Brené Brown is a hugely successful author in the self-help / popular psychology genre who has sold over 5,000,000 books. Her topics include shame, connection and vulnerability. The video below offers Brené Brown’s position on empathy, which is that the best way to ease someone’s suffering is to go down and feel it with them:

At the time of writing the video above about empathy has just under 6,000,000 views. The RSA animate series has a reputation for platforming ‘thought leaders’ within the social sciences and in general I would say the videos they publish help to shape the public discourse. Additionally due to the professionalism of such videos and their high view count, when most people watch a video such as this they internalise the opinion expressed in the video as ‘true’ and ‘right’ about the world and how things work within it. This is especially the case when the clever and knowing canned laughter in the background agrees with the points being expressed by the expert. Therefore, these kind of videos can easily become the definitive view on a topic such as empathy: every child googling their homework on ‘What is empathy?’ is likely to discover this video at the top of the search results. By this process of dominating the public discourse, the empathy brainwash slowly begins to embed itself in the minds of the people.

Feeling the pain of others – supposedly virtuous

The moose character in the video reflects how I personally respond to other people when they are ‘in pain’, though with subtle yet important differences. The moose character is made to look bad by speaking with a cold, careless and even selfish tone of voice regarding the problems the fox is experiencing. For me personally were I in this situation, I would speak in my normal tone of voice without any emotional sad-face acting, which would not be natural for me. My voice wouldn’t be harsh or mean: it would be my normal voice.

According to the views expressed in the video we are to make ourselves vulnerable by joining in with the emotion of the sad person. But what if the sad event is not a one-off situation? What if this fox person is always having problems and dramas in her life? Are we not feeding her victim mentality by going down and feeling it with her every time? I believe that if we keep going down and feeling the emotions of the sad fox then we are enabling the fox to make the wrong choices which lead to its own suffering.

I do agree with Brené Brown that the best response is often to simply listen to the other person when she is going through a crisis. To hear them with one’s heart, so to speak. People who do this well don’t tend to offer you solutions or to intervene in what is going on with you. They are simply there for you. For me personally, I have learnt and in fact still am learning to hold giving advice as much as I can in these kinds of situations. To rush in with advice can often upset people or push them away from you.

Another possible empathetic response to ease the suffering of a person in pain is completely ignored in this video. This would be to assist the fox in practical ways with helpful actions. For example, if the fox is going through a tough time we may wish to help by cooking a nice, healthy meal for them or helping around the house in some way.

The major issue I have with Brené Brown’s take on empathy is that she recommends contaminating oneself with the gushing emotions of other people by going down to ‘feel the emotion with them.’ But in fact, what she really means is that we ought to go down and then ‘display emotion with them’. From my position it is not at all desirable for me to get swept away in an emotional storm by parroting the other person and his pain.

In some circumstances I really do care strongly about the person and what they are going through. What I feel in these moments is already at the upper limit of what I can handle without bringing myself down with the other person. However, there are other circumstances in which it is true to say that I don’t care very much at all about what the other person is going through. This generally happens when someone is languishing permanently though their own personal choice in the victim mentality state.

The Empathy Brainwash

Brené Brown’s take on empathy is for me an example of an undercurrent of empathy brainwashing which is taking place in Western societies. The point of this kind of brainwashing is to slowly and gradually shape Western culture to be more collectivist in nature. The individual is being painted as a selfish, greedy and mean person who is only in it for themselves. On the other hand, the virtuous people are kind and caring and are completely lacking in emotional boundaries; the your pain is my pain version of empathy advocated by Brené Brown is one such symptom of the empathy brainwashing we are all currently experiencing on some level.

According to the ideas behind this video, it’s simply not kind or virtuous enough to experience one’s natural level of empathy when someone else is in pain. But rather, we are to become emotional gushing sponges with bleeding hearts who willingly dive head first into the emotions of others. This is not empathy in my understanding; this is sentimentality at it’s most absurd and theatrical. Such a habit of gushing emotional responses to what other people are going through is even dangerous; because once the emotion gets flowing we tend to react by rushing in with a saviour mentality, dissolving boundaries and interfering in the lives of others.