Haven’t we all wondered how to console someone when they are upset? It’s human to feel helpless when someone we love feels down. We struggle with knowing how to react appropriately. Sometimes saying too much may feel like we are not helping; saying too little may feel like it’s not enough.
Whether it’s family, friends, or partners, whenever our loved ones feel down, it affects us. And because of us wanting to make things better for them, our instinct is to give them a fix, a solution, a magic spell that will make their problems disappear into thin air. None of these is possible, and so we end up damaging the situation even more.
This action comes with the best of intentions. It’s truly never meant to hurt anybody and seems harmless when we do it, maybe even help if we convince ourselves enough. As a result, we get to feel high and mighty about ourselves for having successfully offered a decent consolation.
But most of us (if not all) do not stop to think; does a solution make a problem go away completely? Does a solution make someone feel better, make them stop feeling sad, hurt, or angry? Usually, no.
It’s unfortunate but true that though we, as humans, have been gifted with the ability to complain, rant, and express our feelings about what makes us feel bad, we were never really taught how to react when someone else does so. We think that because we love someone, we need to bear the responsibility of solving their problems when the truth is the only way to help someone is by making them feel loved. And that’s what everyone needs.
We’re not be blamed, of course. Because our actions are backed with pure intentions, even if they do more harm than good. We are never told that it is not our job to be therapists to our loved ones. Our job is only to be what we are to them, a friend, a parent, a sibling, or a partner.
When we promise with a ring, friendship band, or gift that we will forever love them and be there for them, we don’t promise professional help or a practical solution; we promise to love, bond, and connection. Because that is within our capacity to give, it’s fair to ask for, and it’s fair to receive.
That is where the difference between empathy vs. sympathy comes in. Before delving into Brene Brown’s empathy, it is important to understand the difference between empathy and compassion.
According to Merriam Webster, empathy refers to the ability to relate to another person’s pain vicariously, as if one has experienced that pain themselves.
In simpler terms, it means not only understanding someone else’s pain but also relating to it by recalling the time in our own lives when we had similar, if not the same, feelings. It means forming a connection by just listening and being there, not fixing.
According to Merriam Webster, sympathy means the tendency to favor or support.
In simpler terms, it means listening in to someone else’s problems and helping them feel better by offering support in some way; either through solutions, motivation, or advice. It means that you acknowledge that the problem exists, but you try to work your way around it to make it smaller, more comfortable, or relatively lesser when offering support.
Empathy Vs. Sympathy
Contrary to popular opinion, empathy and sympathy are not the same. While the former is about stepping into someone else’s shoes to gain a new perspective, the latter is about understanding someone else’s emotions from a distance and offering support with less understanding.
Who Is Dr. Brene Brown?
Dr. Brene Brown is an American professor, author, and speaker, known for her published works, and TED talks on courage, leadership, empathy, vulnerability, and shame. Having done a Ph.D. in social work from the University of Houston, she is now extensively known for her qualitative research on vastly complex subjects, essentially about feelings and emotions that we are never comfortable feeling or talking about.
In her beautiful simplistic style, she has explained how sympathy and empathy differ, why they do, and why the latter is what we all need to provoke within ourselves.
Brene Brown Empathy
Based on extensive research, Brene Brown empathy concluded that empathy is affiliated with the connection. When we love someone, we promise them a lifetime of the connection. Whether in joy, sorrow, grief, or trouble, we rely on people we love to bond with us emotionally, know us, and understand our hearts. According to Brown, empathy and sympathy are very different from each other.
Brene Brown empathy means not only connecting with someone else’s pain but connecting with that pain within ourselves. It is uncomfortable and challenging, but it is what creates an emotional bond. It doesn’t make the problem go away, but it does make it weigh lighter on your heart because you know you’re not alone.
Brown says, “Empathy is about being vulnerable with people in their vulnerability.” This statement is backed with the same logic because of which relatability works. We find solace in not being alone. Being in a culture where uniformity is given importance, with media and society forcing people into an idealist world where we have to fit in, people who feel different feel left out.
The truth is that nobody is ever what they portray themselves to be and to become better, more compassionate, and real, we need to become vulnerable and allow others to be, too. That is why Brene Brown empathy has been related to vulnerability. They both require the same effort to look deep and understand whether it is in others or ourselves.
Shame, Vulnerability and How It Relates to Empathy
In her TED talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” Brown calls herself a storyteller because, as a qualitative researcher, she collects stories, which are, in her words, “data with a soul.” In her research, which spanned over 6 years, she collected many data on shame, all of which were based on focus groups, studies, interviews, and extensive research.
