I grew up with the old adage of “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” as my long standing definition of empathy. I was less than 10 years old, when my dad first shared that insight with me. He crafted a story of a beleaguered old man in well worn shoes shuffling down a long dirt road to make his point both meaningful and memorable to me. I remember gazing down at my own shiny black patent leather Mary Jane shoes, feeling both fortunate and humbled.
In my early teens, I began to understand that there was a big distinction between sympathy and empathy. Because of my father’s story, I could literally feel the difference between the two. Sympathy was listening to that story of the beleaguered old man and pitying him for his plight. Empathy was hearing that story and recalling how it felt to me when I was wearing hand me down shoes on a long walk to my first day in a brand new school.
Once I could really feel that distinction in my bones, it became the compass I would use when listening to someone sharing their stories with me. One thing I knew for sure from my own life experiences, was how it felt to be pitied vs. how it felt to be understood. Pity felt awful; it only made my situation feel even worse. Being understood felt comforting and reassured me that I was not alone. Big Big distinction.
Even though I knew how the distinction between empathy and sympathy felt, I had not yet cultivated enough awareness and knowledge to fully comprehend how my “empathetic” responses to others still had a long way to go. I was operating on these simple definitions of the two:
empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another
sympathy – feeling of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune
Furthermore, I was limited in my ability to be genuinely empathic with other people because of my lack of awareness. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
The above image and quote was posted by Brene Brown on her Facebook page on October 31st, 2017. It symbolizes the lesson my dad instilled in me about empathy: Tap into our own experiences, recall the emotions and use both the somatic and intellectual memories to “plug in” to someone else’s current situation. Walk a mile in their shoes. Recollect how it felt when you were in a similar emotional state.
The compassion component almost always triggered me to want to offer exactly what I had hoped to get in that past painful experience. I’ve come to understand that offering what I wanted back then was NOT at all helpful to another. This is where we can fall into the pitfall of “fixing, rescuing and disempowering” others. We have to ask what support looks and feels like for another person.
So here’s the plot twist – too often when we “tap in” to our own experiences, we unconsciously get hijacked by our brain, which pulls our attention back onto ourselves and can even recreate bodily sensations from that old memory that feel very real in the present moment. Our own brains and bodies could automatically go on high alert. Understandably, it is really hard to turn our full attention to another person when we are doing our best not to get sidetracked by our own false alarms.
Last year when Brene Brown released her latest book, Atlas of the Heart, she confided that she’d gained new insights that caused her to update some of her prior findings, especially around empathy and being good stewards of others’ stories. This is exactly what ongoing research is supposed to do for us. It is also why it is of critical importance for us personally to be updating our former base of knowledge and beliefs.
It is now December 2022 and Brene Brown has unearthed more discoveries about empathy that breaks wide open our understanding of its profound potential –AND what gets in the way of cultivating it. This deeper dive into empathy reveals that it is not a singular skill; it is a collection of skill sets:
Let’s start with the first skill set of “perspective taking”.
As Brene details so clearly in Atlas of the Heart, many emotions show up in very similar fashion. This may lead us to”misdiagnose” what another person might be feeling. What we might take as anger could really be fear. What looks like confusion or flustered could be overwhelm. If we assume that a person is having the same emotion we would have in those circumstances, and what we witness seems to confirm our assumption, we are off to the races — and on the wrong track!
The biggest challenge of perspective taking is being aware of the lens we are using:
“The first step in real empathy is understanding that the lens I use, the lens through which I see the world, is soldered to my head. I can’t take it off and pick up your lens, ” Brene Brown, in her Dare to Lead Podcast (Building Brave Spaces — November 17, 2022)
For the record, this understanding about the lens we each possess (soldered to our heads and hearts) should make it very apparent that there is no way we could really “walk a mile in another’s shoes” and have a similar experience. All of our history, prior experiences, emotions and consequences are baked into our personal lens. We cannot transfer all that supporting data through a simple viewfinder.
