Do you feel lousy? I mean actually lousy, not the sort of bland malaise that comes with reading my articles. I ask because I sure do. Not right now, because whether it's my attempt to have a more optimistic outlook on life or a toxic chemical leaking from my monitor that's giving me a high while slowly killing me, I feel great. But I certainly have a history of feeling miserable and throwing undeserved pity parties.
I'm not talking about clinical depression, which I've written about before in a Pulitzer Prize-winning article. No, this is everyday feeling sorry for yourself because you didn't get that job, or that date, or that Bengal tiger. I've learned that, while excessive self-pity is terrible for you in the long term, it's dangerously comfortable in the short term. I've also learned that I can live off of beer and yogurt for a disturbingly long time, but we're mostly going to talk about the first two points.
#4. It Builds a Wall Between You and Failure
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Spotting the difference between the kind of misery that a legitimate illness creates and the kind that you create for yourself is like trying to tell which person is your best friend and which is her evil twin while they're both screaming, "It's her! Take the shot!"
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I keep asking my friends to dress like this, but no one listens.
As far as I can tell, the difference is that self-pity gives you an excuse to not apply yourself, while depression makes you unable to apply yourself even though you want to. And you've heard the excuses. "I want to write a book, but I'm no good at writing." "I want to get a date, but I'm too unattractive." "I want to avenge my brother's death at the state dance fighting regionals, but I'd never be able to pull off the forbidden move." It's easier to assume you're incompetent than it is to put effort in and discover that your worst fears about your abilities are true.
When I discovered I couldn't beatbox Beethoven no matter how hard I tried, I was devastated.
But this goes beyond laziness or ineptitude. Most people who wish they had a date tonight know someone who's less attractive than they are, yet gets laid like a chubby, asthmatic Wilt Chamberlain. This isn't about giving yourself an excuse for failure, it's about giving yourself an excuse to not try. Trying something and failing is a legitimate disappointment, but telling yourself that you don't have the ability takes it out of your hands. Not trying something because you were born without the appropriate attribute to succeed turns it into a go-to means of softening the blow. It's like telling yourself you're disappointed that you couldn't play in the NBA because you're a 4-foot-tall woman with rickets -- it sucks that you couldn't live your dream, but you're not really bothered by it because you know you never had a chance.
But unless you're spewing pus from every orifice, you could probably get a date. You might get rejected dozens of times, but you could eventually do it. Just like you could write that book, if you're willing to invest thousands of hours of hard work and risk constant rejection and mockery. Insult Twilight all you want (I do), but Stephenie Meyer's giant pile of money didn't come out of thin air. She earned it while every smart ass in the world was telling her they could pull a better romance story out of their ass (the ass being the most romantic of the orifices).
Why, yes, I did get my start writing love poems.
Maybe they could, but they haven't, at least not one that resonates in the same way. And I bet a lot of them are telling themselves that they actually aren't good enough, or worse, that they are good enough but the world would never recognize their genius. But shit, they could be telling themselves that aliens might steal their manuscript and publish it first, and the result would be the same. John Cheese wrote about the excuses we use to prevent ourselves from growing up, and this is one of them -- you're giving yourself a reason to not try, then wishing you had the result you might have had if you did and feeling sorry for yourself because you don't. Using your own misery as an excuse has the same effect as that poor woman who could never make it to the NBA, except deep down you know that you do have a chance and refuse to acknowledge it. And that eats away at you like a fucking disease.
#3. You Justify Your Anger by Comparing Yourself to Successful People
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A powerful fuel for misery is looking at someone, especially someone your age or younger, and lamenting the fact that they have a better career, house, action-figure collection, etc. This is especially true if it looks like they have a better everything, so you can't even take solace in the fact that while they may have a hot spouse, they're too busy making them happy to spend time with friends, and they definitely don't have enough time to make it look like Star Fox and Link are making out and Mario is super jealous.
Pictured: That thing I just said, how sad my life is.
Everyone comes down with a case of green-eyed monstrousness now and then. Hell, when the president makes a campaign stop in Way Too Goddamn Cold, Michigan, he probably envies the leaders of tropical countries. There are going to be people you look up to no matter how successful you are, but while most people use that as motivation to constantly improve themselves, dumber people like me use it to create yet another excuse.
When you're in the dregs of self-pity, you almost insist on finding someone you can't live up to in order to make yourself feel bad. If you envy one friend's job and another friend points out that his long work weeks are making him lonely, you'll obsess over a second friend who has a great career and a great social life. You're not happy until you're not happy.
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"Hooray, I did it!"
Once you've found a suitably ridiculous comparison, the excuses can start rolling in. "No matter how hard I work, Jeff will always have more money than me, so why should I even try?" "I've practiced the theremin for months, and I still suck, but Susan picked it up in days! Why do I bother?" Never mind that there's plenty of potential steps in between doing nothing and becoming a millionaire or rocking a theremin solo to keep the band together -- you're just setting up lofty comparisons to dodge the fact that with a lot of hard work you could still make enough to buy a new TV or impress people at your local coffee shop's open theremin night. You decide that you want to be the best, then you decide that the best is unobtainable, and then you quit with righteous anger rather than dull disappointment.
After all, your comparisons will never be neutral. You're more than willing to focus on the uncontrollable traits of other people that put you at a disadvantage (Jeff was a trust-fund kid who got a free ride through Harvard, you had to wipe down stripper poles to put yourself through community college) while ignoring the variables you can actually account for (Jeff worked 80 hours a week once he graduated, you started curating a Dorito-dusted-beer-can collection). That way you get all of the angst that comes from acknowledging the fact that life is often unfair, but with none of the tiresome nonsense of trying to compensate for life's vagaries with hard work. You get caught in a cycle of wanting what other people have, not seriously attempting to obtain it for yourself, and resenting said people for being "luckier" than you. It's as dangerous as it is dumb.
It's kind of like wrestling a shark, except for all of the other ways in which it isn't.