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Does the Pain Olympics Stem From Emotional Exhaustion?

In June, I’ll mark 10 years of blogging.  That’s a lot of blogging, right?  That’s pretty much a fourth of my life.  I’ve spent a quarter of my life blogging.

Whoa… that just gave me pause.

Anyway, 10 years ago, I was a new blogger, and I’ve seen 10 years worth of new bloggers arrive in the community.  Some of the people I started with are still around.  Many more have stopped writing but hang out on other forms of social media.  Others have slipped away entirely, and I have no clue where they are or how they are.

One thing I’ve noticed — though there are clearly exceptions to this rule — is that most people who join the infertility blogosphere utter some form of “I am so glad I found all of you.”  Maybe they have no support in their face-to-face world and they find it online, or maybe they have been thinking they’re the only person in the world experiencing infertility while everyone else around them pops out baby after baby.  And suddenly they have tapped into a well of knowledge and collective empathy and realized that they are definitely not alone.  There are a lot of us out here.

And then something happens over time.

This… thing… I think manifests in two different ways:

  1. People start to play the Pain Olympics, silently or not-so-silently, writing off other people’s experiences as being lesser than their own.  They start thinking “at least you…” statements as they read another person’s blog.
  2. Or I’ve also seen it emerge as the person detaching from the community, writing less but also commenting less.  They come in strong, full of enthusiasm, and then seemingly burn out and a lot of the time, slip away.

Maybe they stem from the same place.

Mental Floss recently had an article on empathy and why we get empathy burnout.  The research found a few interesting things about empathy.

  1. Empathy is susceptible to suggestion.  In other words, we can tell someone not to be empathetic to someone else, and it can override their natural tendency to be empathetic.  The same is true in the other direction: we can get the message from watching others and follow suit.
  2. So empathy then is given or not given depending on the context and whether we think the other person is “worthy” of empathy.
  3. We are stingy in giving empathy when we don’t think empathy is a renewable resource.  If we think of it as something to budget and allocate, we’re less likely to give it others.

We see the same thing happen in the microcosm of the infertility blogosphere.  People enter feeling a sense of relief having found a group of people and look for similarities because they want to feel as if they fit in themselves.

Then, once they are certain they fit in, they start looking for differences so they can allocate their empathy better.  Once you’ve comforted several hundred other people, it wears on you and you start budgeting you empathy.  To do so, you have to dehumanize the situation by thinking about comparative pain (they’re not in as much pain as this person because that person’s situation is worse).  Which leads, eventually, to the Pain Olympics.


Moreover, empathy is something we give others, but it’s also something we give ourselves.  I think we inwardly get empathy exhaustion, being gentle with ourselves in the beginning and then growing harder and harder on ourselves over time.  We want to write every second of the day about our journey, and then we burn out and post irregularly or not at all.  It’s as if we’ve stopped allocating ourselves empathy.

We can’t control whether other people give us empathy, but we can control whether we are empathetic to ourselves.

I guess the interesting thing I took away from the post is that there are other options beyond empathy exhaustion and comparative pain (or, in the case of self-empathy, minimizing our own pain and telling ourselves that we should suck it up).  If empathy is a choice, we can decide that it’s going to be one we make rather than withhold.

Zaki suggests we have an essential, automatic component to empathy—a built-in biological leaning toward caring for the suffering of others—but that our empathetic response is at the same time highly contextual.

So, yes, maybe we are strategic in where we place our empathy at the subconscious level, but can we tell our subconscious that we want to keep empathy always flowing at a lower, continuous rate rather than having it gush and then dry up over time?  Can we set the speed and intensity in which our empathy flows so we don’t get burned out and cynical over time?  Can we keep a continuous flow moving outward towards others AND inward towards ourselves and not have our empathetic energy dry up completely?

I don’t even know if this is possible; if we can tell our hearts not to go all out in the beginning because we need to pace our empathy so we always have it to give.  This isn’t unique to the infertility community, and I know caregivers deal with burnout all the time.  I’d be curious to hear what you think of the article and study.

Your thoughts?


1 mijk { 04.20.16 at 9:39 am }

for me blogreading is also a way of teaching myself empathy (well reading in itself is) It makes it possible to see the world through a different lense then my own and that makes me more open to the fact that my view on the world is just that. Other people see different things. And then I realise thats true for everyone and I can realte more to struggles I haven’t gone through.

