The observation of pain in others may enhance or reduce self-pain, yet the boundary conditions and factors that determine the direction of such effects are poorly understood. The current study set out to show that visual stimulus awareness plays a crucial role in determining whether vicarious pain primarily activates behavioral defense systems that enhance pain sensitivity and stimulate withdrawal or appetitive systems that attenuate pain sensitivity and stimulate approach. We employed a mixed factorial design with the between-subject factors exposure time (subliminal vs optimal) and vicarious pain (pain vs no pain images), and the within-subject factor session (baseline vs trial) to investigate how visual awareness of vicarious pain images affects subsequent self-pain in the cold-pressor test. Self-pain tolerance, intensity and unpleasantness were evaluated in a sample of 77 healthy participants. Results revealed significant interactions of exposure time and vicarious pain in all three dependent measures. In the presence of visual awareness (optimal condition), vicarious pain compared to no-pain elicited overall enhanced self-pain sensitivity, indexed by reduced pain tolerance and enhanced ratings of pain intensity and unpleasantness. Conversely, in the absence of visual awareness (subliminal condition), vicarious pain evoked decreased self-pain intensity and unpleasantness while pain tolerance remained unaffected. These findings suggest that the activation of defense mechanisms by vicarious pain depends on relatively elaborate cognitive processes, while – strikingly – the appetitive system is activated in highly automatic manner independent from stimulus awareness. Such mechanisms may have evolved to facilitate empathic, protective approach responses toward suffering individuals, ensuring survival of the protective social group.