Wednesday, June 8, 2011

When Self-Pity Can Be Therapeutic

Today's just one of those days.

That's the sentiment many people feel when they're being persecuted to the fullest extent of Murphy's law. In those cases, the best advice can often be found on one's pillow in more ways than one. Not only can a good night's sleep help ease one's mind profoundly, but it's typically better than whatever lip service provided by those who think a "woe is me" attitude is a greater sin than a blasphemous tongue.

But is it really that bad? And are there more constructive measures that can be taken?

In short, no and yes. Now let's elaborate.

Self-pity is self explanatory, but it doesn't hurt to understand what this stigma is all about. According to the Oxford dictionary, self-pity is "a feeling of pity for yourself, especially because of something unpleasant or unfair that has happened to you." Got it? Good.

Take note that there's a difference between self-pity and frustration over life's trivial issues. Finding out that somebody at Burger King screwed up your order after receiving it doesn't give you permission to complain out loud. Never getting past the application stage of employment when bills need to be paid and the threat of eviction (or foreclosure) is eminent, on the other hand, warrants a decline in happy thoughts.

Which leads to the main issue between the afflicted and his or her immediate social circle. For the sake of argument, in the minds of most, people are not allowed to feel down on themselves for too long. The exceptions are the deaths of a spouse or close family members, but even the allowed time of bereavement is often short lived. It's all a matter of crying one's eyes out at the funeral before sucking it up to go back to the nuances of life the very next day.

True, it's human nature to get upset, angry, and even depressed when things don't go according to plan. But to suggest they're all degenerate states of mind is, in a word, ludicrous.

For people to come to grips with themselves, they need to channel their emotions and express them without causing harm to themselves and others. For most, this is very much possible. That's not the problem. The problem rests with those without a professional license who feel that another's period of doubting themselves is unhealthy. Advising those to break free from their pity parties at once would be like telling alcoholics to stop drinking booze cold turkey. It'll fall on deaf ears because life isn't that simple to change with the snap of a finger.

Change does, however, require time and understanding. Teenagers don't mature overnight, and they won't do so gradually until they've learned better. In the same way, people who pity themselves must have both in order to break free from their vicious circle.

Of the two, time is the more indefinite requirement to fulfill. Everyone's different in how they go about their problems. Some operate as blank slates, wiping clean all things negative by the following day. Others hold onto those scornful moments for much longer, perhaps even for all time, because they see themselves as martyrs against whatever injustice is thrown their way. It's difficult, if not impossible, to tell exactly how long one will get over a specific event because, unlike an adjustable baseball cap, life is not one size fits all. But the one variable that can be controlled is how outside influences (i.e., you) interact with the afflicted in question. Never set time limits for someone to "get over it", and never assume they truly are over it, for they can always suppress their guilt when around good company. In fact, if you really care about them, it's best just to let them get their head straight on their own watch, not yours. When they want you back, that's when you'll know they're in the clear.

Understanding is the other key to unlock those from their personal bondage of wallowing around in shame. As implied in the preceding paragraph, no two people are alike. That means no two people have the exact same expereiences, grew up in the exact same environment, or think in the exact same way. However, that doesn't mean you can't sympathize with the individual in question by providing them support. Remember, we are social creatures in need of interaction. The quantity and quality of said interaction is entirely one's prerogative, but everyone needs to feel like somebody else out in the world gets them. Even if all you say is, "I'm here for you, no matter what it takes," that will go leaps and bounds into doing away with their metaphorical crutch. Maybe you don't know what exactly they're going through, and that's perfectly fine, but the effort you give them will give them the effort to turn around their mentality.

Like Sigmund Freud's five psychosexual stages of personality development, dealing in self-pity for too long will have debilitating, long-term consequences. Not only can one lose sight of the big, overarching picture waiting to be painted in their life, they may miss out on opportunities to improve themselves or refocus their priorities. Who knows? Maybe grad school wasn't meant for them. Maybe staying single has greater benefits than worrying about someone else's problems. Maybe taking a minimum-wage job will humble them to (re)learn the virtues of hard work. Maybe the simple things in life are all anybody needs to live like royalty. It bears repeating that when one door closes, another one opens.

This post is also not meant to excuse people who choose to find the negative in life because happiness eludes them like a greased pig. After all, one's relationship prospects, job performance, and aspirations for the future are directly tied to one's attitude, and a pessimistic attitude will (naturally) bring pessimistic results. If one is genuinely happy having their glass half-empty, more power to them. Just remember the story of the boy who cried wolf. If something catastrophic really does happen to them and they need some support, it honestly should come as no surprise if no one will be around to hear their cries for help.

If anything, think of self-pity as another challenge to be overcome. Life is never stagnant. Both the good times and the bad will come to pass. We all hope to outweigh our bad experiences with plenty of good ones, and again that's perfectly fine, but in order to get to Heaven, one must go through Hell. Only in those times of desperation and adversity can one truly tap their hidden potential to achieve great things they never thought possible. Once that hurdle is cleared, those formerly bound by their own shame will be a stronger, resilient person for the future.

In the words of little Annie she once sang, "the sun will come out tomorrow."

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