The Power Of Empathy, Animated

Dr. Brene Brown's poignant and popular talk on the "Power of Vulnerability" comes to life in a clever new animation.

Dr. Brene Brown’s 2010 TED Talk on "The Power of Vulnerability" has gotten nearly 12.5 million views online. And it’s no wonder: Brown delivers insights into human connection, vulnerability, authenticity, and shame with humor and deeply personal stories that avoid the kind of platitudes and sugarcoating that self-help skeptics love to hate. Now, a clever new animation from RSA shorts, animated by Bristol-based Katy Davis (AKA Gobblynne), brings Brown’s wise words to life with cartoons of a sad fox, an empathetic bear, and a judgmental reindeer.

"Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection," Brown explains in her talk. When the sympathetic but disconnected reindeer peeks into the fox’s dark hole, he tries to use a magic wand to add a silver lining to the fox’s cloud, effectively saying, "could be worse!" Brown explains how taking this kind of lecturing stance toward another’s suffering distances us from that person's emotional experience, and fails to establish the kind of connection that leads to healing.

"I always think of empathy as this kind of sacred space," Brown says. "When someone’s in a deep hole, and they shout out from the bottom and say ‘hey, I’m stuck, it’s dark, I’m overwhelmed,’ we look and climb down, and say, ‘I know what it’s like down here, and you’re not alone,’" Brene says in her talk. In the animation, Davis’s cuddly bear climbs into the fox’s hole of pain to keep her company. He doesn’t try to offer any mind-blowing advice, but instead gives her a hug and lets her know that he understands how she feels.

"I animate the old school way, as I love little imperfections and quirkiness, so I illustrate each frame by hand (25 frames per second)," Gobblynne tells Co.Design of her process. "I draw using pen on paper, then scan my illustrations in to my computer. I then clean and color in Photoshop, then composite everything together using After Effects." Davis captures the humor of Brown’s speech with the odd eyeball roll and blank stare ("Want a sandwich?" the reindeer asks the sad fox, unhelpfully, then takes a bite). "I love the funny little bits in Brene's speech, and it was satisfying to emphasize these points," Davis says.

Brown's speech is funny, but also sparks serious self-reflection. Without being preachy, it encourages viewers to question the way they empathize or sympathize with people in their lives. The cartoon lets viewers engage with Brown's material in a playful and lighthearted way.

[h/t Brain Pickings]

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  • AJ

    Great animation... but she uses the words all wrong. Sympathy is the
    understanding of someones situation because you have experienced the
    SAME thing. Empathy is the ability to understand someone's situation
    without having experienced it. In essence.... she should flip her words.

  • Walter

    Really enjoyed this talk and its lessons on empathy. Dr. Brown (and the animation) make an excellent point that I'm still wondering about though. When you exercise empathy you have to go down that ladder and into someone else's hole. While the ideal of lowering our shields and opening our hearts to the world's battering is a beautiful one – is it always appropriate? While this may seem insinuating, I'm posing this as an open, genuine question because I do not know.

    For example, psychopathic and narcissistic individuals can feed off of empathy. When do we exercise our boundaries and how do we determine when empathy is appropriate? Or do we offer our empathy to everyone?

    Having grown up hearing "suck it up" and "life's not fair," I believe that these words made me independent, strong and capable of dealing with the world without needing others' empathy (most of the time). But perhaps these words have also made me less connected, as they pushed me away to seek internal strength. Is it possible to be empathetic but still challenge and judge someone's difficulties? Is it appropriate to judge and challenge someone's problems if they're trivial?

    Empathy as a force posits a very positive idea of a communal world in which we pick up our emotionally lowest – a utopia. Great to see so much buzz around this.

  • Sloaneriffic Heart

    I love your thoughtful inquiries! Thanks for sharing your concerns, as it helps me go deeper, too.

    have found that letting down my armor is different from letting down my
    shield. Armor acts as an impermeable boundary where nothing can get in
    or out, including the ability to give or receive love (on all kinds of
    levels). A shield is permeable upon the set intention of my boundaries.

    I have also had close experience with narcissistic individuals.
    It is sometimes a tough call to determine where my boundaries are with
    certain people, but I have also found that I learn through my
    experience of being in these different situations. Thus, I now have a
    better idea of how much I am willing to empathize by better
    understanding myself and understanding my personal capacity at the time
    of interaction.

    I have found this link very useful in helping me understand
    and I find resonance with her explanations. Perhaps there is something
    there that will resonate with you, too. She also has a video on
    unconditional love, which I found helpful as well.

  • Lily Niu

    This was very eye opening for me. I consider myself an empathetic person, but sometimes you really just don't know what to say to comfort someone who is going through a rough time. I find myself always trying to reassure the other person saying, "everything will be ok" or "some things just happen for a reason." Now I know it's ok to just be there for them and say nothing because rarely do these situations allow for an immediate pick-me-up. It's simply about letting them know that they're not alone. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  • Kenneth W K Wu

    Just curious if the Facebook team will change the sympathize button to emm...pathy.