I see many smart and well-meaning people in my office. From time to time I’ll encounter a person who is well-adjusted and psychologically healthy, but who feels sorry for him- or herself. If he or she is indeed mentally healthy and self-aware, they almost always recognize it and put an end to it right there by saying something like, “I’m just feeling sorry for myself. I just need a good kick in the rear to get me going again.”
That’s a good thing, of course, but it’s also important to still have some empathy and compassion for one’s self. We’re constantly being told that we must empathize with and feel compassion toward others – even strangers and people who obviously bring their troubles onto themselves. I don’t totally agree with that, but even if it’s true, it stands to reason that we should also feel compassion for ourselves.
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 that shouldn’t be a reason to go in the opposite direction and refuse to acknowledge legitimate hardship, trauma, pain or even plain old everyday frustration.
I’ve heard 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 or be miserable. It could be five minutes; it could be five days or maybe even a year, depending on the severity of the misfortune. But a healthy person has to find ways to end the self-pity parties so he or she can function not only for themselves but also for those who are important to them.
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. They tell me, “I let myself feel sad for a while, cry it out or whatever else when I need to, and that somehow makes me more able to cope with it.” I think this principle not only applies in extreme cases such as grief, but also in the context of life’s everyday disappointments.
As I write this and think about my clinical experiences with my clients, 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, i.e., 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’m a victim and it’s always someone else’s fault.” Aside from being improbable and inaccurate, it also makes it harder to hope for better things. If everything is 100 percent the fault of God, society, or other people, then there’s nothing you can do to improve your situation. So why bother? If that’s the case, then feeling sorry for one’s self may indeed be a dangerous thing, and could very well be indicative of a deeper problem.
The bottom line? A little empathy that fits with your level of frustration can indeed be a good thing. The introspection or self-examination that this requires not only adds to psychological health, but will certainly lead to a happier life.
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