After all of this, the one conclusion she said she came to was that shame and empathy cannot thrive together. Because shame questions if you’re good enough. It grows with judgment. But empathy and vulnerability go hand in hand with each other, in a parallel line to courage. The power to be kind, accurate, and honest to yourself will bring you the ability to be that for others.
The connection is what breathes meaning into our lives,” Brown says, “Empathy and shame are on either end of the continuum of connection.”
Shame stems from a fear of disconnection. And that is why we do not want to talk about it. As people who long to love and be loved, our biggest fear always remains disconnection. We are ashamed to be open, to be vulnerable, because we view it as a weakness. We fear exposing ourselves, letting too many people in on our thoughts and inner voices.
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” In her TED talk, “Listening to Shame,” Brown points out vulnerability is an emotional risk. It is courageous. It is about being honest and not numbing our emotions. Because when we try too hard to keep the bad or uncomfortable out, we also don’t let the good come in.
The only way we can connect to someone else’s pain to only create a genuine, empathetic connection is by being in touch with our own emotions. And that requires us to be vulnerable.
Empathy Vs. Sympathy
Watch this video to understand Brene Brown Empathy vs. Sympathy:
When addressing the difference between empathy and sympathy, Brown correlates both to connection. She says, “Empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection.” How does this happen?
To be helpful to someone else, in a scenario where you can’t physically do something for them or are not within the capacity to solve their problems, the most you can offer is your presence, understanding, and love. These must also be strict without judgment. That is primarily what Brene Brown empathy is focused on.
When you’re empathetic towards somebody else, you have been able to view their vulnerability. You have seen them reveal to you a part of their being that they keep personal and hidden. And in that moment of raw and naked truth-telling, nobody would want a response that will belittle the problem or their reaction to it. All they want is to know they aren’t alone.
That doesn’t mean that empathy should come out only when you come to know a profound dark secret somebody is hiding. There is a reason the world needs more empathy because we live in a society where distinct groups live different lives, all on extreme ends.
While some may have known only privilege all their lives, others have seen only their type’s marginalization. Some have been excluded from situations because of factors they can’t control, while others have helped contribute to this systematic oppression and exclusion mechanism.
One group can’t imagine the lives of others. All they can do is carry out their role by not being a part of this mechanism, rejecting the centuries-old build-up of hierarchy and prejudice. If you are privileged, you can carry out your role by stepping out and creating more space for those who don’t have easy access to it.
And to be a faithful “ally,” your motivation will come from empathy. You may not know what discrimination feels like, but you try to step in those shoes and see the world from that perspective to get a small glimpse of what it is like.
Sympathy, like the video, points out, is pointing out the silver lining.
Brown asserts that if sympathy and empathy were people, empathy would stand closer while sympathy would be far away. Empathy is more connected. It leans down and offers love and understanding. It doesn’t wave a wand and shoo the problem away. Sympathy is far off, doing something else, and seemingly unperturbed by a problem that belongs to someone else. It doesn’t take emotions into account. It tries to look for a quick fix. It points out what’s right instead of acknowledging what’s wrong.
Empathy comes from a genuine place of “I want to help by understanding what you are feeling.” Sympathy comes from a place of “I want to offer my two cents and go away, without making you feel better.”
That doesn’t mean sympathy is this evil villain, and empathy is a hero. Empathy is just a kinder way of connecting, and being an Empath is a more thoughtful way of being. It comes down to the difference between having the courage to be vulnerable to invite love, joy, and gratitude in our lives or numbing emotions that feel uncomfortable and painful, thus not letting ourselves be true to ourselves.
Brene Brown empathy is one of the best examples of empathy vs. sympathy because it proves that the contention between empathy vs. sympathy is apparent; there is a clear winner. We don’t choose the clear winner because we struggle to get in touch with our fragilities and shortcomings.
Brene Brown Empathy and Connection
Brene Brown empathy boils down the complex to a straightforward thing: connection.
As species starved for connection, we have a strange tendency to work our way around it when the going gets tough. Shame, vulnerability, and empathy are part of Brown’s research because they all relate to each other, and they all relate to us. We are all guilty of hiding our pain and suffering, primarily mental, to maintain a strong front. But where we are wrong is in associating strongly with not being vulnerable.
Brene Brown empathy points out that you cannot make things better by responding, no matter how strongly worded or beautifully phrased it is. A connection makes things better. And the connection is what we need to be better at. It is the fuel of our lives. It is what all of this is about.
We do run after success, money, luxury, comfort all our lives, but the joy that we may receive from each of these is dry without connection. We connect when we belong and when we love. And that makes every bad thing bearable and every good thing better.
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