“Feeling Sorry For Yourself”: Not So Bad?

Many otherwise healthy and admirable people, when they become aware of “feeling sorry” for themselves, squelch it right there. In some ways that’s a good thing, of course. But here’s the problem: You ought to have empathy and compassion for yourself. We’re all told constantly by everyone that we must have empathy and compassion toward everyone else, even strangers, and even people who bring their own troubles on themselves. I don’t agree, but even if that’s true, it stands to reason that we should allow ourselves to feel compassion for ourselves. Doesn’t it?

The question is not whether to feel compassion and empathy for yourself, but how to do so. If you engage in open-ended pity parties where you paint yourself as a victim with no accountability, responsibility or hope, then of course that’s a bad thing. But the fact that’s a bad thing should not be a reason to go in the opposite direction and refuse to acknowledge legitimate hardship, trauma, pain or even simple everyday frustration.

I’ve heard pretty well-adjusted people say things like, “I decide how much self-pity the unfortunate circumstance warrants, and then I give myself that amount of time to indulge in it. Then it’s over.” I like that approach. Use your objectivity and rationality to determine a reasonable amount of time to grieve, be miserable or unhappy. In some cases it will be five minutes. In other cases it will be five days. In extreme cases it might even be a year, but you have to find ways to turn the self-pity parties on and off so you can function.

In meditation exercises people are sometimes told, “Let yourself feel that pain or disappointment.” Go toward it. Walk toward the fire. I often hear from grieving spouses or family members after a death, “I let myself feel sad for a while, cry it out or whatever else when I need to, and then that somehow makes me stronger in coping with it.” I think this principle not only applies in dramatic and extreme cases such as grief, but also in the context of life’s lesser and everyday disappointments as well.

As I write this, it occurs to me that there’s a more fundamental issue involved with respect to feeling sorry for yourself. It’s whether or not you go through life feeling like you’re a perpetual victim — as if reality/existence itself were somehow against you. Sometimes people get caught up in “God” being against them, or “society”, but the psychological mindset is always the same: “I am a victim and it’s always someone else’s fault”. Aside from being improbable and inaccurate, it also takes hope away from yourself. If everything is 100 percent the fault of God, society, or other people, then there’s nothing you can ever do to improve your situation. There never was, in fact. If that’s your take on life, then feeling sorry for yourself may indeed be a dangerous thing. But it’s part of a deeper and wider problem.

Otherwise, a little empathy to fit with the level of frustration or misery you’ve experienced might be a good thing. Show compassion toward yourself, although only what’s reasonably warranted.

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