Expanding Empathy – Unexpected Benefits of Reading YA as an Adult


Expanding Empathy - Unexpected Benefits of Reading YA as an Adult

The bookish community is full of discussions about adults reading YA novels, why we do it, whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, and so on forever and ever. Today, though, I’m hoping to broach the topic from a slightly different perspective that I hope you will appreciate and enjoy.

Hi, my name is Kelley and I’m an adult who reads YA.

Let’s get this out of the way: yes, I am an adult (I’m 31 years old). Yes, I read young adult (and sometimes middle grade) fiction 90% of the time. Yes, I love it. No, I don’t feel ashamed by it in the slightest, but yes, sometimes I do feel a little awkward when I attend YA author events in which the audience is mainly teens. I get over it.


Here I am reading a YA book to my cat.

So. I’ve always been kind of… “mature for my age.” I was skipped ahead in grade school, which means I graduated high school and started college at 17. I always hung out with people older than me, so I was not only accustomed to being the youngest one in the room, but I was also used to raising myself to that higher maturity standard.

At my first job, I was the youngest person there (19), but ended up being the “go-to girl” for almost everything our office handled. The same things happened at my next job, which I’m still holding, seven years and counting. I’m not the youngest one in the company anymore, but I do hold the smallest amount of formal education and certifications, so I’m still always striving to prove that I’m as intelligent and capable as all of my peers and colleagues.

My first marriage happened when I was 19, which prompted my adulthood and position as Main Breadwinner in the Household. I am confident and independent and I don’t like having to rely on anyone else for anything. I supported my bum of an ex-husband for 6 years, and now I’m supporting my (amazing and awesome and not at all a bum) husband while he finishes his degree (full disclosure: he is seven years younger than me).

Okay, okay, what’s my point?

Here’s the part where you’re probably all going to hate me a little. (I’m wincing in anticipation.) I do not suffer foolishness well. I have a very hard time tolerating incompetence. I strive for excellence, consideration, and quality in everything I do. Thus, I have found that I have very little patience for “silly teenagers.”

You know how people joke about a little old man, shaking his fist and grumbling about the “young whippersnappers” riding their bikes down the street and letting their dog carelessly trample his geraniums? I’m basically that little old man, only, like… younger and female and with less grey hair.

Oh, right: I mentioned something about empathy.

After reading all of that, it might come as a surprise if I tell you I’m also deeply empathic. So much so, in fact, that I seem to have developed some walls for myself when it comes to other people. The bad part is that these walls are faulty and I seem to have misplaced the controls.

What’s it like, dealing with deep empathic tendencies?

  • With people I’m very close to: I have an almost completely open floodgate. I feel their energies strongly and have trouble sometimes telling them apart from my own. This comes in handy sometimes, and makes me a very good listener. Other times, it can be problematic, when I worry that they’re upset with ME but it’s something completely separate. I wish I could control this better. (I’m learning. Slowly.)
  • With complete strangers in near proximity: This sucks. I don’t know why, but when nearby strangers are feeling/expressing strong emotions, it’s like they just waft over to me. I’m overcome with their heaviness, choking on it, as if they’d been drenched in bad perfume. In these situations, I have to be very careful not to let their anxiety control me, and remove myself from their vicinity, if possible.
  • With anyone else in between: This is easier, mostly because it seems to be muffled. Sometimes the dial can be turned way up, but usually it is turned down — sometimes too far down. Perhaps it is in these situations where I exercise my ability to distance myself from people, because it’s the only time that I can. I think this is probably a big reason why I have little patience with characters on film, and find that it takes a LOT for a book to make me cry.

But doesn’t reading fiction make you more empathetic?

I’m sure we’ve all seen plenty of articles and studies citing this notion. Reading fiction allows you to experience situations and emotions that you may not ever experience in your real life. This broadens your perspectives, enriches your memory-base, and exercises your “feelings muscles” (I just made up that term, sorry it’s not more eloquent). This, in turn, makes it easier for you to understand and empathize with people who may be in these situations or feeling these emotions at some point in your life.

So is this working for me, or isn’t it? Here’s the part where my middle name — PARADOX — really begins to rear its head. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons I love reading fiction so much is for this very thing: collecting the emotions and the knowledge and the experience and adding them to my massive mental library.

