I Over Empathise With Characters in Books

Published on 9/18/2021

I am most commonly described as being over-sensitive. By my friends, partners, family and mere acquaintances. People love to tell me that I am too sensitive. And they’re right; I am an extremely sensitive person. I could go into the why of this. I could tell you about an unstable childhood where I felt like emotions were my responsibility, how my personality disorder dictates my life and makes me terrified of abandonment, or the low self-worth that makes me feel like I must constantly earn my friends. But instead, I’ll focus on how this sensitivity affects me day-to-day, namely in my love for reading.

I am a reader, through and through. I am always reading something, even when it takes me a while to get through a book, and I try to read a bit of everything. Last year, I absolutely devoured the Percy Jackson series, reading ten books within two months, a personal best. This year I’ve read everything from Marian Keyes to Greek mythology to Fahrenheit 451. I will read just about anything, even those ‘About Us’ pages on a restaurant menu, where they tell you about their values and how they came to exist - 10/10 recommend!

I am a reader, and it is honestly one of my favourite things about myself. I hate being so sensitive, I hate being so emotional, I hate being obsessed with how I look and what I weigh, but I adore being a reader. It’s also how I feel close to my father, who I lost three years ago.

But with this passion comes a struggle because my hyper-sensitivity causes me to over empathise with characters. This doesn’t just mean that I cry a lot or feel the glory of their successes; it means that I essentially become the character emotionally. So that even once I’ve reached the end of the novel, and it’s tucked back on my overflowing bookshelf, I still feel like that character. This might not be an issue if I only read books with happy endings and plot-focused narratives, but I like to read depressing books, ones with mental illness, grief, struggle and extensive thought-driven monologues. So when the book ends, I still feel like crap, and I cannot shake the character.

This happened most recently when I read ‘Expectation’ by Anna Hope (excellent book, definitely check it out!). For some reason, I really related to the character of Lissa. She isn’t the best character, nor the one most similar to me, but I just adopted her emotions as my own. Unfortunately, she had a tough time in the novel, and there was no picture-perfect ending for any of the characters. So I have spent the last week consumed by feelings of abandonment, questioning where I’m going in life and carrying a heavy guilt for things I did - read the book to find out exactly what! I feel like Lissa, and I don’t know how to shake it off. I probably won’t get rid of this adopted identity until I read the next book that I’ll over relate to, and then I’ll carry that with me.

Why do we over-relate to characters?

If I’m not alone in this, and you also struggle with over-empathy, then it’s time to find out exactly why this is. The technical term is Affective or Emotional Empathy.

“Affective or emotional empathy is the capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion to another’s mental states. So, you read and visualise about someone being depressed – result, you feel sad. You see someone being rejected in a film and they cry – result, you cry too. The better the depiction, the more you feel. When you feel affective empathy, you can feel sympathy and compassion (makes you say “I’m sorry…”) for others in response to their suffering. Or you can actually feel personal distress if you personally feel the pain in response to someone else’s suffering.” - Seven Circumstances.

Affective or emotional empathy allows us to respond appropriately to someone’s mental state. For example, if a friend is telling us about something awful going on in their life, we mimic these feelings internally so we can sympathise and comfort them. This applies to all emotions, including anger, surprise, joy, loneliness and more. Films, series and books utilise this to be more enjoyable for the viewer or reader, as you’re brought along on the journey step by step.

When you feel for a character, you become invested in their journey and unable to put the book down. When you’re emotionally tied to these individuals, you need to know that they’ll be okay so that it feels like you will too. It makes you an active participant in reading.

Empathy in reading is a good and a common thing, but the difference is that many readers can successfully sever this tie once the story is over. They put the book back on the shelf and move on. But others, like us, are too emotionally invested for our own good. We fixate on the emotions and experiences, allowing them to infiltrate our own feelings and thoughts. We continue to carry the baggage of the character and let it affect our own life.

What are the benefits of extreme empathy?

I like to think of this as extreme empathy as our empathy muscle is overworked and therefore super bulky and robust. Alternatively, you could consider it to be hypersensitivity. It’s like comparing a cactus to a rose stem; with the rose stem, you could tap it in several places and only hit a thorn once. But with a cactus, you keep hitting the spikes, as they’re covered in them. Highly sensitive people are the cactuses, as we’re more emotionally charged and easily stimulated.

There are good things to this, as we use this extreme empathy in situations outside of novels. We use it in friendships to help people feel heard and understood. We’re likely to be good listeners, as we not only listen and respond but we also mimic their emotions well. We’re caring as we feel the plight of others, and so we are likely to try to change things.

We make good readers as we dive into a novel without hesitation. We make good writers because we understand emotional cues better than others, so we can replicate these in our work to help an ordinary reader feel things too.

What are the disadvantages?

Nothing is without a flaw, and the same can be said for heightened sensitivity in reading. Because I feel so much more when I read, it can be a very tiring experience, as it drains my mental energy. I finish a book feeling like I’ve run a long-distance race; it’s satisfying and enjoyable, but also exhausting. Carrying around so many emotions wipes my energy day after day, this is hard enough with just depression, but when you add an additional character’s experience, it becomes a genuine struggle.

I can become so fixated on a character’s experience that I don’t leave room for my own thoughts and feelings. Instead, I struggle to remove myself from them, to know what is me and what is Lissa, or another character. I’ll never forget reading ‘Vicky Angel’ by Jacqueline Wilson when I was younger and spending the next month in the same grief as Jade, whose best friend had died, when I had never known death so closely.

It makes me warier when choosing what I’ll read or watch. Like I said, I love a good book about mental illness or other emotional struggles, but it’s to a certain extent. I’ve seen the book ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara recommended more times than I can count. But I also know that it is an emotionally tolling novel that deals with confronting subjects, and I don’t know if I can handle it. Choosing to read it could mean sacrificing the following week of my life, as I carry their pain as my own.

It’s also why I stopped watching ‘13 Reasons Why’, as it felt like they were trying to shock me as a viewer rather than tell a story. The final episode of Season two was too much for me. One scene, in particular, led me to have a panic attack and stuck with me for months. Whenever I would begin to feel a single moment of joy, I’d be reminded of that scene, and the happiness would go as quickly as it came.

I want to work to a place where I can read or watch anything, where the thought of a particularly violent or confronting piece of art doesn’t scare me. I want to build my resilience to my hyper-sensitivity so I can remove myself from other’s emotions. But I also acknowledge that it’s a part of me, as much as my blue eyes are, or my love of dogs. I am someone who over-empathises, and that comes with good and bad. It makes me a good reader but also a weaker person, and maybe one day it won’t have to be a choice between the two.

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When should you read non-fiction books? And why you should avoid reading too quickly.

Fleur

Fleur

Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.

Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.

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