By Cathryn Bond Doyle.
When bad things happen and there’s a direct negative impact on us, it’s understandable to feel sorry for ourselves. Many of us have grown up with people who taught us, by example, to deal with pain or sorrow with self-pity. Since self-pity is a genuine emotion, it needs to be honored and processed. However it does NOT need to be a way to get sympathy from others, a reflex reaction intended to deny or avoid responsibility or an excuse to punish others.
The good news is that there’s also a way to express these feelings without having any negative impact on our self and others. Since my life experience and my Coaches have taught me a great deal about this topic this article is intended to give you information about self-pity so you can recognize it sooner, get good at processing it quickly it and get beyond it as quickly as possible.
Although some people have actually turned self-pity into an art form, there’s nothing creatively positive about it. Some people engage in self-pity with the predetermined rationale that their, “Oh poor me” behavior is some entitled form of self-care. Society has supported that stance and self-pity has become a very common reaction to painful circumstances. Why do we do self-pity?
In a nutshell self-pity is popular and by the way, very addictive because it numbs pain and fear. Numbing strategies take many physical, behavioral and emotional forms. And remember this about addictive behaviors; the reason we repeatedly engage in any addictive behavior is NOT to make us feel good but to keep us from feeling badly. However, self-pity encompasses more than just numbing our bad feelings. It pervades our attitude, our mood and our actions. Some may think that self-pity can be a private thing. For example: “Leave me alone, I am not hurting anyone while I feel sorry for myself over here in a corner all alone.” However that’s a hurtful, self-deceptive, rationalization for perpetuating self-pity.
Please note: Because self-pity has many causes and depths of experiences, this article is not intended to fully address or minimize the issues of grief, tragedy or abuse, as they will be more complex than the day-to-day issues addressed here.
Feeling sorry for ourselves is more familiar and less scary than feeling pain, hurt, shame, anger and any number of “hard” emotions. Besides, whoever taught us, “Positive Ways to process Self-Pity 101”? Most of us default to self-pity because we don’t know what else to do. If we had parents with zero tolerance for overt self-pity, we learned other coping methods for dealing with pain and the chances are great that they include some other form of emotional numbing (versus processing) strategy.
Forms of Self-Pity
Self-pity has many faces. It can take the form of whining, complaining, melodrama, repeated story telling, “Have I told you about my past lately?” perpetual advice seeking and/or some form of emotional withdrawal from others. Sometimes just a loud, slow sigh is a sure sign of self-pity’s presence. Feeling our feelings isn’t necessarily self-pity. The difference between feeling sorry for ourselves in a healthy way and self-pity at it’s worst is a matter of timing, duration and intention.
As mentioned earlier, there IS a time to feel sorry for ourselves. Bad things happen. People hurt us. Unexpected things happen. Some times things don’t happen the way we want them to and we feel badly. The difference between engaging in healthy self-care versus hurtful self-pity is how aware we are of our impact on those around us, how conscious we are of our true feelings and most importantly, how willing we are to take responsibility for helping ourselves.
Am I in the punishing state of Self-pity?
Have I lost my sense of humor?
Am I seeking advice but not taking it?
Am I defending my reasons for non-action?
Am I refusing to ask for and receive help?
Do I get annoyed and impatient with others when they try to help me?
Am I feeling like a child or victim unable to help myself?
Am I enthusiastic about blaming others?
Am I trying to control others by getting them to do things out of pity or guilt?
Do I whine/sigh to get the attention/support/sympathy of others?
Do I feel a sense of entitlement because of what I have suffered?
“Behavior has meaning” and whenever we’re doing something, it’s because of the pay-offs or benefits we’re getting at some emotional level. Sometimes, when we’re afraid to face our pain, numbness is a logical pay-off. Sometimes getting deeply into self-pity gives us an excuse NOT to do anything and/or a reason NOT to face someone or something. And sadly sometimes it’s the only way we know how to earn the attention of those whose love we crave. When we’re feeling sorry for ourselves we’re not being loving. That’s not bad or wrong. It’s just hurtful to us, the situation or anyone else in our world.
