Learning Empathy to Be a Better Writer and a Better You

I want to thank Sarah Westinghouse who I mentored several years ago as she began writing about her life as a mother of an autistic child and a physically abusive spouse . It was on her recommendation that I write about empathy in writing and I appreciate the suggestion

If I have ever worked with you as a writing coach or a writing mentor then it should be ingrained within you to understand the importance of empathy. This understanding is not only to improve your writing, but also to improve your life. Does being empathetic mean you won’t hurt? No, and in fact as you learn empathy there is a good chance that you will find hurt more often and more intensely. Nice sell, right? Why would I practice something that will hurt me more in life? Well, it’s because that over time you will learn how to better understand where the pain in others manifests, which will also help you close the gap on that hurt and improve your mindfulness toward life.

What is empathy and why is it important in writing?

Empathy is the ability to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from that person’s point of view, and imagine yourself in their place. In a world, a year (2020) where we want to blame everyone else for our suffering, we forget that our suffering is not unique to ourselves. The delivery of pain comes from struggle. And once you understand that you can, in life, begin to embrace those who caused pain, apply the bandages to the damage, and move forward with a new understanding. Hopefully that understanding will coexist.

In writing, it is your experiences that create profound stories, interesting characters, and allow you to create emotional struggle and insight into a world you create for your readers. Does that mean old man down the road yell at people to get away from his lawn because he’s just mean? Or, does he fear getting too close to anyone emotionally? Did that person at the store snap at you because they are just cranky? Or, did they lose someone special to them? As a writer we must learn empathy to understand the motivations of characters, how a person suffering loss will emotionally respond to seeing two strangers kiss, or how a six-year-old flips out because they returned from the bathroom to realize they didn’t put the cap on their markers.

Yes, empathy can hurt because negative emotions and impulsive (and sometimes planned) actions can bring out the worst in people. While those emotions and actions may seem sinister, understanding the well of those emotions is how you find yourself taking a breath, focusing your mind, and looking for positive common ground to better understand each other. Sure, this may not always work. Yes, you will often feel as if you are giving more than receiving. And definitely, you will feel the weight of managing the consequences of others’ actions. But, isn’t that what writing is about? Isn’t that what creates an amazing story? In Gabriele Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, Florentino Ariza’s passion was enveloped in his life-long love for Fermina Daza. His pain was based on the consequences of Fermina’s father and his undying will to keep the two young lovers apart. Florentino’s love was pronounced and the consequences he faced were not of his making. In Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, George Milton’s friendship was one of empathy and, while brutal, his decision to kill his friend Lennie was a decision he would forever regret. His action, ripping him apart was a resolution to consequences based on Lennie’s actions. Perhaps one of the greatest signs of empathy and struggle brought on by consequences not created by their self is in Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing. This book is a personal favorite of mine and forever held close to me. It shows the struggles of how an empathetic person faces overwhelming challenges and consequences. The protagonist Kya, always being shoved down, found remarkable strength in the things she loved. This novel shows a focus on empathy that overcomes any hurt she may have felt.

Signs of Empathy

We all, to a degree, have feelings of empathy. The good news is that we all can also improve our empath strengths. I will save “how to become an empath” for another article. For now, here is a list of signs that show you are inclined to be an empathetic person. From this list you can discover your strengths and find places in your heart where you can grow and improve:

  • You are a good and caring listener.
  • People come to you to discuss their problems.
  • You are good at picking up how people are feeling.
  • You often think about how other people feel.
  • Friends, family, and even strangers come to you for advice.
  • You are often overwhelmed by tragic events, loss, and heartbreak.
  • You try to help and are often loyal to those who are suffering.
  • You can tell when others are not being honest.
  • You may feel drained or overwhelmed in social situations.
  • You care deeply about other people.
  • You find it difficult to set boundaries in your relationships with other people.

Benefits of being empathetic

Having empathy is an important role that writers play when creating the characters within their stories. And the more you practice empathy, mindfulness, and understanding the easier life’s challenges will become. That’s not to say you won’t get lost on occasion, just that it will always be easier to find your way back.

So, while we are all capable of selfish and cruel behavior the question remains, if that self-satisfying need exists, why don’t we all engage in self-serving behavior. After all, it works for a lot of very successful people (… even Presidents). What is it that motivates a person to choose a positive path with little financial or tangible gains as opposed to a self-gratifying one that fulfills our personal needs?

There are several benefits to experiencing empathy:

  • Allows you to build positive social connections
  • Teaches you the importance of forgiveness
  • Helps you regulate your emotions, especially in a time of great stress
  • Promotes helping behaviors.

Writers must pull from a broad spectrum of characters, their behaviors, emotions, actions, and consequences. Having the ability to understand each unique person in and around your life will provide you with the necessary tools to emotionally pull readers into your writing.


I am a full-time freelance writer specializing in memoirs and autobiographies on mental health, domestic and sexual abuse as well as other topics. I also write blogs, web-content, and handle several other types of projects. To see what I offer visit my rates page or contact me with specific queries and questions. I’m also available to help mentor you through your first book. I’d love to work with you, and if you know anyone else looking for a writer I offer a generous referral fee.

If you would like to leave a donation for people interested in writing a book about their life and challenges, but lack the budget, you can contribute here.

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