The Surprisingly Small Gap Between Empathy and One-Upping

Posted on September 3, 2015 by Nate Regier / 1 comments
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I hate it when I disclose something important, perhaps an emotional story or experience I had, and the other person always has a bigger, better, more emotional story. They interrupt my mojo with something like, “I know, right! The same thing happened to me!’ or “You think that’s bad. Let me tell you what I went through last year.”

Has this ever happened to you?

When it comes to empathy, there are basically three kinds of people.


These people can’t stand not being the center of attention so their agenda is to one-up and steal the limelight. They have no empathy but they focus in on emotion as a way to steal attention.

Masters of Empathy

These people have empathy and are moved by what others share. They can relate and want you to know that because they really do care. And they do it in a wonderfully affirming way without drawing attention to themselves.

Good Hearted One-Uppers

These people have the same good intentions as the Masters of Empathy, but they express it in a way that seems like one-upping. Sadly, they are unaware and most people won’t bring it to their attention.

If you a Narcissist, I’ve got nothing for you. If you are a Master of Empathy, I’d love your help sharing this post with the Good-Hearted One-Uppers. If you are a Good-Hearted One-Upper, read and apply the tips in this post and people will enjoy being around you a lot more.

If your intention is to show empathy in way that truly affirms the other person, here are tips to make sure you empathize instead of one-up.

Identify and validate the emotion

Empathy is about “feeling” someone else’s emotion. When you relate to someone’s experience, focus on the common emotion. It’s OK to tell them, with statements like,

“I’m angry too.”

“I remember being embarrassed like that before.”

“I feel ya!”

“I’m happy for you!”

Focus on the process (how you felt), not content (what happened)

Empathy is not about the content of what happened to you. It’s about the emotion you felt, the experience you share. Describe only enough of your similar experience to validate the emotion. Going into detail about what you did is one-upping because it diverts attention away from their emotion and back to your life. Instead, try statements like,

“I can relate to your embarrassment. I remember missing a memo and coming to work with the wrong attire.”

“I remember being scared like that during our first pregnancy.”

It’s not a competition

The whole point of empathy is that you feel the SAME thing they feel. Not something more unique or more dramatic. Avoid renaming emotions or bringing up other emotions that weren’t part of the other person’s experience.

One of the hallmarks of empathy is the ability to celebrate another person’s joy without feeling jealous or having to find your own reason to be joyful too.

Keep it short and sweet

The more you talk, the more it’s going to be about you.

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Photo of parker
Posted on March 7, 2017

Why does it have to be so hard. If people’s intentions are good, whether they follow a set of rules to say it perfectly or not, that’s what matters. People don’t always express empathy the way we want them to.

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Nate Regier
Posted on March 13, 2017

Sorry for the delay, Parker. Thanks for your comments.

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