Empathy, Compathy, and the Writing Life

Giant_bubble from Wikimedia

I was in a funk for much of  last week, which isn’t in and of itself exactly news. (Nor interesting to you, I suspect.) What might be, however, is its cause: my writing.

I’m not referring to the usual “Am I good enough?” schtick, although that beast rears its head so often it took me a while to distinguish between the two. No, this is about an old familiar friend from another lifetime: compathy.

Most people have heard of it’s cousin, empathy, which might be defined as the ability to understand another’s point of view without necessarily agreeing with it. (For obvious reasons, empathy is a helpful asset in anyone’s life, but it’s particularly useful for a writer who aims to create character-based fiction.)

Compathy goes a step beyond that. It’s the ability to go beyond merely understanding another’s point of view, into actually assuming their emotions. When you possess compathy, if someone in your life feels joy, so do you. If someone feels pain…bingo! 

Compathy’s precisely what was going on for me last week. By an odd quirk of fate, every single one of my characters was going through hell simultaneously. And there could be no flashes of humor to lighten their/our load, no zaniness to remind them/me that they are simple, intellectual constructs. It was balls to the walls time for them, and for me, utterly exhausting.

So I thought this might make for an interesting blog post, because unlike most people, who look at you like you’re nuts if you say you can understand another’s point of view, nevermind actually feel their emotions, I have a hunch many of you know exactly what I’m talking about. How can you not, if you love to either read or write deep third person?

Then I thought we might talk about strategies we all use to restore a healthy psychic distance when the writing is over for the day. Let’s face it: although we may still hold a romantical vision of the angsty, inspired artist, living that way doesn’t make us good employees. Nor  life partners. We all need a method to prevent our characters’ emotional states from bleeding over into the real world.

These are some of my strategies:

1. Awareness: once I’ve cottoned on to the fact that I’m not really a neurotic witch, but experiencing emotional contagion, that’s half the battle for me. I get there faster if I journal or mediate, particularly around the theme of gratitude.  

2. Vigorous physical exercise, particularly if it requires mental activity as well:  I find dancing excellent for this. Between the music, the concentration I need to remember the routine, and the endorphin-releasing exercise, it’s a comprehensive emotional reset.

3. Sex: for the same reasons listed in #2. Plus, it’s a remarkably efficient way to restore a relationship that’s become strained while listening to the Compathy Blues.

4. Play: I no longer have young children in my house, yet I still have a giant bottle of Toys R Us bubble-making solution in my kitchen cupboard, plus an assortment of  wands. (I do NOT care for those electric thingamabobs, where you fill a gun with solution and just squeeze the trigger! Besides the fact that their environmentally abhorrent, they won’t work in this instance to reset your brain.)Pillow fight

Failing that, a tickle-, water-, or pillow-fight always work to give me a reprieve from my characters’ agony. Also, they reconnect with my kids, who often wonder why their mother can now out-sullen them.

How about you folks? Do you experience compathy? If you do, is that a good thing for your writing? And what are your strategies to integrate back into the real world?

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11 thoughts on “Empathy, Compathy, and the Writing Life

  1. hmmm..very interesting question. And just to make it even more complicated – to what degree do we use our characters to act out our own “shadow” side – and if that’s what we’re doing, shouldn’t our day-to-day be improved by that expression, rather than infected by it? I’ve gone both ways with it, but I wonder if there might be a conscious way to stay with the former dynamic (letting the characters vent the shadow on your behalf) rather than shifting to the latter (sucking you into venting your characters’ shadow sides on their behalf…) – Good questions you brought up and lots to think about!! Thanks muchly!


  2. Perhaps this is due to my maleness or perhaps due to my borderline sociopath nature (I kid, sort of :)), but empathy is difficult for me, much less compathy in most situations. I have an inherent understanding of what reaction I’m ‘supposed’ to have to a situation, but I find myself less empathetic as I age.

    This goes for my characters as well. I’ve, on occasion, felt a strong attachment to one, but the emotional strife that he/she is currently suffering never consciously bleeds over IRL.

    Plotting/story arc in relation to character arc, however, constantly nibbles at my brain and has caused many a restless night.

    All that being said, I envy you b/c I think a strong emotional resonance between you and your characters creates stronger, more life-like characters (as long as you’re not loco in la cabasa :)).

  3. What an interesting take on it, Kaite: Do therapy on the page, then learn to leave it there. If that’s how it works, I’m probably set for life. Lord knows, I’ve got a ton of material. 😉

    And I definitely have noticed the emotional contagion carrying forward in a good way. One of my protagonists is a strong, confident woman, and there are moments I’ve channeled her in real life.

  4. Bane, don’t get me wrong. I’m not perfect in this arena at all. In fact, one of the things that has helped me get to know my charactes the best, and understand the arc they’ll have to complete, is Lori Hutzler’s Character Mapping technique. You can find it described at the Emotional Toolbox website.

    And having a more detached brain surely works on avoiding huge plot holes. Bet you don’t write yourself into a corner very often.

  5. LOL. Nice question. Whether I allow me to wallow or not depends a great deal on where I am in the scene. If I need to continue in my compathy hell, I do so. I try my best to make it up to everyone later. So far, my family has been amazingly supportive. It helps that my husband is also an artist and my daughter’s only 3 and mostly clueless so far. If possible, I go for a walk, talk it out with the hubby, read a book or watch a comedy, etc. The movie thing is handy as it doesn’t reset me to normal. It curbs the compathy and gives me distance without forcing me to lose those feelings and connections with my characters.

    BTW, thanks for the comments on Flogging the Quill! I didn’t get a lot of them – for better or ill – and really appreciate those folks who took the time. 😀

    1. I envy you a husband who “gets it”, Victoria. Mine does his best, but his pointy left-brain-creativity extends to landscaping design, not this kind of work. Poor guy, stuck with me. 😉

      I like the idea of a movie, just for a mental break. It is a balance, isn’t it, because you don’t want to leave the world behind entirely.

      And if I helped at all, I’m well pleased. Writing in a vacuum just…sucks. (Sorry. Bad puns are genetic.) Good luck with your writing, and thanks for the visit.

    1. Hi, Anna. I wish I could quote you a reference, but it came from a long-discarded article handed to me by a psychologist friend. Obviously the content resonated with me. I even recall her saying there was ethical debate about compathy in her circles; some psychologists believe they can’t effectively counsel a client unless they share their pain, others believe detachment is key.

      I have never heard compathy discussed in medical literature, but if you look, you’ll find it in some nursing and/or social work references.

      Hope that helps.

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