Empathy + Books

A few months ago I took a test at work to determine my top five strengths. This was for a strength based training we were doing that encourages people to play up your strengths rather than try to work on your weaknesses. My top five strengths in order are:

  1. Empathy
  2. Achiever
  3. Strategic
  4. Relator
  5. Consistency

I wasn’t totally surprised by these answers because they’re skills I use every day while working as an office administrator at a busy preschool. But the one that really got me thinking was Empathy and how that not only affects my work and personal life, but also my reading life.

Webster’s Dictionary gives this definition of empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully , communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

I don’t think I was really aware of how much empathy I feel ALL. THE. TIME. Mostly towards my husband and coworkers since I’m around them so often, but I even feel it with my dog. He has a lot of feelings and I feel them all.

So this got me thinking about how reading and empathy can be both a positive and negative thing depending on the book. Over the weekend I was frantically trying to finish a book that’s due at the library, and this book not only had a very heavy subject (murder mystery on top of family issues), but it was also written as a graphic novel which brings even more emotions through the illustrations. I was imagining myself in this scenario and honestly it became a bit too much to empathize with these characters. I put the book down and decided to just return it to the library unfinished.

I’m not saying I won’t go back to this book eventually, but right now it was just too much. I think with the holidays approaching and my school term winding down I’m feeling overwhelmed in my own personal life and I need my reading to feel a bit separate. Right now I need reading to be an escape, but I still need to be careful when going down that path.

Last year I read A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and I don’t think I’ve ever empathized with a book so much. It’s a roller coaster of emotions and I found myself thinking about the book long after I had put it down. It changed my perspective on a lot of things and has honestly changed my life. The fact that I could feel so much from a book that it altered my thinking of the world is pretty amazing, but I wonder if this is because I have too much empathy.

I also think sometimes I use the escape of reading to empathize with others so I don’t have to focus on my own life. Sometimes this can be a good thing, but once it starts getting in the way of me dealing with my own issues, it can be a problem. I do this with friends and family too, trying to take on their feelings so mine get pushed to the back. This can be helpful for a little while but it’s not sustainable.

This weekend I experienced a crash of holding on to too much empathy for things I care about and I had to take a huge step back to focus on what I needed in that moment. Folding laundry and listening to The Giver on audio was the cure I needed right then, and I’m thankful I was able to identify it. I’ve realized that too much empathy can often lead to anxiety or depression, which can spiral easily if not dealt with. So while I think of reading as a hobby, sometimes it can feel like emotional labor depending on the book. That’s why I usually try to keep lighthearted and fun books close by when I’m needing to just laugh and take a break from holding on to so many emotions.

What books have you read that have felt like emotional labor? And do you think they were worth the read?