How do we crawl out of the mire of self-pity and get on with the rest of our lives?
“What Poison Is to Food, Self-Pity Is to Life” – (Attributed to Oliver C. Wilson)
The modern plague is one that kills the spirit, not one that destroys the body. It is experienced by millions, and the symptoms are feelings of fear, defeat, anxiety, despair, hopelessness, helplessness, and resignation. This host of negative emotions coalesce to form self-pity. The victims of this ailment lack self-confidence and are filled with self-doubt.
What makes feeling sorrow for oneself so insidious is that it is a sign of both unhappiness and the fact that the misery will continue. How does one become trapped in a morass of self-pity? It begins with self-doubt. When we fail to believe in ourselves, we fail to reach our potential. And by not reaching the success we deserve, we experience the psychological pain of regret, shame, and guilt. Now, what would you do if you accidentally touched a hot stove? Wouldn’t you pull your hand away? We automatically flee from or avoid pain. The same is true with psychological pain.
It may be too painful to admit I am not as successful or as happy as I would like to be because I have either done the wrong things or haven’t done the right things. So, rather than feel that pain, I cover it up by denying responsibility and assigning blame for my misery to the outside world. In other words, we don’t practice self-pity to feel good, but to avoid feeling pain. So, you see, though feeling sorry for others is an expression of compassion; feeling sorry for ourselves is a cover-up, a form of self-deception.
Some would go so far as to say that self-pity does more damage than any other negative emotion. Millicent Fenwick, for example, said, “Never feel self-pity, the most destructive emotion there is. How awful to be caught up in the terrible squirrel cage of self.” Whether it is the most damaging of all the negative emotions is arguable, but there is no doubt that it severely limits the potential of those inflicted with it. Because of the seriousness of this affliction, I will go into considerable detail. I’ll begin by doing a general overview of the nature of the problem and recommendations, and then follow that with a specific example or case study.
So, how do we crawl out of the mire of self-pity and get on with the rest of our lives? Before sharing some ideas, let me first say that the purpose of the following suggestions is to help you, if any of it applies; it is not to be used to judge others. The reason for this is that we can never know what is going on in the minds of others. What you see as self-pity in others could in fact be legitimate feelings due to grief, clinical depression, or a major illness. One more point, all attributes, whether negative or positive, are shared in common. As a human, I am bound to experience self-pity at one time or another and the amount that I experience will be greater or lesser than others. Because of the commonality that binds us, we probably could all benefit by the following suggestions.
1. Rather than run from the pain that’s troubling you, face it and use it as a catalyst for change. Use your misery as motivation for self-improvement. Find out what you are doing wrong and correct your behaviour. Become angry at your own self-defeating actions and do something about it. Yes, it’s as simple as that. Although it’s simple, change does involve more pain (no pain, no gain) because of the effort you have to make. But this type of pain is to be welcomed, for it will dissolve your misery and restore your happiness.
2. Don’t add to your suffering by comparing yourself to others. Life is not a competition; it is a garden. Every flower (person) is different but beautiful in its own way.
3. Stop being demanding. Stop believing the world was created to serve you. The truth is, you were created to serve it. It doesn’t center around you. You’re just a small (but important) part of the whole. Focus on what you can give back to life instead of what you can take from it. Make your contribution and enjoy the ride. Some whiners complain, “What’s the purpose of it all? What’s in it for me?” They find no meaning because they are self-centered and can’t understand why the world doesn’t cater to their every need. When they stop thinking of themselves they will discover meaning, for there is a whole world out there that needs their help in spreading joy.
4. Admit that many people are worse off than you; yet, they are doing better. So, follow their example and join their ranks.
5. Stop claiming the world is unfair. The only thing unfair is your distorted belief that the successes of others are due to their ‘lucky breaks’ and good fortune rather than their constructive action. Once you stop whining and start taking action, you will be able to join them in success.
6. True, some situations are more difficult than others, but beware of giving in to hopelessness and seeking comfort in chronic self-pity. For example, a woman married to an alcoholic that beats her and her five children will find it difficult to survive on her own. But for the safety of her children, she needs to let go of her fear, calmly study her options, make plans, and follow the best path available at the time, slowly working her way upward.
