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. Our negativity bias is thought to have evolved from our primitive ancestors which live on in our reptilian brain (see image below).

Reptilian Brain - Crystalinks

It’s very common for us humans to go about our day to day existence planning for the best outcome or worrying about undesirable outcomes so they can be avoided. Natural, right? Just like 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(though we still have to worry about danger in our environment) we also 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’, and we may fall into victim mentality or self-pity. It can be a gradual process.

Self-pity can be a form of control. If we feel we have control over our own suffering, then the hardships that come existing may feel less threatening or uncontrollable. It’s as though we are preparing ourselves for more 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 judged by herself before anyone else could. It was kind of like a preemptive, so when the situation presented itself, she would be able to say to her cruel, judgmental peers, “Yeah, well I already knew I was pathetic, so take that”.

No one is likely to own up to feeling self-pity. And yet, if we are honest, we’ve all experienced it, and it can linger for a long time. It’s understandable. It reflects the paradoxical necessity of having to look after ourselves, of having to be on our side and take responsibility (The School of Life, retrieved September 9, 2020). Just recently, I was with my fellow peers discussing the concept of self-pity. It was said that the ‘poor me’ mentality generally keeps us in a state of perpetual self-pity and self-destructive behaviour – just plain misery. 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 having to try at anything. Remember, there are no losers is life. Horrible word. There are only learners. There are as many reasons why someone would use self-pity as a defense mechanism as there are people.

The thing is – have you ever been around someone who complains often, or has an attitude of ‘why me’? A lot of the time, people do not respond kindly to this. They may give you attitude or become defensive, or talk about their own self-pity. When we encounter self-pity (in a friend, a family member – or even ourselves), there’s a temptation to get very stern. Self-pity is regarded as a rather unlikable attribute, and anyone caught up in it must be forcibly reminded how very lucky they really are. How dare they moan! They must be very self-absorbed. Most of us are fortunate. Here’s the thing – self-pity can be useful, but to a point. The defensive posture of self-pity isn’t inherently contemptible. It is grounded in something rather touching and useful. I would suggest switching 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 and 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).

If you’d like to read more about how to overcome self-pity or victim mentality, visit the following website