I spend a LOT of time analyzing situations from multiple perspectives (sometimes to the point of excess, often times to the point of annoyance to my husband :P). I like to try things on from everyone’s side, and see how they fit differently for everyone. Obviously, this is a form of exercising those empathic muscles of mine, but at the same time, it allows me to distance myself from the situation and thus be more objective in my assessments.

What I want to do, however, is combine this together so that it works to my — and your — advantage.

As much as I might sometimes revel in shaking my fist at unruly teenagers — by god, it’s the principle, you understand! — I also feel disappointed in myself for forgetting to consider their perspective. That used to be a no-brainer for me, and it really helped me to lead a less stressful life. (That person who’s driving 10 mph in front of you? Maybe they’re having car trouble or suddenly got a migraine and are trying not to crash. That telemarketer who just called you for the 5th time this week? They’re just doing their job, and you know it sucks more for them than it does for you.)

So I decided to give myself an exercise. I tried an experiment (oh, I love experiments!).

Whenever I read a book, watch a TV show or movie, play a video game, etc. I have a new goal. I make it a point to mentally immerse myself in the character’s position. I do this consciously and on purpose, especially when I feel the urge to scoff coming on.

I put myself in their position and ask myself:

  • What would I be feeling?
  • How would I react?
  • What choice would I have made, if not that one?
  • Can I understand their reasoning?
  • Maybe it’s not what I would have done, but does it make sense for this character?

It’s true that sometimes I am still frustrated with whatever decision the character has made. There’s no getting around this, because we are all different people (and I’ve basically come to accept the fact that without bad decisions being made by main characters, a lot of stories wouldn’t actually happen).

So I accept this, and I move on to another train of thought:

  • Okay, now they’re in this situation, even if they made the wrong choice. What would I do from there?
  • Or, what would this character do from here?
  • Can I understand how they’re feeling at this point?

Has this experiment been fruitful?

Allow me to answer this question with a story.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at one of my favorite local pizza places for lunch. This is a pretty casual eatery, where you go down the line and tell them what you want on your pizza while they make it for you, then you pay at the end of the line. There was a handful of teenage girls in front of me, silly and giggling and whispering among themselves (as teenage girls do), totally oblivious to everyone else in the room (as teenagers often are).

Aww, look how cute and happy and excited they are!

Aww, look how cute and happy and excited they are!

As I was standing at the register waiting for my receipt, the clerk set a handful of napkins on the counter for me. A couple of the giggling teen girls, however, were busy accidentally spilling soda on themselves as they filled their cups. One of them absentmindedly pushed her way back to the counter and grabbed a couple of the napkins that had been set out by the clerk for me.

The clerk and I smiled at each other, and shrugged as we continued waiting for the credit card machine to finish spitting out papers. The girl eventually realized she’d taken “my” napkins, apologized through another fit of giggles, and returned the napkin to the stack (soda stains and all). I laughed along with her, waving her along and letting her know it was no big deal. I smiled to myself, still giggling too, as I watched them move off to their table and I made my way to mine.

It was at that point I realized my experiments had paid off.

What was going through my mind during that whole exchange? I wasn’t frustrated by the girls’ lack of consideration. I wasn’t annoyed that someone had taken my napkins and then returned them dirty. I was remembering what it was like to be their age, out having pizza with my friends, doing silly things and embarrassing ourselves, laughing with our whole bodies.

It felt good, seeing it from their perspective. I let their good moods bubble up inside of me too, and I rode that little wave of nostalgia as I ate my pizza (alone — don’t pity me, though — I love going out by myself). I knew that it was because I’d let myself sit inside the mind of so many teenagers again, reading one YA book after another. I might still be a tough mistress, ruling with an iron fist, but I’m much better at holding that fist at bay, using it with discernment.

So, yeah. It’s true what they say: reading fiction does make you more empathetic.

Feeling like everything pisses you off?

Try my experiment. Go immerse yourself in a story and really put yourself in the characters’ shoes. It’ll hone those rough edges (and heck, sometimes it’s nice to just drop into someone else’s problems for a while, instead of your own).

Have you experienced an increase in empathy thanks to reading fiction? Can you relate to my experiences as a grumpy grown-up, a deep empath, or otherwise? Are you an adult who reads YA and can either relate to, or find disagreement with, my thoughts on the topic? Let me know what you think!

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