Are Depression and Self-Pity the Same Thing?

A reader asks: Is there a difference between self-pity and depression?

Yes, but … I’m uneasy with the premise of the question. I’ll explain.

Let’s first define self-pity.

Generally, when a person accuses oneself or another of self-pity, it’s an admonition against sadness.

The person being accused of self-pity, therefore, is inclined to immediately rebel by thinking, “But my situation is difficult.”

In its best sense, the call to stop feeling sorry for yourself is a call to rational action. “Don’t just sit there. Do something.” Action is certainly preferable to inaction, especially when one is sad and has lost all motivation or purpose. But the type of action matters. That’s why the urge to reject self-pity ought to be careful in replacing the pitiful emotion with one of rational planning to be soon followed by sound action.

Part of the confusion involves how broad the usage of the term “depression” has become. Originally, depression referred to a chronic condition in which the individual feels listless, low in energy and motivation — not due to a medical condition — for a sustained period of time (weeks, or more likely months). The term is supposed to exclude medical factors, or rational reactions (or even irrational overreactions) to actual negative events.

Despite these restrictions on the term “depression” by the psychiatric profession’s own diagnostic criteria, the term has come to be used for far, far more situations. Depression, we’re told, is a medical condition. Yet it’s supposed to refer to a psychological state, one not caused by a medical condition. Upset for no reason, only for a few hours or at most a day? You’re depressed. Lacking energy? It must be depression. It couldn’t be that you’re simply tired, or ate too much. Disappointed in your result on a test or a review by a boss or customer? It must be depression. I don’t like or understand why you’re acting a certain way, but don’t want to say so and thereby risk conflict with you, or be seen by others as “mean” or judgmental? Then it’s easier just to say you’re depressed. You’re an employer and you don’t want to be sued for firing an employee who isn’t doing work? Call him “depressed” and send him for coerced counseling, thereby creating probably more resentment than if you had fired him.

I hesitate to answer the reader’s question because the term “depression” has become virtually meaningless, regardless of the objective criteria to which the term might have once referred. And “self-pity” is one of those package deals. It sneaks in a condemnation of self with an irrational or mindless perspective. It feeds the false view that to be self-interested or self-concerned is to be mindless, irrational and out of perspective; and to be un-self-interested is to be rational, objective, detached from all things related to self.

Left out of this sneaky false alternative is what should seem quite obvious: The option to be both self-interested and rational in one’s perspective about facts of life, others and existence. I recognize that for a person who’s truly in a state of low motivation or depressed mood, this is not an easy task. But it helps to at least have the right goal in mind. If you’re depressed, and if in that state of mind you tell yourself (or another tells you), “Stop feeling sorry for yourself!” it sounds like you’re condemning the person simply for feeling sad about himself or his life. This removes from discussion any possibility of discovering what the causes of the mood are; what thoughts and ideas are giving rise to the mood; and whether those thoughts and ideas are really tenable and factually valid, or not.

Ironically, the attitude, “Stop feeling self-pity” is usually meant to inspire a sense of self-responsibility and self-initiative. Those are praiseworthy goals, to be sure. But blaming the problem on self-pity is tantamount to telling the person, “Snap out of it.” And “snap out of it” implies: Change your feelings without reason, or without thought. But if feelings arise from thoughts, then how can you possibly begin to change your mood without reference to thought, self and mind? In that sense, “stop feeling sorry for yourself” leads to a devastating sense of self-refutation at a time when one’s thinking self is perhaps most required.

Of course, many will say that depression is nothing more than a chemical malady of the brain, plain and simple. I don’t buy into that oversimplification of what causes emotions. However, even if that oversimplification were true, it would still make no sense to say, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.” Instead the answer would be simply to take the right medication, and all will be well.

In sum, I hate to answer the question, “Are self-pity and depression the same?” People using the term “depression” usually  have no idea of what they’re talking about. And “self-pity,” as I stated, does not name the actual cause of the problem — and hampers the ability for finding a solution.


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