Feeling Sorry for Myself
June 27, 2010 9:13 PM   Subscribe

How to stop the self-pity and be happy with what I've got?

I stepped back from my thoughts enough the other day to realize that I have been having a pity party for oh, about 10 years (I'm in my late 20's). It isn't constant, but I do get into very frequent bouts of feeling sorry for myself (over childhood issues, relationship issues, career/education issues, body issues -- really everything). Along with that, I believe I have a sense of entitlement (as in, because x happened to me in the past, I am now owed y). Obviously that is not how life works, and such thinking has not brought me happiness or the success I believe I am "owed". I have struggled a lot recently with trying to be happy with what I've got -- a lot of which is so great, and I'm fortunate in so many ways -- but seem to keep getting bogged down by these feelings of self-pity and of falling short of what I "should" be and "should" have.

I am going to look into volunteer opportunities and am also going to try to get out and make more friends -- to get outside of myself more and to focus more on others. But I would love some advice on how to change the course of my thoughts when they start spiraling down that path. How have others dealt with these kinds of feelings, and how have you learned to be happy with what you've got and where you are? I've tried thinking of things I'm grateful for when this stuff starts happening, but that hasn't been cutting it. Any other ideas for mantras or other mental techniques? Book suggestions would also be great.

posted by imalaowai to Human Relations (17 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
This sounds unbearably cheesy but: a daily gratitude list. 3-5 things you're grateful for, every evening, for 30 days in a row to start. If you're conscious about trying to not repeat yourself, you'll eventually get down to things like, "the way my limbs work", "hot showers", etc....and really mean it. Again, it sounds cheesy, but repetition is the mother of learning.
posted by availablelight at 9:34 PM on June 27, 2010 [10 favorites]

Best answer: seconding the gratitude list. i started doing something similar (though i was a little hesitant because of the aforementioned cheesy quality) as a way to be grateful and appreciate things, instead of spending so much energy loathing myself. it really works. every night, i write down 3-4 things:

1. something kind i did for someone else (these can be simple things like holding the door open, or more involved things like helping a friend move)

2. my favourite part of the day (sometimes it's hard to choose between things and sometimes you have to decide that your morning cup of coffee was the best part of the day, which is alright - the point is seeing that there's good in every day)

3. something i'm grateful for (something i really noticed during the day)

and sometimes, if it's memorable or i want to make note of it:

4. something i learned

doing this list every night only takes a minute out of my day, but it really made me take a step back from self-loathing and thinking so much about myself.
posted by gursky at 9:42 PM on June 27, 2010 [14 favorites]

Lately I've found success with the following strategies:

-I'm a visual thinker, so when I recognize myself heading towards a pity-party, I visualize static or a white screen to blank out those thoughts. Or I imagine a loud buzzing. Like this: "Man that really sucked, that reminds m-- *bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz*".

-I run through a list of things I'm deeply grateful for. Not just things that I'm supposed to appreciate, like living in a first world country, running water, food on the table, etc., but the precious things in my life that I could have lost at one point and didn't.

-I've found that I tend to have a pity part over the same issues, so I sometimes deliberately run through all of them as quickly as I can. Usually I end up feeling ridiculous and I stop thinking about those issues.

I think a big part of having these techniques work is that I've just stopped taking myself so seriously. Fundamentally, I don't believe these bits of my past matter anymore, and I'm just trying to teach myself to stop the habit of thinking about them.
posted by millions of peaches at 9:43 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

ifdssn9's answer just reminded me of an answer i previously posted to the green, when i was trying to deal with self-pity.

i agree that acknowledging your feelings then deciding to move on is an excellent strategy.
posted by gursky at 9:44 PM on June 27, 2010

P.S. The big reason why the gratitude list works, and why you do it at the end of the day: it gets you in the habit of consciously looking at things to be grateful for throughout the day since you need to come up with stuff for the damn list every night.
posted by availablelight at 10:04 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

How exactly does this self-pity manifest itself? Do you just feel bad about yourself, or is there some behavior that you feel stems from that impulse? Sometimes it's possible to move backward from bad behavior by just being aware of it.
posted by Gilbert at 10:08 PM on June 27, 2010

+1 for the gratitude list. I started doing it a few years ago and still make a list at least every few days, if not daily. I always spend a minute or two contemplating each of the things on the list as I write them down in order to appreciate how fortunate X makes me (10 fingers/toes and indoor plumbing show up on my list frequently). I can honestly say that this has led to a noticeable reduction in the depth of frustration I experience from bullshit. My partner agrees.