7. Realize that there are no failures on the road to success; there are merely a series of successive steps that must be taken and detours that must be maneuvered. ‘Failure’ is a term that negative thinkers attach to those steps and detours. Just as a stranger is a friend you have yet to make, ‘failure’ is a success you have yet to reach, so just keep plodding onward.
8. Understand that misery doesn’t exist in the world, but in our mind. It is not our present conditions, but our reactions to those conditions that are the source of our pain. The fault lies in us. Self-pity is self-defeating; no good can come out of it, so accept responsibility and change yourself.
9. Change your focus from what you cannot do to what you can do, from what you lack to what you have, from the way things are to the way you will make them become, from the person you are to the person you plan to be, from the problems facing you to their possible solutions, and from the difficulties you’re mired in to the opportunities they offer. Since we become what we think about, it is essential that we focus on the right things.
10. Use the power of your imagination to help, not hinder you. Remember, Everyone thinks his own burden is heavy. Don’t accept your imagination’s exaggeration of the magnitude of your problems, for if you do, you become its slave, paralyzed by fear and self-doubt. Instead, use your imagination to visualize how wonderful things will be when you begin taking constructive action. By doing so, your imagination will become your coach, motivating you to act.
11. Change paths. Leave the Path of Self-Pity for the Path of Positive Action. Do this by asking yourself, “What do I want from life? Do I want to be happier?” If so, you need to ask the next question, which is, “What am I going to do about it?” John Keble adds, “When you find yourself overpowered, as it were, by melancholy, the best way is to go out and do something.”
12. Understand the power of choice. Choice is a door. When we open one, we slam shut another. When we open the door of Self-Pity, we slam shut the doors of Positive Action, Success, and Happiness. Or, as Wayne Dyer has said, “With everything that has happened to you, you can either feel sorry for yourself, or treat what has happened to you as a gift. Everything is either an opportunity to grow. or an obstacle to keep you from growing. You get to choose.”
13. Practicing self-pity is reverting to childhood; it is believing you are helpless and dependent on others. Rather than be childish, be childlike by embracing curiosity. Rather than let your thoughts and feelings depress you, examine them with curiosity. Ask yourself questions such as, “Do my feelings of self-pity help me or impede my progress? What can I do differently? Even though I don’t believe in the advice of self-help experts, can I conduct an experiment by comparing the results I get when I follow their advice with the results I get when I do it my way?
14. Apply the power of resolve and commitment. As someone else said, “Fear is a habit; so is self-pity, defeat, anxiety, despair, hopelessness and resignation. You can eliminate all of these negative habits with two simple resolves: I can!! and I will!!”
15. “Laugh at yourself and at life. Not in the spirit of derision or whining self-pity, but as a remedy, a miracle drug, that will ease your pain, cure your depression, and help you to put in perspective that seemingly terrible defeat and worry with laughter at your predicaments, thus freeing your mind to think clearly toward the solution that is certain to come. Never take yourself too seriously.” (Og Mandino)
A 16–year old from England writes:
“I am really feeling down and feel like i am going to fail in life. I am studying media in college, but I have poor grades. I want to be happy and don’t want people to think that I am wallowing in self-pity. I want to change my life. Do you have any suggestions?”
I’ll start by commenting on additional information he has provided, make some general comments, and suggest some steps to take.
Although not his real name, I’ll call our reader “Richard” in this article. Richard is studying media, yet he uses his home computer mainly for online chatting. No wonder he has poor grades. Why would he neglect his studies and waste time chatting on the Internet? It is not because he is lazy, but because a subconscious part of him is trying to protect him. You see, if Richard is afraid of failing, or if he believes studying is very hard, failure or study would result in pain. And it is this pain that his subconscious is trying to protect him from. After all, if he doesn’t try, he won’t experience the pain of failure or study.
But there is no such thing as failure; there are only learning experiences. Richard may or may not be suited to media, and the only way to find out whether he is or not, is by trying. If he continues to neglect his studies, he will fail the course without knowing if he could have passed. What Richard doesn’t realize is he doesn’t have to pass, all he has to do is try to pass. If he tries his best and fails, he will have learned something. He will have learned that media is not for him and he should try something else. Eventually, he will discover what he is suited for and become a great success.
