I'm looking for a term for 'la douleur exquise'. What I want to capture is the frustration of wanting to be something that everyone loves but knowing you can never be that, where frustration means a weird balance between blissfully imagining you are that and knowing that not being it makes no real difference, but wanting to be it so bad you physically hurt.

Edit: Apparently there isn't a phrase that translates directly to describe this, so I'll just have to work on my descriptive language.

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    1) What do you mean by 'self-directed'? It is unclear what is intended by this what it includes or excludes 2) Why do you insist on a single word? Note that 'douleur exquise' is both more than one word, and very metaphorical, so why not translate loosely with the 'exquisite pain of unrequited desire' or a variant on the Shakespearean 'sweet sorrow'?
    – Mitch
    Commented Jun 1, 2015 at 17:10
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    @Mitch: I see your point and maybe you're right and I'm wrong, but I don't really agree. There are a lot of words I have trouble translating because they are tied to a specific culture or place. (I'm not saying this is one of them). Luckily, English welcomes foreign words and phrases with open arms, so it's not that big a problem. If enough people start using it, who knows, this phrase might be the next touche
    – Tushar Raj
    Commented Jun 1, 2015 at 17:16
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    ...but I'd have thought the bittersweet pain is a close enough equivalent in general (it just doesn't have that specific meaning, which I suspect isn't familiar to the average Francophone anyway). Commented Jun 1, 2015 at 17:17
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    Everyone knows Weltschmerz, but the Germans also have Ichschmerz, literally "the pain of being me'. Sounds not unlike the OP's thingy. That doesn't help with an English term, unless we translate into an obvious, transparently teutonic, neologism, as people already do with "world-pain".
    – David Pugh
    Commented Jun 1, 2015 at 17:43
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    @TusharRaj I'm not saying you're wrong, I'm objecting to the straightjacket of translation as word for word. So Tahitians don't have a word for 'snow', does that mean you can't translate 'The Call of the Wild'? You translate one word with many other words, you give an explanation or a picture. I've already made the point that there is no single word translation from 'la douleur exquise' even in French, because it already takes two words!
    – Mitch
    Commented Jun 1, 2015 at 18:11

2 Answers 2


The closest English expression I can think of for what you're describing would be: laugh, clown, laugh.

It's an English translation of the Italian, "Ridi, Pagliaccio," a line from Leoncavallo's opera Pagliacci. It is sometimes used in a literal sense, to refer to a performing artist; however, it can also be used in a broader figurative sense, to refer to anyone who puts on a cheerful front to try to meet the world's expectations, even though internally they are deeply unhappy.


I wasn't looking for a translation of 'la douleur exquise' because I know what that terms means. I was looking for a nuanced term for angsting over self-identity in a similar manner as 'la douleur exquise,' where the person you want is an alternate version of yourself, and the absence of love is for yourself. This question wasn't answered, it was kinda sidelined by the argument over French semantics.

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    Did you mean to post this as a comment or edit to the question? You accidentally posted it as an answer. Commented Jun 3, 2015 at 16:05
  • I meant it to be a comment, but I went for the obvious text box! My mistake
    – Stephanie
    Commented Jun 3, 2015 at 17:00

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