Self-Pity: The Dangers and 3 Ways to Climb Out of the Pit
The patisserie was close by—I could smell it.
Entering with my stroller, I passed the bread counter and was bombarded with cookies! Round cookies, colored cookies, pressed cookies, marzipan-filled cookies—which ones should I bring to my friend’s house?
I chose the large “sugar cookies” well-snowed with powdered sugar.
Having been in country for only a few months, I practiced what to say and asked for eight cookies.
They didn’t quite fill the box so the lady asked if I wanted more. I nodded. She added them, weighed it, and told me I owed her the equivalent of ten US dollars.
Oh gosh! I was expecting to pay around three! My face reddened as I spit out, “OK.”
I was not OK. She seemed hurried. The crowd seemed impatient. I was too embarrassed to ask her to remove the heavy cookies and to start over with the customers hovering.
I dug around for the money, the last in my wallet. I paid and grabbed my box.
I looked at my daughter’s hand holding a crunchy tiny cookie "gift," unlike the rocks that I had purchased.
*Sigh* I had chosen the wrong ones . . . the expensive, ugly, weighty ones.
I lamented all the way home—why didn’t I have the nerve to tell her that I didn’t want them? Why wasn’t my language better so that I could explain more what I wanted? I’m never going to fit in here. I couldn't even do a simple task. I worked so hard at trying to make this my home, but I still failed so easily.
I nursed this wound for several days and even invited others into my “pity party.” Doesn’t my language stink? I would ask. Can you believe I feared asking her to change out the cookies? I’m so incapable of living here. My husband will have to do all of the shopping, because I can't communicate. I probably won't have any friends either. *Sigh*
I spiralled down into self-pity. I felt defeated, trapped in a pit I created. I felt sorry for myself . . . so sorry.
Disappointments are inevitable in life—difficult circumstances, losses, failures. If dwelt on in a negative light repetitiously, they lead to a deeper level of discouragement and then the trap of self-pity.
How is self-pity addictive? It feels soothing to our “hurt self.” Self-pity can be “wallowed” in. Animals wallow in the mud to keep themselves cool and to keep the insects away. Do they get out quickly? No. If we wallow in self-pity, we don’t have to take any responsibility. We just nurse our wounds and sink deeper and deeper and deeper. Reality is no longer clear.
How do I slip into self-pity?
Here are three thinking patterns that feed it:
1. It’s all about me.
It isn’t called SELF-pity for nothing! We interpret the disappointing situation in a self-referential way. My cookie buying incident was all about me—my language ability, my inadequacy to change my order, my fear about what others thought.
I failed to recognize other happenings on that visit—the kindness another employee showed my daughter, the awesome selection found in the neighborhood shop, the colorful, cheery ribbon tied on my purchase.
My eyes couldn't see any positives, because my view was focused inward. My habit was to gather evidence to confirm my inadequacies.
Recognize unhealthy patterns that feed self-pity (others are comparison, jealousy, and pride). You can’t have a realistic view of yourself when you’re the center of your universe.
2. Repeating past events and conversations in my head.
At the end of the day, where do your thoughts carry you? Do you remember the good, the kind, and the funny of the day? Or do you relive the embarrassing, the unclear, and the painful?
With each negative repetition, the failure is exaggerated, the sour facial expression received is more pronounced, the prognosis the doctor uttered feels more weighty. Allowing the brain to loop negative experiences will lead to the pit of self-pity.
Repetitive thoughts of shame, anger, and regret can create ruts which hide the healthy path forward. Emotional processing is healthy, but ruminating on the same scenarios in a self-referential way increases our discouragement.
3. This is my full identity.
If failure or loss did occur, it does not sum up who you are.
“I’m a bad parent because my child doesn’t know French,” or “I’m not able to maneuver my manual car successfully through the roundabout,” or "I felt embarrassed at the patisserie," doesn’t define your whole personhood. Don’t dwell on it like it does. Remember the other parts of your identity too—a patient friend, a diligent employee, a flexible leader, an awesome bread baker.
A stuck, wallowing identity can feel strangely comforting. We fear trying again because maybe we'll learn we truly are a "failure." If we don't move forward, it feels safe. If I don't try again, I won't risk getting hurt. Look at yourself through another's eyes here—wallowing doesn't make you safe. It traps you.
How do I climb out of the pit of self-pity?
1. Practice gratitude.
Train your eyes and mind to view the beauty of the day. A small blue flower in the sidewalk crack, the smell of spices wafting from the kitchen, a child’s smile—all joys found in everyday living. Gratefulness is even known to strengthen the brain.
Start a habit of finding three things you're thankful for each day. Write them down or tell someone else. Show gratitude for people in your life, either face-to-face or by letter. Express thanks that humans are resilient. Life will continue with hope of change and newness . . . hope for you, too.
2. Refocus your point of view
It's natural to retell my story from my point of view. What I experienced, what I saw, how I felt, how I interpreted others' reactions. It's healthy to debrief from this angle. But it's unhealthy to ruminate (replaying the same scene in my mind) my analyzations, because it doesn't lead to new insight. It's like a treadmill, always working but never going anywhere.
Recall the distressing scenario through an outsider's eyes and perspective. This scene tends to be more factual and straightforward, allowing you to reinterpret your experience with fresh insight and possibly bring closure.
It's difficult to get new perspective on your own, so reach out to a buddy, debriefer, or coach to listen and steer you in a new direction.
3. Show self-compassion.
If you've been caught in the swampy bog, either a few short hours or long months, hope awaits you.
Be kind to yourself. Back at the patisserie, I could have reminded myself that I didn't get the language YET. It wasn't a language test. I have resources and time to improve. If I would have inconvenienced people by having the clerk repack my box and gotten sneered at and shamed (Eek! My big fear!), I would have survived! I am not defined by that moment.
Set realistic and quickly achievable goals to keep moving forward. Fears and regrets quickly ensnare, leaving us stuck. Try again. Show up at that patisserie next week. Take one step down a healthy path.
Remember a symptom of self-pity is inactivity, so be sensible with your ambitions. Keep moving forward one little step at a time.
These three steps prompt eyes to slowly focus upward, out of the self-pity grime. Once you refocus and see life through a new lens, hope and change are possible.
No one is saying it’s easy to move from self-pity to a more productive and fruitful mindset. We often need others’ help to support growth. Coaching is an ideal tool to get unstuck, shed the muck, and move forward.
Coaching is about learning—rather than teaching. Your coach uses coaching techniques such as active listening, open questions, encouragement, challenging a bit, and always remaining supportive. These techniques are used to assist you in discovering insights and taking next steps.
Coaching is about action—your action. Each session, you will determine 1-3 actions steps that you will take before the next session. You may be surprised how quickly you progress toward your goals.
Coaching is about all of you—not just your work. We all know that changing old habits and thought patterns are difficult. Your coach recognizes these patterns and will support you as you change and grow.