My first suggestion to Richard is to stop using the computer for chatting and start using it as a powerful tool to help him practice and develop his media skills. True, if he doesn’t study hard, he won’t experience the pain of tough work, but in its place, he will experience the bitter pain of regret.
He spends most of the time at home at the computer in his room, and there is little communication with the rest of the family. Richard says, “My family doesn’t really come up and see how I am doing.” But Richard, your family doesn’t know you are chatting on the Internet; they think you are studying and they don’t want to disturb you. When you feel you need a break and a few moments with your family, leave your room and see how THEY are doing.
Men and women in their 30’s and 40’s realize that when problems erupt they’ll have to struggle for a while, but it all will pass. And in the long run, the worst problem will prove to be the greatest blessing. But 16-year-old Richard lacks the experience, so not surprisingly he finds it difficult to have faith in the encouraging words of others. To help Richard see the big picture, I’d like to share a couple of facts.
Like Richard, another British boy was doing poorly in school. He quit school at age 16 and went into business for himself. He later founded a very successful record company, 360 other companies, and an airline. Today he is worth approximately 4.4 billion dollars. His name? Richard Branson (Sir Richard Charles Nicholas Branson).
Richard may be too young to know the great American actor, writer, director, and producer, Michael Landon. But he had a bed-wetting problem until age 14, and his mother would hang up the soiled sheets on her clothesline for everyone to see. Imagine how he felt. Nevertheless, he went on to achieve fame and success. Yes, many of the greatest names in business, entertainment, sports and the arts all started out with problems like Richard. I, too, Richard, was doing poorly in school when I was your age because I was raised by immigrant foster parents who had a sixth grade education. So, you see, the problems you now have are no indication of what your future will be like. Everyone has to start where they are at the time and this includes Richard.
Steps to Take
1. Learn the difference between “I can’t” and “I won’t” or “I choose not to.” Don’t make the mistake of saying to yourself you can’t study when you really mean you don’t feel like studying. We all have the power to do what is important even though we don’t feel like doing it. Some things, Richard, are more important than avoiding discomfort. Things like your happiness and success. You may have to work hard for them, but aren’t they worth it? Don’t you deserve better?
2. When you’re feeling in the dumps, don’t use that as an excuse to stop working. As another British man said “Never despair, but if you do, work on in despair.” (Edmund Burke) Hardly anyone had more reason to feel depressed than Helen Keller. Yet, this is what she had to say, “Self-pity is our worst enemy and if we yield to it, we can never do anything wise in this world.”
Also, make every effort to get over a bad mood as quickly as possible, not only for your own good, but for the good of others. For we have no more right to spread misery and rob others of happiness than we have to enter their homes and steal their possessions. On the contrary, we are obligated to spread joy because the world is in great need of it.
3. Don’t get trapped in defeatist thinking. Just because something goes wrong, don’t believe the problem will continue indefinitely, affect all areas of your life, and be your fault. It is precisely this kind of thinking that leads to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and despair. As you grow in experience, Richard, you will realize problems are temporary setbacks with limited impact and due to external causes. So be patient; be hopeful, and don’t blame yourself. In a word, be positive.
4. Self-pity is a coping mechanism. It is like stepping into a sauna in that it provides temporary relief. But it is not temporary relief but a permanent solution that you need. To find it, seek strength, not comfort. Along these lines, here is what philosopher Dr. Megan Reik had to say, “There are few human emotions as warm, comforting, and enveloping as self-pity. And nothing is more corrosive and destructive. There is only one answer; turn away from it and move on.”
5.You can never grow successful by brooding over what troubles you. Rather, focus on what you wish to become and work towards it. Or, in the words of Harry E. Fosdick “Self-pity gets you nowhere. One must have the adventurous daring to accept oneself as a bundle of possibilities and undertake the most interesting game in the world — making the most of one’s best.”
