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Do you cry when watching your favourite show, but numb out when something bad happens to you?

This could be why...

Can you relate to this meme? It is a common experience for many, and some people I work with have actually brought it up in therapy, worrying something is wrong with them because they feel more upset about a fictional character’s suffering than they do about their own. This phenomenon is called character empathy, and given it is a common experience, I decided to find out more about it, and its relationship to mental health.

The best stories display characters vulnerably

The field of literary analysis suggests that the best stories involve characters that are portrayed in moments of vulnerability, generating more empathy from the reader or audience. We all suffer and have unpleasant feelings that, for various personal, professional and cultural reasons, we choose to hide. When we encounter a story that portrays someone experiencing difficult feelings such as embarrassment, shame, grief, guilt or doubt, it reminds us that we are not alone in these experiences. We know that having our feelings normalised can be a powerful tool for helping us to allow them, process them and be kinder to ourselves about them.

Seeing the vulnerability and suffering of others can be a safer way of accessing feelings about our own suffering

I lost one of my favourite humans to cancer a few years ago. I cried a lot when I first heard the news, and at her funeral, but aside from those particularly confronting occasions I felt some kind of block whenever I thought about her passing, unable to accept the reality of it.

Around 18 months after she passed away, I was streaming a show late one night where one of the characters died in vaguely similar circumstances, and another character was processing his grief around it.

Suddenly, my tears turned on like a tap and they didn’t stop for quite some time. Initially, this was a reaction to the well-crafted, moving scenes in the show, however, soon the thought entered my mind, “she’s never coming back either”, and suddenly my reaction became about the loss of my friend and was a significant step towards me processing the tragic reality of the situation.

Seeing characters in a vulnerable state is something we can all relate to – but it isn’t something we always see in our daily lives

Seeing characters show vulnerability helps us connect at a deeper level – I absolutely feel more connected to the protagonist of a story who struggles, makes mistakes and doesn’t know if they are the right person for the task ahead of them, compared to an apparently invincible and confident character who seems to embody perfection.

This also makes me feel like I, too, might one day be capable of amazing feats, because stories that include vulnerable characters teach us that it is possible to be both scared and courageous, or both awkward and inspirational. The doubt and error-ridden portrayal of “success” in these stories is truer to life, and something I can see myself going through personally.

Many societies encourage and reward behaviours that maintain the appearance of stoicism. For example, in Australian culture, particularly in rural areas, where I have spent some time living and working, and where my parents grew up, qualities such as “never saying a bad word about anything” and “staying positive in troubled times” are viewed as the ultimate demonstration of strength, and I know this is also the case in many other cultures .

In the case of rural Australia, the glorification of “grinning and bearing it” has likely contributed to a culture where displays of “weak” emotions, such as doubt, sadness, embarrassment and fear, tend to be concealed by most.

I often see the effects of these and similar cultural lessons in the first few sessions with clients, when they feel embarrassed for admitting that they feel anxious or depressed, and their main goals in therapy are to become stronger and more resilient (though they soon learn that having the goal to eliminate unpleasant feelings is partly why their anxiety or depression has become so overwhelming).

If we are raised in a culture where difficult feelings are not acknowledged, or are viewed as a sign of weakness when expressed, then the stories we encounter through shows, films and books may actually be some of the few opportunities we have to see others in an emotionally vulnerable state. It can be very therapeutic to see someone else sharing relatable emotional experiences in a more open and transparent way, and this speaks to the immense importance of the arts as a valid form of therapy.

We make more time and space for characters’ emotions than we do for our own

When we sit down to watch or read something, we ideally do so when we have created space for it. We often put our phone away, or we go to a theatre and sit in a darkened room for a few hours to be able to experience the characters’ story in a meaningful way. Aside from the minority of people who journal or meditate regularly, it is rare to regularly devote this much time and energy to reflecting on how we feel about our experiences, and how they might relate to identity, values and wellbeing.

However, this space and time is necessary for cultivating self-compassion and processing our emotions, so it’s no wonder we often feel more empathy for characters than we do for ourselves – we often provide their emotional experiences with more mental real estate than we give our own!

So, what does this all mean for me?

If you feel particularly triggered by a character’s experiences, rather than labelling your reaction as “weird” and moving on, think about what parallels there might be between your life and the character's experiences that might be making you feel more emotionally invested in their situation. Do you notice any differences between how you dealt with these experiences compared to how the character deals with them? Is there anything you want to take from their experience and apply to your own life?

I also encourage you to reflect on how much space you are devoting to your own reflection compared to consuming stories about other people. If you find there is a big difference, see if you can create more balance by replacing some of your viewing time with journaling, yoga or meditation. You may find this puts you more in tune with your emotions. Seeking therapy can also be a useful pathway towards making desired changes that you are unable to achieve on your own.

Images in this post are courtesy of Disney & Marvel Studios.


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