2 a { 04.20.16 at 10:31 am }

I think I conserve my empathy by not wasting it on my over-privileged family. 🙂 Sure, they have problems, but I try to give them an ear, some perspective, and a hug. That doesn’t require a whole lot of effort from my empathy reserves.

My daughter, who is but 9, recently told her father that she didn’t need any suggestions from him; she just needed him to listen. Or at least, pretend to listen, like Mom does…

3 illustr8d { 04.20.16 at 10:53 am }

Yes, we can tell ourselves to continue with empathy, it’s a spiritual practice for many. I rename it compassion & everyone deserves compassion. It ISN’T always easy, especially when someone is cruel or doesn’t treat us the way we think they should, or when we, ourselves, are in a terrible place & many of our resources are going towards keeping ourselves alive, literally. Or when someone is pushing one of our buttons. It’s hard.

I work on this as a practice all the time, some days more successful than others.

Fascinating info in your blog post. I’m sure you know this, in fact your blog may be one of the places I read about this, but reading Harry Potter was found to increase empathy in its readers. 🙂

4 Apluseffort { 04.20.16 at 11:09 am }

A lot to chew on in this post, which is my favorite kind of post. Thank you for that.

5 Sharon { 04.20.16 at 1:56 pm }

I find it so interesting that you started blogging AFTER having your children. That seems to be the reverse of most other IF bloggers I have encountered, and for me, I have found less and less reason to blog since becoming a parent. I admire the fact that you still blog regularly and provide support for other members of this community ten years into this blogging gig. 🙂

6 It Is What It Is { 04.20.16 at 2:10 pm }

First, I have missed you dearly even if our paths seem to cross in the ether.

Second, 10 yrs is a HUGE milestone. You were an early adopter of this platform and so many of us owe you a debt of gratitude. I have been following you as long as you have been writing, which, makes me an early adopter of yours, too.

Third, I think that overall it is a matter of time allocation and priority. When someone first joins any group that they are excited to be a part of, then allocate more time and effort in order to gain their place and footing. And, as time wears on, they begin to parcel that time, giving the most of it to the places where they get the highest return (whatever that might be for them), because, let’s face it, there are still only 24 hrs in any given day and any one pursuit is one of potentially a hundred that a person may want to give time to.

As I approach 50, I have learned in living my life, with all of its triumphs and tragedies, that there is an ebb and flow that doesn’t follow a prescribed schedule. The peaks and valleys are arbitrary as is the time in between. Where we focus our time is fluid no matter how much empathy or desire we have.

That said, I am SO glad I made time to comment here and have time to read today.

7 Beth { 04.20.16 at 2:43 pm }

I was so relieved to find this community when I started my infertility struggle. You all became my people, when I didn’t have people in my real life who had any idea what I was experiencing. I am an emotional, sensitive person who gets too involved in other people’s pain sometimes. It’s not intentional. I just feel your pain very deeply, almost as much as my own.

I’m like this in real life too, but fairly introverted so I don’t have a huge number of deep connections. I’m not friends with a large number of people and therefore have less opportunity to soak up their emotions and pain. That being said, I got very invested and involved emotionally in so many women and their stories. I still think about a lot of them. But once I actually had my first child, I distanced myself. It wasn’t even a conscious decision. But I was emotionally exhausted – as well as physically exhausted because I had a newborn.

It wasn’t possible for me to read the stories and not feel the pain. And, at the heart of it, I just didn’t want to feel sad any more. I feel like a traitor for thinking that because it seems like just because I “got my baby” I was done. But that wasn’t it.

And I dived back in, but more cautiously, when we started considering #2. And now I have them both and I can be here again. But sometimes I do need a break. And it IS the emotional exhaustion.

I have no comment on the pain olympics – I definitely see it, but I think I managed to stay out of it. Too busy being sad and then absent, I guess.

8 April { 04.20.16 at 4:46 pm }

I started reading blogs about 9 years ago. It’ll be 8 years in November since I started blogging and it’s been 3 years since I stopped. I never really intended to stop, but the support had slowly stopped other than during ICLW and when we stopped trying, I walked away. This also coincided with the end of Google reader as well.

