Is Empathy the Answer to Toxic Shame? Questioning Brene Brown’s “Listening to Shame”

by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, 

I want to walk you in to shame. Jungian analysts call shame the swampland of the soul. And we’re going to walk in. And the purpose is not to walk in and construct a home and live there. It is to put on some galoshes and walk through and find our way around. (Brown 2012)

One of the issues I have with this statement is that not all shame is a “swampland.” Some kinds of shame are necessary to human empathy and cooperation. Author and researcher Karla McLaren, in her upcoming book,The Art of Empathy, talks about shame as a necessary emotion for social interaction and self-regulation. According to McLaren, the book “identifies situations when shame becomes toxic,” which she describes as situations in which “too much controlling shame is forced onto people, and is then integrated into their own self-concept. The problem doesn’t come from the shame itself, but from the fact that the shame is foreign and inauthentic to the person (McLaren, private correspondence, 2013).