Q: I just finished reading your article, “The Psychology of Pity”. Superb. So if pity is really contempt, is self-pity really self-contempt?
A: Absolutely. It logically follows that if pity is really contempt, then self-pity is self-contempt.
In the article you mention, I distinguished between compassion and pity. Pity isn’t compassion. You pity someone because you have an unhealthy need to feel superior. I say “unhealthy” because putting others down is not the way to feel superior. The way to feel superior is
to actually BE objectively superior — if that’s your goal.
If you want to be the most successful restaurant in town, then you work at it. You don’t burn down or libel other restaurants; you don’t use pull with the local liquor license board to keep them from getting a liquor license so you can have the edge. These things will harm a competitor, but they do nothing to make you objectively superior. In fact, these actions make you inferior if the competitor you’re harming would never do these things to you. You’re the petty and dishonest one, which makes you inferior.
Pity is a backdoor way of doing the same thing. “Oh, I don’t have to put this person down. He’s already down. He’s already lower than I am. I’ll be nice to him. I feel good that he’s lower than me. Who knows, this pity might even keep him down so I don’t have to feel so worried.” None of this is consciously articulated as such. But these are the words the underlying emotions would say, if they could speak.
People who harm others through unjust actions are insecure. People who have a neurotic need to pity others are likewise insecure. Insecurity is insecurity, whether it manifests as nastiness and harm, or pity.
What would self-pity “say” if it could speak? Something like this: “I’m never going to achieve or accomplish anything. Others have told me that, and they’re right. I’m not lovable and I’m not admirable. The only way for me to gain visibility from others is to be pitiful.” By pitying yourself, you call attention to your (real or allegedly) pitiful state. You would never feel self-pity if you didn’t have some sense of contempt for yourself, or hopelessness about yourself, in the first place.
Depression is defined by cognitive therapists as learned helplessness and learned hopelessness. Where do thoughts of hopelessness and helplessness come from? They come from the belief that life is futile. They also come from the belief that one is unlovable. These beliefs are usually if not always false. They rest on arbitrary assumptions. But if one feels perpetually hopeless and helpless, an overriding sense of self-pity will inevitably follow. How could it not?
Some self-pitying people display their self-pity to others, in bids for attention or in a bid to be loved by someone based on pity. To such a person, love from another due to pity is “better than nothing.” Of course, a self-pitying person cannot ever really accept the love of another, regardless of the reason for the love. When that person loves or shows admiration for the self-pitier, the self-pitier’s response (emotionally if not verbally) will be: “What’s wrong with you? I’m a mess. And you like me? Something must be wrong with you.”
This response will of course drive away the better kind of people, including the people who love and value you for your actual strengths. You’ll either be left all alone, or you’ll attract the kind of person who needs pitiful people to pity so that he can feel better about himself. What a dreadful match: A self-pitying person and a person who needs to pity another in order to feel superior. That’s the underlying dynamic of some marriages and explains why those marriages are so unhappy.
People sometimes chide themselves (or others) with the statement, ‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself!’ It’s not bad advice. But it’s not advice that can be followed until one first realizes that the self-pity arises from terrible feelings about oneself and/or life.
A hopeful, constructive and can-do approach to life will replace the prevailing sense of self-pity that envelops some people’s mindsets. Self-pitying people can and must reinvent themselves. Yes, they have to stop feeling sorry for themselves. But they have to make a conscious choice to start loving life and all that life has to offer. You cannot eradicate self-pity until you first affirm life, and the love of it.