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'I'm So Tired of This Self-Pity!'
When you make enemies out of your own emotions, your shame and despair grow to an unmanageable size.
Ocean View (1970) by Helen Lundeberg
It's been a while since I have been reading your reflections and advice.
For a while now, I mean, truly my whole life I'd even say, I have been struggling with self-love and the urge to compare myself to anyone and anything I encounter. There is no day that goes by where I am not telling myself “Oh, you could be a bit more like this random woman (the one stranger I saw on my morning metro ride) who seems to be happy about life in general.” It can be with a random stranger, or my best friends, or coworkers. Anything they do, I believe to be better than anything I do.
And now, you could obviously say “Hey, that could be something positive, that will push you further in your life, help you become a better person.” But for some odd reason, this thought rather than making me try to change something about myself will trigger a grieving process and self-pity. I am then blocked. Blocked by my own thoughts. Spiraling about all the things that I do not like about my life. And for God knows what rationale, I have no self-discipline anymore and literally cannot move a bone in my body to become that better version of myself. It's just this growing ball in my throat and stomach, that is getting bigger and bigger.
I am so done with this feeling of not believing that I am worth anything. Always pitying myself — which again, I am doing here, nothing new there. I just want to get this little voice out of my head, out of my sight, out of my life.
How do I become this person that sees the sun rays on a daily basis again? This little girl who was not afraid of taking on the world — this little power girl as my parents would say? I am really truly just longing for inner peace.
Thank you for listening to me, and perhaps being able to find the right words that might change me for the better. Finally.
Tired of Self-Pity
You’re stuck because you don’t understand that your power and your self-pity go hand in hand. The little girl who saw the sun rays on a daily basis, who wasn’t afraid of taking on the world, was an exuberant, intense, loving, sensitive being. But she soaked in more than just the sunshine: She noticed little details about the people around her, how this girl blinked and shook her head when she was happy, how this boy tugged at his sleeves and bounced on his toes when he was nervous. She gathered allies around her, started imaginary clubs, proclaimed small animals her best friends, and pledged her lifelong loyalty to her closest companions. The ‘little power girl’ your parents praised could take on any challenge, as long as she wasn’t in it alone, as long as she had a team, as long as she was told that she was good, she was doing her best, and she couldn’t do any better.
Right now you’re telling that little girl that she’s doing it wrong. You tell her this all day long, every day. When she notices things — the intriguing woman on the morning metro ride, the beautiful friend’s vacation photos on Instagram — her curiosity and affection are quickly replaced by shame. After years of being scolded, she’s started to associate energy and curiosity and love with shame. Now every bit of loveliness in the world is a sign that she’s failed. Every ray of sun means her life isn’t what it should be. Every happy best friend means she isn’t happy enough.
But self-pity isn’t the enemy here. When you see something beautiful or happy or enviable or exciting and it makes you feel pure despair, that’s information. Sunshine that depresses you is important data. Feeling bad can be helpful, because it points you toward what you love. That woman on the metro has some spirit that you admire, or some personal style or assertive manner that you envy. That friend on Instagram has some form of safety or reassurance or peace that you crave.
Your strongest emotions are part of your personal power. That little power girl is nothing without her passions, without her allegiances, without her self-pity, even. When she cries big, salty tears over what she doesn’t have, that’s her gearing up to be brave again, to pursue the adventures she craves, to make new friends, to rally people around her, to conquer new tasks, to save small animals from peril, to create new ways for people she loves to be happy.
If you want to feel powerful and optimistic again, you have to love the little power girl and the self-pitying girl with equal fervor. Instead of immediately scolding yourself for comparing yourself to the woman on the train or the bus or the sidewalk, instead of immediately berating yourself for not being BETTER or DIFFERENT or MORE OPTIMISTIC the way you used to be when you were younger, you need to become your own ally. Whenever you feel sorry for yourself, instead of scolding yourself for it, love yourself like a small animal who needs a best friend. Love yourself like a misfit who needs a new club. Love yourself like a little power girl who craves a new challenge.
Celebrate your self-pitying self, because that’s where your sensitivity and inspiration come from. Be patient with the woman who feels worthless, and give her your attention, because that’s where your supernatural energy and charisma are located. You’re a woman with so many powers. Half of them appear to the naked eye as weaknesses. You can’t only love your obvious strengths, the way your parents did. You have to do a better job than they did at parenting yourself. You have to love your weaknesses passionately. The more you do, the more they’ll lead you back to your strengths.
Love your whole self. Love yourself when you feel worthless. Treat your envy with curiosity. Celebrate your darkness, a crucial precursor to your brilliant light.
You write that when you feel self-pity, you have no self-discipline and literally cannot move a bone in your body to become that better version of yourself. When you feel that way, that’s your little power girl going boneless like a toddler because no one will love her whole self. No one will show up for her when she’s upset. No one will listen when she’s curious, when she’s excited, when she’s intrigued, when she wants to start a new club or rally everyone to a new cause. When you scold yourself for feeling worthless, you’re also scolding yourself for feeling the sun’s rays every day. You are abandoning your core self over and over again.
