The Dangers of Self-Pity and Benefits of Self-Compassion

While self-pity can ruin your day or your life, you can benefit greatly by learning self-compassion.

“There’s something about self-pity; it’s just so satisfying.”



It’s a strange thing. It is true that feeling sorry for ourselves can be oddly satisfying. We can easily drop into a state ofself-pity can ruin your life self-pity and then wallow in it. It can seem to provide a momentary comfort from the pains of life. When we’re in it, we just want to sit, and do nothing. For some reason, we humans can be drawn to it.

But self-pity is a bit of a trap. The mindset that feels comforting in the beginning soon turns into a crippling condition. It never serves to improve our circumstances, but rather, worsens them. We lose the motivation to take action. We wallow.

There’s little to recommend self-pity. But we all do encounter painful life events, and have to endure difficult circumstances. When life is particularly painful, how can we react? What mindset should we choose when life becomes especially difficult?

We know that self-pity isn’t helpful, so we often hear people admonishing themselves, or others, to avoid having a pity party. Such critiques are not helpful. They only add to the pain of the situation. They certainly offer no kindness or compassion.

A better alternative to self-pity is self-compassion. Kristin Neff, Ph.D. defines self-compassion as extending compassion to one’s self in situations of perceived inadequacy, failure or general suffering. To be self-compassionate, we must be open and aware of our hurt feelings, be kind to ourselves, and recognize that we are only human. Basically, we try to show ourselves the same compassion we would extend to a loved one who was experiencing the same painful circumstance.

When we are self-compassionate, we are more likely to take steps to recharge or heal. We may allow ourselves a day of rest, seek out the support of a friend, or do something nice or ourselves. We try to think kind thoughts about self. We avoid the harsh self-criticism that so easily floods the mind.

With self-compassion, we don’t wallow. After a brief moment of self-kindness, we take action to improve the negative situation, when possible. If we have hurt someone else, we apologize or try to make amends. When possible, we try to fix, or improve, the problem. We take steps to prevent the difficulty in the future.

With self-compassion, we recognize that we make mistakes, that we have weaknesses, and that sometimes life is painful. We recognize the truth, treat ourselves with kindness, and then move on to improve our lot. Seems pretty healthy to me.

Anger and Anxiety

Prior experiences may have taught you to be afraid of even mild expressions of anger.

Most people have heard of the classic experiment conducted by Ivan Pavlov, where he taught a dog to salivate angry_manwhenever he heard a bell. He would ring a bell, then immediately give the dog food. At first, the dog just salivated when he saw the food, but soon he began to salivate whenever he heard the bell. After that, he salivated when he heard the bell, even when no food was present. This subconscious pairing of one reaction with a neutral stimulus is called classical conditioning.

A more familiar example would be when a hospital patient is given a new medication, and given orange juice to wash it down. The medication happens to make the patient sick. After that, the patient feels nauseated whenever he drinks orange juice.

Classical conditioning frequently comes into play in our everyday lives, sometimes in ways that hurt us.  For example, you may have grown up with a father who had intense episodes of anger. Because you were just a child, his anger scared you. You may have felt helpless and afraid that someone, including you, might get hurt.

This experience could have caused your brain to pair anger with thoughts and physical sensations of fear. This pairing could now occur when you see someone displaying, even mild to moderate episodes of anger. You experience anxiety when you see or hear signs of anger. You tend to avoid any situation where you might make someone angry. You may even fear expressing your own anger.

Your body will tell you whether this pairing, or conditioning, has occurred. Note whether you notice your heart racing, short and shallow breathing, sweating or muscle tension whenever you see someone who is angry. Pay attention to your reactions to seeing anger. It your reaction proportional to the intensity of anger expressed?

Of course, sometimes anger is not safe. Sometimes, you will encounter a person who is so intensely angry that they could be dangerous. If so, you are wise to withdraw and preserve your safety. In this discussion, however, I’m referring to expressions of anger where you know you are not in danger.

You may have difficulty expressing your feelings or being assertive because you fear that the other person will get angry. This can even occur when you intellectually know that you are not in any danger from this person. Your head tells you that you are safe, but your body reacts as if you are not.

If you recognize this pattern, you can work to correct it. If you feel anxious when you experience another person’s anger, but you know that you are actually safe, try to stay in the situation. Notice your breathing and try to slow it down. Try to relax your muscles. Mostly, remind yourself that you are not in danger. That anger is just another emotion like joy or sadness. Over time, you may be able to break the association between anger and anxiety.

If you are successful in decreasing your anxiety about anger, you will be better able to be assertive about your feelings, without as much fear of making the other person upset. By expressing your feelings in a kind and appropriate manner, you may see positive growth in your relationships.


Comments: Have you been able to calm your reaction to other’s anger? If so, how?


Helping A Loved One With Low Self-Esteem

We often feel helpless when trying to help someone with negative beliefs about self.

Do you have that friend who believes that she’s ugly, even though she is actually very attractive? Or perhaps you haveHelping someone with low self-esteem a friend who gives up on his dreams because he thinks he lacks the ability, but you know he could do it. Do you have a loved one who suffers from depression or anxiety because she believes she is less than she really is?

We all know someone like this, and it hurts. It hurts to love someone who doesn’t love or respect himself. It hurts to see them living a limited life, because of self-limiting, and false, beliefs.

We want to help. We try to help. But, how do we do it? If you’re like most, you try to argue with the person. You say things like, “You are not ugly. You are beautiful. You are intelligent. You can do anything you want to do.”

How does that work? I suspect not very well. They don’t believe you. They think your words are kind, but untrue. They don’t change their beliefs. They continue to suffer.

I like this quote from Seth Godin:

People don’t believe what you tell them.

They rarely believe what you show them.

They often believe what their friends tell them.

They always believe what they tell themselves.

This is particularly true when it comes to helping someone change a negative believe about self. We have to take our time, listen first, then try to help them look at their belief from a different perspective. It still doesn’t always work, but it definitely works better than an argument.

Of example, I have found the technique of “putting someone else in your shoes” to be very helpful. Let’s say that I have made a mistake. I’m not imagining that it was a mistake. I actually did mess up, and I’m tempted to be very self-critical and beat myself up. I immediately picture someone I know in my mind. I identify someone that I like and respect. I imagine how I would feel if my friend made the exact same mistake, under the exact same circumstances. I also imagine that they are feeling badly like myself.

I then ask myself how I would judge that person. I don’t ask myself what I would say to them, because I might tend to be kind. I ask myself how I would actually feel about that person making the same mistake, under the same conditions. Then, I never let myself be any harder on myself, or any easier on myself, than I would to my friend.

If my conclusion for my friend would be that he couldn’t actually help it, or that he should let it go, then that is what I tell myself. If my conclusion would be that he should be more careful and make amends to the hurt party, then that is also what I tell myself. In other words, I apply the same rules and consequences to myself that I would apply to anyone else.

It’s amazing how often this exercise tempers any tendency to be harsh with myself or to beat myself up. Try it some time, and see how it works for you, or for your loved one. Again, if we can get them to see themselves from a different perspective, they may be able to tell themselves a different story about who they are. Wouldn’t that be nice?


Comments: Have you found some ways help someone, or yourself, see themselves in a more positive light. Please share.