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