Practicing Self-Compassion vs. Wallowing in Self-Pity
Recently, several different clients have said, "That's nice for you to encourage self-compassion and all, but I'm afraid I'll just be wallowing in self-pity." --Or they've asked, "How do I grieve, without throwing a pity-party?" Sometimes this question comes up because there has been a lot of shame thrown at them in the past around feeling & grieving (ex. "suck it up" or "just move on."). Sometimes they are just afraid that the grief will "take over" and they'll never move on from it once it gets a foothold. It's a legitimate question, and sometimes hard to discern. How do we recognize and heal from wounds without getting stuck in a "victim mentality"?
I have several thoughts, but all could be summed up in the South Park clip above. I recently used the whiteboard in my office during a session to try to suss out the nuances between self-compassion and self-pity (see photo below). Both can be marked by the same actions and feelings: experiencing emotions (sadness, grief, anger), moping, sad-face or other body language, fatigue, self-care activities like taking hot baths, wearing favorite sweatpants, or crying into a pint (or three) of Ben & Jerry's.
However, there are some key differences:
*Wallowing in self-pity has an element of being stuck. "Wallow" means "to roll around in", like an animal rolling in the mud. It implies an attitude of "that's it, game over." It tends toward an attitude of "That's life. It's always going to be like this." Self-compassionate grieving may mean we need to roll in it a bit, to just be in our grief, but within that grief there's still movement, growth, and expansion of our humanness. There's an underlying attitude of "Wow this is hard. That's life-- sometimes it's really hard, and sometimes it's really great. I wonder what will come next."
*Self-compassionate grieving acknowledges that the grief/loss is there, and that it's part of our experience, but the pain does not define us. Wallowing/victim-mentality involves having the pain become our identity. It's the subtle difference between "I have pain" vs. "I am my pain."
*Self-compassion expands our hearts, to become more empathetic and compassionate towards others: "Wow, I know what that hurt feels like. I care that you're going through it." Wallowing contracts our hearts, and tends to add an element of comparison/competition: "Look what they have that I don't have," or "Your pain gives me a chance to tell you how much worse mine is." (Even the kind of comparison that says "They've got it worse than me, I shouldn't be sad" is a kind of wallowing-- it communicates that "feelings aren't valid until proven worthy", it sets up competition --definitely a heart-shrinker--, and tends to keep us stuck in the mud).
*Wallowing has an element of control to it. It's a false protection: "If I'm defined by this, if I use it as a reason/excuse to shut down my heart and never take any more risks, I can keep myself safe." Self-compassion is marked by vulnerability. "I'm really hurting right now, I'm allowed to feel this, and it's hard to feel this, but I also know that at some point I'll dust my heart off and take another risk. Life isn't always safe, and that's ok."
For people who tend towards never allowing themselves to grieve, who believe that they have to be "tough" or that they don't deserve to feel sad/bad because they automatically start listing everyone who has it worse than them (this is the case with many of my clients)... I say, Go ahead and have the pity party. Have it with balloons, and cake, and confetti, and music. Delve in, cry, eat comfort food, and let yourself feel without shame. Take a risk on self-compassion. You'll eventually start to feel yourself come alive again. And if not, you'll know if you're stuck-- or your friends will tell you (or the above guidelines will help)- and you can learn to dust your heart off and start taking risks again.