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April 14, 2015 at 10:42 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

The Shame/Empathy Link and What It Means for Your Chance at Real Happiness

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

I saw it and was immediately haunted and tormented by it. This 70 year old tin can by some standards would not be much more than trash. But it left every fiber within me heightened. I could not explain at that moment why I had to have it, and that haunted me as well. Not one to ignore my emotions, I paid the sizeable sum of money to the collector and was on my way.

This can bore witness to one of the most pointed and horrific chapters in modern history-- the holocaust.  This empty canister of Zyklon B held poison which was used to carry out Hitler's "final solution" in exterminating Jews, Poles, communists, trade unionists, homosexuals, Catholics, gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses and others who were deemed contrary to their diabolical plans for a master race.

"After the doors were shut, SS men dumped in the Zyklon B pellets through vents in the roof or holes in the side of the chamber. The victims were dead within 20 minutes....If the gas chamber was crowded, which they typically were, the corpses were found half-squatting, their skin discolored pink with red and green spots, with some found foaming at their mouths, or bleeding from their ears."

For days I held this thing in my hands. I examined the paper label reading the chemical names in German. I ran my fingers across the sharp hole cut with a can opener to complete the horrible task. I looked at the rust accumulated on the metal over the decades. Whose lives were affected by this can and its contents? What potential was lost? How many people? Who opened this can? I wrestled with the emotions and wiped away tears. In my mind I said words to those touched by this can. Words of hate to those opening the can and words of sorrow to those in the gas chamber. This can had made me a witness of sorts-- someone who cared deeply.

As a doctor I have a lot of opportunities to care for people. I provide "healthcare." The quotes are indeed meant to add a hint of sarcasm in that here in America, despite living longer, we are lacking in health, happiness and caring more than ever before. We are more obese, more medicated, more worried and more depressed than at any point in our history. 

How does an empty can of Zyklon B play into this? It compelled me to handle my patients with the same gravity of empathy that I felt when touching that rusted piece of metal that had witnessed so much. It forced me to confront my own vulnerability. It drove me to climb into the passenger seat with them as they navigated through hardships and challenges. And through this, a funny thing happened. I would have predicted that this emotional weight would have dragged me into the pits of despair. In reality, though, I have found myself more content, more resilient, more embracing of change and happier.

Empathy is Not Sympathy

Empathy is the ability to feel along with people. It is important to grasp this clearly. For instance, despite the fact that these two terms are often used synonymously, empathy is distinctly different than sympathy. Whereas empathetic emotion requires people to appreciate and come alongside a person in their struggles, sympathy remains on the outskirts offering a solution or a perspective. To express empathy one must connect with times in our personal lives when we experienced like feelings in order to connect with those in hardship. And when we don't have experience, empathy means opening up with sincere appreciation, admitting vulnerability and even loss of words while appreciating the trust offered. Empathy requires exercise in vulnerability.

The Shame/Vulnerability Connection

Dr. Brene Brown, a noted social worker, story teller and researcher has spent years examining vulnerability as a means to connectivity in the human experience. In her work, Brown began with the concept of human connection. She states, "Connection brings purpose and meaning to our lives.  It's why we're here." Through her studies, working with countless subjects, she identified shame as a universal human emotion upon which connectivity hinged. In turn, vulnerability and the way in which a person embraced this emotion separated the positive from the negative in regards to connectivity. More specifically, she found that those who adjusted well to the experience of connection, shame and vulnerability were those who believed they were worthy of love and belonging. They courageously approached their own vulnerabilities as a means to connect to others fueled by this notion of worthiness. Further, they abandoned who they or society thought they should be in order to pursue who they in fact were.  In a nutshell, vulnerability according to Brown is, "the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness. But it appears that it is also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love."

The Search for Happiness

It's difficult to find happiness these days. America has put itself into debt looking for happiness, missing some important wisdom along the way. Finding connectivity and practicing empathy yield satisfaction. But it is important to approach this with consideration toward self-worth as a means for embracing vulnerability. Remember always, that you are worthy. If you struggle with self-worth, seek counsel to build insight in this fundamental tenant. From there, find release in appreciating vulnerability. Burying vulnerability numbs struggle but it also chokes the ability to appreciate the positive. Dr. Brown, in her cohort of subjects found that people in general lacked the ability to selectively numb vulnerable emotions and in doing so numbed positive attributes such as joy, love and gratitude. And it is the adaptive search for purpose and connectivity that leads to the debt, obesity or addiction with which we struggle. 

Some say that empathy cannot be taught, that it is something persons are either capable or incapable of experiencing. I disagree and I had proof as I touched that discarded Zyklon B canister that for some reason survived to be in my possession. I further believe the saying that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger has merit. We have the potential to tap into our past struggles to find insight and meaning, especially with our connectivity to others. I realize that to embrace vulnerability in a positive light, self-worth is a necessity. And to support this, I believe each and every person is worthy of love and respect. For those who lack this notion personally, help in this regard is essential and available.

When you practice empathy and appreciate vulnerability, you experience connection through which happiness and satisfaction can be found. 

Live, and live well.


Brene Brown, PhD, LMSW  Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Tranforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead

The Power of Vulnerability

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