I remember reading a small article in The Psychotherapy Networker by a PsyD in San Francisco. He had done some recent research and found that for Marriage Family Therapists, what informed their practice most was their experience in life, more than published research. The author of the study felt that this was not as therapeutic, and that the practice of therapy should be informed primarily by research. It seemed like a divisive, an all-or-nothing kind of approach. I know I care about my clients, I know that’s therapeutic, and I know that isn’t just because of the research I’ve read.
Then, I was introduced to the work of Dr. Brene’ Brown. She’s a researcher who studies vulnerability, connection and shame, but many of the stories she uses to translate and share her research come from her own life.
What that research has shown is that what keeps us from deeply connecting with one another is the felt sense that we are not good enough, or worthy of love, plus all the strategies we use to keep people from figuring that out, like blame and withdraw and people-pleasing. Another word for this felt sense of unworthiness is shame. Brene’ Brown has set about helping people to build resiliency to shame, so they can continually move toward real connection with others.
How does she do this? With empathy. She talks about her own experience with shame. “I called both my husband, Steve, and my good friend Karen,” she remembers in a 2012 talk. “They gave me what I needed the most: empathy, the best reminder that we’re not alone. Rather than judgment (which exacerbates shame), empathy conveys a simple acknowledgment, “You’re not alone, I’ve been there.” Empathy is connection; it’s a ladder out of the shame hole.”
Empathy is a key component to connecting with others, and helping people move through shame. It requires taking the other perspective, in a nonjudgmental way, and recognizing the part of ourselves that has felt a bit of what people are going through. It requires us to call on the research, but also on our own experiences, our own relationships. People want to know that we are here with them, that we get what they are saying and feeling, not just staring at them, observing, and saying wise things.
To me this sounds like the real-deal way to walk through your life with others, and the real-deal therapy. So, I am going to San Antonio this week to study with Brene’ Brown. I know I’m going to hear all about her research, but I’m also going to hear about her husband Steve, daughter Ella, and her friends Karen and Dawn. And I’m sure I will also hear a lot about me, and my husband, and you too. Because of empathy, there is a good part of the human experience we all share, and we can all feel connected by.