I read a post yesterday on another blog that I agreed with, except there was one thing that didn’t quite sit right with me. The post said that self-pity is an important part of healing from Complex PTSD.
In his book (which I’m still reading), Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, Pete Walker says that self-compassion is an important part of healing, and I think this is what the blogger actually meant. But self-compassion isn’t the same thing as self-pity, an activity which I don’t find at all healing and in fact seems to make my problems worse. Of course we have the right to engage in self pity from time to time (and probably can’t help doing so), and no one should deny us the right to do so. But for me, it just doesn’t work. It’s an unpleasant, soul-sucking experience that seems to drive my negative programming even deeper than it already is.
The way I see it, the difference between self pity and self compassion is analogous to the difference between pity and empathy. I think this makes the distinction clearer.
Pity has an element of condescension or even contempt. You pity someone you dislike or look down on. It’s kind of like sympathy but it’s contaminated with judgment and scorn. You feel like you’re “better” than a person you pity. A wealthy banker may “feel sorry” for a homeless person without feeling a shred of empathy. The banker is glad they’re not homeless, and feels as if they’re above that anyway. If someone says “I feel so sorry for you,” or “I pity you,” you’re likely to feel offended and judged, not comforted. I hate being pitied so much I might be tempted to punch you if you do.
Superficially, empathy, compassion, or sympathy may seem like the same thing as pity, but they’re not the same at all. Sympathy means to feel sorry for someone without judgment or condescension, but it’s not quite the same as empathy, because it lacks the sharing of a feeling. It’s a shallower emotion, but it’s still better than pity. Compassion and empathy are interchangeable and both imply feeling “with” another person, or sharing an emotion with them. It’s giving your friend a heartfelt hug after a breakup, or laughing or crying with them when they’re happy or sad. It’s giving a homeless person your own sweater because you hate to see them shivering in the cold. There’s no condescension or judgment. When someone empathizes with you, they say, “I understand” or “that really must have hurt.” Doesn’t that feel a whole lot different than someone telling you, “I feel sorry for you.”
Self-pity is part of our toxic programming. It’s driven by shame. Self pity is when you sit around and think about how much your life sucks and how much YOU suck. There’s no self-nurturing or comfort in self pity, no self love, only self-hatred and shame. Self-pity enforces the terrible things we’ve already come to believe about ourselves. If we’ve been told time and again how stupid, bad, clumsy, ugly, or what a loser we are by our narcissists, eventually those voices become internalized and we develop a toxic inner voice called an Inner Critic. When you’re stuck in self pity, that’s your Inner Critic demeaning you and repeating to you the same lies about yourself your narcissists already drummed into you. You learn to abuse yourself, and self-pity is just self-abuse. When you say, “I suck” or “I’m a loser” or “nothing ever goes right for me,” you’re reinforcing the toxic programming and acting as a flying monkey against yourself.
Unfortunately, for those of us who suffered from narcissistic abuse, it’s common to wallow in self pity. It’s an all too familiar state of mind, but it isn’t the real you. The things we tell ourselves when we’re stuck in self pity are lies. When I get stuck in self pity, I feel just horrible. I just want to die. I usually wind up feeling resentful and angry at the world, but also ashamed of myself for being such a helpless victim and pathetic loser. I’m consumed with shame and guilt, which leads to depression. I also can’t release the negative emotion when I’m in self pity mode. I get stuck there and it drags me down and saps from me any energy or joy. I’ve had hangovers that felt more pleasant than a bout of toxic self-pity.
You can replace self pity with something much better that also feels a heck of a lot nicer: self-compassion. Self-compassion means acknowledging that you are a human being worthy of love, happiness and the good things in life, while empathizing with your inner child’s hurt over not having gotten those things. You give your inner child permission to feel sad or to grieve and agree with them how unfair it is that she/he got cheated or was abused. This may seem like self pity, but it’s not, because the element of judgment and shame isn’t there. You’re not beating yourself up over how terrible you think you are; you’re telling yourself you’re good and deserve better and allowing yourself to grieve. Instead of covering up your inner child with a paper bag, you’re offering her a hug.
It helps me to actually visualize my inner child. I have her talk to me and tell me what she needs and wants. I don’t judge her or try to shut her up; I just listen. If she feels sad, I tell her those feelings are valid and let her feel sad. If she feels mad, I let her express the anger (but at the same time reassure her she won’t be able to hurt anyone or anything because I won’t let her). I find that by non-judgmentally listening to what she wants and needs or how she feels, I’m eventually able to release any negative emotions and I don’t get stuck. By giving myself permission to feel without self-judgment or self-shaming, sometimes I wind up being able to cry, and as weird as it sounds, that always comes as such a relief. When I’m stuck in self pity, these healing tears never come, because the shame that’s been programmed into me won’t allow me to release them. My programming tells me the massive lie that crying is shameful and weak, when in actuality it’s sometimes the most healing thing you can do. Your Inner Critic is a narcissist who doesn’t want you to heal and that’s where all that awful self pity comes from.