Caveat: this is a long term approach that is subtle enough to go unnoticed until enough time has passed for retrospective comparison. I rarely get an instant high from making the list, but it almost always offers enough perspective in the moment to make it worthwhile.
posted by palacewalls at 10:16 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh, and simply thinking about things you are grateful for in the moment is great, but making a physical list is especially powerful because you can look back on it over the weeks/months/years and your bosom will swell with gratitude or whatever.

...also i recommend yoga.
posted by palacewalls at 10:22 PM on June 27, 2010

But I would love some advice on how to change the course of my thoughts when they start spiraling down that path

Cognitive therapy does exactly that. It helps you dispute harmful distorted beliefs that you have that may be causing you all this anguish. This is something you can apply yourself. For starters, I'd recommend Feeling Good.
posted by philosophistry at 10:50 PM on June 27, 2010

Best answer: Apologize in advance because I want to share the concepts but not the details of my life, so this may be difficult to understand at points. But I think adopting similar ideas could help you OP.

There was a time in my life when I briefly struggled with similar concepts (I was unhappy where I was in life at that time and did look back at my childhood and blamed parts of it on a particular individual(s)). I was able to change this mindset by thinking through the following points quite a bit:

• Adopt the philosophy that “everyone is dealt a deck of random cards, some good, some bad, but most people have good or bad cards and you won’t necessarily see those bad cards”. So I used to think that my life was worse because of a role that a person played during my childhood but other people had some sort of advantage because similar people in their lives played a positive role. If you use the card analogy, well, that was my bad card…but there were good cards (traits/experiences/other people/whatever) in other parts of my life. Also, I don’t see other people’s bad cards, but they have them. At least you know what some of your good and bad cards are.

• Don’t blame other people if possible. First, I eventually let go – usually most people aren’t trying to hurt you/so I let some of those things go, and just assumed person X or Y just did what they did but may have done the best they could at the time. Also, I realized, why should I have been given a certain thing or experience? If you really want a past experience or thing, now as an adult you have the power to acquire it. For me, I think not having some of those things made me a stronger person now because….I got the things that I wanted on my own, with much more fervor. I really appreciated those things when I got them. I also realized that people who grew up with those same things in the end experienced less because they had no desire to go after those things as an adult. So in an odd way I was given a gift….

• Try not to compare yourself directly to others…or if you do, use the world and not your immediate surroundings. I think most people are wired to compare what they have (whether it be an object or where they are in life) to other people, and that is where dissatisfaction can come from. So rather than compare yourself to your neighbor, your classmate, the person on TV (you will never win) – turn those voices off if possible (can you ignore advertisements? Do you need to follow the life of rich person X?) Also, either travel in a developing country or read world economic statistics. So rather than thinking ….I live in an apartment that is smaller than the average person in this city, you can change that to I have 100X more than people in most parts of the world (running water, electricity, basic health, whatever).

More recently, I’ve also listened and watched how people who blame their current life problems on past on certain experiences or people..and how they are “owed” but weren’t given those things…and are just disappointed with life. Some of those people will spend a lot of time reliving those experiences over and over and over again, but make no changes in his or her personal life to get those things that he or she wants. Don’t succumb to learned helplessness. Use that energy to make the changes in your own life.

Also, OP, I think your current ideas (more friends plus volunteering) can really, really help, so those steps may put you in the right direction. Good luck.
posted by Dances with sock puppets at 11:00 PM on June 27, 2010 [7 favorites]

You feel awful primarily because you have the luxury to do so. Your perspective is all out of whack, as you said yourself, and you spend too much time internalized and brooding over non-things. This is a state, I'm sorry to report, that perpetuates itself.
I am going to look into volunteer opportunities...
Bingo! That's exactly the ticket.

