Most people who I spend lots of time with are readers. We tend to gravitate toward each other, I suppose, drawn together in part by a mutual love of books. But I also encounter quite a few people who wonder what’s the point of all this reading, especially if it’s fiction. “Do you really want to write/read a book full of lies?” one might ask. Or another may say, “Why bother reading stories? It’s just escapism.”
We all need a bit of escape from reality now and then, and I’d say fiction is one of the healthiest ways to do that. And, as many writers have pointed out, these books full of “lies” are actually one of the most effective vehicles for truth-telling. Those are both excellent reasons to read and write stories, but for today’s post I want to focus on another reason that numerous studies have been looking at since 2013. Reading fiction can actually make you a better person.
Theory of Mind and Fiction
Back in 2013, a study in the journal Science by David Kidd and Emmanuele Castano suggested that reading “literary” short stories immediately improved participants’ scores on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET). This test asks people to look at photographs of actors’ eyes and select one of four states of mind the picture conveys. It’s designed to measure “theory of mind,” which is the ability to attribute mental states to yourself and to others, as well as recognize others have distinct beliefs, desires, intentions, etc. from your own.
The media tends to embellish their reports on scientific studies, so it’s no surprise many popular news outlets said this study proved fiction can increase your empathy. That’s not exactly what the study measured, though, and a subsequent study in 2016 failed to replicate the original’s results. The new study did, however, find that “People who were lifelong readers of fiction … had significantly higher scores on the RMET.” Read more →
This past Friday I did something I’ve never done before and which provided my father with much amusement. I danced at someone’s funeral. More precisely, it was at a memorial service for a man I didn’t really know. I’d seen him at church services, but we never spoke. His wife was on our dance team, though, and she asked us to open the service by dancing to Bo Ruach Elohim.
At first, I didn’t really feel much about this man’s death beyond a rather abstract sense of sympathy for those who loved him. But as soon as I was surrounded by those who were grieving, I started to feel it as well. Layering on top of that were the emotions I imagined other people I cared about feeling. I won’t go into any details, but some of the things this man’s wife and daughter mentioned when they spoke about him directly touched on struggles I know two other friends are going through. And my heart ached with/for them all.
INFJs are inherently sensitive to other people’s emotions. On top of that, many describe themselves as an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) and/or empath. This trait, “empath,” isn’t simply a person who feels empathy. Here’s a description written by Jennifer Soldner, an empathic INFJ:
An empath is a person who feels exactly what others feel. This is not to be mistaken with sympathy, which is trying to understand what someone is going through, or even the very similar word empathy, which is actually just being familiar with what someone else is experiencing. An empath literally feels exactly what someone else feels, even if they have never experienced, nor can they relate in any way to what the other person is going through. (from The INFJ Empath Explained)
Talking about being an empath is kind of tricky. Going back to my opening story, suppose I told you that I didn’t start out having feelings of my own about this man’s death, but when I walked into a room of people grieving for him I felt grief. Someone who reads that and assumes I’m an empath would say it’s because I was picking up the other people’s energy waves and feeling their grief as if the emotion were my own. Someone who doesn’t think I’m an empath would say I’m mirroring the other people’s grief because I observe it and care about them, or that I’m projecting my ideas of what they are feeling and then responding to that. Read more →
Congratulations on the procurement your new INFJ!* INFJs are highly sought after in the personality type collecting world given their extremely rare nature. INFJ spotting is a very difficult hobby, requiring forays into the deepest recesses of bookstores, yoga studios, and the internet. Keeping an INFJ in your life once you’ve found one can be even more of a challenge.
INFJs are widely considered one of the most amiable and empathetic personalities. Their minds offer a good balance of emotion and logic that helps them relate to most types of people, and they highly value commitment and relationships. As introverts, though, they have limited social energy and they don’t maintain relationships with most of the people they meet. Once you’ve found an INFJ, taking your acquaintance to the level or friendship, or relationship, isn’t simple. That is, unless you have this user guide.
Overview of the INFJ
The INFJ is a strange sort of creature, often compared to unicorns. Their uniqueness is a result of two things: the way their brains/personalities are hardwired and the rarity of their personality type. What’s perfectly normal for an INFJ seems unusual among humanity as a whole because so few people function this way. Understanding your INFJ’s basic functions is the first step towards successful interaction with the INFJ.
“Why would you write fiction? Isn’t it just a bunch of lies?”
