Self-pity is our worst enemy and if we yield to it, we can never do anything wise in this world. – Helen Keller
This is the first in a three-part series on self-pity. If you never indulge in self-pity, skip this series. It’s too likely to provoke a certain repulsion that obliterates any empathy us oft self-pitied persons could reasonably expect from you. You can move on and pray for us, the “pity pathetic” people seeking relief.
If however, you are of Irish, Polish, Slavic, Latino, or African descent, or if you are female, even of a lunar ethnic group, or if you experience a high or low or bored plateau of hormonal shifts beyond your control or recognition, which result in brief periods (several minutes up to several months) of self-pitying, read on. I intend to commiserate with you and share my own experience struggling to divert pitithetic energy back to the common good. This is no easy spiritual exercise, but it’s worthy (as all self-pitying people come to realize) because self-pitying is emotional alcohol. It becomes addictive, easily added to any experience for the familiar affect of the “poor me” buzz.
“Pitithetic I” focuses on the dimensions of the problem, with anecdotes that will seem familiar or cause you to send me an e-mail to “Get over it, dear.” “Pitithetic II” will focus on forgiveness and boundaries. “Pitithetic III” will move on to humor and hope. A “Pitithetic IV” would, of course, extol love and charity above all – but that’s advanced spirituality and I am still in progress.
I suffer self-pity. It came upon me in my 20s. Before then, I had no cause upon which to pin the emotion, though, like a bitter seed, the tendency was firmly planted. I was introduced to self-pity in the female Irish Catholic perspective my own mother conveyed. I’ll offer one example. My mother disliked my father’s cousin Jeannette. “She,” my mother mourned freely among us kids, “is unbearable.” Though I did not know Jeannette, my mother received my full child confidence and loyalty. So I was certain of Jeannette’s flaws, and consoled my mother’s withering gloom each time she suffered mention of or a visit with Jeannette. I did not know, but, in those moments, I was learning and absorbing the expectations and exercise of self-pity.
Over time, I became aware of facts underlying my mother’s consistent distress with Jeannette. Jeannette had known my father his entire life, being only a few months apart and raised side by side. My mother, compared to my father’s cousin, was the newcomer in his life, all of his life. Too, Jeannette was firmly Protestant and, very possibly, expressed the anti-Catholic attitudes of her small town where Catholics lived somewhat segregated from the rest of the community. As fact and reality remolded child perceptions, I realized that Jeannette rattled my mother’s feelings, probably unintentionally, as early as Mother’s courtship days with my father. My mother’s own tendencies cemented the situation for the duration. It was not vitriol that fueled my mother’s life long suffering of Jeannette, but the initial emotional pain that festered and never went away.
I call this “relational” self-pity: When I have been offended by another person and will not reforge the wrong to be forgotten, forgiven or replaced by, say, better behavior. Let me share two of my own relational self-pity points.
When my husband courted me, he sent me beautiful bouquets of flowers. When I said “yes” and married him, he said, “I will always send you flowers.” That, I noted within months of marriage, did not happen.
My husband’s father, may he rest in peace, told me shortly after my marriage to his son, “I don’t know why he loves you, but it seems he does. I am stuck with that.”
These two relational incidents provoked in me neither sympathy nor love – certainly not patience – but, rather, torrents of self-pity. “Poor me,” I’ve thought in extremis, a husband who will not give me flowers as promised and a father-in-law whose early words to me expressed an abiding disdain for my person. Are these small human infractions? Undoubtedly. Yet, they are but two examples of slights done to me that settled, rooted and became an emotional experience over which, I was certain, I enjoyed neither control and nor responsibility. I could not reverse the wrong, but I certainly could store it, even nurture it, because, after all, I was deserving of sympathy and comfort. Notably, earnest, heartfelt apologies or, better, public acknowledgment by the wrong-doer of the grave injustice done to me sometimes squelches my self-pity. But I’ve found such groveling by the miscreant hard to come by. So, I am forced to assume the task of expressing sorrow to myself for the unmitigated wrongs done to me by others.
This is how relational self-pity operates. Like certain tax benefits, I can roll it over year to year. I can recite and rehearse the foundational facts, add current slights that stoke the initial debt, and, without much effort, keep the emotion alive and kicking over decades. It’s tempting to make a laminated list, not to seek revenge or payback, but to be reminded that, based upon my Self Pity List, I’ve had to bear much injustice and suffering and I am entitled to wallow as needed.
Related are the unjust incidents dealt by nature such as unwanted (in)fertility, physical disability, gender (this irritates some people a lot), bad hair, premature glaucoma and a double chin, to name a few examples. These incidents are relational to Mother Nature, but rarely cause me to sulk whenever interacting with her. Rather, I descend into an autonomous self pity, brought on usually by advertising or an ill-placed joke by my husband. One friend summed up this form of self-pity when she said, “It’s not fair. The thing I love to do most in life is eat. I love it. And look, it makes me fat. That’s just not fair.” I call this form of self-pity “natural self-pity.”
You can see where I am going with this. For some of us, self-pity so naturally flows from incidents, events and matters coming upon us like a tsunami that self-pity seems righteous and normal, like a scab that forms to protect torn skin during healing.
That’s the problem, though. It’s not healing. Self-pity is self-perpetuating, debilitating and addictive. Self-pity is more like the emotional shock you suffer thrown upon the beach – assuming you survived the big wave – and on which you demand to remain. There, you might get an endless supply of warm blankets, professional attendants and even hot, sugary tea. It’s the excuse to excuse getting up and moving on and putting the nasty tsunami behind you. Self-pity is wonderful! If you get this, then read the rest of the series.
Know, the work of replacing the habit of self-pity, redirecting the emotional energy toward the good, takes blatant determination. It has been the single most difficult spiritual work I’ve attempted, but I have faith that it is attainable because God – it turns out – gave me the ability to choose. As Father Daniel O’Leary encourages:
“There is something pitifully seductive about the way our wayward minds keep returning to pick over the poisoned meat. To be magnanimous is a difficult habit of the heart to form. To keep substituting the blaming, resentful thought for the liberating one is truly the work of the saint. It is a spiritual skill to pause – for the brevity of a breath or the long season of deeper sorrow – to find that space of choice, so as to discern and purify the motivation behind our response.”
Next: Pitithetic II, Using forgiveness and boundaries to overcome pathetic self pity
Topics: Personal Growth