Emotion and empathy

Emotional literacy is so important. A lesson I learned the hard way. Before counselling, feeling the physicality of emotion and describing it was very hard for me. I hadn’t realised how much that was a problem and holding everything in had made me ill. It ended in a breakdown.

The silence.
The mute lay in the bed, eyes open in the darkness, mind whirring.

Parenthood sparked my need and drive to be emotionally literate. To parent my girls the way I wanted, I had to learn the language. If I wanted to be able to support their emotional development, I needed to become fluent.

The sharpness of talking, biting, snappy.
The shouting voice, patience worn thin.

And writing has highlighted to me again its importance. I realised I need to learn quite a lot about the skill of writing. Not the physical act of writing but the construction of the prose. The cliché of showing not telling.

The wince.
The churning of the stomach, uncertain.

I am impatient to write my story, but I want to express what is in my head, accurately on the page. My story has huge emotional repercussions and philosophical debates entwined within it. Do I need to experience a particular event or emotion to be able to write about them?

The tap of fingers.
The repeated glance at the clock, the gate.

I have written some short ‘immersion’ pieces about how I felt in a particular moment, to practice creating the depth of description I need to show. But last week, with the rollercoaster of settling my daughters back at school and nursery, I realised how many varieties of ways emotion, and specifically, anxiety is shown.

The tight grip; panicked crying.
The quiet of a buried face.

There are many parts of the story I am writing that I haven’t experienced and/or are abstract. But if I can show empathy; put myself in someone else’s shoes, for example my children, then I can absolutely write about emotional responses in others.

The downward look.
The clenched jaw.

Looking back through my memories of myself and those around me, I recognise many different ways that anxiety can be shown. I challenged myself to write my experiences and my perceptions.

The wobbly chin.
The blinked back tears.


I found a surprising contrast between the stillness and silence and the fidgeting and loudness, that if I hadn’t spent time thinking about I would have missed. And we can miss cues in ourselves and those around us just as easily.

The stillness of the lungs, waiting.
The twitching movement of a leg, over and over.

Everyone responds to emotions differently and even within one person the response is different each time anyway, perhaps depending on the pressure causing the anxiety. Empathy is the key to being able to recognise and deal with them. I spend a lot of time talking with my girls, reflecting back to them what I see, guiding their responses. A bit like writing really.

The release of sphincters.
The rapid, shallow breathing, the heart racing before the confrontation.

Do you recognise any anxiety behaviours in yourself? Are you still or fidgeting or both? Do you have any descriptions of anxiety to add? I’m planning to use this exercise to explore other emotions in writing, let me know if you’d like to join me.

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. My lovely Alice, I could have written most of this myself. As you know, I’m concentrating on emotional learning for P, being autistic she really struggles with it. It comes easily and naturally to me, and I’m very much trying to learn her language. Not easy, especially when sleep and patience are in short supply…

  2. Joyce Humphries says:

    Alice, once again I so enjoyed reading this post. It made my heart race for the emotions you have managed to express in prose so eloquently. Very cathartic. You are a gifted writer.

  3. maddy@writingbubble says:

    This seems like a good exercise! The way you’ve interleaved the descriptions of anxiety along with the rest of the post makes for interesting reading – I found it put me slightly off balance which was kind of perfect for a post about anxiety! You’ve identified lots of different ways people experience and display anxiety and made me wonder about what I do! Thanks for linking to #whatimwriting

  4. This is a brilliant post – your descriptions are so powerful that I am quite glad you interspersed them with explanatory prose otherwise I think they would be quite overwhelming! (In a good way…) I find the process you describe, of really empathising with characters in order to show how they’re feeling rather than just telling the reader, absolutely fascinating. I have struggled with anxiety and depression in the past and I’m sure this is part of the reason I feel drawn to people’s inner worlds… I also did lots of research into emotional literacy as a teacher, and I definitely agree with the parallels you draw in this post. And essentially it means writing as therapy too, so it’s a win win situation! xx

  5. Nicola Young says:

    It’s an interesting concept and the quotes are very powerful. I can see how they would help express your own feelings and allow you to think about your characters in a similar way.

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