It’s been a while since someone asked me that question, but I can re-play the scene clearly. They look smug, like they’d just discovered a great argument against writing and reading fiction. Fiction is not true, and so therefore it is not good. Why make-up stories when there are plenty of good, wholesome things, people, and events that already exist? In fact, why tell stories at all, especially fantasy stories? They just give children unrealistic expectations of the world, and adults an excuse to ignore reality.
Obviously, since I’m still writing and reading fiction, I don’t buy into these arguments. But why?
Probably the simplest reason for writing fiction is to escape. Much of fiction — both good and bad — falls into this category. Sometimes life isn’t any fun, and reading and writing fiction gives us a way to escape for a while without actually leaving our location or situation. This can be as simple as diving into Middle Earth while waiting for the clothes to finish drying at the laundromat. Would you rather stare at your t-shirts spin, or canoe down the Rauros with the Fellowship of the Ring?
In a New York Times article, ‘Why Write Novels at All?’ Garth Risk Halberg talks about the idea that “the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness.” Now we’re getting closer to the reason I write fiction. Escape is all well and good, but what are you escaping to? It’s not enough to just take off for Narnia — we have to find Aslan there or the journey means nothing.
We write to share who we are and what we think, and we read to connect with something outside us. Usually this is a new world or characters, but if we’re very lucky we’ll also sense the author as they bleed through the pages of their work. This connectedness is one of the chief arguments for reading and writing, since it carries over into “real” life: people who read fiction are more emphatic than non-readers.
Let’s say you have something you want to say about a controversial topic. We’ll use abortion as an example, and say you’re on the pro-life side. If you write an article telling people that abortion is bad, only the people who already agree with you are going to like it. If you tell a true story about a baby who survived an abortion or a mother whose life was ruined by an abortion, it will affect more people but you’ll still lose a large number of your readers.
Now suppose you write a story where you climb inside the head of a character and show what they are struggling with as she decides whether or not to have an abortion. You don’t just put your words in the character’s mouth – you imagine yourself in her shoes, and realize that she has real reasons to consider both options. You sympathize with her, and whatever your readers believe they sympathize with her too. Your ideas will filter through in decisions you make about how see feels when she sees the baby on an ultrasound, or whether or not she keeps the child at the end of the story. You can let readers know what you think, but you don’t shove your ideas down their throat. You give them a chance to feel with you, and let them think for themselves.
Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent. In my view, a fiction writer whose adherence is to literature is, necessarily, someone who thinks about moral problems: about what is just and unjust, what is better or worse, what is repulsive and admirable, what is lamentable and what inspires joy and approbation. This doesn’t entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense.
Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate—and, therefore, improve—our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment. ” – Susan Sontag, from a speech at the Los Angeles Public Library
This sort of literature may or may not be an escape for your readers, but should definitely let them connect with something or someone. It should make them think. It should give them a chance to “meet” types of people thy might never come in contact with in their real lives, to question ideas that they take for granted, to consider what is and is not moral. Fiction lets us talk about things that are uncomfortable to discuss in real life, or give a new perspective on issue too charged in reality to have a dialogue about. It lets us ask “what if?” and run with the potential answers before actually changing the world. Yet.
While trying to decide on my next topic, I saw that “how to be friends with an INFJ” was one of the top searches on my blog this past week. I’ve addressed the issue of friendship in some of my other posts about INFJs, but never written an entire post about it. It’s also something that has been on my mind recently, and it is a not infrequent topic of discussion between me and some close friends.
If you want to make friends with an INFJ, or get to know one better, there are a few key points to keep in mind. Some of these are true for all friendships, and especially friendships with INFJs, and others are more INF-specific. They are also a good first-step if you are romantically interested in an INFJ and want them to notice you.
Five Tips for Relationships
1) Make the First Move
INFJs use extroverted feeling (Fe) to relate to the outside world. This means that we can draw energy from emotional interactions, and may appear more extroverted than other introverts. This is also true of ISFJs, who are often considered the most “extroverted” introverts since they love people so much.
Still, we are introverts, and we’re most comfortable talking with people we already know. If you want to get to know an INFJ, you’ll probably have to be the one who initiates a conversation. That lets us know you are interested in talking with us, which puts us at ease since we aren’t worried about whether or not we’re imposing on your time when you’d rather be doing something else.
2) Be Genuine
Pairing Introverted Intuition (Ni) with Fe gives INFJs an almost super-human empathy. Many INFJs literally feel other people’s emotions, and we’re quick to pick up on unspoken cues that don’t match spoken words. We might not be able to tell what you’re holding back or lying about, but we can tell you’re not being genuine and that’s a huge turn off.
