world as others see it
  2. Being non-judgemental
  3. Understanding another’s feelings
  4. Communicating that understanding

The animation is a nice touch in fleshing out Brown’s words. I especially like the image of lowering a ladder down into another person’s darkness. One of the books we have on our bookshelf at home is Bonnie Keen’s A Ladder out of Depression: God’s Healing Grace for the Emotionally Overwhelmed. It is nice to see that ladder not just as a metaphor for recovery, but for empathy, as well. (As an aside, I also like how, when you can’t see her face, Brown sounds a lot like Martha Stewart.)

I do, though, have a bone to pick with Brown—bear with me here, or just skip straight to the video. While she does a great job of describing empathy, she does so at the expense of sympathy. I really don’t think that empathy is “very different” from sympathy. I don’t agree that “sympathy drives disconnection.” Brown describes empathy as “feeling with people,” which actually sounds to me like a good description of sympathy. In fact, when the word sympathy came about over 400 years ago, it was from the Greek sin, “together,” plus pathos, “feeling.” . . . in other words, a “feeling together.”

Empathy, on the other hand, is a relatively new term, introduced into the English language by psychologist Edward Bradford Titchener in 1909. Titchener got the idea for empathy from einfühlung, a German word crafted 50 years earlier to describe a form of art appreciation based on projecting one’s personality into the art being viewed—thus, “a feeling in.”

Over time, sympathy has had to give ground as empathy has gained the high road, and sympathy has come to imply something more like “detached pity” or “a lack of compassion.”

But of empathy, Titchener writes,

We have a natural tendency to feel ourselves into what we perceive or imagine. As we read about the forest, we may, as it were, become the explorer; we feel for ourselves the gloom, the silence, the humidity, the oppression, the sense of lurking danger; everything is strange, but it is to us that the strange experience has come. We are told of a shocking accident, and we gasp and shrink and feel nauseated as we imagine it; we are told of some new and delightful fruit, and our mouth waters as if we were about to taste it. This tendency to feel oneself into a situation is called empathy, on the analogy of sympathy, which is feeling together with another. . . .

One could even make the case that inserting our feelings into another’s situation can get in the way of seeing the individualness of that situation. Sometimes it is better not to say, “I know how you feel,” but rather “I can’t imagine how hard this is for you.”

As Brown explains, sometimes the best thing to say is very little, something like “I don’t even know what to say right now, I’m just so glad you told me.”

Oh, well. Thank you for letting me step in and defend sympathy. I think it’s gotten a bad rap. I think it’s been misunderstood. And I empathize with that.

To see why a blog about cross-cultural issues is interested in the topic of empathy and listening, go here.]

(Brené Brown, “Listening to Shame,” TED, March 2012; Theresa Wiseman, A Concept Analysis of Empathy,” Journal of Advance Nursing, vol 23, issue 6, 1996; Edward Bradford Titchener, A Beginner’s Psychology, Macmillan, 1915)

[photo: “The Light,” by Amanda Wilson, used under a Creative Commons license]

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