Self Pity: Pillow or Prison?

Ah, self pity.  Like a comfy shirt or lounge pants that you don’t want to take off.  So why do it?  Why take yourself out of your comfort zone?  I’d like to explore this common dilemma in this article.

Murky Waters

I’d first like to say what I think self-pity isn’t because I see some emotions, from time to time, masquerading as self-pity, or at the least, scrambling to share the spotlight with self-pity.  Sometimes, what is identified as self-pity or “feeling sorry for myself” is just another way of saying “I could have done better,” as in “I’ve been so pathetic, drowning in my sorrows that I never did anything about my situation.”  An extension of feeling bad about feeling bad.

You might think, “Wait a minute!  That’s self pity isn’t it?”  Even Google chooses to define self pity as “excessive, self-absorbed unhappiness over one’s own troubles.” Same thing, right?

Well… “I could have done better” is actually infused with self-judgement and guilt and while there are points of overlap, I want to keep things simpler in this article and talk about self-pity in its purest form: distill it down.

And further, this is not an article about learning to invalidate painful life experiences. But I’ll get to that later.

Getting Back to Comfortable – (Gimme the Pillow)

So if we return to Google’s definition, which is, incredibly succinct, we’re looking at “excessive, self-absorbed unhappiness over one’s own troubles” and there may be a certain comfort involved in being in that state; by this I mean that if the self-absorption has become “excessive” this has, to some extent, become a habit and we return to our habits because they’re–er–comfortable (even if they’re not pleasant, or their results are not pleasant).

But let me be clear: we can be emotionally suffering and comfortable at the same time.  How is this possible?  The motivation to continue on in self pity has to be stronger than the desire to end our emotional pain. We haven’t “hit bottom” yet.

What then keeps self-pity burning strong? Let’s take a look.

Advantages of Being Comfortable – (The Pillow is Working for Me)

Most of us would not want to “stay comfortable” or wallow in self-pity if there weren’t good reasons–especially if the self-pity is taking us to the depths of despair. On the surface, there appears to be a several ‘advantages,’ many which point towards avoidance. Self pity may…

  • Take the pressure off we might feel a sense of immediate relief when we can “stay put” emotionally and not feel obligated to work through difficult emotions or life events.
  • Prevent us from facing (short-term) things we don’t want to face – we can delude ourselves that we will never have to face them, or can procrastinate until “later”, whenever that is.
  • Block other, more uncomfortable feelings or mental states.
  • Lower our expectations of ourselves so we don’t get as disappointed.
  • Avoid the genuine challenge of self-growth – if we tell ourselves we’re incapable of change we don’t have to experience the emotional challenges in bettering ourselves.
  • Give us a temporary mental break from perfectionism – particularly if we’re constantly slave-driving ourselves.
  • At least we feel something – particularly if we’re used to numbing out.
  • Feel kinda cozy – sometimes we self-pity in beds, under covers and in safe spaces. We might tell ourselves that we’re nurturing ourselves.
  • Be a method of communicating – self-pity may be a way of sending messages, or communicating indirectly with loved ones or friends, particularly if there is an ongoing conflict or unresolved issues.

Disadvantages (Help, I’m Feeling Trapped)

But then there may come a point where a person thinks “self pity isn’t fun and it’s not working for me anymore.”

How can self-pity trip us up?

  • Keeps us stuck – we stay in the same old emotional place and our situation doesn’t improve.
  • We feel helpless and disempowered which may translate into hopelessness and despair, if we don’t believe there’s anything we can do.
  • We may develop a different sort of ‘ego problem’ – self-pity can become an “identity” or experienced as solid personality characteristic that cannot be changed.
  • Can undermine our confidence because of limited experience overcoming obstacles.
  • Can maintain or justify addictive or compulsive patterns – after all, don’t I “deserve” to use since I go through so much emotionally? Since my situation is so bad? Self pity may also be a warning sign that relapse may be imminent, unless such feelings are addressed.
  • Can be a drain family and friends – If we’re negative and self absorbed, how can we effectively give to others or contribute to relationships?

What to Do (Let Me Outta Here!)

  • Honour your feelings – this is not the same as being trapped by them. While your feelings are true for you, you don’t have to be immobilized by them. Acknowledging them is the first step towards change because in doing so, we honestly identify what we’re facing.
  • Be real about difficult circumstances and situations – recognizing that you’re in a hard spot is not the same as ruminating about it. This also helps us to turn down the volume on self-judgement.
  • Drop the self-judgement. First I must apologize to everyone that uses the phrase “first-world problem” when referring to their complaints.  While I recognize that such a sentiment is often imbued with humility, this phrase can be misused to discount feelings and our actions, which does not motivate us to change.
  • Lean into” that which makes us uncomfortable – It seems counterintuitive to move towards feelings and situations that make us want to run in the other direction. This however, can be an opportunity to prove to ourselves that we can deal and it’s usually much more efficient in the long run.
  • Communicate assertively – taking ownership for our needs puts us in a constructive, as opposed to a destructive mentality. Yet it’s important to keep the focus on what we can do rather than our unmet expectations of others, which can quickly return us to a stuck mental space.
  • Start small – break it down, which make tasks less overwhelming and more do-able.  Set SMART goals.
  • Do what’s easy immediately – someone once gave me the excellent advice that if something takes 5 minutes or less, do it right away.  Even small outstanding things contribute to mental clutter and stress.
  • Be practical – distinguish what you have control over and what you don’t. Are there elements of the situation that you can address practically?
  • Reach out constructively – journal, make a list or reflect on what you need. Are there supportive people who are able to help you with such things? Speak with a counselling professional if you feel stuck.
  • Resist urges to isolate – isolation tends to feed brooding and indulge self-pity. Others‘ alternative perspectives can be very helpful in taking us out of ourselves.
  • Get involved in your community – helping others can be one of the best things to help us change mental tracks and build self esteem.
  • Adopt an attitude of willingness – even if you have’t made a specific change yet, being willing to let go of self pity and make a constructive start is an essential part of the change process.