I didn’t intend to walk away from reading and commenting. I didn’t want to be one of the people who looked at someone and dismissed their pain because I felt mine was worse, but when your journey ends childless like ours, it’s hard to be there for others who succeeded. Sometimes it’s easier to walk away from all of it than it is to stay.

9 Cristy { 04.20.16 at 5:22 pm }

Wow, 10 yrs. That is an impressive milestone Mel!

It’s an interest way of viewing empathy looping back to the people giving support. Very often we hear that we shouldn’t be jealous of others who have gotten what we want so desperately because they aren’t taking anything away from us, but the truth is that they are. So those fears and feelings are actually justified.

I’ve been guilty of allocating attention based on burn-out. It’s hard to be support of others when you’re struggling yourself, so I think it’s natural to allocate empathy. There’s also a tendency to support those who are supportive. What goes around comes around. Maybe that’s what’s at the heart of pain olympics

10 Rebecca { 04.20.16 at 9:37 pm }

You know, I was just wondering this morning if I should have stayed more active with blogging and participating in this community. It was such a relief for me to find it, as you described, and I truly benefited from giving and getting support here. I am so appreciative of your blog and the fact that you have done so much to bring people together.

As for myself, I gradually stepped back after my miracle pregnancy last year, for a few reasons, I think. One is that I started to feel a bit out of place, maybe the opposite of the pain olympics in a way. I probably shouldn’t have, but I wondered if I still belonged here since I conceived naturally while others were going through so much more, and I worried that my continued presence would be difficult for them.

I also agree with Beth above. I think I needed to step away from the pain for a time for the sake of my own mental well-being, but I also recognize the privilege in my ability to leave the struggle behind (to some degree, anyway; infertility of course has affected me even after my daughter’s birth and I am sure it will continue to do so). I still read here and there, and I want to offer support where I can, but I don’t know if I will start posting again now that I am in a different stage. In any case, I am grateful and impressed by your legacy over 10 years!

11 Mali { 04.20.16 at 11:13 pm }

I’ve just read this after posting something on my own blog about how grateful I am for this community – and, it went without saying, its empathy.

I think we do have limited reserves of empathy, and need to choose how we will use them. As we all have different energy levels, we all have different empathy levels too.

I think some people come to the community for the support they need then go when they no longer need it. Whilst here, if they give empathy and receive it, I don’t have a problem if they then go when they no longer have a need. Sticking around just doesn’t work for some people. They’re all in when they’re here, and then they’re all in somewhere else when they leave.

Others of us are long-termers, under much less stress than someone joining who is in the middle of their infertility or just learning they’ll never have children, and it is easier for us to give empathy when we are not suffering from stress and distress. That’s certainly the case for me, anyway.

Congrats on ten years, Mel! It’s a real achievement.

12 Foxy { 04.20.16 at 11:18 pm }

First off, COngratulations on 10 years of writing. I realized that I am close to five years come mother’s day. Not as active as you, but still here. I was definitely one of those bloggers who never would have found the kind of support in person that I found online. It was incredible and I’ll go so far to say that it saved me. I am still in mail/facebook contact with the women I connected with 5 years ago. We are now watching our children grow up together via facebook photos and it gives me chills. I send gifts on birthdays, it is a relationship with women I’ve never met that is unlike any other relationship I have. They know me in ways that no one else ever will, and I know them. And that came from this community, from the blogroll, And for that Mel – I thank you. much love, Foxy

13 Jessie Francis { 04.21.16 at 1:19 am }

Instead of trying to compete or award points in the Pain Olympics, part of why I fell away for so long is feeling like I didn’t register on the scale anymore because I had been able to conceive easily with my second husband and, at that point before knowing about the endo, I didn’t know if I was “really” infertile or not. I felt like I would seem to others like I was just looking for something I didn’t qualify for.

Another part of it wasn’t compassion burnout so much as physical burnout. Mel, you may remember that I had started another blog, and that blog didn’t get any traction, but also as the pregnancy progressed, I had NO energy to blog. And since then, I’ve been busy with stepparenting and baby parenting and running a private practice, which is more hours than I care to think. I’d like to have more time and energy to read and comment on the Microblog Mondays posts, but if I do, it’s because I’m being ADD when I’m trying to work. :-p

14 katherinea12 { 04.21.16 at 8:55 am }

Wow, congratulations on 10 years! That’s amazing and impressive. Thank you for your presence, your perseverance, and your story(ies).

