Self-Pity and How to Overcome It

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Self-pity is a constant danger. No rude boss, no criminal skulking in the dark, no unforeseen calamity can ruin your mood, damage your reputation and dismantle your relationships as efficiently as you can simply by feeling sorry for yourself. If you want to build your character and earn the trust of others, the first step is to eradicate the habit of self-pity.

You may think you are immune, but you aren’t. The inclination to exaggerate our suffering, to tell ourselves no one sees and no one cares is natural to the human heart. If you are a self, you are susceptible to self-pity.

Perhaps you’re not aware of this. Self-pity is a subtle beast. She sneaks up on you quietly and before you know it, you’re angry all the time about how nobody has it as hard as you. We all fall prey to self-pity because it doesn’t always look like what we imagine it should.

When we think of a self-pitying person, we imagine someone who complains all the time. We imagine that bitter person at work who always makes the gloomy remark whenever someone describes her fun weekend. Basically, if we aren’t Eyeore, we think we aren’t in the grip of self-pity.

But, self-pity is more pervasive than we think. When you rehearse that conversation with a “friend” that angered you; when you cultivate hurt over that professor you are sure gave you low marks because he just doesn’t like you; when you stew over the girl you are certain turned you down unjustly, these are all expressions of self-pity.

Self-pity is the habit of focusing on your disappointments and exaggerating their seriousness. Self-pity is inextricable from a victim mindset that sees others, but not yourself, as having responsibility and power. Self-pitying people see themselves as innocents whose valor in the face of difficulty no one sees. They look everywhere for the applause they are convinced is their due and when it is not forthcoming they reassure themselves of their victimhood.

We all do that sometimes. The real problem is not that we all feel sorry for ourselves for a few minutes once in a while. The real problem is that self-pity is a full-blown lifestyle for many.

The culture doesn’t help. Once, children were taught that self-pity was unacceptable Teachers and parents tended to reinforce the idea that people are primarily responsible for their own circumstances. These days, of course, social institutions do the opposite, encouraging victim thinking at every level.

By encouraging our natural inclination to feel sorry for ourselves, cultural institutions contribute to our general misery. At the bottom of so many people’s unhappiness is a big reservoir of self-pity. Much of the depression, anxiety, and anger that so many suffer stems from deeply ingrained habits of self-pity and its concomitant narcissism.

There are exceptions of course. Not everyone who is depressed is full of self-pity. But, everyone who is full of self-pity is depressed. Depression grows on self-pity like apples grow on the apple tree. The only way to rid yourself of the poisoned fruit is to tear up the roots that produce it.

How do we do that?

Let me suggest three things.

First, have reasonable expectations. As I said, self-pity is the natural inclination of the human heart. You will never be completely rid of it. Seeking to be totally free of every impulse to feel sorry for yourself is a fool’s errand. You’ll never achieve it.

Better to work to be aware of when you are indulging. When you notice you’re having a nice little chat with yourself about how wonderful you are and how rotten everyone else has been to you, stop.

Your feelings can help you. You know those times when you just feel like ripping someone’s head from his shoulders? Those times when you’re just aching for that annoying neighbor to come over and complain about the noise your kids are making one more time so you can really let him have it?

When you notice intense, otherwise inexplicable anger or sadness, honestly searching yourself for traces, or, perhaps piles and piles, of self-pity is a good move. When you find them, refuse to permit them to occupy your mind.

Second, understand that to decenter self-pitying thoughts, you must replace them with something else. That something else is gratitude. Think about this, if you are reading this on a computer or phone, you have advantages that 95% of people who have ever lived did not. Whatever is wrong with your life, it is not so terrible you can’t find something to be grateful for. If Corrie Ten Boom could be thankful in a Nazi concentration camp, surely you can muster a little gratitude in spite of the fact that the line at Starbucks was so long.

Third, focus on your duties, your goals, your plans and not on what troubles you. When we lack a clear sense of mission, of something we want to accomplish, self-pity rushes in to fill the vacuum. The more we develop our goals and work hard to achieve them, the psychic space available for self-pity shrinks. As that space shrinks, you’ll notice you’re less vulnerable to the opinions and behaviors of others that once would have sent you spiraling into the land of woe-is-me.

As your resistance grows and self-pity becomes less of a habit, you’ll become aware of those times you fall back into your old ways more quickly. When you do, return to the practices above immediately. Tell yourself, “Well, I’m feeling sorry for myself right now. It’s not helpful and I’m going to cut it out right now or, at least, pretty soon.”

