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Several years ago, a student in my addictions psychology class sent an email asking for help. Myra*, a young woman working to become a substance abuse counselor, was struggling with the concept of self-compassion.

Here’s what she wrote.

“Dear Dr. Moore. I’m really enjoying the class but there’s one thing I don’t get. What’s the difference between self-compassion and self-pity?”

Her question wasn’t that unusual. Many people get jumbled up on this topic, particularly folks who are new to the psychology. Perhaps you have wondered about the differences, too?

I’ll share with you what I wrote back to Myra. It’s fairly straight forward. Hey, what can I say? I’ve never been a big fan of psycho-babble.

Hi, Myra,

Thanks for the question. Below you will find a quick cook’s tour of the differences. I hope you find useful.

Self-pity: This is a term used to describe the behaviors of someone who has become immersed in their own problems while simultaneously forgetting other people have difficulties too.

When a person in engages in self-pity, they tend to be more inward looking (usually in a critical way) and partake in behaviors that aren’t always healthy.

Example: I wasn’t good enough to get that job. What does it matter if I drink this bottle of wine? I’m a screw-up. Nobody wants me.

Conversely, we have:

Self-compassion: A person who engages in self-compassion is both inward and outward looking. They hold the ability to connect with the suffering of others, often through shared experiences.

When a person practices self-compassion, they recognize their own humanity (strengths and limitations) while acknowledging others may be struggling, too.

In this way, the individual can develop a more balanced perspective regarding their own pain. Over time, they become more empowered to make healthier choices.

Example: I didn’t get that job and it doesn’t feel good. But the three-other people who applied also didn’t get hired. Now, all of us are probably feeling blue. Drinking a bottle of wine isn’t going to change the outcome.

After sending my response to Myra, she wrote back a day later. She communicated how she had sometimes fallen victim to self-pity in her own life.

Myra also explained how some of those behaviors ended up sabotaging well-intentioned goals.

Her personal insight was powerful. It also was a reminder that all of us are vulnerable to our inner voice.

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*Name changed to protect identity

Image credit: Pixabay