Your best self is fused to your worst self. That’s just how it works. Your sensitivity gives you power. Your despair makes you more optimistic. Your curiosity inspires you. The key is to feel these strong sensations and emotions and learn from them instead of feeling ashamed of them.
You said it yourself: When you try to become a better person, it triggers a grieving process. Your little power girl is staging a rebellion. She wants you to grapple with your sadness so you can feel more joy. She wants you to face your darkness so you can see more light. She wants you to feel how depleted you are so you can get your energy back.
Shame is the mortal enemy of personal power. You have to stop scolding yourself and invite the most worthless, blocked parts of you into the room. This isn’t an act that incites neuroticism, by the way. Neurotic, anxious, circling thoughts are caused by trying to keep that naughty, self-pitying girl OUT OF YOUR HOUSE. She’s crying on the porch and you won’t let her in, but the sound of her weeping is making you jittery.
That’s neuroticism: pacing inside your house, anxious about the crying girl outside and what she reflects about how screwed up you are, how messed up your life is, how broken and stupid you’ve been lately, how it only gets worse, how you used to be amazing but now you’re lost.
That’s shame: disavowing your sensations, ignoring your curiosity, bemoaning your sensitivity, scolding your self-pity, berating your loneliness and nostalgia.
Luckily, the cure is simple: LOVE YOUR WHOLE SELF.
Last night, I was telling my husband that I’d just seen a photo of a slightly younger friend’s much younger bride on Instagram and it made me feel very, very old — in a haunting, heavy way.
“Why would you care so much about some random woman you don’t even know?” he asked.
I didn’t feel defensive when he asked this, the way I might’ve in the past. I didn’t even feel pathetic or ashamed of myself for feeling haunted or heavy. I didn’t insult myself inside my head, saying, “He’s right, you idiot. How shallow are you, anyway? Why would you compare yourself to someone who’s so much younger than you?”
Instead, I felt calm. I was curious about the dark sensations incited by those wedding photos full of sunshine and loveliness. I mentioned my intense reaction because I wanted to talk about it a little, because I know that my marriage is healthiest when I share my most vulnerable feelings. I also wanted to write about it in some way, because I know my writing is usually at its best when I welcome my most passionate sensations into the room.
I become an artist when that I invite that crying girl in from the porch and wrap her up in a blanket and give her some hot chocolate. I become a loving, affectionate wife and mother and friend when that little power girl can throw an occasional temper tantrum about what she wants the most, or go boneless on the floor for a minute, or run outside to find a small animal to save from peril.
I’m lucid and serene when I have time to follow my curiosity down dark rabbit holes filled with mysterious beasts and whimsical creatures. I’m not neurotic or jittery or depressed when I refuse to scold myself for being who I am and feeling what I feel. I’m inspired and alive. When I let myself fully experience my passionate reactions to the world, it brings me peace.
So I told my husband:
“It’s natural for a woman my age, who is friends with a younger man who’s getting married to a much younger woman, to reflect on the vast gap between her life and their new life together. It’s normal that briefly witnessing something that beautiful and exciting would incite a kind of emotional vertigo in me. It’s a way of coming to terms with where I am and who I am. It’s a way of grappling with reality.”
I wasn’t angry. My husband seemed convinced, but he might’ve disagreed. I didn’t need for him to agree regardless. I didn’t feel embarrassed. I wasn’t pissed at myself for feeling unsettled by a gorgeous young bride, one who seemed impressive and lovable and worthy of devotion.
I was just noticing things and feeling things. It’s what I do. It’s who I am. When I notice things and feel things and even PITY MYSELF A LITTLE, that’s me letting reality in. That’s me fetching a blanket for a crying girl. That’s me making space for passion, for art, for more love, for life itself.
So stop yelling out the window at your crying girl, telling her to be quiet. She just needs your love. Give it to her. Give her your affection and your patience. She just needs some time on the couch, sipping hot chocolate. Tomorrow maybe she’ll feel like charging ahead again. Let her be where she is.
The more love you give her, the more you’ll see that she’s not broken after all. She’s spilling over with ambition and joy. The more patient you are with her, the more compassionate and sensitive and energetic she’ll be.
And yes, she will always be curious, which means that sometimes she’ll feel inspired and other times she’ll feel discouraged. She will always be sensitive, which means that sometimes she’ll give generously to others and other times she’ll compare herself to others. She will always have a glorious vision of how she wants her life to be, which means that sometimes she’ll have an urge to do better and better, and other times she’ll have an urge to hide under the blankets. Let her manifest all of the complexity of her delirious, enchanted soul. Let her fail sometimes. Let her be sad. Give her some time to do nothing. With enough patience and love, she’ll always find her footing again.
Don’t scold her. She is everything. She’s wide awake and alive and on fire. Love all of her.
Thanks for reading Ask Polly! I wrote an essay about visiting the Glossier flagship store with my teenage daughters for the New York Times here. My book Foreverland is out in paperback and you can buy it here. If you read and enjoy Ask Polly, please consider supporting this site with a paid subscription. It’s the cheapest twice-weekly therapy money can buy!
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