Sara sat on the couch, her body heavy and collapsed, hints of anguish in her face, words of helplessness spilling from her mouth. She tried to always put on a brave face and keep it together, but inside, she couldn't escape the belief that she was a failure. Her children were often acting up and acting out. Her home was a mess and despite her efforts, she just could not stay on top it. Sara's husband often failed to respond in helpful ways and she often felt abandoned by him, especially when it came to managing the household. She wanted to perform at a higher level at work, but kept making mistakes. She knew she was just a failure. In the worst moments, she was sure that her children would grow up to hate her and she would be largely alone.
The pain of these experiences was palpable and it seemed that Sara was drowning in a sea of fear, despair, and unworthiness. Sara was clearly locked in a state of helplessness and self-pity. She admitted that she often imagined escaping from the life she had built and I sensed that she hoped I would give her permission to do so. Changing one's circumstances is certainly always an option, and sometimes an appropriate option. However, as the great Buckaroo Banzai said, "wherever you go, there you are."
If we don't change how we relate to our experience, we will simply recreate the same experience wherever we go.
Sara's experience of desperation was overwhelming her. However, instead of pull her from this ocean, we began the hard work of helping Sara discover that she could swim.
Whenever we are experiencing intensity (emotional and body sensations), we move into a younger self. We are often unaware of this shift. Our younger self often perceives itself to be helpless in the face of distress. Indeed, as children, we were often dependent upon others, physically and emotionally. We perceived ourselves as helpless victims of our experience. We had to come up with ways to cope, in the moment, to overwhelming feelings. Our solutions, while often very creative, we discover in adulthood, have some unintended consequences. When we believe we are helpless victims of our circumstances, self-pity is an attempt to comfort ourselves. We want to feel better. We want to be comforted. Our young self turns to despair and self-pity in an attempt to self-regulate and feel better.
As a culture, we express knee-jerk disdain for self-pity and victim thinking. Most people find themselves in this feeling/thinking state at times, but when we notice it, we may add shame to the despair and feel sorry for ourselves feeling sorry for ourselves!
In therapy, we can relate to self-pity for what it is: a child's attempt to protect herself from pain and vulnerability. When viewed from this perspective, we can also offer understanding for this idea as a solution. While we are in it, self-pity does what it is supposed to do: comfort. Yet, as adults, we can see that self-pity and victim thinking are also limited. Self-pity and victim thinking require that we experience ourselves as helpless. When we are in helplessness, we do not have access to our wise mind that may (sometimes easily) offer real solutions.
Our first step is to become curious about our inner narrative of victim-hood and helplessness. Instead of rejecting ourselves for this narrative, we offer kindness and understanding to the parts of ourselves who came up with this solution in an effort to protect. We begin to recognize these stories as stories and we become open to other realities. Sara began to observe how frequently her thoughts turned to how she was being wronged by her circumstances and how limiting these thoughts were: the solution was always dependent upon things outside of her. Of course she felt helpless!
The second step is to begin the practice of responding to all inner experience with compassion. Self-compassion is self-pity, all grown up. Self-pity says: "awe! Look at how terrible you are! Of course you are terrible, look at how everything and everyone is against you. There's nothing you can do." Self-compassion says, "awe, young self, of course you feel scared. Of course you feel sad. I'm going to take a few moments to take care of you, and then let's see what I can do to solve this problem." Through our work, Sara began to learn to take responsibility for her inner experience. In doing so, she began to relate to her overwhelming feelings with kindness instead of pity. As she began to learn that she could trust herself to take care of herself rather than feel dependent upon others, Sara moved from helplessness to empowered. When living from an empowered state, Sara began to realize she was not drowning. She could swim.
Self-pity is a state of helplessness. Self-compassion is empowered self-care. When we are kind to our feelings, they often calm down. When our mind and body is calm, we move back into our adult self who is competent and capable.
Karen J. Helfrich, LCSW-C
As a therapist, mother, daughter, partner, and seeker, I am always on the journey toward a more peaceful, authentic life. I hope to share knowledge, insights, and the ongoing unknowns I find along the path...