As an example, my brother and I are only 4 years apart, yet our experiences and memories of our childhood are dramatically different. We’ve often laughed about our vastly different perspectives wondering aloud if we actually lived in the same family. If we zoomed out and began to look at our other family members, we become acutely aware of just how differently everyone was experiencing the world — even though from the outside looking in, we all seemed to be living the same kind of life.
The second skill set in the empathy collection is: “staying out of judgment”
This one builds on perspective taking. Having an awareness that someone else’s lens is different than our own should act as a signal to move from judgment to curiosity.
We judge based on our own experiences, circumstances, emotions and expectations. It is unfair and unhelpful to judge others through the lens of our life, our options, our support systems, our challenges. Unfortunately we unconsciously judge from the get go — and that gets in the way of us being able to listen with the intention of understanding someone else’s perspective and experience.
Brene offers that when we are staying out of judgment, we have to be able to hear someone’s story and believe them — even when their story does not reflect our experiences of the world, or our lived experiences. AND….We have to believe them even when believing them is painful and holds us accountable in some way for hurt.
That “painful and accountable” piece triggers our innate human nature to want to avoid hearing that we’ve hurt someone — and our struggle to deal with pain without causing more pain and hurt. Too often, we show up with a lot of emotional reactivity unaware that we are self-protecting, distancing or dismissing other’s emotional pain. It becomes a dizzying merry-go-round of hurting each other.
Some of the biggest chasms in relationships stem from the fact that judgment destroys trust and our ability to feel safe. If there is a long standing personal history of not being believed when we share our stories, we will not feel safe and valued. We stop sharing; the pain and the stories get buried alive. Nothing gets resolved. This is a major cause of estrangements in families and it is a prevailing factor in multi-generational patterns of dysfunctional behavior.
Just imagine the seismic shift that could occur if we could master the skill of staying out of judgment. Rather than eroding trust and safety, we would shift to opening up to learning; learning to understand and to believe another’s true story.
Staying out of judgment avoids the chasm; it builds a bridge.
Skill set number 3 in the empathy collection is: Emotional Granularity
The definition of emotional granularity is the ability to put feelings into words with a high degree of specificity and precision. This boils down to being able to accurately express a core emotion and add more context to it by describing other accompanying emotions. Instead of simply stating we are mad, we can add more context by acknowledging that we are also disappointed, frustrated and tired.
Emotional Granularity really drives home the point that “the difference is in the details.” Having all this extra information is so helpful when we are trying to really understand how someone else is feeling in the moment. Better yet, it more clearly illuminates the real problem. Mad is an umbrella emotion…. We need the context to get at what is causing anger. Anger is a warning signal, a cue to pay attention to something important to us.
A key discovery that Brene and her team made when doing research for Atlas of the Heart was that the majority of us identify just three main emotions: happy, sad or angry. Imagine how hard it is for us to cultivate emotional granularity if we have such a limited emotional vocabulary and are not even aware that we are experiencing several emotions at once.
The problem gets compounded when we learn that so many emotions present in the same way, but are quite different from each other. There is yet another caveat that can cause a lot of stumbling blocks — the messaging we received in childhood about emotions. Were we told to get over them, that some emotions were acceptable to show and others were not, or that some emotions would make us appear weak, or maybe too aggressive? Few of us were taught healthy and productive emotional skills in childhood. There are gender stereotypes baked into our perception of emotions, resulting in labels that shut down the opportunity to process and learn from our emotions. Let’s face it, most of us have a lot of emotional baggage that needs to be purged.
Is it any wonder that we get gridlocked when we are trying to understand our own emotional landscape let alone anyone else’s.
Here is why emotional granularity is so relevant:
Language is the portal to meaning-making, connection, healing, learning and self-awareness. If we lack the language to share what we are experiencing, our ability to make sense of what’s happening and share it with others becomes severely limited. Without accurate language, we struggle to get the help we need, we don’t always regulate or manage our emotions and experiences that allows us to move them them productively, and our self awareness is diminished. Language shows us that naming an experience doesn’t give the experience more power, it give us the power of understanding and meaning. –Atlas of the Heart, Introduction
In Atlas of the Heart, Brene offers us an incredible reference book that identifies and details 87 emotions and experiences. It is a phenomenal resource for cultivating emotional granularity.
