The Dangers of Self-Pity

written by: Matthew Sabatine

After several hours of searching on Google about self-pity, it appears to me that empirical, clinical and expert research is lacking. I was hoping to find an encyclopedic definition for the concept, seeing how this bug called self-pity can gain a stranglehold in many people’s lives.

So, maybe I can build on Webster’s simple definition for self-pity: “a self-indulgent dwelling on one’s own sorrows or misfortunes.” I also read that it is “excessive, self-absorbed unhappiness over one’s own troubles.”

Pity can also be a state of mind wherein we demand to receive condolences that far outweigh the offense(s) made against us. Self-pity is a type of sadness and grieving that can encompass other things. It is addictive. It feeds the monster of hopelessness and irresponsibility. It can be a terrible devil, pushing its furtive bittersweet syringe in your arm and keeping it there for a long time before you finally realize what is happening. It visits you when you lie awake late at night, rehearsing past conversations with wrongdoers and past situations where victory had totally left you in the dust.

The fact that self-pity can often be acceptable doesn’t help us as a culture either.

“Being a victim is more palatable than having to recognize the intrinsic contradictions of one’s own governing philosophy.”

— Tom Clancy, The Hunt for Red October

I must wonder if self-pity can hide behind a lot of our lusts, ambitions, and passions that drive us to the edge of madness, hatred, vengeance, covetous actions, invidious speech, and fantasies of violence. Many don’t realize this, but self-pity means more than just thinking that “life isn’t fair.” There are core beliefs driving this attitude. We often have the visceral core belief that reality should conform to our expectations and wishes, no matter how much we know and remember that reality is indifferent to our feelings and imbroglios. Joseph Burgo, a mental health practitioner, might agree by saying that “self-pity contains a lot of unconscious anger and stems from an underlying sense of entitlement.” [1]

Do you ever find yourself wanting to swing your fists at people as they climb the ladder of success and ascend above you? Do you try to use your misery as an explanation for why they don’t deserve the crown they have earned? Maybe you wish for the world to be fairer to you and that everyone else should wait for you to catch up with everyone else in the rat race. Maybe you think all of life’s circumstances and hardships are conspiring against you so that you can’t catch up and therefore you see martyrdom as your best path.

Misery and martyrdom are your tools for demonstrating the cruelty and unfairness of the world. This is an easy pitfall because life is intimidating and dismaying, and failure tends to be one of our biggest fears. Life can leave you transfixed and overawed when you think you have painfully reached your limits but you still have someone in your face saying you have to push harder, go further, do more, deliver more, and increase.

I will never deny that the world is cruel, vicious, devastating, unfair, unjust, and victimizing. Many of us are quite often victims because we are handed bloody blows and dilemmas we don’t deserve. When talking to just about anyone these days, I think you don’t have to say or do much to peel back a few layers to discover that trauma exists in that person’s life or that he/she has faced real unpardonable tragedies. I can think of so many of them: the sudden, premature loss of a loved one, your diagnosis with cancer or a dire mental health disorder, the burning down of your adorable ornate house that your grandpa bequeathed to you, maybe a divorce after many years of blissful marriage, or maybe starvation and famine ruling over your hometown, etc.

There are so many people in this world who are handed dozens of reasons to give up and never get out of bed in the morning. Many do give up! But isn’t greater meaning wrought from fighting against our undeserved victimhood instead of trying to make spectacles of ourselves so others can take unwavering pity on us?

Reflecting on your cursed, regrettable circumstances is not bad. Self-reflection helps to find a way out and make plans for rectification. But nightly or daily rehearsals of your deprecating conversations with others and your saddening circumstances take you to Nowhere Land. It frustrates and alienates those who regularly must be in your presence.

I want my audience to make note of the fact that I am preaching to myself as I say this. Depression runs in my family. My father has it. My mother has it. My brother has it. My Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandmother has it.

I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism last year. Depression has been associated with hypothyroidism in the medical field for many years, but testing has failed to convincingly clarify a relationship between the two. Nevertheless, I have visited doctors throughout the past two years about my condition which quite often feels like depression (i.e. insomnia, chronic lethargy, loss of motivation, loss of interest in things I love, odd and inexplicable irritability, back aches, nausea, headaches, memory deficits, etc.)  Let’s just say that I haven’t felt right since I was 21.

