We’ve all been dealt a lousy hand, subjected to injustice and cruelty, or had to suffer the consequences of being born a certain way. And we’re not wrong to reflect on our victimhood. It’s perfectly reasonable and healthy to be acutely aware of how our thriving faces resistance. Thinking about our obstacles is necessary to overcome them, but here lies the trap that’s all too easy to get stuck in. We get caught in self-pity when we get bogged down by these obstacles, and we make a choice – mostly subconsciously – not to try to overcome them. To instead, focus on how we are a powerless victim that the universe conspires against us.
What is Self Pity and How Does it Come About?
Branding ourselves as a victim is a defense mechanism. It permits us to feel entitled and righteous. Telling ourselves this story of our victimization, the loop in our thoughts we are all too familiar with, supplies us with endless excuses not to take responsibility for our actions or consequences. This leads to laziness, unhelpfulness, and stagnation.
This endless supply of excuses is, naturally, a benefit on the surface of it. “Why bother when I am just a loser? The deck is stacked against me, so what’s the point in trying? Everybody should be nice to me. I don’t owe anybody anything.” It feels good and relieving to tell ourselves these stories.
But the reality is that self-pity is far more harmful than it is helpful. Here’s how:
How Does Self Pity Harm Us?
1. Self Limiting
In making these kinds of statements, it should be evident that our self-pity will prevent us from attempting to achieve our goals in life. We will become pretty comfortable – comfortably uncomfortable – listening to the voices that tell us we’re not good enough even to try. So we languish in laziness instead of taking risks and putting in the effort. If we pity ourselves compulsively, we will aim low and never dare to dream.
Make sure to also watch out for those thoughts that paint us as a noble warrior, braving the winds of a universe hell-bent on getting us down. Our self-pity can manifest as righteousness in this way, making it easy for us to rest on our laurels and believe that that’s good enough. We feel special and unique in our suffering, and we attempt to gratify ourselves with this narrative in place of real achievement and effort. Again, this is a lie we are telling ourselves to prevent us from the possibility of experiencing failure. Our motivation withers away as a result.
It can make us less concerned with the struggles of others going on around us. It’s a tricky form of selfishness – one we might not recognize at first. After all, we are the victim, not the perpetrator! But in identifying ourselves as the victim, we will likely become less sensitive to others’ needs or value them as less important than our own. All people face injustice, and there’s no actual saying who’s inner battle deserves the most attention. If we are always the victim, we don’t afford others the space to have their own experience of hardship. Meanwhile, our self-pity can breed jealousy and resentment of the good things we think other people have that we don’t.
3. Anger and bitterness
It often pairs with anger and bitterness towards others, and even those who don’t deserve it. You won’t often find someone who is pitying themselves without also blaming others and feeling anger towards them. It doesn’t feel good to go around in life feeling angry at the world, for the victims of our wrath nor us and our inner peace.
In doing this, we will spread our self-pity to others. Victimhood is contagious – when we are inattentive to others’ needs, we are simply perpetuating the cycle. Not only will we feel like the universe is cold and people suck, but now others will too.
4. Damages relationships
Needless to say, this will damage our relationships. People find it draining to be around excessively self-pitying and bitter friends. Caught in the trap of self-pity, we will find it hard to celebrate our friends’ wins, using their successes as just more proof that we don’t have it as good as them. Worse still, we may be pleased with their losses.
5. Harms our physical health
It’s harmful to our physical health. One study from the 90s suggests that people who thought they were “hopeless” had a 20% increase in their blood vessels’ hardening – about the same as smoking a 20-pack of cigarettes a day! Equally, the anger that often rides alongside our self-pity can significantly increase our heart disease and stroke risk. Chronic self-pitying can lead to anxiety, depression which can again impact our physical health negatively.
So, knowing the dangers of self-pity, how can we let it go?
How We Can Move Forward From Self Pity:
1. Use mantras
A mantra a day keeps the doctor away. It doesn’t surprise me that science suggests this unhelpful emotional state hardens our blood vessels; in wallowing and, self-victimization our hearts harden to the world. We close ourselves off from seeing the good so that we can maintain our comfortable shell of excuses and blame. A central part of the antidote is self-compassion.
Self-compassion is a far more skillful way of relating to our woes. Don’t misunderstand: the world is often unjust. People can and will get us down. Retreating to lick our wounds is healthy and necessary. But in doing so, choose to send yourself some love instead of painting the world as cruel and yourself as inadequate. This is the absolute healing balm.
Using mantras like “I am worthy, I am valuable, and I deserve love” is far more productive in the face of obstacles. The science agrees. Mantra meditation empowers us and relaxes our bodies, softening our hearts and our blood-vessels too. Mindfully focussing on our positive feelings when we repeat these mantras is vital.
When we first have genuine compassion and understanding for ourselves, we can also have compassion for others, further boosting us towards fulfillment and happiness.
2. Find the good
Look for the good in your life; practice gratitude with our gratitude list. Writing down a few things every day that we feel grateful for can help to flip our worldview and loosen our victim narratives’ grasp. Change the broken record that keeps reminding you that you aren’t good enough or that nothing good ever comes to you. Take the time to be clear that, of course, there are beautiful things in your life, even if it’s just the one friend that remembers to text you or the park near your house with the lovely trees. Remember that self-pity is a choice, and gratitude is too. You can do this any time you have a spare moment. You need not even make lists, but make sure to habitualise some focus on the things you enjoy about your life, the good hands you were dealt, and you may find that the scales weren’t so imbalanced after all.
Practice mindfulness. No doubt you’ve already heard this, and perhaps you’ve already tried. It’s a brutal practice to maintain, but we have long since concluded in the world of psychology and science that if you keep it up, mindfulness will change your life.
Remember that self-pity got a hold on us because it feels good – at first. The excuses provide us with a sense of relief: It’s not our fault – it’s the world, it’s other people – that’s why we never succeed. This is all going on in the subconscious. But if we can slow down and calm the mind enough to objectively shine the spotlight of our attention on our thoughts and feelings, we can see that we are just telling ourselves a story to help us feel better and stop us from risking failure. If we can see this clearly, we can start telling ourselves more helpful stories that can cut the cycle short.
4. Stop comparing yourself
Stop comparing yourself to others. As compelling as our thoughts may be unless we have had very long, in-depth conversations with people, we primarily imagine their experience of life. Our self-pitying ego will attempt to convince us that we have it worse-off than others, desperate to perpetuate the victim narrative. Reminding yourself that this is just a self-destructive pattern as often as you find yourself reveling in bitterness at your fantasies about how easeful their lives are should be sufficient to break the spell.
Practice these four antidotes and be attentive to the warning signs for when you might be in the grip of self-pity. If you can do this, you will find yourself feeling more robust, healthier, and more active. You will be more courageous, more helpful to others, and find it much easier to see the beauty of the world and people around you that you were hiding from yourself. It’s a daily grind, but it’s more than worth it.