The Benefits of Self-Pity
Sometimes we know best how to comfort ourselves
Posted April 19, 2017
By David Braucher, LCSW, PhD
We all have moments when we feel sorry for ourselves. We feel like no one really knows what it’s like for us to deal with our particular problem. And we might be right. Even when other people are empathic towards us, their empathy is limited by how well they know us and the power of their imagination. Given the limits of empathy, there are times we may be better off feeling sorry for ourselves and throwing a little pity party.
Only we can really know what it feels like to be us, and so sometimes only we can nurse our wounds effectively. We know exactly where it hurts, how it hurts, and how to soothe it in just the right way.
Feeling sorry for ourselves can be a way of shutting out the rest of the world for a moment and privileging our own experience. It can be an opportunity to nurture ourselves and restore a sense that we are the center of our world. It can be a form of self-care.
Daniel feels sorry for himself because he feels uncomfortable in his own skin. Coming from a family with a large number of siblings close in age, he felt deprived of the emotional attention for which he longed. He did not have a parent dedicated to him during the vulnerable years of his developing sense of self. Instead, he had to rely on his siblings for support and caretaking. But his siblings had their own emotional needs, not to mention feelings of rivalry. He felt very alone and insecure.
Now, as an adult, Daniel finds himself with a vague sense of emptiness. He understands he feels this way because of the lack of nurturance in childhood. He can talk about his wish to feel more secure. But he alone knows what this pain means to him as the fuzzy memories of childhood longing saturate him with difficult feelings. He can witness these moments of deprivation from the perspective of his adult self—he can tend to himself with empathic precision.
The Limits of Empathy
Empathy entails imagining what it would be like to be in another person's shoes. When someone seeks to empathize with us regarding our experience, their ability to understand what we are going through is limited by two factors: the extent to which they know us; and the relative strength of their imagination.
For someone to imagine what it is like to be in our shoes, they need to know the relevant details about our life. The more they know about us, the better the chances of being able to understand our challenges and worries.
Of course, there are always things we don’t share. Often, we choose to hide things that we find embarrassing. And then, there are aspects of our life that we may not ever think about clearly enough to even consider sharing with someone else. Much of what we experience about ourselves doesn’t rise to the level of conscious thought and therefore we may never put it into words, let alone tell anyone about it.
Ultimately, no one can ever know us completely. There will always be factors regarding our situation of which others are not aware. So, even with a well-honed imagination, they might easily miss the mark.
For example: failing a math test would be difficult for just about anyone, but if our sense of self-worth comes in part from our mathematical abilities, it could be that much more painful. We are complex creatures who attribute our own personal meanings to the events of our lives.
The Strength of Imagination
Empathy is also limited by the strength of a person’s imagination. If they don’t exercise their imagination often, being imaginative may not come easily. It takes practice to put one’s life and experiences aside and inhabit the elusive world of another person's inner experience. It is akin to feeling one’s way in an unfamiliar room with the lights out.
Without a keen imagination, someone may attempt to empathize without sufficiently considering what it is like to be us. They may forget important details and miss how those factors impact our experience. At worst, they may simply consider what it would be like for them if they were in our situation.
How an Interpersonal Therapists Can Help
Interpersonal Therapists spend a considerable amount of attention focusing solely on us and how we understand ourselves. This puts them in a unique position. They are dedicated to knowing other people intimately. Moreover, as a significant part of their work, these therapists are practiced with exercising their imaginations in exactly the way necessary for empathy – they do it all day long. But even the best therapists know that they have to listen to their patients’ feedback to make sure that they are not missing the mark – they too must feel their way through the dark.
So, if you are feeling sorry for yourself, throw yourself a pity party! Just remember, you can’t party all the time. If it becomes a habit, you might want to reach out for professional help.
David Braucher, L.C.S.W., Ph.D., is a Graduate of The William Alanson White Institute and President-elect of the White Society. He is on the Editorial Board of the journal, Contemporary Psychoanalysis, and Associate Editor of this blog, Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action. He has lectured at the NYU School of Social Work and written on relationships. He is a supervisor for the Intensive Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Program at the White Institute. He is also in private practice in The West Village/Chelsea in Manhattan. Check out his website at drbraucher.com.