Let me not forget to factor in my diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) which was given to me in 3rd grade and confirmed again later in my life. My condition has made my job harder than necessary. My love life has taken a nosedive. My family thinks I am hardly capable of remembering or paying attention to anything important. The list goes on. A lot of people consistently complain about my faults and shortcomings. They are irritated with me daily, which consequently makes me irritated with myself. People who have worked with me were inclined to doubt my skills and treat me as though I am unreliable. Maybe they are right, after all. I feel like my incompetence is ripe for its disgusting nakedness to be seen in full view.

But does that have to determine my future self?

I may not always know what to do with the ensuing emotions from all my social snafus. But the one thing that has repeatedly proven to not help me is self-pity.

Self-pity is said to be therapeutic, but maybe only when strictly moderated. We must acknowledge when we are suffering, when we are weak, and when we are unsure of how to cope. We must acknowledge our feelings and emotions to maintain self-awareness. But self-pity that goes beyond moderation turns into something self-corrupting.

I hope this post will give me more incentive to climb out of my miry swamp. Maybe more people will hold me accountable after reading this candid post and I can use that as motivation to kill my self-deprecations.

Maybe self-pity is the desire for others to show us compassion when we really need to show it to ourselves. But we must be careful with self-compassion. We can often unintentionally confound the virtue (self-compassion) with the vain (self-pity). Examining my own life and experiences with self-pity makes me think that disproportionate or unwarranted self-criticism is involved with self-pity as opposed to self-compassion. And it is strange that self-pity would lead us down a path to self-torment in the 21stCentury, which is many generations detached from the Puritanical days when any whiff of self-care was suspected to be the sin of false pride while self-punishment was the only way to avoid moral stagnation and egocentricity.  [6]

If compassion is in the domain of helping others and showing kindness, tenderness, mercy, and understanding for others amidst their suffering, then we can’t entertain self-defeating mantras when practicing self-compassion. Self-compassion can’t be in the same camp as the other badly connotated self-terms we hear such as “self-centered,” “self-indulgent,” “self-serving,” “self-this” and “self-that.” If self-compassion is a component of self-actualization, and self-actualization is needed for embracing others as they are, notwithstanding their ethnic background, history, sexual identity, and socioeconomic status, then self-compassion must be an effective tool for becoming a better participant in society.  [5]  

Self-compassion is the mental act of embracing yourself with warmth and affection amidst painful experience. Self-compassion helps to recognize and remember our common humanity, our inherent weaknesses and vulnerabilities that indicate things will not always work according to plan. Self-compassion helps to subside our instinctual negativity bias and have acceptance of ourselves being un-omnipotent. Such acceptance helps with letting go of what we can’t control. [6]

Self-pity seems to be in league with guilt, feelings of inadequacy, and poor self-esteem. As daily experiences determine the fluctuations of your thoughts and feelings about yourself, having low self-esteem will add extra weight and impact to your natural emotional ups and downs. [2]

We can expect poor self-esteem sufferers to use current successes during self-evaluation and to need inexhaustible positive experiences to neutralize the negatives feelings and thoughts bombarding them. As humans have an instinctual negativity bias (that bother even the healthy-minded), imagine how the negativity bias must increase for someone with poor self-esteem. Any victory (e.g. a compliment from the boss, a good grade at school, a call from a friend) makes only a short-lived exhilaration. For poor self-esteem sufferers, self-assessment is often inaccurate. They are unable to accept themselves for who they are nor believe in their self-worth, because of everything they lack is too distracting. [2]

If self-esteem is shaped by our childhood and adolescent experiences, and if low self-esteem is a consequence of that in your life, your upbringing could have involved mistreatments such as: 1) Being verbally lambasted inappropriately 2) physical, sexual, and emotional abuse 3) neglect, mockery, malicious teasing 4) being expected to maintain perfection, an expectation that often came from parents, teachers, peers, and other authority figures who made you feel that your whole character depended on your perfect performance. [2]

Your self-esteem woes stem from the past. You didn’t realize it then, but your neurological and biological pathways were forged without your consent, setting you on certain trajectories that affect your competence, health, and well-being. All of this would have connection with your metabolic, reproductive, respiratory, cardiovascular, and immune systems, your emotional, sexual, and behavioral health, your response to stress and threats, and your learning abilities, etc. Your experiential life would influence the structure of the connections (synapses) among your neurons creating pathways for the different operational hierarchies. [3]

You wouldn’t become aware of these things until you grew up and learned adaptation skills through experience and education. You could weep and whimper now. You could say the irremediable damage has been done. You could say that you will never unlearn the self-afflictions etched into your being. You could say this is a huge winning score for genetic and biological determinism! But even if determinism is true, so is neuroplasticity and the malleability of the brain that still exists in adulthood.

