Let’s Talk About: How Reading Made Me More Empathetic

empathy

One of the many joys of reading is that we get to live many lives. Sometimes the most immersive of books will make us feel like we have lived another life. Within the pages of each book, therein lies a whole other universe and a perspective separate to our own. In today’s Let’s Talk About, and the first Let’s Talk of 2016, I want to talk about how reading has given me the opportunity to see new perspectives and lives, and, in extension, has helped me become a more empathetic person.

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SEEING THROUGH AND LIVING IN A WHOLE OTHER WORLD

By definition, empathy is “the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.(1) As readers, empathy is an intrinsic part of reading. Though we may exist separately from them, the character’s perspective is almost always central to the narrative. Understanding characters, or trying to understand them, is an inherent part of reading – one that I, and probably many others, take particular joy in doing.

One of the most wonderful things about reading and stories is that we live closely to another character during our reading experience. We may even live it when we feel ‘transported’ to the story and its world. We read about their thoughts, their ideas, their beliefs, their motivations. Like people, well-written characters will have a complex system of mind – encompassing thought, belief, motivation, action – that makes them unique and an individual. As readers, we get insight into that world and we become a part of it. Even if the characters we read about do things or think things that we do not necessarily agree with or would do ourselves, empathy is necessary for us to try and understand why they do the things they do, and seeing into their world gives us insight into how the character lives their life.

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READING EXPOSES US TO DIFFERENT LIFE CIRCUMSTANCES

Regardless of whether the book is a fantasy, science-fiction, dystopian, or realistic fiction, we read about characters that are out to save the world, characters that are growing up in their own way, characters embarking on journeys that are important to them, or even characters that are living ordinary lives. Whatever their circumstances, as readers we are exposed to characters of different backgrounds, life situations, and histories. Characters can therefore offer new insights to things that are outside of our lived experiences, giving us an in-depth picture of what it’s like to live their life.

Books that expose us to different situations or life circumstances are incredibly important too. Think about books that feature characters of colour, LGBTQ+ characters, characters with disabilities, characters with mental illnesses, or something that isn’t commonly found in mainstream media but needs to be understood. Not only are such characters and their stories a great learning tool (though they aren’t always perfect), but a fragment or large proportion of their stories might have a profound truth of a person’s life.

By reading about a character’s struggles, their joys, their heartbreaks, or things that make them grow, such books can be a great starting point in trying to understand people, their emotions and their lives – no matter how different. Reading has taught me from a young age that people lead very different lives to me, and that you cannot judge a person’s life based on your own personal experiences.

Books that had characters who lived lives very different from mine:

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READING LETS US SEE INTO CHARACTERS WHO THINK DIFFERENTLY

It is hard to read about characters who have radically different perspectives and beliefs to us. It can be challenging, maybe confrontational, and may make us a little uncomfortable too. But I think the fact that we can read books that explore characters that may think differently to you is incredibly important. It has been shown that reading literary fiction can improve theory of mind, which is the ability to comprehend and reflect that other people can and will have different beliefs, desires and intentions that will be different to our own.

Though we may not agree with their thoughts or actions (or even like them!), reading encourages us to see individuals in a fuller, deeper picture including all their failures, mistakes, flaws, and decisions, rather than judging them at face-value. More importantly, stories give us the opportunity to see into a person’s complex and multifaceted world, teaching us that there is always more to a person than what we can perceive. We ask ourselves questions – ‘why does the character feel that way?’, ‘what motivates this character?’, or ‘why does the character behave the way they do?’ – as a means of trying to understand the character and connect with them. In understanding these characters, we learn that people operate to values, beliefs, and ideas that are different to ours, which is integral to being empathetic.

Furthermore, it is these characters that remind us that fictional characters – and even people – do not have to adhere to our beliefs, and that characters and people alike are autonomous and separate to us. More so, despite the differences – or because of those differences – we can still engage and connect with them. Reading allows us to understand, explore, empathize, and experience the other.

Books that had characters that thoughts and values different to me:

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READING HELPS US UNDERSTAND PEOPLE AND THEIR EMOTIONS

Reading different stories and meeting many characters exposes us to a variety of situations – especially emotional situations. As aforementioned, not only are we exposed to different life circumstances and characters that think differently, but we also engage with a character’s emotional reaction to adversary and trying circumstances. Reading about these help us learn about emotions, the complexity of emotions, and why emotions are an important aspect of the human experience.

In fact, research has supported that people who read books with complex, ambiguous characters are generally more empathetic people and have higher emotional intelligence. This is because reading about such characters require us to work harder to flesh out the characters, and trying to understand the character’s feelings and motives is a similar process to how we understand and develop relationships with people (2). The more we understand how emotions and people work, the more we are capable of empathizing with others. Maybe this is why we feel so connected and emotionally invested in our favourite characters, especially the more complex characters – we live their life vicariously and experience all of their emotions.

And I do believe that reading a variety of fiction has helped me develop a more acute understanding of emotions. With the many stories and characters that I come across, reading teaches that people will react to things differently to me, will have very different emotional experiences to me, and also gives me the opportunity to feel deeply for and with the characters in the book. Furthermore, reading about emotions can encourages me to be introspective; I reflect more on my interactions with others and how I am perceived by others. By reading and learning about these experiences, the characters become a point of reference for me, reminding me that people and emotions are always more complex and more than what meets the eye.

Books that taught me about emotions and have made me feel deeply:

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LET’S TALK ABOUT IT

I’m passionate about books and reading because I think the stories within have so much to give to us. Reading has taught me about many things, but above all, it has taught me – and continues to teach me! – about other people, how to understand people and how to empathize with them. So, what about you? I want to hear your thoughts!

  • Do you think reading books have made you more empathetic?
  • What book taught or encouraged you to empathize with its characters?
  • Has there been a book character that you found difficult to empathize with?
  • What do you think are good books that teach us about people, emotions, and how to empathize?

Let me know in the comments below!

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40 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About: How Reading Made Me More Empathetic

  1. This is such a great discussion post! You’re so right, reading gives us an entirely new perspective into worlds we know nothing about. A lot of the time it can be really important to learn about these things, so it’s great that there’s something out there that can teach us

  2. This is so true. Reading exposed me into different cultures and a lot more things. I learned that not because it\s happening to you, doesn’t mean it’s not happening at all. I learned that some people faces their problems in an entirely different way than you might do and it’s perfectly okay. I became more empathetic and accepting a person’s sexuality, beliefs and actions because books taught me that the world doesn’t revolves around my own sexuality, beliefs, culture and actions. It humbled me and at the same time, empowers me. ♥

    • Thank you for such a thoughtful comment, Paige!
      I completely agree and share your sentiments. I also really want to emphasize what you said – that just because we don’t experience something, it doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t experience it. I think that’s such an important life lesson to learn, something so many people have yet to learn even in adulthood. And I think reading is one of the best teachers when it comes to the lessons you pointed out!
      Reading definitely empowered and humbled me too! It’s amazing what reading can do for us. ^_^

  3. I absolutely agree! When you read a book and learn to know and love the characters, and when the characters go through something bad that you’ve never experienced before, you learn to relate to them and empathize 💕

    • Totally agree with you Ayunda! ❤
      I think the book that really opened up this sort of thing for me was when I read Before I Die as a young teenager. I always read fantasy before, so I knew it wasn’t real, and then suddenly I read about something so devastating but entirely possible – it changed my outlook in life completely. Books can be the best and most unexpected teachers.

  4. Eeeep! I missed your discussion posts a lot! Welcome back :D

    I (and the rest of the reading population) agree to every bits of what you said here. Books are channels to other culture, places, and people and that’s one reason why I keep this hobby. I like how through reading, I get to see how other people think, how an author perceives an issue through her stories.

    PS I’m reading The Spectacular Now and I get what you mean about learning different values. Sutter isn’t on my spectrum but he’s still adorable!

    • Thanks Trisha!! I am happy to be back! ❤

      I think I read for the same reason as you! I read so I’m continually using those emotional muscles and reminding myself of how much I don’t know. I love seeing other perspectives too, and I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about the written word.

      AH I love that book! After you read the book, you should definitely watch the movie. The Spectacular Now is one of those rare instances where I like the movie better than the book!

  5. Oh, CW, you are BACK and I missed it,those long thoughtful and so, so interesting discussions! So, first of all, thank you for this! <3
    Everything you just wrote about it so, so true. I love reading because it makes me live a thousand different lives, and discover different characters, way of thinking, way of living I wouldn't be able to experience without books. It's crazy because we don't imagine how it's possible to put ourselves in someone else's shoes, in our every day lives, but we can, thanks to books. And it really taught me to look at the world differently, and to empathize way more with people, and try and understand more deeply what they're going through, be less judgy and more, well, feel closer to them because of all of that. With books, it feels like you carry around with you the characters, their lives, their feelings deeply inside of you, and it's the best experience, even if sometimes it's very overwhelming, when we read a deeply emotional book (and cry our eyes out, haha). I have to say, there were some times where I couldn't relate to the character or empathize because the character just felt too annoying, or the things I usually use to relate to him/her, weren't emphasized enough in the book. Sometimes it just focuses on the bad things, or just doesn't get too deep into character development, and I just, can't understand and relate.
    Wow, sorry for the novella I just wrote here, ahah. Great post!! <3

    • Aw Marie, it’s wonderful comments like yours that inspire me to write and make me happy! So thank youu!!

      But I love what you wrote and agree with you 100%. I especially love the part where you said “we don’t imagine how it’s possible to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, in our every day lives, but we can, thanks to books.” – I never really thought of that, but that’s so true! And I think it’s a very important process, for young kids learning about the world and even in adulthood.

      Sometimes I struggle to relate to other characters too, but then I guess that’s just another cool thing about writing and reading. All of us are different and will relate or perceive characters differently! And I think that’s okay. ^u^

      I LOVE NOVELLAS! Don’t ever stop writing them!

  6. Reading has also made me more empathetically judgmental in that, sure I can put myself in their shoes to feel for what they’re going through, but I also give plenty of side-eyes as to their actions sometimes such that I probably sympathize more than I empathize with these MCs I’m following. To tangent this to television, I feel like I’m more harsh to the lives of those on the written word than those on screen. I don’t know why that is though.

    • I completely see where you’re coming from, and I am the same way too. I definitely couldn’t empathize with everyone, and even if I do, I may still be critical of their actions.

      I’m actually more critical with characters in books than characters from TV shows/movies — but maybe that’s because I read more than I watch? XD

  7. I’m so excited to read more of your discussion posts. They are always so insightful!

    I don’t know if reading has made me more emphatethic, but that has more to with my personality type. However, reading has helped me to be more expressive. I think the only time I am ever emotional is when I’m reading a good book. It’s also helped me to be more social, especially at work since my coworkers and I are always giving each other recs. But I can totally see how books can make one more emphatic. We get to see different scenarios and struggles that we may never face in our own lives and it makes us more understanding of others. I know when interned as a teacher we used books as references to help the kids understand different things and why some things are good and others are bad. Books really can be such a useful tool!

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Ari! c: And thank you for such kind words!

      That’s awesome, Ari! I think that’s important to point out – reading has helped people in different ways and that’s such a cool thing. Now that I think about it, reading has helped me with expression too. When I was a teenager I was super shy, so reading was a form of socialization for me. XD

      I think that’s really neat, and if I was ever a teacher, I’d encourage my kids to read read read! My sister actually told me the other day (not related to books, but still!) that Inside Out has helped kids understand and become more aware of their emotions. So I think any sort of media that can contribute to development in a meaningful way is just, aaaah, so awesome!

  8. Welcome back! There are so many books with characters that I empathise with… Even if I don’t agree with a protagonist’s thoughts, values or decisions but can still understand why they are thinking/acting the way they are at different moments – that aspect creates a real and relatable bridge for me to cross.

    On different thread, I read a much needed article on why white readers should not treat diversity as a trend because it actually creates barriers to empathy in stories where the default ideas of culture are just repeated: http://elloellenoh.tumblr.com/post/139448275729/dear-white-writers

    Also, to quote some of what Libba Bray wrote to support Ellen Oh’s article in relation to empathy and stories:

    “We can use them to connect to and empathize with others. And in connecting to and empathizing with others, we are brought face-to-face with unavoidable issues of social justice. To see is to know; to know is to change.

    You know what helps with that? Books. Books written by myriad voices about experiences lived from the inside out so that when we read those stories, we can walk in another person’s shoes. Books help us push against the walls of ourselves and expand. And so, again, if those myriad voices can’t get in to tell those stories, if no one gets to hear them, we go back to the bubble of the blind spot. To the Matrix.

    This is, again, why voices like Ellen’s are so important; they keep us from avoiding the tough stuff and defaulting to the bubble.” Original source: https://libbabray.wordpress.com/2016/02/22/in-support-of-ellen-oh/

    • Thank you Glaiza!

      I do too, and I think my empathy has only reached the depth you mentioned in more recent years.

      Thank you for sharing that article! I can always count on you to share awesome stuff. I really loved what she says, and I agree. I have been approaching this outcry for diversity with a bit of salt. I think people think that the presence of non-hegemonic groups is sufficient in terms of diversity, but it has never been enough for me. So what if a character is non-white? It doesn’t mean much if their experiences are no different to a white character’s, their otherness would be no more than a mask.

      Thank you for sharing Libba Bray’s article too. I recently read her Beauty Queens and it was fantastic, so I’m really pleased that she supported Ellen Oh. I really loved what she said – sometimes reading non-white, non-hetero, etc. experiences is VERY confrontational and will prompt confusion – but that’s necessary and they need to be heard.

      Thank you Glaiza!! (Now off to read more of Ellen Oh’s blog!)