6. Richard is troubled by his shyness and lack of confidence, but sometimes it is these very qualities that drive us to excel in special areas. In other words, we compensate for our weaknesses by excelling in other areas. For example, I was like Richard, shy and lacking in confidence, so at age 14, I studied magic and hypnosis, which resulted in large crowds whenever I performed. A great many famous entertainers became super stars not because of their confidence, but because of the lack of it! Richard, too, can turn his weaknesses into strength by using them to goad him on to excel in some area. Richard can make his problem a blessing in disguise.
7. We cannot think of two things at the same time. Neither can we experience two feelings at the same time. Why not use these principles to our advantage. For example, if we are frustrated, why not focus on what we have rather than what we lack? Each moment that we’re grateful for what we have is a moment that we are not complaining and are not frustrated. Use idle time wisely, rather than brooding over your worries, you can divert your attention from the negative and get closer to a solution by reading a helpful book. No self-confidence? Why not read a book on self-confidence or self-esteem? It will remove your attention from your problems and help you solve one of them. Repeat this for each problem and you will find you won’t have time to worry and your life will improve.
8. To beat off the battle of the blues, start each day planning how you can brighten the lives of others. Thinking of others removes the attention from yourself and your problems. And because it is impossible to help others without helping yourself, you will find that as you help others solve their problems, you will be solving your own as well.
9. Accept responsibility for your success and happiness. You are the only person that can abandon you. Don’t do it; come to your aid and fight for your success. Don’t wait for someone to solve your problems for you because there are none that can. You are the only person that can help yourself. Also, there are no magic bullets, no shortcuts, no easy way out. You have to do the work yourself. And as you do so, you will grow increasingly proud of yourself and ever more confident.
10. Speak the language of success, not failure. Let your mantra be, “Yes, I can.” It is impossible to fail if you keep trying. Sure, you may experience temporary setbacks and travel down some side streets and detours, but as long as you keep your eyes fixed on the goal and keep trying, you will eventually reach it. So, don’t give up.
11. Stop worrying about what others think of you. Putting all of your attention on yourself is like driving with the headlights beaming on you instead of the street. You will be blinded by the light, unable to see the opportunities and possibilities, and you won’t be able to see where you are and where you are heading. You are in the driver’s seat; don’t allow others to cause you to lose faith in yourself. Make your own roadmap to success and follow it.
12. Welcome the challenges you face for they offer an opportunity to take heroic action. Don’t be a scaredy-cat or fraidy-cat. Take chances. Train yourself to risk failure and rejection rather than avoid them. You see, if you try, you MAY be unsuccessful, but if you don’t try, you WILL regret it.
13. Don’t be concerned if you or your ideas are rejected. Consider the source. What are the qualifications of those judging you? And if you are rejected, there isn’t one possible explanation, but countless possible explanations. So, don’t jump to conclusions. Learn how to handle rejection, rather than avoid it. Also, don’t set yourself up by having overly high expectations. If you expect too much, you’re bound to be disappointed. Reasonable expectations are more likely to lead to success. Here are two more points: if we act inferior, people will treat us that way, and since you have a right to reject others, grant them the same right to reject you.
14. Here’s a way to put some of the time you are alone in your room to good use. Practice this mental exercise. Relax, close your eyes, and imagine that there are two people in the room. You and a 3, 4, or 5-year-old boy. The boy is actually you as a child. Note how lovable the child is. Befriend him. Play with him in your imagination. Love him. Would you ever say to him, “You are stupid. You will never succeed. You are lazy. You are worthless. You are a failure. You have no guts.”? Of course not. But you and that little boy are the same person. Why do you say these things to yourself? Embrace that little boy and promise him you will watch over him and never say anything bad to him again.
