“Poor me, poor me! Pour me another drink.”
“Self-pity is our worst enemy and if we yield to it, we can never do anything wise in this world.” Helen Keller
Self-pity can be a dangerous thing — especially for anyone who uses mood-altering substances or behaviours to manage painful emotional and mental experiences.
Let’s start with the definition: self-pity is the excessive and self-indulgent dwelling on our own problems or misfortunes. It’s obsessively ruminating on the negative aspects of life. It’s focusing on our difficulties in ways that take away from our ability to see the good things still happening around us. Self-pity drains our energy and pulls us down into the spiral of negativity and despair.
We all know how hard it is to be around someone who spends a lot of time focusing on self-pity – but it’s a lot harder to be someone who does.
It’s essential to make a distinction between self-pity’s unhealthy focus on problems or painful past experiences and the healthier desire to acknowledge and process through difficulties while seeking ways to move through it. Healing and growth can come from an honest acknowledgement of painful experiences as long as we don’t get stuck in self-pity, negativity, blame, and feeling like a victim of our circumstances.
With self-pity, there is a stuckness that makes it seems like we don’t want to change. Or there is a belief that change isn’t possible. Or there isn’t a willingness to take responsibility for the parts of life that can be changed. Regardless of how self-pity shows up, it’s painful.
And for anyone who struggles with substance misuse and addiction issues, self-pity is a dangerous invitation into numbing the pain with alcohol, drugs, food, or unhealthy behaviours.
Here are 7 ways self-pity impacts our lives in significant ways. And all of them are invitations to numb out using substances or unhealthy behaviours:
Self-pity stops emotional growth and healing. It stops acceptance and moving forward into new possibilities. The term “acceptance” doesn’t mean that something wasn’t hurtful – it’s merely an acceptance that it happened, that it was painful, but there can still be ways to move on and embrace life in new life-giving ways. Self-pity is the opposite of that. It’s a focus on the hurt and pain to the point of not being able to see what good may still exist for us.
When we become stuck in negativity and despair, it makes us more focused on ourselves and less able to see what is happening for other people. When we’re stuck in the pit of self-pity, we’re more self-absorbed and less able to see or understand the emotions and needs of others.
Our brain is already wired with a negativity bias – we tend to pay more attention to stressful experiences, painful emotions, and messages of danger or threat. This negativity bias is wired in for survival reasons. We notice the negative and the worrisome things more quickly because it has helped us react to and survive challenges. Self-pity just gives this tendency to notice the bad more room to take over. Dr Rick Hansen, author of “Hardwiring Happiness” says: “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.”
Self-pity is anti-motivational – it’s an energy-draining experience. We can easily get stuck in procrastination, avoidance, and self-defeating behaviours when we focus on how bad we have it.
Higher rates of negativity are tied to an increased risk of anxiety and depression. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a widely-used form of therapy for addressing both of these categories of mental illness. It offers tools to challenge catastrophic thinking, focusing on the negative, discounting the positive, or seeing threat where there is none.
Seeing ourselves as a victim can hinder us from taking responsibility for the areas of life that can be altered. It can also lead us to point the finger at others who have “caused” our problems as well become defensive when we are challenged or encouraged to take responsibility.
Bottom line is this: self-pity puts people at higher risk of using substances or behaviours to help “manage” the painful mental and emotional experience of self-pity and the painful focusing on the difficult parts of life.
The Sunny Side of the Street
Let’s turn our attention to the other side of this discussion: why gratitude matters in addiction recovery. Sometimes we need to intentionally focus our attention to see things from a new or different perspective. One of the definitions of gratitude is just that – the ability to notice and appreciate the benefits and goods things around us.
Here are 6 reasons why gratitude is an essential practice for anyone wanting to address unhealthy patterns of using substances to cope with painful emotions and experiences.
People who have a tendency toward gratitude tend to experience more positive emotions and are less drawn into the negative ones. Gratitude contributes to our greater overall well-being.
“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” Epictetus
A grateful disposition adds protection against stress, anxiety, and depression. The value of this needs to be underscored because there is a clear connection between mental health challenges and the increased risk of substance misuse to cope. Research shows that when we experience gratitude, our brain releases serotonin and dopamine, two of the most important neurotransmitters that contribute to feeling “good”.
Grateful people feel more connected to others. It brings us closer together and strengthening friendships by reminding us of the positive characteristics of those in our lives and the things we value in our relationships. Our appreciation of people makes us more willing to resolve conflicts and work hard to maintain healthy relationships.
We are becoming more aware of the power of self-compassion which the ability to be kind to ourselves and less critical of our flaws. Gratitude offers protection against anxiety and depression because it lowers our sense of personal inadequacy and the ways we are critical of ourselves. A grateful attitude helps us be kinder to ourselves and more self-compassionate – which is a powerful antidote to the shame and self-loathing most people with addiction feel.
Gratitude increases motivation. It provides us with a greater desire to make positive improvements in important areas of our lives. Gratitude can give us the boost we need to make changes in our relationships, personal health, and other life goals.
Many addiction recovery programs like AA encourage people to be of service to others. It’s always a good reminder to know that someone else benefits from what we have to offer whether it’s time, a listening ear, or an act of service. Gratitude helps us give back because we’re able to give something away because we have enough.
Want To Try A Little Gratitude?
Want to find ways to increase gratitude (as well as decrease any tendency towards self-pity)? Try some of these simple exercises:
1. Write a gratitude list. Name three things you are grateful for each day.
2. Make a “thank you” post on social media.
3. Next time you send an email, find something to say “thank you” for.
4. Pause a little longer when you have a beautiful view to enjoy.
5. Express thanks for the little things someone does for you.
6. Think of three people you are grateful to have in your life.
7. Take a moment to savour something you eat or drink.