Empathy and the Writer

I have a problem.  Yes, yes you smartarse.  More than one. Ok!  Let me rephrase it then.  I have a problem with my writing and I am not yet sure how monumental it may actually turn out to be.  You see, I am probably the least outwardly empathetic person you are ever likely to meet – unless perhaps you enjoy the company of people who have enjoyed a frontal lobotomy.  What worries me is that according to those in the know, empathy is critical in writing anything that you want your reader to feel emotionally towards.

So, what’s empathy?

The simplest definition I found was “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Delving deeper into a psychology textbook (or Wikipedia in my case – forgive me), it seems that empathy is a little more complicated.  Interestingly, empathy seems to be divided into two main areas – affective empathy and cognitive empathy.  The first is the ability to respond with the appropriate emotional response to someone else and the second is to be able to understand someone’s mental state.

Now, I am not saying that I am incapable of feeling for others and am a totally insensitive bastard.  In the safety of my own little world, I can watch The Notebook and shed a tear or cheer a particular character in a favoured book or feel saddened by some shocking news article.  It’s just that I experience it in a way that independent of my own personal emotions – almost at arms length.  This is great in keeping me protected in my own solitary cocoon but sometimes this seriously stuffs up my real life social interactions.  I struggle to respond to others in an empathetic way – obviously this does not apply to those close to me but even with them I tend to subconsciously ignore the emotional impact of my actions in a given situation – the more stressful, the more I blank out others emotional state or responses.  It’s not that I don’t care, I just don’t seem to be wired in a way that allows me to be naturally empathetic towards others.  It takes considerable conscious effort for me to express any empathetic response and I usually flee the situation as soon as possible rather than allow the emotion to intrude.

Taking the types of empathy into consideration, I would say that I am deficient in the affective side of empathy and I am far more on the cognitive side of understanding emotions and feelings.  The rest of the Wikipedia entry on empathy is a pretty interesting read – especially where it seems to indicate that a bias toward a particular type of empathy or lack thereof are indicators of various disorders (Schizo anyone?) and anti-social behaviour – lol… perhaps I need to be in a loony bin.  But I digress… back to writing.

In the controlled environment of my writing, I have no problem understanding and applying emotion to characters and stories and what I am hoping is that this ‘version’ of empathy will be enough to ensure that I am capable of tugging at the heartstrings of my readers.  What concerns me is that my cocoon may be a little too tough and gnarled and could potentially stunt my ability to successfully elicit emotion in my writing.

Only time will tell.

Some further reading on Writing & Empathy:

…and yes, the featured image is slightly biblical and so unlike me.

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