15. Here is another powerful mental exercise. You should practice it at least three times a day. It only takes three minutes to perform and it is designed to dissolve your problems and bring peace into your life. To perform this exercise, just tell yourself you are going to take a three minute mini vacation from your problems. That is, for three minutes you will not think, worry, or brood over your troubles. Your three minute vacation consists of the following three steps:
a) Spend the first of the three minutes thinking of something pleasant. Perhaps you recently met with a close friend or will meet with one soon. Pick any example you can think of and allow yourself to experience some pleasure. While you are trying to do this, some worries may suddenly enter your mind. If they do, just say to them, “I’m sorry, you’ll have wait a few minutes. You can return later, but I’m setting you aside for now as I am on a mini vacation.”
b) Almost all of the remaining two minutes will be spent here in the second and most important step. Now imagine what it would be like if all your problems were gone. How would you feel? Relieved? Elated? Joyous? Excited? For almost two minutes allow yourself to feel the way you would if all your problems were gone. If you harness the full power of your imagination, you will easily be able to do this step. As in the above step, if any negative thoughts arise and interrupt what you are trying to do, just set them aside and tell them to wait for a minute or so.
c) Now that you have felt just the way you would if your problems were gone, say “Thank you!” with gratitude in your heart. That’s it. That’s the third step. It just takes a second or two to perform.
Practice this simple exercise three or more times a day and you will experience peace and solve your problems. You don’t have to understand how it works to be successful. But for the curious, I’ll briefly explain. The language of our subconscious is images and FEELINGS. By repeatedly doing this exercise, the feelings of victory over one’s problems reach the subconscious. Once they reach there, the subconscious interprets them as a command.
That is, it is just as if you were speaking directly to the subconscious and saying, “This is how I want to feel.” Now that the subconscious knows how you want to feel, it will automatically work to bring that about, but before it can do so, it must eliminate your problems. It does this by changing your behavior. You will find yourself spontaneously doing things differently. Not because you planned it that way, but just because you feel like doing things differently. Your subconscious will be working in the background, guiding you. If this all sounds confusing, don’t worry about it. Just do the exercises and enjoy the benefits.
16. Although the goal should be to escape from the pit of self-pity, every now and then — especially after very trying circumstances — you mind and body may need a two or three day break to lick its wounds and feel sorry for itself. But the thing to remember is if you decide to give yourself a few days relief, first set a deadline. Tell yourself firmly that regardless how you feel, you’ll get back to what needs to be done in a few days. Richard Gordon Guindon couldn’t say it better, “You shouldn’t wallow in self-pity. But it’s OK to put your feet in it and swish them around a little.” And here’s how Debbie Macomber shared the same insight, ““It’s all right to sit on your pity pot every now and again. Just be sure to flush when you are finished.”
17. Whenever you’re experiencing negative thoughts and feelings, don’t try to suppress them. Your feelings are your friends. Embrace them. Negative ones are a built-in alarm system. They’re just alerting you that you are doing something wrong and you need to make some changes. So, rather than trying to ignore negative feelings, heed their advice and ask yourself a series of questions whose answers will point to a way out of the morass of misery. Ask yourself questions such as, “What causes me to feel this way? What am I doing wrong? What am I neglecting to do? What shouldn’t I be doing? What small steps can I take now that will lead me to a bright future?
18. One thing in Richard’s favor is he likes to participate in sports in his spare time. But, presently, he isn’t as active as he should be. Whether it’s a game of soccer, a workout in the gym, jogging, or merely a series of push–ups done in his room, Richard needs more exercise to ward off the blues. Exercise will take his mind off his worries, improve his health, boost his confidence, and give him a natural high. Don’t just sit on your chair, but do some sit-ups to beat the blues, Richard.
19. Also helpful is to do the opposite of what the cartoon character Charlie Brown said. Here is what he said, “This is my depressed stance. When you’re depressed, it makes a lot of difference how you stand. The worst thing you can do is straighten up and hold your head high because then you’ll start to feel better. If you’re going to get any joy out of being depressed, you’ve got to stand like this.”
Well, as I conclude, Richard, I would like you to understand that the feelings you are going through are natural and common, especially for someone your age. Not only do common people, such as you and I experience them in our youth, but a large number of super stars as well. The lesson, then, is not to be discouraged. Follow your instincts and do what you know needs to be done.
I can tell that Richard is made of the right stuff and up to the task. But I’m not saying that the road to success will be swift or easy. After all, anything worthwhile never is. Just remember, Richard, that inferiority is not what you are but a feeling that you have, and when you roll up your sleeves and work toward your goals, that feeling will change. I’m sure all of our readers join me in wishing Richard great success!
by Grant Connolly
SELF-COMPASSION: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff