by M.J. Pullen
During my years as a psychotherapist, I spent most of my time practicing, thinking about and teaching empathy. Empathy is one of the greatest tools in the human toolbox, one that seems to be in short supply these days, particularly in our national conversations and those on social media. To be fair, I think most people want to be empathic; but they don’t always know where to start (or where to stop). I saw this often in couples’ therapy: well-intentioned partners trying so hard to connect, but repeatedly reaching for the wrong tool for the job.
Most people have at least a vague notion of empathy. They know it’s a warm, positive feeling toward someone, especially when that person is experiencing a negative emotion. But we often have trouble with empathy, because we confuse it with its close cousins: sympathy and relating. Both these emotions are useful and important, and both can be used in tandem with empathy. But neither has its same power.
Sympathy is the expression of sorrow for emotions we cannot or do not feel. Think of it as a polite, less intense version of “pity.” It provides a connection with a person (or group), for whom we feel sorry, but not necessarily a connection with their experience. It enables us to express sadness for a situation while keeping ourselves at a safe emotional distance. Think: “I’m sorry for your loss,” or “I’m sorry that happened.”
Relating is at the other end of the experience-emotion spectrum. When we relate to someone else’s pain or emotions, we draw on our own emotions in an attempt to connect. Relating connects us with the experience, but not necessarily the person. When we relate to someone, we tend to unconsciously replace the other person’s experiences with our own, and to assume the same emotions and solutions apply.
Relating can be useful for letting someone know they are not alone; but when we’re relating, we can’t do another important connecting task: listening. Think: “Oh, I know how you feel, something like that happened to me …”
Empathy has something in common with both sympathy and relating. But its power lies in threading the uncomfortable human experience between them—connecting with another human through their experience of the world, rather than ours. Simply put, empathy is the ability to understand the experience of another person as though it were our own.
When I empathize with a person or a character, it means that for some period of time, I step out of my own world and into another. Not to judge, or pity. Not to overlay my own experiences and preconceptions. Not (and this is absolutely critical) to solve.
When I empathize with you, I step away from my need to say the right things and focus on listening to understand. In empathy, I refrain from the comforting assumption that because I have felt an emotion similar to yours, I already understand your experience. By abandoning the framework of what I already know, I am free-floating and without control. And I can no longer remain detached from your pain. This is empathy: uncomfortable and exquisite.
Which is why we’re reluctant to feel it. And why it’s so damn hard to write it.
Many authors (myself included) start out in a relating place with our writing. We interpret that old axiom, “write what you know,” to mean that we should write characters as similar to ourselves—and emotional experiences as much like our own—as possible. That can be useful, and it’s a good place to start.
When we only tell the story we already know, however, we close ourselves off to new and more authentic paths that can emerge from listening as the work evolves. We risk losing our connection to the reader by ignoring what she needs: a place to connect the events of the story with her own experiences. It’s hard to tap into universal emotions when the story arc and character growth are buttressed only by the author’s experience, and all the assumptions and untold history that go along with that experience.
On the other hand, if we are too distant from our stories, if we have sympathy for the characters (or our readers), it creates a disconnect between writer and reader. Just like the couple staring at one another across a kitchen table that has become an emotional chasm. By protecting ourselves from the difficult emotional truths of the story, we deprive our readers of the internal transformation that was the whole point of picking up the book in the first place.
Write characters you feel sorry for, or fail to truly put yourself in their skin, and you’ll find that your writing falls flat—though it might be hard for readers to say exactly why.
Developing empathy for your characters—protagonists, antagonists, even secondary actors—means the author must take the time to experience the world as each character does, and to understand the emotional impact of each perspective. It means walking a mile in your characters’ shoes and giving the reader space to do the same. It means listening to the story as your characters naturally tell it, rather than pushing too hard to fit your own expectations or agenda into your work. Empathy harnesses the power of difficult emotions.
Empathy in writing requires the same thing it does when connecting with real people: allowing yourself to be deeply vulnerable to the experiences and emotions of others. It’s not easy. It takes patience and practice. But your writing—and your real-life relationships—will be better for the effort.
M.J. Pullen is participating in our Race in Place Southern Voice theme for fall. She is a mom, former psychotherapist and the author of five funny, character-driven books of romantic women’s fiction. She is an alumna of both the University of Georgia in Athens and Georgia State University in Atlanta, and now lives in the Atlanta area with her family. You can find her blog, books and more tips for writers at mjpullen.com.