Self-pity can become a habit; even an addiction AND with your awareness and willingness it can take up much less time and energy. While some of us can’t break a habit just for our own good, we ARE motivated to move through self-pity as quickly as possible when we understand the negative impact it’s having on ourselves and those around us.
The costs of staying in Self-pity:
1. Physically and emotionally draining.
2. Extremely unproductive use of time and energy.
3. Makes us very unattractive over time.
4. Makes us bitter, unloving and hurtful towards others.
5. Causes us to be “cut-off” from friends and family.
6. Can cause Loved ones to feel angry and alienated.
7. Drains the energy of the people trying to help us.
8. Delays the implementation of a creative solution to the situation.
Positive and Healthy Ways to Process Self-Pity
What can you do differently and what is it going to take to move through the feelings of pain, sorrow and pity ASAP? It’s going to require some tactics and some choices; choices that you can make in this very moment and over and over again, as need be. Will you choose to be?
Conscious: “What am I feeling right now?”
Courageous: “What is the right thing for me to do right now?”
Confident: “I will be OK! I can do this!”
Committed to creative problem-solving tactics: “I WILL figure this out!”
The way I’ve been taught to process self-pity is the only tactic I can pass along. I’m sure there are more, however, the following is a tested and proven way that works. Please give it a try and see for yourself.
A Self-pity Process
Rather than processing your pity in dribs and drabs over extended periods of time (which is how you are able to get so many pay-offs) you are going to do it all at once! Find a private place with a mirror-the bathroom is a great place and so convenient! Tell anyone around that you will need 20 minutes of privacy. Now begin to tell that person in the mirror your troubles. Focus exclusively on what has happened and how you are feeling. Be intense. Give this your full and undivided attention.
Make it your goal to feel your feelings, whatever they are, for a full 20 minutes. It is really amazing how long 20 minutes can feel like when you are concentrating on your feelings. Stick with it until you feel a sense of relief. Ahhhh! You will definitely feel relieved and know when to stop.
The first time you do this, it might feel awkward talking to yourself but give it a try. If you can’t bring yourself to do it on your own, ask a friend to listen, if that makes you more likely to do this process. The key is that they are not allowed to say anything. This process is effective because you are moving the energy of YOUR feelings. You are giving your feelings your attention, your respect, your compassion and that is so helpful and healing. It is really amazing how great it feels to be “heard” and known. Yes, even when you are talking to yourself, you’ll actually feel a relief. Try it. See what happens.
Any resistance to trying this is the part of you that is not willing (or is afraid) to give up the pay-offs of numbing with self-pity. Please be gentle with yourself as you may be breaking a life-long habit and a very well-worn path. If this resistance comes up, gently remind yourself of the choices mentioned above. Also, remember that all of these articles are written hoping that the following 3 assumptions are valid for you. It may help to remind yourself of your choices and these assumptions.
1. That you want to behave as a responsible adult.
2. That you want to “heal and deal” with whatever happens in a healthy way.
3. That you want to have as much positive and as little negative impact on you, your family and friends.
Making Amends for the past-an option.
Now that you are aware that there are alternative ways to process your self-pity, it’s also very important to have compassion and to forgive yourself for anytime you all had negative impact on yourself and others while feeling sorry for yourself. If you are so inspired, you may want to share these revelations with the ones you love, apologize for the past and talk about all the ways that things will be different in the future because of what you’ve learned. You can now have compassion for yourself (and others) for past behavior and most importantly, you can resolve to do it differently from this day forward. Not perfectly, just perpetually.
Couples, friends and families may agree to support and coach each other in the new options described here so everyone can gain these valuable skills. The personal benefits are immense and varied. The impact of this alternative approach on relationships is immediate and almost immeasurable. Add patience and kindness to the mix while you honor your feelings of self-pity in healthy ways and you can move through them quickly so you can spend your time and energy creating a better life situation for you and your world.
© 2002 Cathryn Bond Doyle, All Rights Reserved.