posttitle = Over-empathizing with non-existent suffering titleClass =title-long len =44

Over-empathizing with non-existent suffering

I finally managed to put words to a thing that has been subtly bugging me for awhile: why certain reactions to me being in pain bother me. This post is short!

A story in which Malcolm is in pain, I

I was moving behind a car to get in the passenger side door. I hit my shin on the car’s tow-hitch and exclaimed some sort of sharp sound of pain.

My mom, who had also been getting in the car, started going “Ohh, buddy! That hurts, oh wow, that really hurts…” etc.

…but I wasn’t actually in that much pain, and was mostly wishing her reaction would go away. The pain is already fading. The sympathy is escalating.

This has happened with other people too; this is just the most salient example. I find these encounters pretty disconnecting, because the person is trying to empathize with me but then after the initial moment they’re paying more attention to their own imagination than they actually are to my experience.

In general, pain that doesn’t indicate something is ongoingly wrong will attenuate—it will gradually decrease. This is true for most stubbings of toes, small cuts and scrapes, and so on. But some responses to pain (eg tensing up a bunch) can make things more painful.

A story in which Malcolm is in pain, II

I was having a conversation with my friend Tristan over dinner, after a long day of walking around and talking a lot about phenomenology (the study of sensation and perception).

I squeezed a lime, and it squirted right into my eye.

I winced, and after a moment remarked with amusement “I think that might be the very first time I’ve directly shot myself in the eye with a lime.”

Tristan engaged warmly: “Oh! That’s a shared, common human experience you’re having.”

I paused and then said, “…I think that that is literally the best response I’ve ever experienced of somebody noticing I’m in pain.”

We both laughed at that point, then proceeded to investigate precisely why this response felt so connective to me. That conversation became this blog post.

We tried to contrast it with other experiences I’ve had, and noted that one articulation of why those past experiences had been disconnective is that the person didn’t stop to consider if I was in fact suffering, they just assumed I was. But if that were the issue, then I would be happy with a response more like “you’re tough, you can take it.” But the recent lime-juice experience was way more specific than that.

Tristan didn’t just suggest I shrug off the experience, he actively welcomed me into it. (Again, we’d spent hours at that point sharing experiences with each other and paying close attention to them.) I paid attention to the stinging and how my eyes were naturally watering to get rid of the acidic juice in my eye.

Where Tristan was welcoming me into the pain, into the experience, usually people are saying something more like “it’s not okay for this to be happening!” Once I articulated this, it occurred to me that perhaps the “it’s not okay” for them feels like they’re on side with me, like saying “this hurts and it’s not okay” like trying to protect me from the pain in that way.

Does that work for some people? It doesn’t work for me.

Sympathy & Empathy

There’s this simple model of sympathy and empathy that says something like “sympathy is feeling bad for someone but not necessarily feeling their pain, whereas empathy is when you feel their pain.”

People often say they like empathy but not sympathy.

But I think neither is what is going on here.

I think that often the relevant person is doing something like over-empathizing. They’re feeling what I feel, times ten, and in a way that seems to also be more aversive than what I’m feeling—ie they’re suffering the pain, in a way that I’m usually not. And probably they’re also intuitively imagining that I’m suffering too, due to mind projection fallacy or something.

But it’s funny, because in some ways this over-empathizing has something in common with sympathizing: the person isn’t really feeling what I’m feeling at all.

Controlling reactions

One question that comes to mind is, does it make sense for the over-empathic person to try to stifle their reaction to my pain? Maybe? I would certainly like it if they stopped projecting it onto me.

This reminds me of a friend of mine who has dealt with various chronic pain issues, and has often relayed that she doesn’t really like talking with people about it, not because it’s bad for her but because they project all sorts of discomfort onto her, and then a conversation that starts with my friend sharing something deep and personal ends with my friend essentially helping the other person deal with their response. Kind of tiring. Not a great way to get support.

So I’d like if people stopped projecting onto me. That seems like a reaction they could control, with some deliberateness. What about going further, and not actually feeling so much pain in response to me crying, “Ow!”? That seems harder to actually do.

But if these people involuntarily feel a ton of pain when they witness someone else hurting, then… do I want to try not overtly reacting when I hurt myself mildly? To basically pretend to not be in pain? That’s pretty hard for these sudden things.

If I can’t intervene at that stage, then maybe the actual answer is to respond to their meta-pain the same way that I wish people responded to me stubbing my toe: by breathing into the experience and welcoming its realness. I guess I could respond the way that they do, but that would create an terrible positive feedback loop…

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.


Arabella Devine » 17 Aug 2016 » Reply

You ask if the “it’s not okay” message works for some people.

My perspective: I’d feel deeply irritated by someone welcoming me into the pain experience right after a toe-stubbing. When I experience sudden pain, the bodily pain is one of the least-bad parts of the experience. The powerful, co-occurring flash of emotional pain (an ugly mix of shock, humiliation, rage and probably some other things) is the bad bit. This over-empathising, to me, sounds like someone is trying to soothe the accompanying emotional hurt. I generally find people actually treat you a bit like a child in such circumstances. For me, that is helpful, because for a moment there, I revert briefly to a close-minded, childlike state, which “oh buddying” can actually most effectively ease me out of.

