Self-Pity versus Self-Compassion

Self-Pity versus Self-Compassion

Wolf eye

Self-pity can become a go-to posture when things are not going our way. It is a feeling that life is conspiring against us. Even our loved ones are treating us unfairly. The boss is being a dick. It’s all too much to take. It’s not fair. And it’s entirely possible that it’s not fair. Because life isn’t fair. Life is what it is. And when we’ve been on the receiving end of mistreatment as a little person, we easily revert back to the same feelings as we had when it was happening decades ago. There’s often rage. But we discovered early on that rage toward our perpetrators just made things worse. This causes us to collapse into helplessness and the sense that there’s nothing to be done about it. A passive stance toward the exigencies of life, toward the apparent arbitrariness and unfairness of the universe (being expressed through our parents, or siblings, or the bullies at school) sets in.

We try to make sense of these experiences by coming to conclusions about ourself and the nature of reality. The lesson we are learning may be described by beliefs about reality that we carry with us unconsciously into adulthood. Beliefs like “Life is unfair and it should be fair”; “It’s all my fault” ; “I’m helpless to do anything about it”. These are intelligent conclusions given the shitty conditions and the unfair treatment we were forced to endure. The child’s response to this sense-making is to collapse into moodiness, become sullen and emotional, withdrawn, uncooperative, passively-aggressive.

When we are treated as an adult in ways that remind us (unconsciously) of how we were treated then, we may regress into the same feelings and behaviours. We are hi-jacked by the past, by memories of how it was as a little person.

We feel sorry for ourself.

Fair enough. But feeling sorry for oneself is the posture of a victim. Once you were actually a victim of circumstances beyond your control. There really was nothing to be done. When an adult collapses into self-pity, the fantasy that we are doing something about it by making ourselves and others miserable is a repeat of our childhood strategy.

The way out of the childhood regression is not self-judgment or self-criticism. It is a) being mindful and b) being compassionate toward yourself. Part of the mindfulness practice is reminding ourselves that our collapse into self-pity is a regression, a trip down memory lane into how it was then, and that it no longer is an effective strategy. We are acting like we are still victims of life and this lands us the passive stance that there is nothing to be done, it’s hopeless and I’m helpless.

Pivoting to self-compassion means that we’re willing to take responsibility for giving to ourselves what we needed then and didn’t get. Love. It means accepting that no, it’s not fair that we’re left to parent ourselves with tenderness, but that the alternative of spending days and weeks suffering and generating suffering is worse. Genuine self-compassion is empowering. It liberates us to ask the questions, “Ok, what’s to be done, who do I need to confront, what difficult conversations do I need to have, what do I need to ask for, what support do I need?” We take responsibility for our feelings. And for ending the suffering as quickly as possible.

Bruce Sanguin Psychotherapist

Written by Bruce Sanguin

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