After a particularly long day of work, I recently shared with my wife: “Some days it feels like people just want to feel sorry for themselves,” and her response surprised me: “Yeah, but who doesn’t?” The topic of feeling sorry for yourself had come up before, so she’d had time to consider it, and on some level, to her it’s normal thinking, but it shouldn’t be: Who doesn’t feel sorry for themselves? Good people. As someone who is obsessed with scales, when I started to process this in my journal, my brain naturally went into scale mode:
Ignore pain Healthy sense of pain &self Feel sorry for yourself
As this scale demonstrates, we don’t want to ignore our pain (pain is how our body gets our attention in order to deal with something before it gets worse), but feeling sorry for yourself isn’t any better. Both extremes hurt the chances of proper healing. What’s strange is at one point in our culture, ignoring the pain was expected. Divorce wasn’t allowed. Men grunted a lot, and a stiff upper lip was the answer to any dilemma; that and a cup of tea. Now… oh man, the amount of feeling sorry for yourself is brutal. I wish I could just blame young people for this attitude problem, but it’s in every generation; they just tend to be the gold medal winners for it.
What does feeling sorry for yourself look like? It can be entitled. It can be whiney. It can be selfish and blind to other people’s pain. It’s twisting everything so you’re the victim (aka passive aggressive), and believing that life is unfair to you. It demands special treatment and feeds off of sympathy. Feeling sorry for yourself is an absence of gratefulness, which is the ultimate source of happiness – happiness comes from contentment, and contentment is only found through a grateful spirit. There’s a reason prayer is supposed to be primarily about thanking God in order to help us develop a healthier mindset. Asking for things should only be a minor part of it.
A few years ago I wrote a blog that claimed as a therapist I find there are two kinds of people with depression: good people who have burnt themselves out pleasing everyone around them while being too hard on themselves and those who just want to feel sorry for themselves: “I can’t do [insert healthy action] because I have depression.” Actually, because you have depression, you should be doing it. The difference between these two groups is blatant. The first group is eager to learn and will try things I suggest while the other will have a list of excuses for why they can’t change. Typically, the first group will have steady therapy appointments for 4 months to a year with some check-ins once in awhile in the future after getting on a better path. The other group… they give up as soon as they realize I won’t just give them sympathy. I encourage them to grow because I believe there’s hope for a better life… but not everyone wants that. Sometimes the people in this group will keep seeing me because their parents are paying for it and going to sessions shuts the parents up, but if someone wants to feel sorry for themselves, there is very little I can do to help minus being a placebo effect: “I see a therapist so I feel better.” On some level they like to be in a bad spot whether because it’s familiar, it removes responsibility, it offers special treatment, or it gives them sympathy power.
Please know that we can be sad and/or grieve because those are healthy. If we’re never sad, something is wrong with us even if it means we block sadness with anger or simply suppress what we really feel. In the movie, Heart of Champions, (a movie that tried too hard to be sad with an unnecessary death scene at the end) there was a really great line: “A loss is not the end. Don’t make it into one.” Loss is painful, but there is always hope. As the song in Annie claimed, “The sun will come out tomorrow.” Sadness is part of healing. Tears are a way to bring new life. Be sad, be mad (without hurting anyone), and find healing as you let go of the pain. Feeling sorry for yourself makes you stagnant and wallow in your misery. Quite often, while the so-called victim believes what they’re going through is the end of the world, there’ll even be outsiders thinking, “You’re making this harder on yourself than it should be,” or “Wow, that’s bad, but you survived, so why aren’t you enjoying life now? Why are you letting the past hold you back?”
Not feeling sorry for yourself looks like gratefulness and trying to learn from what you experienced. What does it look like in a practical scene? This past week, like a typical middle-age, family man, I was at Costco (if you’re thinking I live the dream, you’d be right). While shopping, I saw someone I hadn’t seen in about 15 years. I had been friends with him for about five years while we both volunteered in the same youth group. When my girlfriend of five years and I were about to break up, along with another guy on the leadership team, they promised to be there for me. After the break up, I waited three months before calling them to hang out. At the end of the hang out, I mentioned how they hadn’t contacted me in three months and I had felt abandoned by them. They apologized and said they would change… and that was the last time I talked to either of them until I saw this guy at the store. When I saw him, I greeted him with my normal big hello and smile… a much bigger smile than he offered back. I did the whole “I haven’t seen you in awhile” conversation bit and then moved on as he seemed less than interested in reconnecting beyond a few sentences back and forth. As I was walking away, my therapist brain kicked in and I asked myself, “Do you think he’s someone who didn’t like you and lied about talking in the future or was he just someone who was terrible at being a friend?” Neither answer is very flattering to him, but here’s the thing: This question was completely matter of fact and void of any hurt. Maybe when he saw me he felt guilt; maybe he had some resentment grow at me over the years through rumors; or maybe he’s just a bit rude – who knows? The important thing is I felt grateful that I had enjoyed the friendship while it was there and I was grateful to have moved on to a much better world. There was no room for hurt because I was so full of thankfulness. That’s how we beat feeling sorry for ourselves – thankfulness.
If I were to be accused of feeling sorry for myself, the one time I’m at risk is seeing my wife napping while I’m really tired and have to work. That being said, I’m not sure if that’s feeling sorry for myself as much as it is jealousy – sleep is better than chocolate. Feeling sorry for yourself is deeper. It’s not just feeling hurt or sad in the moment. It makes the moment bigger like “This always happens to me,” “Why is life so unfair to me?” “I’m stuck and need sympathy to know people care (when what I really need from people who care is a kick in the pants).”
A great way to fight feeling sorry for yourself is to compare yourself to others. A lot of people teach you shouldn’t compare, but there’s a reason our brain is drawn to it – we should compare, but we need to compare properly. This means we look to people who have it better and be inspired for better while also looking to others who have it worse in order to recognize how lucky we are. There is always someone who has it worse, and we need to keep that in mind when we want to fight feeling sorry for ourselves. We need to fill our hearts with thankfulness in order to enjoy life more and find happiness.
This week may you fight the feeling sorry for yourself blues and protect yourself from those who don’t.
Rev. Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, Learning to love dumb people (like me)