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Self-pity—It’s Not Such a Bad Thing

Bob Baugher, Ph.D.

As you well-know, “pity” is a word that often carries a negative connotation. Synonyms are: shame, disappointment, misfortune, and letdown. Google it and you get: “The feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the suffering and misfortunes of others.” So, what happens when we place the word “self” in front of pity? Obviously, rather than the suffering and misfortunes of others, it is ourself that feels sorrow and compassion for our own misfortune. Recently, I read an article by bereaved mom Peggi Johnson in the TCF magazine We Need Not Walk Alone titled, “I cry for me sometimes” and I thought, “Yes, why not?”

Next, I asked myself, “What’s so bad about self-pity?” Well, ask anyone and they’ll tell you that there is something wrong with it. If you are pitying yourself, it is you feeling sorrow and compassion—well—for you. Is this really so bad? Think about it: you know more than anyone how bad you feel, how much your life has changed, and the many emotions swirling around in your head and body. Others can pity you, but you know exactly for what you are feeling sorrow and compassion. Day after day you hurt, wishing that your child, sibling or grandchild hadn’t died. In your grief you are also sad for many people: your spouse, your parents, your surviving children, grandparents, friends, and others. (I call this Proxy Grief.) On top of their grief, all of these people must now interact with a different person—you. You might feel pity for some or all these folks. So, isn’t it OK to feel pity toward yourself?

One of the classes I teach in the Psychology Department at my college is Love 101. During the first 15 minutes of the first day, I ask my students to take out pen and paper and write a love letter to—themselves. Why not? Other people love and have loved you. We all know that it is a good thing to love oneself; but how often do we really take the time to express it? After the love letter is finished, I ask students to write in a journal what it was like to express love to themselves. As you might guess, for many, the letter was a challenge to write.

Fact: We are harder on ourselves than we are on anyone else. That’s what guilt is about. When a loved one dies, we look back and beat ourselves up for doing things and failing to do things with or for that person. Yet, if our best friend felt the same way, we would put our arm around him or her and say, “Don’t be so hard on yourself.” Another way to say this is, “Don’t you be so hard on you.” It’s the same thing with self-pity. You are going through so much in your life right now. You have a right to feel whatever you are feeling and to feel sorrow for yourself at this moment and all the moments in the past and the future.

Go ahead and grieve, feel the pain, and miss your loved one. And, each time the waves of grief wash over you, be gentle with and to yourself—much as you would your best friend—and permit feelings of self-pity. Someday you won’t grieve this hard. Someday you won’t feel this low. Someday you will look back on these gut-wrenching times and wonder how you ever survived. But, for now, give yourself one less thing to feel bad about and let self-pity enter your thoughts until it doesn’t need any more to be part of your grief.

Oh, and one more thing: make an agreement with yourself that you are going to write a love letter to yourself. Better yet, write the letter as if it is from your loved one. I bet there will be a lot of love in that letter.



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