Do this until it become natural. Eventually, with a little practice, you’ll find yourself with practically nothing to feel sorry about.


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10 responses

  1. I came here from reddit and I was looking forward to reading this because I really don’t like self-pity. But this article misdefines self-pity as focusing on bad experiences. This is wrong. Self-pity isn’t about how much one focuses on bad experiences, but rather how one reacts to them. Does one wallow on self-pity, feeling sorry for oneself and doing nothing, or does one take practical action? In my opinion, the correct response to really bad experiences is hatred, not self-pity, and this hatred should spur one to action. This is what happened in my case. I hate modern culture and I have taken real action against it and continue to do so. This is not self-pity.

    • If one is taking positive action to respond well to difficulty, that is, by definition, focusing on positive actions, not bad experiences.

    • I also want to add that I disagree with the claim that “Once, children were taught that self-pity was unacceptable Teachers and parents tended to reinforce the idea that people are primarily responsible for their own circumstances. These days, of course, social institutions do the opposite, encouraging victim thinking at every level.”

      Yet again people claiming that today people are all about themselves or victimhood, problem is that this claim doesn’t hold previous generations accountable for their self pity or victimhood. Many parents in previous generations were guilty of self pity, and did not model taking responsibility for ones own circumstances. I know parents 40 years and older, complaining, “I’m tired of raising kids, my life is so hard, kids these days this or that, etc…”. Thing is instead of saying, “well you made choices that lead to this, people say “I know it’s hard, kids are so bad, I know my life is hard too, etc…”. This does not enforce responsibility for ones own actions, many kids are and were being raised in homes with this. So it’s not entirely on the kids that they handle self pity as they do. The parents hold a level of responsibility.

      Example, my parents argue, “Parents can’t give what they don’t have,” as an excuse for their mistakes as parents. Meaning because their parents didn’t teach them things, they couldn’t teach us. However, the problem with this is that everyone has an opportunity to learn what may not be given to us as it should. So while our parents may fail to teach things, we could have learned them else where if we had tried to seek the knowledge instead of using it as an excuse to pass it on. This also goes for many people who deal with the failed education system. I agree that the government should be funding good education, but if you sit and accept what they give then of course you’ll fall short. You need to go and educate yourself. Find the knowledge, don’t wait for it to fall in your lap.

      Today, I still see this behaviour amongst my elders. Self pity is an inter-generational issue. Many of the people today were raised in homes hearing parents say, the system owes us this, the system is bad in this way or that way, this politician is bad for this for giving or taking away that, we are entitled this, my boss doesn’t give the respect I deserve, I can’t do this or that etc… I don’t see anything wrong with acknowledging that the disadvantages you’ve faced were hard, or holding those who hurt you accountable, and that you deserve compassion and consideration. I agree, we all need compassion and consideration for what we’ve gone through in life. Sometimes we need to hear people express care for what we’ve been through. What we need to know is that it doesn’t stop us from overcoming them nor should we use it as an excuse to give up. The system may make bad choices, but it doesn’t stop us from being powerful. Unfortunately, these past 4-5 generations possibly even earlier have increasingly fallen into the mindset of “We didn’t have the chance, so this is how we are”. This is not something that is purely a today issue, this something that’s has been brewing for generations and is becoming more open. I’m seeing baby boomers with it, my grandparents generations with it. My great-grandparents even had it.

      I believe what this generation is trying to do is balance out compassion and responsibility. Many of us made the poor choices we did, not purely because we chose to, but because negative things happened to us that effected our logic and influenced us emotionally. This is important to understand so that we can show people compassion and consideration for they’ve been through and why they are the way they are, instead of saying, “Suck it up”, or “that’s life”. It doesn’t excuse wrong doing, but it helps us to understand that they did not ask to suffer for a lot of things they did that they couldn’t control. Now we also need to enforce that what we do as a result of these bad events leads to either good consequences or bad consequences. If we made poor choices as a result of abuse, the abuse influenced it and the abuser is responsible for the pain and confusion you suffered, but you still chose to do it, so you are also responsible for the consequences you must not suffer. This is what’s lacking in each of these generations.

  2. Dean, I may be quite exaggerated, but I must say that you’re the father I didn’t have.
    Thank you so much.
    Bruna, from Brazil.

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