Just a quick thought & a question– what is the difference between feeling sad about something bad in your life, and feeling self-pity? This came up recently in a session, where a client worried about sinking into self-pity. this is a person who, due to chronic pain in back & feet, has lost swimming, which he loved, and is limited in walking/hiking, which he also loves. That’s enough to bum anyone out, much less someone already diagnosed with depression & a substance use disorder (now in long-term remission, I’m happy to say).
We didn’t come to a definitive conclusion in session, but we did spot some markers– one can legitimately mourn one’s loss while taking steps to deal with it, as this client has done by engaging consistently with the medical community and pursuing alternative therapies such as mindfulness based stress reduction and gentle yoga for the back. He has learned how to schedule himself & rearrange his day so that he doesn’t use up his tolerance for the pain before he gets his goals accomplished. These are not the moves of a self-pitying person.
Thinking about it now, the word that comes to mind is agency. There is justifiable cause for sadness in the person’s life– the losses are real, and the prospect of them being reversed is unknown but probably extremely small. But he continues to be the author of his fate, within his powers.
Self-pity, I feel, is more characterized by victimhood. When I (or you, or whoever) am experiencing self-pity, I have a feeling that there’s nothing I can do. There may be blaming, finger pointing, recrimination. There may be appeals for help in doing what I am capable of doing, no matter what my loss may be, or perhaps an appeal for help to do what only I can do for myself.
Fortunately, the person who brought up this issue is a 12-stepper, and there’s a tool in the 12 step tool kit that can work on this– the personal inventory. For those who are interested, the AA literature about this includes both the fourth step and the tenth step. As a brief digression, I will mention that these steps require no dealing with higher powers. Even the original AA literature on the fifth step, which directs the user to share the inventory with one’s self, God, and another person, emphasizes that it won’t work unless another human being is included. But taking time to do some writing, some thinking, some looking at causes and conditions, and looking at one’s own part regardless of anything else, can help sort out the difference between a genuine sadness and mourning for one’s losses, and a self-indulgent victim role.
As part of my feedback to the client who brought this up, I pointed out that it’s a rare person who doesn’t fall into self-pity at some time. And I don’t think that it’s possible to make it through a life filled with frustration, disappointment, loss– the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to– without feeling self-pity at times. After all, isn’t one of the aspects of self-pity the childish, even infantile wish for some kind of miraculous removal of all the problems? “Mommy, fix it!” (At least for those whose mothers were adequate in early life). If you’ve never felt that, you’re a more stalwart person than I.
But I think the key thing here is that one doesn’t stay with that magical thinking and that passive stance. One takes the role of actor, even if it’s the action of trying to find support people, meditating, or simply accepting one’s limitations. There can be tremendous sadness in this without there being a scrap of self-pity. This is where self-compassion comes into play, and for that I will direct people to self-compassion.org.