Traditionally, the term “self-pity” has been accompanied by a certain shade of condescension or even vulnerability, which positioned it as an undesirable attitude in the process of facing any adversity or setback.

In recent years, however, a new school of thought has emerged that has rescued the fact of having compassion for oneself as a fortunate and desirable attribute, divesting it of its negative connotation.

Nowadays, self-pity is understood as a concept linked to emotional intelligence ; through which we assume a privileged position over the value judgments that each one of us builds regarding how we think, feel and act.

In this article we will discuss in detail the concept of self-pity, and the benefits (in general) that can be derived from its practice in everyday life.

Having Compassion for Yourself: Self-Pity

Self-pity is a complex concept that has aroused interest in the field of psychology for decades , when Jon Kabat-Zinn adapted Mindfulness to the relief of patients experiencing chronic pain. Shortly thereafter, self-pity was integrated into this existential philosophy and became a subject of scientific study, especially since the early years of the current century.

High self-pity can be described, in simple terms, as the decision to have compassion for oneself. In this sense, the literature on this topic has drawn three key factors: kindness, fallibility, and mindfulness. We will now proceed to address them in detail.

1. Kindness

The society in which we live tends to value positively the fact of being kind to others . This includes a series of social norms of courtesy or education, with which we act in a prosocial way during the interaction with others, encouraging us to help those who may be living in moments of need. This attitude is rewarded in the form of recognition or admiration, and is considered an appropriate example of what to do (for children and adults).

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However, this is not the case when kindness must be directed to ourselves. When we make a mistake we usually act in a self-punitive and cruel way, dedicating to ourselves bitter words that favor an internal discourse that drags us to intense and difficult emotional experiences. It is important to remember that everything we can feel is preceded by a thought, so in it lies the seed of both emotion and behavior.

This way of treating ourselves is often deployed regardless of the particularities of the trigger situation. Even if the misfortune is due to bad luck or the role of third parties, we continue to besiege ourselves with destructive terms about which we often lack evidence. Phrases like “I am useless”, or “I am worthless”, give a good account of this .

Most people who fall into this pernicious habit admit that they would never dedicate those words to a friend if the latter were in an equivalent situation, and that in that case they would try to be more understanding and help them to reinterpret the facts so that they would be less cruel. This would be the most socially accepted attitude, but one that can rarely be observed when such words are directed at one’s own adversity.

Kindness consists of projecting the same love and understanding that we dedicate to others towards ourselves, so that we can treat each other as if we were the best of our friends. This requires a reformulation of the dynamics of thought, to change harmful words into different terms, which can have deep ties with positive affections that allow us to live better and more satisfied.

2. Fallibility

Fallibility is the capacity to recognize oneself as a being that can make mistakes , that is susceptible to failure and/or to making wrong decisions, or that in general is simply imperfect. It is about accepting that, at times, the expectations that have been set for life may not be fulfilled (for different reasons). This would prevent the irruption of the “should’s”, very rigid thoughts about how things should be.

We live gripped by multiple stimuli that remind us of how imperfect we are, but force us to reveal ourselves against it. When we look at a magazine, or when we watch television, we witness perfect bodies and successful lives. This wild exposure, planned for purely commercial purposes, can be translated as comparative judgments in which we usually carry all the weight.

At its worst, this circumstance can lead us to consider that our problems are really unique, and that no one else makes the mistakes that we unfortunately fall into. Even social networks, in which their users tend to reflect the best that happens to them (ignoring the unpleasant moments that are also part of life), contribute to the formation of this negative image of our own imperfection.

The truth, however, is that imperfection is an element common to all people. From the most popular singer to the most successful actor, we all go through grey moments that can extend over long periods of time. That is why being imperfect is an inherent quality of the human, and that gives a peculiar value to the individuality of each one.

3. Full attention

Full attention is the third element of self-compassion, being a literal translation of Mindfulness , which refers to a meditative practice whose roots lie in ancient monastic traditions of Buddhism. It constitutes a series of habits that are based on the contemplative life, but which add an active component to the experience of being deliberately present in the moment in which it is lived.

Full attention implies a concrete way of facing the facts that suppresses the judgment on them, since this often takes us away from how they really are. It implies a new way of looking, of learning, in which for a moment the automatisms of the mind are abandoned in order to go deeper into what surrounds us, fully perceiving what things are by stripping us of any attempt to label or classify them.

Likewise, full attention is intended to focus attention on what is in the present, ignoring past influences and future expectations. It implies assuming a witnessing mind that observes internal processes, diluting the association that links us to thought and makes us identify with it. That is to say: a philosophy of life in which we abandon the tendency to believe that we are “the thought”, to adopt the role of a “thinking” being , but that it is much more than that.

This concept is aimed at questioning the validity of self-punitive thoughts, observing them with a certain distance so as not to let ourselves be carried away by the emotional current in which we are usually caught. This disposition, together with the patient practice of kindness and the integration of imperfection as an inherent reality of all human beings, constitutes the key to a compassionate way of interacting with ourselves.

Beneficial effects of having compassion for oneself

There is a great interest in the scientific literature to determine, describe, measure and quantify the benefits associated with self-pity in terms of quality of life and reduction of discomfort. For this reason, recent years have witnessed a growing number of studies aimed at exploring these phenomena, which have extended to many domains of human knowledge: Psychology, Medicine, Education, etc.

There are programs aimed at stimulating self-pity, which have been analyzed to determine their effects. In this sense, some recent meta-analyses indicate that those who decide to embark on this therapeutic process improve their ability to discriminate the pain that emerges as a result of their negative thoughts, recognizing the way in which the absence of compassion redounds to their emotional life.

This recognition mobilizes a series of changes in the perception that is had not only on the human being in general, but also on the individual in particular, regarding the imperfection. This type of practice involves conceiving a more friendly view of ourselves, which facilitates the processing of emotional experience and reduces the risk of suffering affective problems of clinical significance. This effect has been reproduced in people vulnerable to psychopathology.

Self-pity also has a positive effect on health-related quality of life, a concept that encompasses the overall well-being of the individual in terms of how he or she perceives the functioning of his or her body and mind, both of which are integrated into a social and cultural space of their own.

In short, a compassionate attitude allows us to be more just with who we are, with our imperfections and with our limitations . It also provides us with a more adjusted vision of our emotional reality, being able to be aware of it without being overwhelmed by its intensity, and allows us to use a kinder language when we address ourselves. All this results in an increase in self-esteem and a reduction in the risk of suffering psychological disorders.

Adopting self-pity as one’s own requires overcoming initial resistance, along with a conscious and deliberate practice of the three principles outlined here.

Bibliographic references:

  • Arimitsu, K. (2016). The effects of a program to enhance self-compassion in Japanese individuals: A randomized controlled pilot study. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 11(6), 559-571.
  • Richardson, D., Jaber, S., Chan, S., Jesse, M.T., Kaur, H. and Sangha, R. (2016). Self-Compassion and Empathy: Impact on Burnout and Secondary Traumatic Stress in Medical Training. Open Journal of Epidemiology, 6, 167-172.