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5 Hidden Gifts of "Feeling Sorry for Yourself"

Sorrow for what we lost is central to regaining a sense of wholeness.

Key points

  • There are times when grieving for ourselves is not only appropriate but also is the path to healing.
  • We often—understandably—stay away from grieving.
  • Grief is honoring what came before and what will nourish our journey forward.

There are times when grieving for ourselves, for what came before, and for what we had no control over is not only appropriate but also is the path of healing. Particularly with CPTSD (complex posttraumatic stress disorder), sorrow for what we lost of ourselves in hurtful words, actions, and betrayals by important others is central to regaining a sense of wholeness.

We often—understandably—stay away from grieving for ourselves for these reasons:

  • Grief for one’s self and one’s experiences can be judged with shaming pejoratives like it’s “self-centered,” or it’s just “feeling sorry for yourself.” Often before a client begins to tell me about his particular sadness, he’ll preface it with an “acknowledgment” that “others have it worse,” “I’m not trying to have a pity party,” or “I know I’m blessed, so I feel weak/dumb/ungrateful to say this…” I assure this client that our space, and the space of our connection, is exactly where he can explore his singular losses and all the grief he needs to unburden himself from.
  • Personally, we may fear that if we actually go there, we’ll be lost in our grieving forever. Clients have described it as “like a deep pool, and if I go in, I’ll never resurface,” and, “It’s like a giant balloon…if I let the air out of it, I’ll collapse.” When we gently approach our self-sorrowing, we don’t have to go under or collapse. Understanding what lies beneath it is actually the way out.
Andraz Lazic/Unsplash
Deep grief
Source: Andraz Lazic/Unsplash

Grief, especially feeling sorrow for ourselves, travels with three particular emotions— anger, distress, and shame. While, without question, this trifecta of feelings can feel unbearable, it also carries gifts. Once released from a frozen state, anger can turn into healthy agency; sadness can turn into asking for what we need; and shame can turn into remembering our inherent goodness and knowing where responsibility really lies for what happened to us.

These five aspects of self-sorrowing acknowledge what went before and help create new narratives:

1. Taking our own part now: Connecting with our healthy anger helps us to acknowledge how younger parts of us were treated unfairly, could not claim their voice, or could not protect their healthy boundaries. When we can bear to feel this, we can be clear that we will not accept similar behavior from others in the present and seek out respectful connections with supportive others.

2. Asking for or giving ourselves what we need now: Connecting with our distress and sadness is an honoring of what happened and the attendant losses of connection, possibilities, kindness, or basic needs. It is a recognition of the importance of what was lost and a resolution to bring those things in some form into one’s life at present. Distress is a signal to ask for help—as adults we can ask for help, and find it for ourselves.

3. Acknowledging our powerlessness then and claiming our strength now: Shame is activated with the feeling of powerlessness, the loss of connection, or a sense that “I’m broken” by proxy of my dysfunctional family. Paradoxically, when we can accept that we were powerless, we can also find compassion toward the child we once were. We can offer her the support, kindness, and compassion to realize that, in the present, she is no longer frozen in her childhood powerlessness. As an adult, she has different resources now and can act on her own behalf.

4. Giving our experiences “new meaning” that serves us now: Children make meaning of ill treatment by believing that they are “bad” and “unlovable.” With the perspective we can bring as adults, grieving allows us to notice and correct the child’s beliefs that he was to blame for what happened to him. I ask clients to find pictures of themselves at particular ages. Gazing at the little faces of who they were facilitates compassion, self-love, and the intention to meet one’s healthy needs now. From an adult perspective, we can begin to correct the sense of unworthiness we may have carried for entirely too long.

Eyasu Etsub/Unsplash
A flame rekindled
Source: Eyasu Etsub/Unsplash

5. Gold in survival strategies: When we can connect with those parts of us bound in grief and frozen in survival mode, we can open up the healing potential that also resides there. Even with the worst experiences, there is often a childlike wonderment that burned like a little flame waiting to be rekindled. Things like childlike joy, creativity, curiosity, and humor still remain. Old, thwarted interests in books, play, art, learning, sports, or friends may come forward. These reconnections can give fresh life to our adult world and balance us with rediscovered resources.

When we effectively grieve and honor what never could be for us, we can turn from staring at the door shut behind us toward what we can and need to open out ahead of us. As adults, we can more consciously provide for ourselves what was necessary at one time and what will nourish our journey forward.