Self-Pity as a Defense Mechanism

“Self-pity is easily the most destructive of the non-pharmaceutical narcotics; it is addictive, gives momentary pleasure and separates the victim from reality.”
— John Gardner

Every day psychotherapists are called upon to relieve and give meaning to human suffering. Have you ever asked yourself if you’re hosting a Self-Pity Party? Are you the only guest. If you’re the host and the only guest, you might want to ask yourself if your self-pity is working for you or against you. I think taking pity on oneself is completely natural. Because humans have a negativity bias, we generally tend to focus on what’s working against us, not for us. Negativity bias is thought to be an adaptive evolutionary function (Cacioppo & Berntson, 1999; Vaish et al., 2008; Norman et al., 2011).

Reptilian Brain - Crystalinks

It’s natural for us to plan for the best outcome and simultaneously worry about undesirable outcomes, and we worry about these things in an attempt to avoid them. Our ancestors were ‘on guard’ for predators, poisonous plants, destructive weather – danger. In present day society, we no longer have to be so vigilant about such things. In contrast, we tend to worry about how we’re perceived by our peers, our finances, our health, fairness and justice, discrimination, the unknown etc. Because we live our lives in a mental state of vigilance, it’s relatively easy to take notice of all the things that are going ‘wrong’ or could potentially go ‘wrong’, and we may fall into victim mentality or self-pity. It can be a gradual process.

Self-pity can be a form of mental control. If we feel we have a perceived sense of control over our own suffering, then the hardships we experience, or foresee to experience, may feel less threatening or out of our control. It’s as though we are preparing ourselves for inevitable pain. I remember working with a 16 year old who was contemplating with me why she was always so critical of herself, especially of her body. We discussed this. I posed the possibility that maybe it was safer for her to be judged by herself, before anyone else could judge her.

Benefits of victim mentality:

  • it may be protecting you from taking responsibility for your choices
  • it gives you the ‘right’ to complain and receive attention and sympathy
  • others feel sorry for you and this makes you feel loved or cared for
  • people are less likely to criticise or upset you
  • others feel obligated to help you and meet your needs or wants
  • the stories you tell others can seem interesting or entertaining
  • the drama of victim mentality may be protecting you from experiencing greater pain

Generally, people don’t want to admit that they are negative or have a victim mentality. And yet, if we are honest, we’ve all experienced it. It can linger for a long time. Just recently, I was with my fellow peers discussing the concept of self-pity. They agreed that the ‘poor me’ mentality keeps us in a state of perpetual self-pity and self-destructive behaviour. Self-pity keeps us stuck. I think it’s important to ask yourself if you play the self-pity card to get sympathy or compassion from others, or perhaps it’s protecting you from the harsh judgments of others. Perhaps if you have the attitude “woe is me”, it keeps you safe from possible ‘failure‘. In an attempt to change the way you think, try to replace the word ‘failure’ with ‘feedback’ or ‘learning’. We don’t call a child a failure if they’re learning to walk and keep falling down. Their mind and body are learning, and they’re not in competition with anyone else.

Have you ever been around someone who complains often or tends to focus on the negative? Some people may offer a listening ear or sympathy, but others may grow to dislike the negative company. Some people will find your ‘whining’ annoying. I’ve experience people become defensive (e.g., “Get over yourself. You think you’re the only one with problems?”) or they will talk about their own self-pity instead of listening to yours. Self-pity is generally regarded as an unlikable attribute and it is self-defeating long term. It’s a personality trait that appears to be self-absorbed.

Here’s the thing – self-pity can be useful to vent or process your circumstances – to a point. Victim mentality is grounded in something rather touching and useful if we change the way we think about it. Switch the word “pity” for “compassion”. We do not need to pity others or ourselves. We can have compassion instead. Below are a few tips on how to shift a ‘bad-ittude’ to an attitude of gratitude.

  • Practice gratitude daily. You can make a list int the morning or before you go to be. You can make a mental note throughout the day when something works in your favour e.g., Say thank you (to yourself) if the weather’s nice, or if you slept with a roof over your head, or you didn’t have to worry about where your next meal was coming from, or spending time with someone you care about. I like to say thank you every time I drink a cup of coffee, and when arrive at my destination without being in a car accident.
  • Get off the Self. Put some time an energy into helping others. Pick up the phone and visit a friend or a family member. Share a conversation. Put in the action and you will reap the rewards.
  • Mindfulness. Be aware of your thoughts. Recognise that your wallowing in self-pity. Do not judge yourself for this. Offer yourself compassion instead, and repeat this process many, many times. I still have to do this regularly.
  • Understand Attribution Theory. Attribution theory is concerned with how ordinary people explain the causes of behavior and events. A formal definition is provided by Fiske and Taylor (1991, p. 23): “Attribution theory deals with how the social perceiver uses information to arrive at causal explanations for events.  It examines what information is gathered and how it is combined to form a causal judgment”.
  • Accept life on life’s terms. Put your situation into perspective. Perhaps there’s a silver lining to your circumstances. If you cannot shift your perception, perhaps you can accept life for what it is, and work towards change.
  • Face your feelings. The acronym R.A.I.N stands for:

  1. Recgonise what’s here. Bring your awareness to what is happening.
  2. Allow what’s here. Try not to deny or suppress the uncomfortable emotions. Say “This belongs. This is a part of life too. Life is the full range of emotions”.
  3. Investigate. Ask yourself ‘what really wants my attention?’ Look into the body. Feel the throat, the chest, the belly. Another really good question is ‘what am I believing right now?’ Because I find for myself when I’m in a bad mood, usually I’m believing that in some way I fell short. I’m unlovable. I’ll fail or be rejected. The single most valuable finale with investigating is to ask the part of you that feels most vulnerable: ‘so what do you need?’ Is it love? Acceptance? Forgiveness? Feeling accompanied? Feeling embraced? Feeling safe?
  4. Nurture. This step is all about learning to be kind to yourself and offering yourself what is needed. Often, to fight through the feelings of shame or anxiety, we have to work at this. The way I often do it is I put my hand on my heart and I’ll say, “it’s okay sweetheart.” Or you might just say to yourself, “I love you,” or, “It’s okay, I’m here. I’m not leaving.” (Tara Brach, retrieved September 26, 2020).

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