Self-pity and self-compassion

The Human Condition (painting)

The Human Condition (painting) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I ended up last time wondering how, if pity is the feeling of “oh, you poor thing” (I’m better than you), can it be possible for someone to really experience self-pity. I mean, how can I not be on a footing of equality with myself? How can I not recognize my own humanity? Well, it happens.

It seems to me that we frequently create artificial selves for ourselves– a front, if you wish. Think of Cyrano, or on a less exalted literary level, the animated Disney Aladdin. The main character presents a false self, in Cyrano’s case by not pleading his case with Roxanne himself, and in Aladdin’s case by denying that he is the same guy as he was before. In one case things turn out tragically; in the other the tragedy is turned into a happy ending. But the presentation of a “false self” is a common move in various literary plots. Shakespeare puts  his characters in disguise all the time, mostly in comedies.

So the relationship to self-pity is this: we have a “self” that we consider superior to another “self” and one of them is better of the two. So the failure of one to live up to the standards of the other is the basis for self-pity. “If I’d only said the right thing, it would have turned out differently!” I compare my actual performance to an imagined performance by a superior self.

For me, the booby trap of this is a failure to acknowledge that everything I do is me. The self that does the performance of life and the self who watches from behind the eyes. The self that imagines a better performance. It’s all me. I’m fully human, and I fully participate in the human condition. There’s no getting out of it, except perhaps by being reincarnated as a non-human creature.

So what about self-compassion? I would suggest checking out for an extended discussion, but the idea is much what you would expect– I acknowledge that I’m human, with all the frailties and foibles of my species, and I participate fully in the human condition. (Thanks Galina for turning me on to the site).

For me, the self-pity trap is an example of something I’ve noticed in various folks in various ways in my work– in t his case, feeling bad about feeling bad. I screwed up somehow, didn’t meet my own standards, and I feel bad about it. Then I feel bad about feeling bad. Closed loop, and not a good one. Other examples could be worrying about worrying or being angry about being angry. And so on. There are tools to break the cycle, and I’ve presented a couple here. But don’t feel too bad if you’re in a state of self-pity sometimes– we’re all human, after all.


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
This entry was posted in behavioral health, change, choices, happiness, mental health, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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