I have read Atlas of the Heart twice. The first time I read it, I could barely put it down. I scribbled in the margins, had brightly color coded post it notes on nearly every page and lengthy conversations with my book club about each chapter. The second time, I journaled my way through it. It was cathartic to be able to go back and revisit past experiences with an expanded emotional vocabulary — and yes, emotional granularity. I gained a lot of clarity and revelations about situations that I’d struggled to fully process previously. It became crystal clear to me that accurate emotional language is healing; it helps us get to know ourselves better than ever; and in turn, we become better attuned to other’s complex, nuanced emotions.
It is teasing apart all the accompanying emotions that help us get “granular. The details are chock full of valuable information about needs, values, vulnerabilities. It helps us make discoveries we would have never unearthed without the nuance. We can articulate more clearly what we need – and we can listen more attentively to others’ needs.
Cultivating emotional granularity for our own experiences becomes the gateway to a deeper understanding of what other’s might be feeling – even if they themselves do not yet possess this skill. We can help each other by role modeling this skill set — adding context to our own emotions when we are sharing with our feelings.
Skill set number 4 – Emotional Literacy
Emotional literacy is the ability to recognize our own feelings, understand how they are informing us, and to be able to manage our responses to them.
This skill is cultivated through self-awareness; paying attention to how our emotions feel in our body, what our normal reactions are to those emotions and how we then respond.
So often we go through this process quickly, unconsciously and very reactively when big emotions hit us.
Becoming more self-aware helps us recognize our unconscious patterns of behavior. Armed with this information, we can develop more skillful responses to our own emotions. We can also become more attuned to and supportive of others’ emotional reactions.
Meditation is a great tool for developing more self-awareness and to recognize how easily we get attached to thoughts and emotions in predictable ways.
The better we know ourselves and the more expanded our emotional vocabulary is, the greater success we will have in untangling ourselves from emotional triggers and old reactive patterns of behavior. This in turn will lead us naturally to be able to handle our emotions more maturely, with less drama and cloud cover.
As we get more skillful at responding in clear and healthy ways, we also gain the ability to not get so attached to strong emotions that others emit. This is a game-changer because we co-regulate each other. And emotions are very contagious and sticky. Just recall how your body reacts when you hear an angry conversation. Even if you aren’t actively engaged in that conversation, chemicals are released in your brain and can set off a chain reaction in both body and brain. This is how we get “hooked”, “triggered” and “on board”. We can go from calm to frenzied in a split second.
I like the term that Brene uses here; emotional literacy invites us to be graceful and self compassionate as we hone this skill of recognizing, understanding and responding to our own emotions. It is not some innate “intelligence” that gets us to this place of being able to process our emotions in a meaningful way and respond more skillfully, it is a practice.
The springboard for this practice is self-awareness. The more self aware we are, the better we are able to discover the unconscious ways we operate on auto-pilot. Imagine a self driving car with an operating system that was programmed by a child. Now you have a good image of what all our unconscious patterning is doing for us as adults.
Begin a committed practice to emotional literacy. I can personally attest that it will dramatically improve your life and your relationships.
Skill set number 5 – Mindfulness
Mindfulness magazine launched its first issue in the spring of 2013. Here we are ten years later and now mindfulness has become “mainstream”. We see it everywhere — on magazines at the grocery store, popular books, podcast, social media, mental health resources and counseling. What was once perceived as sitting on a cushion with legs crossed and “zenning out” without a thought in our heads has been completely dispelled.
Mindfulness is being aware that we have both internal and external distractions bombarding us at all times. The skill we develop through mindfulness is proactively choosing where to focus our attention.
Sounds simple, right? We all know it is not.
The reality is that our attention has become a marketable commodity. Click bait. Every time you realize that you have been mindlessly scrolling through social media for 20 minutes, that is a moment of awareness. A chance to practice being mindful.
