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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- So empathy then is given or not given depending on the context and whether we think the other person is “worthy” of empathy.
- 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.