We are no longer living in the early to mid-20th Century when professionals believed that the brain’s malleability ends during the infancy and childhood years and that structural permanence overtakes our brains in adulthood. It was in the 1960s when professionals began to discover that it was possible for older adults who endured significant strokes to reclaim vitality and functioning again. The brain can make repairs, they said! [4]

2,500 synapses are said to exist in every neuron in the cerebral cortex at birth and then multiply to 15,000 per neuron by age 3. But the average adult has half that number due to new experiences vitalizing and fortifying some connections while getting rid of others through a process called synaptic pruning, thus enabling the brain’s adaptation to a changing environment. [4]

You are stronger than you know. You can move forward. You can change!

According to a Forbes article from psychotherapist and best-selling author, Amy Morin, there are “9 Ways Mentally Strong People Prevent Self-Pity From Sabotaging Their Success.” [7]

1)    They accept their experiences with grief, disappointment, and loneliness without paying heed to how their struggle compares to others’ struggles or whether their struggle is fair.

2)    They recognize that dwelling on everything that is wrong in one’s life combined with inactivity only enables self-pity. So, they can recognize the precursors to self-pity traps and do what they can to prevent them before they start.

3)    Mentally strong people question if and how their perceptions agree with reality. They question if they are engaged in cognitive distortions like a) magnifying the negative details while filtering out the positives or b) assuming that if something bad happens, it will happen again and again.

4)    Instead of allowing self-fulfilling prophecies of destruction to occur, they use their challenges as experimental opportunities to disprove their negative thoughts.

5)    They devote their resources to productive activities and choices that fix their situation, because they know that just dwelling on pain and misery is energy being wasted.

6)    They focus on the many things they must be grateful for rather than focusing on what they can’t be grateful for.

7)    They focus on helping the lives of those less fortunate than themselves.

8)    They remember that taking action to improve things instead of constant sympathy-searching is a better use of their time.

9)    They focus on the optimistic belief that they will be able to manage whatever disastrous curveballs life throws at them.

Maybe you become mentally strong and find freedom from self-pity! 

About the author: Matthew is interested in discussing social psychology, neuroscience, human biology and anatomy, mental health disorders, philosophy, religion, and political and economic history. Matthew loves his friends, his family, and his dog named Sampson. You can contact Matthew at commonissues.contactus@gmail.com.

References:

 [1] http://www.afterpsychotherapy.com/self-pity/

[2] https://cmhc.utexas.edu/selfesteem.html

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2528649/

[4] https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-brain-plasticity-2794886

[5] https://www.verywellmind.com/characteristics-of-self-actualized-people-2795963

[6] https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_five_myths_of_self_compassion

[7] https://www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2015/05/05/9-ways-mentally-strong-people-prevent-self-pity-from-sabotaging-their-success/#7457e0cf51ae

4 thoughts on “The Dangers of Self-Pity

Add yours

  1. Being a person with low self-esteem perhaps I have no room to talk about conquering it, but I can definitely relate to self pity not helping. Psycho therapy and counseling are often what is recommended for those struggling with what was cognitively learned/taught as a young child. Besides counseling not passing judgements on my myself both positive and negative helps along with focusing on the needs of others rather than my own troubles/woes. For me knowing that my worth doesn’t come from my accomplishments and doesn’t come from how much pity someone gives me helps the most because Jesus who loves me unconditionally is greater than any accomplishment and more comforting than any fleeting exhilaration.

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  2. This post gave me things to think about. Within the past 2 years, I’ve struggled (and continue to) with depression, hypothyroidism, and a traumatic breakup. Self-pity is easy to fall into and feels so, so justified… but I pray I (and you, Matthew) can learn to continually replace it with healthy self-compassion.

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    1. Thank you for your reply and your encouragement, Hatching of the Heart. I also hope that you can be enabled to better manage your symptoms and not be tormented by things that cause self-pity. I care for you and hope to read more from you on my posts.

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