Empathy As a Source of Pain

March 16th, 2023 by Kelly Kienzle

The stranger at the gym raises her middle finger at me as I approach the empty treadmill next to hers. What?  Did I just see that right?  Yes, I did, she just did it AGAIN.  Wow.  And then I move on, onto that very treadmill of course.

I feel nothing towards her other than curiosity about what is playing in her mind… or her headphones.  And I feel a faint amusement for the funny story I now have to tell.  But that’s it – – mild curiosity and a smidgen of amusement.

Fast forward to that night at home and my husband tells me the chicken I made is kind of bland.  Now I’m very sad that he’s not happy.  I feel pain that he feels pain. I also cook up some anger that he did not make dinner himself.

Never mind that he was talking about the quality control of the store where the chicken was bought and not my culinary skills.  Never mind that he has cooked the majority of at-home dinners for the last 5 months.  I am deeply hurt!

And there it is.  A stranger can use body language to tell me to f- off and it’s a ripple on the lake of my day.  But my husband casually analyzes the quality control of Trader Joe’s and my lake has turned into a tsunami.

The depth of our pain is commensurate with the depth of our caring for another person.  Tiny, even unintentional hurts from a loved one prick us more acutely than full-on attacks from strangers.

Why does this imbalance occur?  Because we care, literally, about what that loved one thinks about us.  We care about how much love they treat us with.  Thus, empathy is the originator of our pain.

If empathy is at the root of pain, then it follows that the more empathy and care we have for others, the more we are setting ourselves up for pain.  This is the risky bet that we, consciously or unconsciously, calculate each day with each person we encounter.

Yet we can reduce our pain risk if we take a closer look at how much that person matters to us.  And if we examine how much warmth, safety and love they give us.

For example, I have no empathy for Treadmill Woman.  (In fact, I have a strong urge to draw an analogy of how her cardio equipment of choice is a reflection of her progress towards enlightenment, but I’ll refrain.) And I have huge empathy for my husband.  The depth of my pain is a measure of how much I care for that person.

So the next time you feel pain over what someone said or did, ask yourself how much they matter to you.  If they don’t really matter to you, that pain will probably subside quickly.  If they do matter to you, hold that pain gently.  It is a loving echo of your own feelings for them.

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