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The Paradox of Self-Pity

Those you think are wallowing in it may actually not have any at all.

Novikov Alex/Shutterstock
Source: Novikov Alex/Shutterstock

Mariela's* conversations typically revolve around her various aches, pains, losses, and disappointments. Asked about her future, she predicts more doom and gloom. She never seems to have anything to celebrate; only complaints. Her few remaining friends admit that she's draining to be around.

Those who know Mariela see her as wallowing in self-pity. They find her difficult to tolerate in large doses because of her negative attitude. No one sympathizes with her; she seems to have enough pity for herself already.

But appearances can be deceiving when it comes to self-pity.

Mariela was the seventh of nine children in a hardworking immigrant family. Her parents were too busy to focus on any individual child for long, and Mariela quickly learned that to please others, she had to be happy and helpful. She stuffed her need for nurturing deep down inside and tolerated being emotionally invisible.

She adopted self-sacrifice as her main way of being in relationships. In this mode, she raised three children as a stay-at-home mother. She tried to be a good wife to her husband, but her chronically unmet needs for love and visibility eventually tore the marriage apart. During the long years of stuffing her feelings down into the dark recesses of her soul, Mariela became heavier and heavier with unnamed resentment and grief.

Unbeknownst to those who know her, Mariela has no pity for herself whatsoever. Instead, she is very hard on herself. She hates her own company. She spins thoughts and words to avoid feeling the pain of her emotional isolation.

Mariela’s complaints are a bid for the pity she doesn’t think she deserves.

She may sound like she's full of self-pity, but in reality, her tank is empty. Her complaining is an unconscious attempt to elicit in others that which she desperately needs but will not provide for herself. Her secret fear is that she doesn’t matter, that she should take what she gets, and that she shouldn’t want anything more for herself.

Others’ apparent lack of pity confirms her fears, and thus she is caught in a vicious circle.

Because Mariela needs sympathy but won't give it to herself, she seeks pity from others by presenting them with all the sad facts they need to feel sorry for her. That this backfires is tragic, since she never gets the compassion she needs in order to heal.

This is the paradox of self-pity: Those who feel genuinely sorry for themselves don't need to talk about it. Thus they tend not to come across as self-pitying and are more likely to receive pity from others.

Those who fail to pity themselves, like Mariela, are less likely to receive pity from others because their unmet need creates off-putting behaviors that repel, rather than attract, compassion.

The only way out of the vicious circle is for Mariela to (w)allow in her true feelings, and show herself the pity she craves.

* not her real name

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