I realized Tuesday night when I was reading Fire by Kristin Cashore and crying into the bath water that I wasn’t crying because I felt sad a character had died. I was crying because someone in the book felt sad that this character had died. Once I thought about it, I realized that at least half of the times when fiction moves me to tears, it is in empathy with the characters rather than my own feelings being affected. In other words, I’m crying because the character is crying, not because of what moved the character to tears. Sometimes it is both (Ender’s Game, for example).
This feeling other people’s feelings (fictional and real) is something I didn’t have much of a grasp on until I discovered my Myers-Briggs type and started reading what other INFJs wrote about being overwhelmed with the emotions of others. Adding high sensitivity to the mix only heightens this (here is a wonderful article about Elaine Aaron’s research on the Highly Sensitive Person).
A Range of Empathy
The extent to which INFJs report feeling other people’s emotions range from an awareness of how others are reacting, to not being able to remember the last time you experienced a feeling that belonged only to you. “You feel it, I feel it,” an anonymous INFJ wrote. I may not be quite ready to claim my feeling of and for others reaches that extent, but I share her decision to try and avoid encountering strong negative emotions (e.g. a news story about child molestation, a film where a family is torn apart, real-life conflict) because of how overwhelming it is — emotionally as well as physically in terms of headaches and stomach pain.
In INFJ Coach’s series of blog posts on “10 Steps to an Amazing INFJ Life,” part two is “Manage Those Pesky Emotions.” Her article is mainly about dealing with our own emotions when they surface, but the comments point out that this is only part of the problem. One commenter named Jennie wrote that she asks herself,
“Is this my emotion that I’m feeling, or is it someone else’s emotion?’ Many of us INFJs are emotional sponges for the emotions that other people are feeling. Our NF gives us a very high degree of empathy, but sometimes taking on other people’s emotions can be too much to handle.
The other side to this is what INFJ writer Cheryl Florus points out in Personality Junkie’s INFJ Strategies for Dealing with Emotions: Part I. Because an INFJ’s feeling is extroverted, we often have an easier time understanding the emotions of other people than our own emotions (for more on function stacks, see this post). We feel emotions strongly, but need to make an effort to learn how to experience and express them in a way that doesn’t seem overwhelming or uncontrolled. Often, writing down or talking about our emotions is a way to get them outside us so we can look at them more objectively (I keep a journal and talk to my closest family members). Sometimes, until I’ve done this, I’m not exactly sure what it is I’m feeling, let alone how it should be expressed and dealt with.
What about you? Are you an INFJ with experience feeling other people’s feelings (or a non-INFJ who does the same thing, because I’d love to hear from you)? Or are you someone who has never had this happen and thinks we’re crazy?