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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