This is an excerpt from a reply to a SMOM who experienced the draining, exhausting situation of having someone in their lives who insisted in wallowing in self-pity. While she was trying and trying and trying to help her friend, she was unknowingly being drained, abused and manipulated – perhaps unconsciously by her friend, but nevertheless, she was negatively affected. Please see my article about Self-pity for more about this understandable but potentially hurtful emotion.
Understanding the dark and light sides (false and genuine aspects) of self-pity can be helpful the next time you feel sorry for yourself or are asked to support someone who is feeling that way.
Here’s my reply to a sister SMOM:
About your friend who kept complaining to you all the time, over and over and over again…This behavior was very unfair to you and incredibly draining. He was in self-pity big time and I’d like to offer you some insights about people who choose to stay in the state of self-pity. In the future, perhaps this understanding will help you from being so negatively impacted.
(If you’re not in the mood for anymore of my unsolicited comments-please ignore the rest of this post. No problem. I know I’ve already said a lot. I just can’t resist a chance to help someone better understand human behavior when the situation shows itself.)
Self-pity is a real human emotion. There are times when feeling sorry for ourselves is exactly what we need to do. It’s a form of emotional shock (like an emotional anesthesia) intended to numb our painful feelings to give us a mini-reprieve from the actual situation so we can gather strength. It acts as a distraction from the real issue, which can give us the break we need to regroup and begin the process of helping ourselves deal with whatever has happened.
However, some people have turned self-pity, into an art form. Some a life’s mission, other’s a conscious tool of manipulation and sadly others use self-pity because they don’t know what else to do and they are OK with their impact and the status of things so are unmotivated to do anything about it. Why? Because people in “extended self-pity” suck the energy out of the room and out of the person who is offering them a loving ear or shoulder in friendship. They are taking that energy and feeling temporarily better while their “victims” lose energy. While they’re going on and on about “Oh poor me and that horrible person did this and that thing,” they’re actually getting your attention(your energy). In those moments they’re feeling better, soaking up the attention and feeling “better than” whomever they are talking about. For them, it’s easy picking (no work for them) to get this false, unearned boost, when they have such a loving, giving willing to help friend around, like you. YOU have not done anything wrong. What you’ve done is unknowingly allowed them to hurt you while you’re attempting to help them with your love. It’s a twisted situation. But once you understand this-no one will be able to do it do you again-not for very long anyway. That’s the good news!
You can tell when self-pity goes from a healthy reaction to a negatively impactful, extended self-pity, when people begin to repeat themselves AND refuse any of the suggestions given to them. A person in unhealthy self-pity doesn’t want to take any action and will be incredibly creative in telling you all the reasons they can’t do anything you say or suggest. Also, a BIG clue to knowing if someone is in extended self-pity or not…they can’t laugh at anything. Yep, it’s really true.
Did you see the first movie “Sex in the City?” Carrie was devastated when Big didn’t marry her. The girls went to their honeymoon place together and Carrie slept and felt grief and normal self-pity for awhile. Then one day, she came out for coffee to talk, she eventually made a joke about her phone and then when one of the girls ran by with a bad case of gas, she broke out in hysterical laughter…self-pity was over, ran it’s course and she was ready to recover.
The problem is that some people get so many “secondary gains” (attention and ability to feel better than another mostly) from feeling sorry for themselves that they get stuck and anyone willing to listen gets targeted. Good friendships get stretched (and some broken) when the person refuses to DO something, anything about their situation.
Ever notice how energizing it is to help someone who wants to be helped? Ever notice how draining it is to keep trying to help someone and have them make you feel like you failed just because they refuted or denied your suggestions as doable? Well there you go! That’s how you can tell the difference between someone willing to feel their self-pity and then move on, versus someone wanting to avoid responsibility, effort, emotional work and choosing to stay an emotional vampire for as long as someone is willing to listen and TRY to help them. You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just that you were victimized in the name of trying to help.
Does this make sense? As you think back about your friend, I bet you can calibrate how you felt with him and perhaps even in anticipation of his calls. This is good to note those feelings so you can recognize them in the future and promise yourself you’ll not allow yourself to be drained by anyone in the future. Consciously helping is one thing, having your life force drained without your permission is another. Unacceptable and happily avoidable.
What to do differently to protect your own energetic boundaries? You can be aware of how you feel while trying to help someone in crisis. You can pay attention to whether they’re repeating themselves looking for more and more “Oh you poor thing” comments. You can pay attention to how they react to your suggestion for actions. You can share a funny story about someone or something else and see their reaction. (People trying to manipulate with self-pity have enough consciousness to block or stop their laughter for they fear they will lose your attention if they appear to be OK.) Lastly, you can ask them, “OK you’ve had it rough and now… What are you going to do about this?” If they are willing to move forward-excellent. If they shoot you down over and over again-be on guard. Get out of there asap!
These are also questions we can ask ourselves if we feel we may be stuck in self-pity. It’s a very seductive state of mind because it’s easier to feel sorry for ourselves than it is to feel the pain we’re in. However, as we take responsibility for ourselves, we also know that feeling extended self-pity drains the people we love (that’s not very kind) and if we’re really honest with ourselves, we realize that being in self-pity isn’t going to help us out of our situation. it just delays and often complicates it. So, overall, extended self-pity is not good for anyone.
How can we get out of self-pity, when we feel we’ve gone on long enough or we can’t shake it? Good Question. The short answer is this, 10 minutes of talking to yourself in the mirror about the things that are bothering you should do it. But to really get it out of your system, set the timer, watch, smart phone for 10 minutes, shut the door and begin to complain and complain and complain. The reflection in the mirror will hang in there with you :-). If you run out of things to say (often happens when concentrating our pity, repeat yourself for the full 10 minutes. Before you begin this exercise (or should I say Excise?) make a deal with yourself that once the 10 minutes are over, you’ll move on and think about something, do something else to put your attention on something positive or constructive. This is a powerful exercise that will really work IF you are willing to let it work.
Another thing about self-pity, like hostility, it can slowly leak out during the day, dripping on others and ourselves. If we give it our attention and intend to honor the energy, under our terms, you will feel things shift. Before your 10 minutes is up, you may actually feel the urge to laugh as you listen to your sad story. This is a wonderful feeling! It is a visceral feeling that you are back, fully feeling and ready to help yourself.
I’m so sorry for the impact that your friend had on you for so long. You were a brave soldier enduring what you did. Armed with this new information, I hope you can get some of your energy back, porcess the anger that deserves your attention and calls for a new boundary and feel better. As mentioned earlier, know that now that you understand it, you can promise yourself, not to let it happen again. This kind of promise to ourselves, helps a lot in the recovery process.
What a good friend you are to the people you love! Now, you can point out the extended self-pity when you see it n yourself and your friends. Whatever they decide to do with your observation (move forward and do something or stay stuck and defend their right to stay in self-pity) you will know their stance and can act powerfully on your own behalf.
Thanks for bringing up this important topic, Cathryn