The topic of self-pity came up during Thursday’s Leadershift call. We were discussing questions that are a bridge to expanding our personal awareness. Good questions are at the heart of reflection- and reflection is a key practice of every great leader. As Mike stated on the call, “Reflection turns experience into insight.” As we’ve touched on previously- experience won’t lead to growth unless it is evaluated. This all ties together because taking the time to evaluate your experiences and break down the positives and negatives requires an intentional, set aside time to reflect. So as we ran through 10 different questions that require you to pause and actually think, Mike personally answered each question while on the call. As we reached the question “What is my least worthwhile emotion?” Mike answered for all of us: self-pity.
There are many unbeneficial emotions that I experience from time to time, such as attention-seeking, annoyance, and resentment; but self-pity truly is a worthless emotion to have. Do you know how the dictionary defines it? “Self-pity: excessive, self-absorbed unhappiness over one’s troubles.” There is nothing good in that!
Yet- how easy can it be to fall into?
Pity is good. Pity is “the feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the suffering and misfortunes of others.” Despite people saying- “Oh don’t pity me” or “I don’t want your pity,” pity truly is a positive and worthwhile emotion. It is self-pity that is dangerous. Eugene Peterson has great insight on the damaging impact of this emotion. In his book Earth and Alter, he says the following:
“Pity is the capacity to enter into the pain of another in order to do something about it; self-pity is an incapacity, a crippling emotional disease that severely distorts our perception of reality.
Pity discovers the need in others for love and healing and then fashions speech and action that bring strength; self-pity reduces the universe to a personal wound that is displayed as proof of significance.
Pity is adrenaline for acts of mercy; self-pity is a narcotic that leaves its addicts wasted and derelict.
Self-pity is something you must avoid, like a dangerous drug that will ruin your life.”
In my life, my husband calls this emotion my, “Woe is me.” At first it was annoying. I wanted to be left alone in my misery, able to feel how I felt without any repercussions. Feeling bad for myself and moping about how upsetting my troubles were was self-validating. However, the more my husband would call me out when my “Woe is me” aura began setting in, the more aware I became of how unbecoming and detrimental that mindset truly is. Self-pity places me at the center of everything I’m doing. Self-pity insists that I didn’t get my way and that it isn’t fair. Self-pity declares pride and entitlement and demands your time and energy.
It makes sense that Mike would conclude that self-pity is the least worthwhile emotion. See, it’s not wrong to grieve and feel burdened when trouble comes your way. That is a normal reaction of any person. I would be concerned if you didn’t experience those very real emotions. The difference is, a leader doesn’t’ sulk, despair, and wave their tragedy in the air, crying out for attention. A leader doesn’t let trouble destroy them. Rather, a leader uses that trouble as a catalyst for growth, no matter how painful it may be.
Being a great leader requires valuing other people and making certain that they know they are valued. This is an impossible feat if you are stuck in a “Woe is me” pity party. If you don’t intentionally make a practice of reflection and an effort to expand your personal awareness, you may not even realize you are consumed with yourself. Leading begins with leading yourself, but that doesn’t mean you are leading alone. Maybe sometimes leading yourself looks like developing a relationship with a mentor or confiding in a close friend or accountability partner. Maybe it looks like practicing vulnerability and admitting to others that you can’t do it alone.
Self-pity begs for attention, but she won’t accept help. She asks people to sit with her but doesn’t want to be touched. She gorges herself on sorrow and helplessness and is repulsed by a helping hand.
So, what do I do when “Woe is me” reaches out her tentacles and attempts to take me hostage?
I stop. I reflect and assess. Then I debrief with my husband. Mike says, “the most important habit you could begin forming is asking yourself great questions and writing them down with pen on paper.”
If I were to develop this habit when self-pity comes knocking at my door, here’s what I could do:
Self-pity: This week is already a disaster. You haven’t been productive; nothing is going how you planned. You’re never going to get to where you want to be. Why you? Why in the world does this have to be your reality when clearly everyone around you has it so much better? It isn’t fair. Life isn’t fair! You are a victim in your own story, and you’ll never end up on the winning side.
Woo. That’s self-pity for you. Those are all the thoughts that try to fester inside my head when life gets difficult. So instead of appeasing those thoughts, I can challenge them.
Were my plans for this week realistic and attainable?
What is one productive task I can accomplish before the day is over?
What is one way that my work makes a positive impact on others?
Why do I expect life to go according to my plan?
Who am I comparing myself to? (Side note- your only competition should be yourself! Be better than you were yesterday!)
Questions can put everything into perspective, and in my experience, a new perspective can change absolutely everything. Next time you find yourself buying cake and balloons for your pity party, don’t forget to invite Reflection to join. Your party won’t last for long, and you’ll be better off for it. That's right, just consider Reflection to be your pity party pooper.