  9. I am trying to think of characters that I empathize with but I am coming up with none, lol. Either I’m reading all the wrong books or my brain is malfunctioning. I can sympathize with a lot of characters and I agree that reading opened up an avenue for me to observe how other people act, think, and communicate. It also gave me an opportunity to see how other people live and how I inhabit a small bubble in a vast ocean. I always believed that literature is a powerful tool which can be utilized to promote and inspire. Fantasy books became a way to show us how politics, religion, discrimination, and war happens. Contemporary books opened our eyes to mental health, diversity, bullying, and stereotypes. These fictional stories reflect real life in ways we can no longer ignore, and I like how it’s inspiring a lot of us to speak up and take a stand.

    I have to reflect some more about specific characters that I empathized with because I am coming up blank *smashes head on keyboard* but great discussion, as usual, CW! I am so happy to see you’re back! :D

    • It’s funny you mention that because the characters I empathize the most with were the very flawed characters that were completely different to me. I love what you said – that literature can promote and inspire! I think that’s one of the reasons why I love reading. ^_^

      And sometimes I think it takes stories or situations that are very removed from our own life to see those facets of real life – especially anything related to politics or social issues.

      HAHA well if it makes you feel any better… I can only think of a small few. The examples were a struggle for me to find! XD

      Thanks Joan! c: I’m happy to be back and talking to everyone again!

  10. I agree with you whole heartedly from a readers perspective. And from a writer’s perspective, I think all of these reasons you’ve laid out are the reasons why I find myself freaking out all the time as I write my book. Because I know the power of books and I know what I’ve taken from books, so when I write I aim to provide the same experience to my readers, which is sort of terrifying at times. And as I writer I am actually desperately afraid of falling short of that mark. Giving this kind of experience to the reader (one that allows them to be transported, gives them room to grow, fresh perspective and challenges them) requires the writer to be just as empathetic, just as reflective and also requires the writer has read just as much and been exposed to just as much adversity/diversity/emotions whether in life or through books in order to bring all of that to the page. Excellent discussion, CW. I couldn’t agree with you more and I think writers should read this too!

    • Oh gosh, don’t freak out Nic! You’ll do amazingly! And I think the fact that you are conscious of the potential effect your writing will have on readers is important – I think the awareness definitely counts for something! And I think you are empathetic, reflective and aware, so you’ll be okay, Nicolette!

      Aw, thank you! Your vouch means a lot to me!! :’)

  11. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately too. I just read this book called One, by Sarah Crossan, about two girls who are conjoined twins. It totally fascinated me, because the experience of being a conjoined twin was one I honestly had never thought about before. If anything though, it made me realise that a lot of what I’m reading ISN’T challenging me to be more empathetic, or even to just experience a world view completely different to my own. I often feel as if I am reading the same stories over and over again, and it’s frustrating. I am challenging myself to try and pick up more books that I wouldn’t ordinarily to try and be a more intentional reader. I love the feeling that my world is being somehow expanded by what I’m reading, and a lot of the time I feel that the books I’m picking up are missing that.

    I’m so pleased you’re back! I hope you’re well and that everything is good :)

    • Oh I’ve heard of One! The premise really interested me too, and now I’m even more interested if it fascinated you!

      Honestly, I’ve been a bit complacent too, which is why I can’t wait to finish the books I’m reading now and can venture into more challenging reads, or books that will take me out of my comfort zone. So go you, go us! ^_^

      Thank you! Everything is going good, or at least much better than they were before! I hope things are great for you too. <3

      • I really recommend it. It’s written as a series of poems, which I’ve read that some people found a bit off putting, but I was really into it. I thought it was a really interesting way of story telling.

        I’ll be interested to hear about the challenging books you find. I’m glad things are going better. I am sort of getting there? I had a really hard time finding any sort of job after Christmas, but I’ve got something now. It’s retail again, but I don’t mind. It’s much easier to start figuring out what’s next when you’ve actually got money in your bank account!

  12. READING CHANGES ME SO MUCH I LOVE IT! Normally I would simply disregard people so deeply and swoonish-ly in love as silly and such, but when I read it, I FEEL IT. I UNDERSTAND. Reading teaches me to be accepting and so much less judgemental. It makes me understand people’s mistakes and it is LOVELY.
    And when a book makes me care, when it makes me understand, when it changes me like that, IT IS THE BEST THING EVER.
    Also, thank you so much for the recommendations! I MUST READ THEM ALL!

    • Thanks Becca!
      Reading definitely changed and changes me too, and it made me more aware of things around me.

      Haha I agree with all of your points! It’s a great feeling indeed. *U*

      You’re welcome! Please let me know if you read some and what you think about them!

  13. What a wonderful post! I completely agree that books can make you more empathetic. Like you said, they’re educational and expose you to so many views and cultures you may never have come into contact with- or may not have understood as well before

    • Thank you for such kind words!

      Absolutely. To add to that, I think books show you how much you don’t know – which is sometimes a much-needed, sobering reminder of how different and wonderful our world is! :)

      Are there any book characters that you really empathize with?

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