Get out, give, make a difference. Get some perspective. When you're looking at someone in a wheelchair, that extra (or missing) ten (or twenty) pounds on your own bod matters not. If you're serving someone who has burn scars or missing limbs, your own imperfect nose becomes irrelevant. When you're feeding people who don't get to bathe and who sleep outside and who can't trust their own minds to give them real information about the state of the world, your feelings of melancholy about childhood mishaps snap into appropriately small focus.

Volunteer! Your worth is not static. It's not about how you look or what you weigh or if your childhood was more or less shitty on some imaginary scale. Your worth is interactive, and it comes from service.

That's my experience, at any rate.
posted by goblinbox at 11:29 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I used to struggle with this a lot. I still do, to be honest. Honestly, I think it's one of the last vestiges of adolescence to feel this way, although some people never get over it. When I was in my late 20's, I started becoming aware of this, like you, and wanting to change it. But I hated making gratitude lists. Doing that made me feel really rebellious and resentful, like a child being told to be grateful for what she has because there are starving children in Africa.

I really needed to have the whole issue reframed for me. Luckily a few months ago I stumbled onto this great video from Jonathan Kabat Zinn*, where he asks: "what if you are already whole? What if this is as good as it gets?" (Watch the whole thing, I don't really think I can do it justice) This is a concept I'd heard a million times before and it never registered, but for some reason, the way Kabat Zinn phrased it had a profound effect on me.

I think one really good thing he touches on is that we don't need to just ignore or discount our struggles or pain to be happy. One issue I had with focusing just on my "blessings" (ugh, I even hate that word!) was that there's an implicit assumption that, because we're fortunate in many ways, we shouldn't be bothered by our problems. This is maybe true in an abstract sense, but I didn't find it very useful in my everyday life. Kabat-Zinn turns this around and gave me a way to respect my struggles/pain while also thinking about how they may actually be a part of being whole.

I have to say, ever since I started thinking this way, my life has actually improved in a number of ways. I think I needed a kick in the pants to accept that this life is the one I get and it's up to me to make it what I want it to be.

* i swear I found it here on Metafilter, but now I can't find where the link was.
posted by lunasol at 12:11 AM on June 28, 2010 [9 favorites]

When things *do* go right for me, I am in the habit of saying "thank you!" out loud - just little things like the light turning green as I pull up at the intersection, or every time I drop my iPhone and it's not broken - so that I can't really say "oh man, everything goes wrong for me!" when I spill something on my shirt, stub my toe etc. It really helps to be mindful of the good luck so that the bad luck doesn't seem overwhelming.
posted by Chrysalis at 2:13 AM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know exactly where you are coming from and cannot add much more than the good advice provided above. I know it may sound strange but when I am in the sort of mood you describe I often think about the following scene from Six Feet Under:

Nathaniel Sr.: You aren't even grateful, are you?
David: Grateful? For the worst fucking experience of my life?
Nathaniel Sr..: You hang onto your pain like it means something, like it's worth something. Well, let me tell 'ya, it's not worth shit. Let it go. Infinite possibilities, and all he can do is whine.
David: Well, what am I supposed to do?
Nathaniel Sr.: What do you think? You can do anything, you lucky bastard, you're alive! What's a little pain compared to that?
David: It can't be that simple.
Nathaniel Sr.: [putting his arm around David and pulling him closer] What if it is?

Definitely agree that volunteering and for my mind, travelling, helps put things in perspective. Anything you can do that gets you out of the repetitive internal conversations you have in your mind is a good thing. Something that gets you close to the elements oh and finally, you asked for a book recomendation (not everyones cup of tea) but try the consoloations of philosophy for starters.
posted by numberstation at 5:26 AM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Your Own Worst Enemy is a good book for this.
posted by symbollocks at 8:16 AM on June 28, 2010

This, restated, is at the heart of Buddhism; Zen, in particular. The Gratitude List is an excellent tactic, and I nth that recommendation. If you choose to pursue a more strategic approach, now or later, perhaps a "Dummies Buddhism" book would be helpful to you...
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 8:59 AM on June 28, 2010

I believe that life supports a steady growth in consciousness. When I've resisted growing into a vision of life I knew I wanted I met with uncommon adversity. Better, easier, to grow where we want to I think.
posted by Pamelayne at 12:24 PM on June 28, 2010

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