I’ve been debating whether or not to comment in this regard, but I think I’ll take a crack at it. So…the Pain Olympics. I can honestly say that I’ve really never felt the need to “pull rank” as it were while reading other blogs or with other bloggers. Then I ran into an IRL situation with a family member, and to my immense shame, found myself almost unable to stop. Their story eerily mirrored ours in so many ways, even down to the time frames – literally one year after something had happened to us, something similar would happen to them. Except for one thing: in pretty much every juncture, they got a better, more lucky turn than we did. The one thing I had? The worse story (and, for the record, theirs was plenty difficult). I’d been bested in every.other.way.

It took me some thought (and therapy, frankly) before I realized a few things. 1) They had gotten things I desperately wanted and it was okay to feel sad that I *hadn’t* gotten those things. 2) I needed to remove myself from the situation. That meant that I did not need unexpected stuff popping up in my social media feed, so I made sure that wouldn’t happen and then clicked over when I was in a space to be happy for them. These weren’t people I wanted to burn bridges with. They’re good people who have, in all honesty, been very decent and sensitive.

Having been through that whole experience, I understand a bit better why sometimes people need to take breaks from the community. There are just some times a particular person or story hits up the sensitive spots. Not because they’re trying to or because they’re necessarily insensitive but because it’s a dream that is/was so dearly held. Doing some things to protect myself and ensuring I could handle the situation better is and was really important. It helps me to express empathy and be helpful rather than resentful. It’s the equivalent of putting on my own oxygen mask first.

15 SRB { 04.21.16 at 9:32 am }

Lots to think about with this post, and the comments. I will be coming back to these a few times, I think.

I definitely got burnt out *because* of the Pain Olympics that everyone claims not to play but everyone does – myself included (and not just with respect to infertility). And coming in last place every time hurts when you’ve done a lot of cheering from the sidelines. At this point, I read less and infrequently, and comment even more sparingly. I keep in touch in other ways with individuals, but over time, the community became a weight and not a shelf to put it on. These days, I am finding I am a lot less willing (not sure if that is the right word?) to be empathetic (even to myself) because of being burned and burnt out. So yeah… I guess at this point I am building up my empathy accounts and cautious about making withdrawls. Maybe because I am not in crisis mode? I don’t know.

Lots to think about.

16 nonsequiturchica { 04.21.16 at 10:06 am }

I’ll be at 8 years blogging this summer- crazy!

I agree with mijk’s comment- sometimes I read blogs and it makes me more aware of people’s situations and so I have more empathy for people online and in real life. It’s a great way to open someone’s eyes.

17 Lori Lavender Luz { 04.22.16 at 9:33 am }

Happy early and impressive 10 year blogoversary! The fabric of my life would have been very different had you not started blogging and had I not stumbled onto you here.

I guess there’s an assumption here that empathy requires energy, and is thus limited. If you give it here, you can’t also give it there and there and there and there. So you prioritize, which means you rank.

But I’m not convinced that empathy is a limited resource. I haven’t read the article yet, so maybe that’s addressed, but it’s something I’ll ponder over the next few days.

18 torthúil { 04.22.16 at 4:49 pm }

I like your point that blogging is a way of showing empathy for yourself. What a profound idea. It never occurred to me before, but it makes perfect sense.

I try to connect with others in a supportive and empathetic way, as well as blogging about myself and my family, because the two are linked as I see it. I am writing torthúil for a specific community: theoretically the whole internet universe can see it, but I’m not writing for the whole internet universe. I have no idea of their motivations or predicaments. So it makes sense to me that I would support at least the people who are regular readers. At the same time, I think it is important that people are able to click back and see who is this person that has visited their blog. Whether they see the blog and think “Oh, I would like to read more of that” or “Bloody hell! I CAN’T EVEN” (for whatever reason), I still think there is value in having that presence out there. Perhaps what I’m trying to say is that the most basic form of empathy is acknowledging that other people and stories exist?? If nothing else I think blogging has great value that way as compared to other forms of internet communication (social media, random comments) it does present people more as realistic rounded individuals.