If an INFJ suspects you of being less than genuine, they loose interest very quickly. If you’re a new acquaintance, they might simply avoid seeing you again. If you’re someone they can’t avoid, then they will keep conversations civil but superficial. We don’t trust our true selves with people when we can’t get a read on what their true selves are like.
3) Don’t Be Afraid to Go Deep
INFJs have little interest in shallow conversations. We would rather have a few close friends than many casual acquaintances. The way the word “friend” is used has always bothered me as being imprecise. I have acquaintances, friends, and then close friends, but I just refer to them all as “friends” to avoid offending anyone who thinks they are a friend and then finds out I think of them as an acquaintance. People who meet INFJs often think that they know them well, while the INFJ thinks “they really don’t know me at all.”
If you want to be one of an INFJs close friends, then you have to make an effort to get beyond the superficial. INFJs respond very well to this, so once you indicate that you are interested in going beyond small-talk the sharing will go both ways. We like conversation, and we will talk as well as listen if we feel safe and interested. Here’s a great article called How To Turn Small Talk Into Smart Conversation. When I read this as an INFJ, my reaction was, “I wish more people would introduce themselves like this. I would be so much more interested in talking to them.”
4) Be Patient
Even if you’ve taken the first step to initiate a friendship, been completely honest, and encouraged deep conversation it can take quite a while for an INFJ to really open up. We have many layers, and the longer we are in a stable friendship with you, the more layers we’ll let you see. INFJs form instant perceptions of whether or not we can trust people, so first-impressions are important, but we also modify our impression based on how we observe your behavior over time. A bad first impression can be reversed if we see you making an effort to be friendly and trust-worthy, and a good first impression can be deepened as we see that what we’ve already shared with you stays safe.
Patience also comes into play during conversations. INFJs have trouble getting all their thoughts out into words. If the topic of conversation is something they’ve already thought about, they can speak readily and coherently. If it’s new and unfamiliar we typically do one of two things: 1) nod and make some general comments while our brains frantically race to come up with something to say. Usually that “something” shows up a week later in the shower. 2) start putting our thoughts into words, and sorting through ideas verbally. The final idea might take some time to emerge.
The second reaction is the one you’re going for in a friendship with INFJs. If we’re comfortable enough to think out-loud, it means we trust you. As long as you give us time to come up with an answer rather than look at us like we’re crazy, then we’ll relax and the conversation can continue to move forward. If you cut us off or jump to conclusions about what we think before we’ve had time to express outselves, we feel like you aren’t really interested in what we’re thinking and be hesitant to share with you later.
5) Don’t Betray Us
INFJs hold grudges. We might forgive readily (depending on the circumstances), but we don’t forget. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it is my automatic response. The closer you get to an INFJ, the harder it is to bounce-back to a close friendship after you’ve hurt us. The more we like you and the more we have invested in you, the more chances we’ll give you, but there’s a point at which we just give up and shut you out.
An INFJ might not completely sever ties with someone who has hurt them (depending on the nature of that betrayal), but they will withdraw. For example, if you give an INFJ the impression that you want to carry on a regular correspondence filled with deep discussion and then ignore her for 3 months and forget to answer any of her questions when you do reply, she will have no interest in continuing the correspondence.
So why go to all this effort? What do you get out of a relationship with an INFJ?
For one thing, INFJs are surprisingly good fun to be around. We have a great sense of humor, delight in occasional spontaneity, and can talk about pretty much anything you like. But you don’t see all that until you make the effort to become friends. Until then, INFJs will hover in the background (away from other people) or blend in like a chameleon (with other people) to avoid stressful, superficial interactions.
INFJs are also good listeners, and we love to offer counsel. Sometimes we feel like our friends’ therapist, but we rarely mind. We want to help, and we’re good at suspending judgement. Since we’re so empathic, we aren’t often surprised by anything you tell us even if you thought you were doing a good job of keeping it hidden. Once it’s out in the open, we are sympathetic listeners who ask questions and want to fully understand what’s going on before we offer suggestions or any kind of judgements.
We’re also fiercely loyal. We don’t let many people get close, and we want to hold on to the very few that do become our true friends. We’ll do just about anything to keep the people we love in our lives. INFJs take the time to build-up their relationships, cultivate deepening friendships, and keep in touch with what’s going on in the lives of people we care about. We’re supportive, encouraging, and willing to adapt ourselves to make others happy as long as it doesn’t conflict with our core values. So get out there and start making friendships with INFJs. I don’t think you’ll regret it!
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).
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?