Empathy – Shame’s Kryptonite


Shame is a word we seldom associate with life-threatening physical illnesses.  In fact, despite racking my brain over the past two days’ walks, I can’t think of a single instance in my lifetime when I’ve heard a loved one, friend, colleague or celebrity express feelings of shame in connection with their having been diagnosed with cancer, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, cystic fibrosis or Hepatitis B – and for good reason. Indeed, it is ludicrous to even think of someone uttering the words, “I’m so filled with shame because I have breast cancer.”  Moreover, the concept of shame is similarly foreign to the family members, loved ones, colleagues and classmates of those afflicted with such diseases.  To the contrary, such afflictions often serve as a rallying cry for those who love the sufferer, which, in turn, leads to an outpouring of empathy and of emotional, financial and spiritual support.  At times, it even convinces one or more of them to dedicate their lives to promoting public awareness of the disease and the need to remain vigilant in marshaling and applying the resources necessary to combat it. 

And yet, there is a category of equally life-threatening, but admittedly less “objectively-verifiable” diseases (i.e., eating disorders, drug and alcohol addiction and clinical depression – to name a few) where shame is at the epicenter.  In fact, many researchers and clinicians agree that shame is the fertilizer that allows these diseases to take root and flourish in the souls of those afflicted – the “gremlin,” as Brené Brown so cleverly and eloquently describes it in her TEDx talk entitled “Listening to Shame,” (link below), who aggressively and unrelentingly bombards the sufferer until their own spoken and unspoken mantras echo those of their tormentor.  That’s why it’s not at all unusual to hear those suffering from these diseases so matter-of-factly, but no less heartbreakingly, say things like: “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not pretty enough,” “I’m not talented enough,” “I’m a mistake,” “I’m worthless,” etc.  Just as disturbingly, however, and unlike their “physical” counterparts, the shame-based component of this group of diseases seems to be “contagious.” 

Rather than rallying around those who suffer from eating disorders, addictions, clinical depression, etc., and allowing them to bathe in an outpouring of our love, support and empathy, we tend to “runaway” from them, to be judgmental (i.e., to actually openly or silently suggest that these are “diseases of choice”) and, in the case of an afflicted family member, to cast a veil of secrecy over them, hoping that others won’t “discover” that our loved one and, by extension, our family is, God forbid, “not perfect.” We don’t do these things maliciously.  We’re afraid and with good reason – these diseases are downright frightening.  We’re also ignorant – not in a pejorative sense, but in a literal lack-of-knowledge” sense, which also is understandable, given the complexity of these diseases.  But, in doing them, we unknowingly exacerbate the problem, because, as it turns out: “if you put shame in a petri dish, it needs 3 things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment.” Conversely, “if you put the same amount of shame in a petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”  I vote for empathy!


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