Bookworm Blogging, Discussions

Empathy, Emotions, and Reading [discussion]

This is my first real discussion post in just over a year! I don’t do a lot of these, because I feel like other bloggers have more to say and say things more succinctly than I do. However! This is something I haven’t seen a lot of and it’s been on my mind lately.

First of all, let’s define what empathy actually is. Dictionary.com refers to empathy as “[…] the capacity or ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another, experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person.” This is distinguished from sympathy in the following way: “sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters, while empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another.”

That being said, I am an extremely empathetic person. I can attribute this to about a thousand things, but what it means for me is that other people’s emotions impact me pretty strongly. I literally find emotions to be contagious, no matter what form they come in. Whether it’s from a friend, an article I’m reading online, a movie I’m watching, or a book I’m reading, I find myself taking on those feelings.

There are benefits to this: I’m pretty conscious about my friends emotions and behaviors indicating their emotions and I can be a good listener. There are also plenty of cons: I have to disengage from people sometimes so I don’t become overwhelmed, I have to consume emotional media fairly slowly to avoid slipping into a depressive episode, and I can sometimes blur the line between fiction and reality.

This comes up a lot during my reading. What prompted this post was actually my experience reading The Pisces. The main character falls into a depressive episode at the start of the book and I found it to be an emotionally intense experience because it was so real. I could identify the triggers, the symptoms, the disordered thinking. It put me into a mood, which I luckily realized quickly, and I had to put it down after a short session. I’ve been reading it slowly, in bits and pieces, in order to avoid getting dragged down by it.

It’s difficult sometimes, having to navigate my reading so carefully, but I like to think it helps make me a more compassionate and sensitive person. Anyway, here’s my question for you: do any of you also struggle with keeping your empathy in check while reading (or even watching TV/movies)? How do you deal with this so that it doesn’t negatively impact your mental health? If it was something you could just turn off, would you?

I look forward to hearing what you all have to say on this! Thanks for reading. 🙂

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13 thoughts on “Empathy, Emotions, and Reading [discussion]”

  1. Interesting discussion! I look forward to seeing some of the comments. I definitely think that reading has made me more empathetic. That’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, I think that it makes me a more compassionate, understanding person. But on the other hand, it gets hard when I read about characters going through experiences that would break me personally. Sometimes it’s easier to keep my mind and my feelings separate as I read, but a really good writer, or a topic that strongly resonates with me, will occasionally blur those lines. I try to manage it by knowing what I’m in the mood for. If I’m feeling sort of emotionally fragile, I’ll go for a book that I don’t think will touch on anything too delicate. If I’m in a bad place emotionally and feel like I need catharsis, that’s what I’ll seek out. When I need something light and entertaining, I’ll go for that. If it gets into territory I don’t feel prepared to handle, I’ll put it down for a while and read/do something else.

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    1. I think it’s great to be conscious about how these things impact you and how to best take care of yourself! I’m working on, like you said, knowing what is going to be good for me to read and what isn’t. I don’t mind reading about difficult things, but I do have to be in the right mindset.

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      1. I think part of that is figuring out when you’re in a place to read something that’s potentially emotionally challenging and when you need something else.

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  2. This is a really interesting post, and I honestly hadn’t thought about it before. Normally, I’m intensely empathetic, especially dealing with emotions in person and with movies. With books, though, weirdly enough, it takes A LOT to kick off that empathetic response. It’s odd and I can’t really explain it.

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    1. That’s an interesting reaction! It definitely depends on the book for me, but I feel like if the writer does a good job of making it feel real, that’s when it impacts me. I definitely know people who don’t have the same reactions with books. I wonder what causes that!

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  3. I totally feel this – I’m also a really empathetic person and irl I’m a bit of an emotional sponge, I find that my mood is really dependent on how the people around me are feeling. When I’m reading or watching films I find it easier to compartmentalize though – I think it helps that I’m also a very logic-driven person and if something fictional is starting to affect me too deeply I can sort of take a step back and say ‘this isn’t real, calm down.’ But I guess it isn’t as simple as it being like an on/off switch, every once in a while I’ll read a book that REALLY gets under my skin and affects my mental health (like A Little Life), but I never know which book is going to get that distinction until I’m already partway through it, and then I just kind of soldier on (and usually end up loving these books because I’m a masochist). But I totally agree that ultimately this makes you a more understanding an open-minded person, so it’s a sort of blessing/curse situation.

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    1. I think my biggest problem is that I am so bad at that compartmentalization! Once it starts to dig into me, I can’t shake it off. My only option is really to push through or to put it down for a bit until I recover enough to tackle it again. (I am also a huge masochist with this, though!)

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  4. I’m actually in the middle of writing my first blog, which is on the topic of empathy. I see myself as an extreme empath, like yourself. I have to be careful of the books I read (which are a lot) and the shows and movies I watch (which is also a lot) because my of my empathy. A few weeks ago I was reading a series and in the middle of it, the main character was dealing with everything absolutely going wrong and she was so depressed and in return, I felt as if I was stuck, with the feeling of claustrophobia. I can’t watch depressingly connotative shows because it’ll put me in a slump, like the Magicians. And my family and friends are always calling on me to talk about their problems, which I don’t mind, I’m a great listener, but certain people just dump on me constantly and I start to feel their emotions on an extreme scale. I have to kind of take a break from those people sometimes so that I can feel like I can breath. So yes, I do resonate with you. True empathy kind of have it hard I think. And I also think that non-empaths don’t really get it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s definitely exhausting! For me, I’ve realized that it’s really important to make time for myself and to figure out which things nourish me so that I can focus on doing those when I need them. Hopefully you are able to find things that pick you back up as well! ❤

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  5. I really think you’d enjoy this set of stories exploring empathy. The premise: The shaman of the (mythical) Veritas is looking for her eventual successor and is therefore devising an increasingly difficult series of trials for candidates — mainly they test empathy. Here’s a link to the first test. Maybe you could win. 🙂 Comments welcome! https://petersironwood.wordpress.com/2018/08/07/myth-of-the-veritas-the-first-ring-of-empathy/

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