More about Pity and Contempt

A reader kindly emailed that she liked my recent article where I answered a question about pity actually being contempt. She makes it a little more personal by asking if self-pity is also self-contempt.

Affirmative again. It follows logically that if pity is veiled contempt, then self-pity is veiled self-contempt. In the original article, I made a distinction between compassion and pity, and the fact that they are not the same. You pity someone because you have an unhealthy need to feel superior (“unhealthy” because putting others down is not the way to feel superior).

The way to feel superior is to be superior. If you want to be the most successful restaurant in town, then you work at it. You don’t minimize or insult other restaurants so you can have the edge. Yes, you might end up harming them, but it does nothing to make you superior. In fact, these actions would certainly make you inferior, especially if the competitor would never do these things to you. Petty and dishonest equals 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. I’ll be nice to him, and I’ll make sure everybody knows why. Maybe my expressions of pity will keep him down.” None of this is consciously articulated, of course, but much of today’s ‘feel-good’ thinking clearly articulates these underlying emotions. People who harm others through a neurotic need to pity them are insecure. Insecurity is insecurity, no matter whether it shows itself as nastiness, harm, or pity.

So what about self-pity? If it could speak, it might say, “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 is to be pitiful.” By pitying yourself, you call attention to your (real or allegedly) pitiful state. You could never feel self-pity if you didn’t have some sense of hopelessness or contempt for yourself.

Cognitive-behavioral therapists define depression as learned helplessness and learned hopelessness. Hopelessness and helplessness come from the belief that life is futile and that one is unlovable. In almost all cases, these beliefs are false because they rest on arbitrary assumptions. But if one feels perpetually hopeless and helpless, it’s only natural that a sense of self-pity will inevitably follow.

Some who pity themselves need to make sure that their pity is clearly displayed. Often it’s a bid for attention or to be loved by someone. To these unfortunates, the love that stems from pity is “better than nothing.” Sadly, a self-pitying person is incapable of accepting the love of another, regardless of the reason. When love or admiration is shown for the self-pitier, his or her response (at least emotionally) is something like, ‘I’m a mess. And you like me? Something must be wrong with you.”

This response is almost guaranteed to drive away a higher caliber of person, including one who may actually love and value you for your actual strengths. The self-pitier is either left all alone, or ends up attracting the kind of person who needs to pity somebody so he can feel better about himself. In this sadly symbiotic relationship, the pitiful one gets to feel pitied, and the pitier gets to feel superior. What a dysfunctional match! I sometimes see this unfortunate dynamic in some marriages, and it explains why so many of them are unhappy and doomed to eventual failure.

People sometimes chide themselves or others by saying, ‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself!’ It’s not bad advice. But that advice can’t be followed (at least in a healthy way) until one first realizes that self-pity arises from terrible feelings about oneself.

A hopeful, constructive and can-do approach to life can replace a prevailing sense of self-pity. The first step, of course, is to stop feeling sorry for oneself. They then have to make a conscious choice to start loving life and all that life has to offer. It might take a little work and some concerted habit-breaking, but self-pity can be eradicated by affirming life and finding reasons to love it.