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How Do We Use Pity Against Ourselves?

Steven Topper LCPC

When we’re young, we learn how to gain attention. It is the currency of childhood. Vying for the affection and care of our parents, our peers, our teachers, is not only normal, but it’s also necessary. Through this, we learn connection, communication, and compassion. And often this doesn’t stop after high school. We may often see loved ones working really hard to gain the attention of the people in their world, to mixed results. Through this lens, we might understand social media as a hope of fostering some attention. 

Us humans tend to be enormously imaginative (see: the internet, airplanes, surgery…) and this ingenuity does not stop at scientific invention. When we see how eager we all are for love and attention, we may begin to notice the incredible creativity and diversity of strategies through which we attempt to get our needs met. For many of us, there is one strategy that does come with issues: pity.

Gaining empathy and compassion from others often requires us to experience sorrow and pain. We feel very little empathy for the billionaire who cannot go to Rome for vacation due to coronavirus. It is often that people see our misfortune and sorrow and this elicits care and, ultimately, attention. When we’re down, we want the support, care, and love of others. Because we are community-oriented creatures, this support is of vital importance. It’s not uncommon for people to notice (often nonconsciously) that one way to get love and care is through others feeling pity for them.

Utilizing pity to get attention can seem egregious and dishonest. Yet there are subtle ways that this happens all the time. When we are struggling with a work deadline and tell our team that we only slept four hours (when really it was five); when a friend asks how our day was and it was slightly difficult and we say, “It’s been one of the hardest days I’ve had;” when we post to social media about ways in which we’ve been wronged. What we can see is that often, pity gives us not just attention but also an excuse for some behavior. We may think of the teenager getting pulled over for speeding begin to cry as an attempt to get out of the ticket. While using pity for attention can work in the short term, there are often long term issues with navigating our communities in this way. In many ways, pity can appear like a drug for us. It gets us what we want at the moment, often to longer-term costs. 

One major drawback of using pity is that our relationships begin to be predicated upon our suffering. We look more and more for friends to support us and when they don’t, we may feel slighted and alone. Further, those support people may feel burdened and tired from helping and begin to turn away. We may also avoid being held accountable for our behaviors, which in the short term can alleviate discomfort, but often brings more challenging long term issues. Finally, it’s likely that engaging in our relationships in this way will lead us to engage with ourselves similarly. We may be more likely to let ourselves off the hook for not meeting our own expectations (It was such a hard day, I deserve that extra drink). Engaging with our worlds through the lens of pity may make for a sorrowful world and one where we are trapped by our reasons for being stuck.

It’s important to note that on some levels, all of us do this. There can be a sour taste in our mouths when we think about using pity for support. When destigmatized, we are more likely to own up to these behaviors. Engaging in honest, open communication about asserting our needs directly from others can help. Holding ourselves accountable to small goals and celebrating those wins with others may also lead to healthier outcomes. And ultimately, self-compassion can get us unstuck from the traps of our excuses, allowing us to take more control in our lives.

Talk to your therapist to learn more ways to care about your physical and mental health for a better quality of life. Contact Symmetry Counseling today to meet with one of our Chicago counselors in-person or via online counseling.

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