19 MissingNoah { 04.25.16 at 1:22 am }

Katherine, I can see that. I have hidden people that I can only go check on when I am in the right space. Regardless of their struggles, there can be something triggering. I have a friend that is dealing with autism, and health issues, and other tough stuff. And I am supportive when I can. But they have a daughter who was due 10 days after my Noah, with a name very, very similar to his. So a lot of the time, I just can’t go there.

20 Pamela Jeanne { 04.29.16 at 12:17 pm }

A decade, that’s stamina! Well done. I’m a year behind you. Like you and a few of the other old timers, we’ve seen and grown a great deal. We haven’t always agreed but we kept challenging each other to stretch and move outside of our comfort zones or conventional thinking.

To answer your question: I think it’s less about empathy reserves and empathy worthiness and more about pattern matching and understanding where someone sits on the continuum of infertility immersion — age and experience play a pivotal role whether we like it or not. Let me explain. I came to the blogosphere traumatized and carrying huge amounts of emotional baggage, but I didn’t fully recognize that at the time. I had intellectualized the crap out of my infertility experiences up to that point and thought I was well on my way to healing. I figured if I could write about it and get it out of my head I might arrive at some epiphanies and peace.

Looking back I see now that I was a fury of emotions: terrified, isolated, confused, angry and desperately craving validation about how it feels to experience the emptiness of a barren womb and nursing deep sadness, grief and longing for the five children-to-be recorded in a series of embryo ultrasounds. I was also 43 at the time and had been secretly holding these fragile dreams of motherhood for 13 years with multiple surgeries, interventions, tests and doctors — not to mention multiple losses and BF ‘unexplained infertility’ stamped on my forehead. That’s a lot sh*t to untangle and a big ask of the mostly younger blogosphere to understand — particularly for someone who is, say, 30 and just undergoing their first round of Clomid. That said, the 30-year-old me would have been fully capable of relating to a fellow 30-year-old in the early stages of an infertility diagnostic workup.

I can say with some authority that there are also a set of individuals who have arrived and departed the ALI community with one view of the world and never wavered in it. They are the ones I feel the most frustration and disappointment in. They had no interest in growing, learning or evolving. They were one dimensional. These are people, frankly, I had less interest in because they never had any interest in understanding my infertility outcome nor was there ever any real attempt to engage. You don’t see me. That’s fine. Your loss.

I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by the amazing collective growth and engagement with women I never expected to connect with. That’s freaking cool and I’m grateful for them. I hope they feel the same about me.

Finally, the online world has changed dramatically … we’ve continued to exist with the same needs to be heard and validated but our once cozy campfire is overshadowed by a frenetic world that makes new demands on us and writing on tablets ain’t the same as a full keyboard. Time is more precious as we’re all being pulled in different directions and new apps distract…(clearly I wrote this mini post on keyboard!) Thanks for the prompt

21 A. { 05.02.16 at 7:01 pm }

The term “compassion fatigue” comes to mind. I do think it’s easy to become desensitized to suffering through overexposure, which, granted, is a risk of participating in this ALI community. It can be so sad and heavy, too much at times. I’ll admit that I am currently in a period of respite from the blogs, mine and otherwise. Sometimes it all just becomes this overwhelming din of despair and envy at other people’s triumphs, and the reservoirs of response run dry. I have felt replenished by the silence, honestly. Flesh and blood human beings sit behind these keyboards, and compassion reminds me a lot of oxygen masks on airplanes: in case of a crash, if you don’t put your own mask on first, you can’t help anyone else either. I’m not sure that’s the Pain Olympics. I think it’s self-care.

22 Battynurse { 05.20.16 at 5:57 am }

I have a hard time the last couple years keeping up. I lost a bunch of my blogs after google reader went away and I thought I had transferred everything to a new reader. Then that reader started having difficulty and finally went kaput. I transferred as much as I could to feedly but I know I lost a bunch.
I also relate some with the compassion fatigue thought. I’ve had a much harder time keeping up with others lives when I’m struggling with my own depression which has been difficult for a while now. I withdraw more. I do miss though many of those I had gotten to know through blogging that I now don’t have as much contact with.

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