It sounds like for you, the easiest way to move from System 1 to System 2 is a call to mindfulness (“let’s be in this experience”) and for me, that transition is easiest when System 1 can be recognised, engaged and soothed (“it’s ok buddy”), almost as though the person is letting my brain know that there is no danger here and System 1 thinking is not actually necessary. The call to mindfulness approach, would, for me, be about as effective as telling a 2 year old to embrace the experience.

That said, perhaps you don’t actually experience this ugly System 1 response at all?

クリス » 17 Aug 2016 » Reply

Thanks, this gives me something to think about.

As far as reactions go, I’m wondering how to support both you and Arabella.

What about asking first, e.g.:

A: Ow. I just squirted a lime in my eye.

B: So how are you experiencing this?

A1: My brain is sending a message that it wants it to stop hurting, while I’m amused and intrigued by observing my reactions. Apparently my brain is not able to form a plan that would make the pain stop without some conscious help, so I’m kinda letting it spin its wheels while it’s just sitting there.

B1: Haha, I understand this reaction perfectly.


A2: Ow man this sucks!

B2: Haha, it’s OK, it’ll pass. Maybe try rinsing it with water from the tap?

Seán » 18 Aug 2016 » Reply

A few thoughts …

The most connective thing anyone could say to me at a time when I exclaim something reacting to a sudden intense sensation of any kind would be what クリス suggests, “So how are you experiencing this?” with genuine interest. I want a chance to sense for myself whether I should just take a moment to sense whether respond in some practical way or just carry on, and hearing either escalation or minimization before anyone present knows what the felt experience and the direct consequences are is not helpful.

For that reason I prefer not to let on what I am sensing, to the point of suppressing exclamations when I can or initially minimizing aloud myself when among people who I have seen be reactive about the like in prior situations.

I see those reactivities as habits likely resulting from positive feedback loops in the past.

But denying other people anything to spin on can have consequences. Several weeks ago I banged my knee hard in a way that I have done before, when my attention is divided while I am busy suppressing some other signal. In my experience if I give it a couple of days of gentleness nothing more need be done. At the time I was working with someone who makes big fusses, so I didn’t let on and worked hard in the heat, and when swelling showed up, did nothing about it, to avoid dealing with his fussing. It took two weeks for the minor injury to settle down that time.

That was a bit more than an ouch, but still really just a blip, even with the probably-avertable swelling. Whether the ouch is completely inconsequential the next minute or not, it doesn’t make sense to be steered more by how others react than by the sensed reality.

Konrad Seifert » 23 Aug 2016 » Reply

Thanks for your great articles, Malcolm! I do enjoy your perspective quite a lot.

I actually think that what you’re writing about is something deeply rooted in, especially, the American culture. Let’s put aside the reaction with your mother, that one definitely is not purely linked to my comment, as motherly empathy is another thing. The two might be correlated though.

Caveat: I have lived in Nashville and only experienced everywhere else in the US on travels.

Americans love to be overly friendly for the sake of being overly friendly. You get asked “what’s up?” without people expecting a reply; If you are associated with something great that has taken place you get showered with “awww, so great”, “damn bro, that’s awesome”, “10/10 person”, “keep being amazing” and alike (slight hyperbole); You have something presumably bad that happens and it goes into the other direction (“I feel you” is among the worst things in this category imo).

In Bible Belt culture, speech is full with superlatives and emotional expressions and their use has gotten more and more detached from their actual meanings and whatever those where initially associated with. A lot of people appreciate the vocal expression of emotions very much, it’s a way to connect with others and through over-use of it, people have lost the connection to what those things are actually meant to express and therefore have no way of judging whether this really is the appropriate use. It’s just so common to react like that, that there’s little to no reflection about what it really means.

When someone over-empathises with you vocally, not only is that really annoying and useless, but also they most likely do not really empathise with your experience – they simulate something that through speech has been taken to the extreme but no one ever really experienced. And worse, they don’t really sympathise with you as a person but, due to over use, it has also just become a rather shallow, automatic reaction. The words coming out of their mouths have by far less meaning for the speaker than they have for the listener in this case. That’s the issue.

Jack Colwell » 25 Aug 2016 » Reply

I found your blog post both interesting and perplexing. I went for my morning walk and happened to listen to this podcast on frame of reference.

I wonder how you would think about your mother’s “over empathizing” with a frame of reference more like hers? Does your mother find reward through the connection she experiences with you by empathizing? Would it be beneficial to figure out how to minimize her experience? Would it be good to affirm and appreciate her experience?


    Malcolm » 25 Aug 2016 » Reply

    Great to hear from you 🙂 I’ll check out that podcast during one of my next workouts.

    It’s a good question. I think my mother is potentially an edge case, because parents are perhaps wired to experience visceral pain when their children are in pain, and I think that’s the primary thing going on for her. I guess there’s also a strong desire to comfort me, to make me feel better, and an implicit belief that the way to do that is to respond in the way described in the post. I would hazard that the mental motion here is something like trying to validate the pain, and affirm that my being hurt matters.

    I’m not sure exactly what it makes sense to do, in the frames that you describe, but I think that the main thing is to send her reassurance that I’m okay (in much the same way I might do if something fell and made a smashing sound and there was someone in an adjacent room). That would allow her to relax.

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