RSA Shorts, The Power of Empathy

Brene Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She speaks and writes about her research into the areas of vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. Every time I hear something from her my own experience in pastoral care echos with a resounding, “Amen.” This short animated clip is no exception. As a very wise man pointed out this morning, “This just took what could be an hour long lecture on Pastoral care and turned it into a three minute cartoon.”

This piece points us to the difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy draws us into relationship and it requires something of us. Sympathy is disconnecting. Perhaps the reason why the practice of pastoral care and other practices of counseling are so necessary is that our ingrained social responses are so disconnecting and “self-preserving”. Our ingrained social responses are so habitual that our inner critic routinely denies even ones self the opportunity to be vulnerable and honest in our own minds. I repeatedly encounter people that have become so disconnected that they no longer can identify emotional language. They lie to themselves about disappointment, discouragement, or pain because it seems an impossibility to let those wounds show.

“Self-preservation” is stifling. It creates something that I have come to call the Hollow Chocolate Easter Bunny Syndrome (HCEBS). We spend all of our energy making the chocolate coating look wonderful. All the while we are hollow at our core. If you apply enough heat we will melt under the pressure. HCEBS value what the world has to say about them. Identity is created by who the world says that we are or should be. The locus of identity is entirely exterior.

Vulnerability is liberating. For myself it begins with the basic understanding that I am not the mistakes I have made, the things that have happened to me, or even my accomplishments. The truth of my own identity begins when I remember the God who formed me, the Christ who claims me, and the Spirit that continues to inspire me. It begins when I recognize that the same God who created me, created you as well. And by being honest with myself first I am able to find the courage to share my wounds with others. It starts when I begin to tell myself the truth.

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