Thoughts in Solitude: Redefining Self-Pity

By: Michelle Yoon

Graphics by Dzana Serdarevic

I’ve always been told that self-pity isn’t good.

It’s just a state that the weak, myopic, and selfish fall back on. According to the dictionary, which generally reflects societal perceptions of concepts, self-pity is “excessive and self-absorbed unhappiness over one’s troubles” (Lexico Dictionaries). Likewise, Mark Doty—author of Heaven’s Coast: A Memoir and caregiver of his husband that passed away from AIDS—claims self-pity is thought to be“the ugliest of indulgences, the one we’re not to give in to, our natures at their weakest” (Doty 129). So, the negative connotations related to self-pity are clear. But, is it really so bad to feel sorry for ourselves?

We recognize grief as a deep, painful sorrow rooted in loss. Often, it involves the loss of a loved one, and we empathize, ready to provide emotional support, in the face of another’s grief. We also recognize that loss isn’t about the person who passes. Rather, it’s for those left behind to deal with the destruction death leaves in its wake. So, why is it okay to be sorrowful “in memory of” and “for someone else” but not okay when we’re sad for what we, ourselves, have lost?

Self-pity is an instinctive, unmasked response to disadvantage and misfortune, and this may be the reason we associate it with immaturity and egocentricity. It can also be like quicksand: the more we struggle, the deeper we sink. Society seems to blame those who struggle for not trying hard enough to escape. However, I believe that we all deserve to pity ourselves from time to time. It’s an innate and necessary act of self-preservation. We must recognize that self-pity is a form of self-empathy. With varying levels of pain tolerance, as well as differing priorities and values in life, we are the only ones who truly understand how devastating our losses are to us. It’s difficult to objectify and numerically scale pain because what may be trivial and endurable to one may not be for another. Even when surrounded by many who empathize with, support, and love us unconditionally, it’s up to us to recognize and validate our own pain.

It’s not only a way to defend ourselves but also a way to attack future challenges and hardships with greater rigor. The first step in moving forward is to come to terms with the loss, which is the most confusing and emotionally taxing part of the process. We should be allowed to ask ourselves, “Why did I suffer? Why did I live to lose?” Our despair through these unanswerable, cyclical questions is proof that the people and things we lost mattered to us and that we actually care about our well-being. Perhaps instilling within ourselves the idea that self-pity is simply an inevitable and necessary step in the process of recovery will help us work through our thoughts and emotions with more clarity and kindness. Our collective attitude toward self-pity has the ability to change the world. In particular, if we’re kind to ourselves, then we’ll be able to look upon those struggling in a kinder light as well.

The second step is to climb out of our low. Recovery may not be a graceful process, but it’s a true accomplishment and the very embodiment of human resilience. In the memoir written for his late husband, Mark Doty accepts and validates his own pain and, later, his life without the man he loved. He expresses his lingering sadness but claims that it no longer debilitates him. His ability to commemorate his love and suffering in written work reflects the degree of understanding and acceptance of his circumstances, which was achieved through self-pity.

Due to COVID-19, we’re all dealing with some form of loss. With this battle against the virus being stretched to an indefinite period of time, we’re all exhausted and there’s a high probability we may never again have a mask-free, travel-friendly, face-to-face lifestyle. Letting go of the way things used to be and accommodating a “new normal” is a hard pill to swallow. For many of us, we’re losing time with our loved ones due to prolonged separation or have already faced loss and are still grieving. It has led to many closed businesses, as well as lost jobs and opportunities. This year has been full of big and small losses that mean different things to each of us. With so much more time in solitude, self-pity, a way of giving ourselves permission to recoup, is more important than ever before.

We should all make a conscious effort to redefine self-pity or even give it a new name: self-empathy. Our ability to validate our pain, realize that we are suffering, and consciously take time to reflect and recover is what we should be proud of. It does not have to be a lonely and helpless struggle against quicksand. We can escape it only if we allow ourselves to see it as a necessary step to keep moving forward.

Haru Sukegawa

a thing about Lisa