Why Shame and Empathy Are Incompatible

I don’t know about you, but this shelter-in-place order has me listening to all the podcasts and I’m not mad about it.

True crime podcasts are my jam but I decided to give Brené Brown’s new podcast a chance and my God, is it good. You’ve probably heard of Brené Brown and know her to be an author and public speaker on topics like vulnerability, courage, shame, and empathy. Maybe you’ve read her books or even watched the Netflix show, Brené Brown: The Call to Courage.

I haven’t done either of these and was a little skeptical jumping into her podcast, but I quickly learned why people pay money to see her: Her research is damn insightful.

In addition to her eye-opening wisdom, Brené’s speaking style is smooth and centered, making her a delight to listen to. She’s funny in her own way and isn’t afraid to be brash when necessary.

While she has plenty of drop-the-mic lines, one idea in an episode of Unlocking Us resonated particularly well with me: Shame and empathy are incompatible. Again, I’ve never read anything by her and I’m sure she elaborates on this in her books– but I’m also cool with this episode being all the context I have so I can lend my own thoughts!


Empathy, as we know, is feeling WITH someone. When you empathize with people, your perspective is taken out of the picture and replaced with an outsider’s view. While empathy encourages understanding, sympathy does quite the opposite. When you sympathize with someone, you feel sorry FOR them which means these feelings are based off your own experiences and judgement.

I don’t think a lot of people are born with an empathetic nature– I believe it’s a learned skill. And a damn important one to practice because of its significant role in communication.

When you have an understanding of people you’re communicating with, you connect and interact in a way that makes sense to others. Basically, when you’re empathetic, your social interactions are enhanced and you become someone people love being around!


What do you think of when you hear the word shame? Troubled? Sad? Dishonorable?Dare I say, sympathetic?

A big part of why the idea of shame and empathy being incompatible appealed to me derives from something Brené prefaced this concept with: Shame is egocentric.


To be honest, I think our culture borderline glorifies shame . When making decisions, it’s shame that we subconsciously check in with: “How will people look at me if I do this?”

In our social-media-obsessed society, appearances are – unfortunately – everything. And when our image is prioritized, we’re destined to feel ashamed at some point. It’s become the norm.

What we don’t talk about, is how shame exists from judgement. We tend to judge others based off areas we’re insecure about and when you’re judgmental, you create an empathetic gap.

Shame is egocentric because when you feel shameful, you’re thinking about other people’s perspective of you. It’s a self-conscious feeling that derails your ability to empathize with others because your focus is inwardly-focused. Being self-centered then disrupts your emotional capabilities that are used to understand and connect with others AKA empathy.

The Antidote

So I mentioned how shame creates a lack of empathy but it also works the other way around: Empathy weakens feelings of shame, making them incompatible.

Moral of the story? Empathy is the real MVP.

Here are some tips to help you learn how to be more empathetic:

Understand Yourself

The foundation to empathy is understanding and accepting yourself. To understand the emotions of others, you have to learn how to empathize with yourself. Instead of stifling and ignoring your emotions, acknowledge what you’re feeling and why you’re feeling that way.

Be Vulnerable

Vulnerability is essential to human connection. It makes us more, well, human and therefore relatable. When we express feelings of our own weaknesses, fears, and hurt, we’re communicating that we’re alike which creates a bond and relation.

Actively Listen

But like, actually listen. When you’re conversing with someone, stay engaged and truly hear them out. Avoid trying to create a response in your head while someone is speaking. Summarize what they said and follow up by asking, “Did I understand this right?”

In these confusing times – and frankly, always – the world could use more compassion. Be intentional in practicing empathy– human connection is what’s going to get us through these difficult times ❤️

One response to “Why Shame and Empathy Are Incompatible”

  1. […] test, ask yourself how your learnings can help you become a better communicator, listener, empath and ultimately, a better […]


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