Just use the term “click bait” to label all the times you become “aware” that your mind is racing, or you’ve driven your child to school and don’t remember stopping for traffic lights, or you’ve burnt the bacon, had to rewind the podcast because you missed something, were staring at your phone while out to lunch with friends. Catch yourself when you are listening to a friend, but have time-traveled to a similar experience you had and are watching that replay in your mind instead of hearing her story.
Brene Brown has included mindfulness in the empathy collection for valid reason. Mindfulness is paying attention to where we are paying attention. In every single one of the prior 4 skill sets you will need “mindfulness” as the underpinning.
Being mindful that perspective taking requires us to not view another’s situation through our own lens that is soldered to our heads.
Being mindful, and fully present, in order to stay in non-judgment. Be open to accepting another’s truth, even when it is so different from our own.
Being mindful and in touch with emotional granularity. Recognizing that there will be more than one umbrella emotion in play when we are listening to understand.
Being mindful and keenly self aware of our own emotional landscape so that we stay grounded and respond from our values.
Mindfulness requires training and practice. While it seems too hard and we prefer to dismiss it as unnecessary, it really is irrefutable. Do you want a distracted surgeon performing your life-saving operation? Do you want a distracted bus driver at the wheel of your children’s school bus? Do you see distracted parents at the playground who miss their child’s joy or scary fall? Do you witness people on the street staring at their phones and nearly getting hit by a car? We have a growing epidemic of attention deficit. Mindfulness is the anecdote.
Simply put, mindfulness is paying attention to where we are paying attention. It is a simple concept that requires a disciplined practice. It is more than worth the effort. And here’s a word of encouragement: the more we hone this skill through committed daily practice, the more it easily shows up in our day to day life.
For several years, empathy has been top of mind for me. I was deeply moved by both the impact and the consequences of empathy after reading Born for Love by Dr. Bruce Perry, published in 2010. At the time, Dr. Perry was sounding the alarm about our collective empathy poverty. His research and his advocacy is deeply rooted in what happens in our bodies and brains in infancy and early childhood. He was witnessing firsthand in his patients and research how a lack of empathy was the root cause of dysfunctional emotional development issues in the early stages of life, and how lack of empathy was predisposing us to only compound emotional and mental health issues. It became very evident to me that we needed a comprehensive overhaul of the way we meet our children’s emotional needs with compassionate consistency — and that we need to learn and teach healthy emotional skill sets. Our collective mental health is at stake.
Brene Brown recently described empathy as being in the zeitgeist right now — in the moment, year end 2022. Twelve years after Dr. Bruce Perry sounded the alarm and we all hit the snooze button. Everything he predicted in his book has become our reality on steroids.
What is a zeitgeist? The defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.
Brene says that the need for empathy is showing up everywhere in our collective landscape from family to community to workplace and politics. I too have witnessed the subject of empathy showing up in all of the resources that I steep myself in — from personal growth to mental health, neuroscience and education, coaching and counseling, internal family systems, activism, self compassion and meditation. All modalities for improving our overall quality of life have been incorporating empathy into their teachings.
Empathy is now in the zeitgeist of this moment in our collective history. How exciting is that? Empathy can become the pivot point for a fresh start in the right direction and will have a dramatic positive impact for future generations.
It is my fervent hope that the insights I’m sharing in these blog posts will be helpful for those who want to participate in meaningful change for themselves, their families and for the greater good.
Who had a set of encyclopedias in their home as a kid? Who remembers getting the annual update each year and excitedly paged through it looking for all the new things we’d learn that made an old section obsolete?
Welcome to a reference book for emotions and experiences — 87 of them! Atlas of the Heart is a beautiful coffee table style book that will be used for conversations with spouses, with kids, with friends and family.
And I am confident, Brene will continue to update us as her research evolves.
Check out this recent episode on Dare to Lead: Building Brave Spaces
Sometimes it is just easier to relate to the power of a skill set like empathy when you hear the stories….
Psychology Today Magazine:
Master Your Feelings with New Tools Inspired by Neuroscience (article published online 2019)
This episode of the Being Well Podcast has very relatable stories that are prime examples of real life situations where we can learn to be more empathetic — with ourselves and others. Such a great conversation.