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Peace in Ourselves: Unlearning Self Pity

Updated: Jul 10

Last month, I shared how a beautiful Milwaukee landmark is inspiring me to reflect on how I can cultivate more peace within myself with hopes of doing a small part for a more peaceful world.

I've done deep dives into defensiveness  and bitterness, next up -- self pity.

Dwelling in this mentality can make you feel like you don't have any control, power or options. No matter the situation you're facing, you feel stuck and sorry for yourself. For me, many times when I've felt this way I think I was mostly scared. I knew a change was needed, but I was unsure of what to do and and fearful of the unknown.

How does it show up?

  • Feeling bad for myself

  • Feeling powerless, stuck -- that I'm not in control of what's happening to me

  • Feeling uneasy in my situation and unsure about my next steps

  • Frustration with a person - esp if I believe they're responsible for creating a negative situation

  • Desire to complain and vent to others

Why does it show up? What do I really want?

  • Desire for comfort - Self pity has come up for me in the past when I knew something was wrong but felt unsure of my choices, or fearful about what choice to make.

  • Desire for justice - In the times I've thrown a pity party-- complaining or venting about a situation-- it was often because I felt a situation was not fair. I got frustrated by how much different and better the outcome would have been if only we weren't in these unfair circumstances.

  • Desire for recognition or reward - Similar to the above, self pity has a tendency to show up when I have the feel I earned something that never materializes. Going the extra mile doesn't always pay off and sometimes it's not even noticed.

  • Desire for self-preservation - Maybe it's not surprising that self pity has also tended to emerge for me in the past when I felt my skills and abilities were being challenged; that I was not good enough. Rather than admit this and work on it, it is often easier to want to find fault and blame someone or something else.

  • Desire for control - Self pity has surfaced when things feel out of my control; that I am fully subject to someone else's work style or decision making.

What should I do instead?

  • Put it in perspective - My sister Kate crystallized this for me a few years with an observation from our family. Our grandparents on my dad's side were young children in Germany during World War II. I've never known a struggle anywhere close to what they faced growing up-- going to bed hungry, losing a home and belongings, being separated from family. While this in itself is a humbling perspective -- my sister pointed out how our Oma in particular is the biggest cheerleader of others' success. We've never heard her say, "Well, if I hadn't grown up during a war, I would have been able to..." Since Kate pointed that out, I've always tried to think of Oma when I feel myself slipping into feelings of self pity. She's overcome much more and still her attitude always lifts everyone up.

  • Focus on my strengths - When feeling powerless, I've found it's helpful to remind myself of my strengths. I love personality assessment tools and over the years have done several, including the CliftonStrengths Assessment, Gretchen Rubin's Four Tendencies and the Predictive Index Behavioral Assessment. Revisiting these results can help me remember my talents and inspire me to think about how I can use them.

  • Reframe the 'problem' - I've come to realize that whenever there is a negative or lacking of something, there's an abundance of something else. Thinking this way has been a great way to find an upside in any situation:

    • Difficult situations spur change - During times when things are going smoothly, complacency usually reigns even when change is desperately needed. A difficult situation has the ingredients to help a group realize change is needed and can create urgency to make it. There's a saying "never waste a crisis" -- and it's true a lot of positive can come out of a difficult time if you use it to transform.

    • Difficult situations spur growth -- Comfortable situations will rarely ask you to change or adapt. While constantly exceeding expectations and receiving praise seems fun, it also stifles growth. When things feel difficult, I try to remind myself it's because I'm tackling harder challenges and learning new skills. And, if it feels too hard for too long, then it's probably a sign I need to reassess whether it is the right fit and time to make a change.

    • Remember, “An adventure is a crisis that you accept,” -- this wisdom from Bertrand Piccard-- who along with his partner, was the first to circumnavigate the globe in a hot air balloon-- is for me one of the most beautiful insights about how shifting your mindset to accept how much is out of your control is liberating. This and more of his great advice is captured in The New Yorker essay "Close to the Sun" which can be a great inspiration for how powerful a tool reframing can be.

  • Adjust and readjust my strategies - When I'm feeling self pity, it usually has me focusing on the actions of others; I feel like I'm a victim to their workstyle and decision making. Incredibly, shifting the focus to how I can change to better adapt to their style not only improves my attitude, but usually also the outcome. This way, when I'm struggling with another person's workstyle, I can see it as an opportunity for me-- to learn more, to be creative and to get more practice in different communication skills. Here are ways I've shifted my strategy in two different scenarios:

    • People who tend to take on a lot of responsibility/micromanage:

      • Learn more about their goals and what they believe is the most important aspect of the work.

      • Expect that they will always have corrections; don't take their suggestions or edits personally.

      • Review work together in person or via video call to build trust, clarify intent and minimize back-and-forth.

      • Focus their attention for corrections on specific areas by proposing options and asking their opinion.

    • People who tend to defer a lot of responsibility/hands-off or indecisive

      • Learn more about their personal values and what guides (and hinders) their decision making.

      • When making a recommendation, present clear options and make recommendations aligned with their values and goals.

      • Highlight the urgency and value of acting quickly.

      • Note if/how the decision can be reversed or changed if needed.

      • Don't overcomplicate it for yourself -- if you have the freedom to move ahead and you know what to do, go for it!

While I've had success in the past adapting my communication strategies in these situations, as I type this, I'm also reminded that no strategy works perfectly and even the best strategies need to be tweaked and adjusted from time to time.

That said, this whole exercise this week has reminded me how creativity-- generating more ideas of what you can do-- is an amazing antidote to self pity, which often makes you feel like there is nothing you can do. So, start small and remember your strengths! How have you learned and grown from instances where you experienced self pity?


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