4 Reasons Self-Pity is One of the Most Dangerous Emotions
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.
It Builds a Wall Between You and Failure
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!"
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.
You Justify Your Anger by Comparing Yourself to Successful People
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.
"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.
It Makes You Feel Special
If feeling sorry for yourself only made you miserable, it wouldn't have the shiny allure that it does. But when you combine the ridiculous excuses you've invented for your own failings with the inaccurate lives you've built up for other people, you've got yourself the most self-destructive yet delicious combination this side of a mickey of vodka and a family-sized bag of Skittles.
You've convinced yourself that other people are happy and healthy all the time, and you've convinced yourself that you're miserable through no fault of your own. So you've set up a narrative where your self-imposed suffering is noble rather than ignorant. Just by dragging yourself out of bed to the job that you hate you've achieved as much as everyone else did today, and that lets you spend your off-hours shouting drunken answers at Wheel of Fortune, because dammit, you've earned it. Sure, other people may wonder why you're not applying yourself, but they just don't understand your problems, man.
"Don't look at me like that, Fluffles. You don't get what I'm going through!"
Everyone wants to feel special, because the alternative is feeling like you're yet another ordinary person out of billions who will stagger through a meaningless blip of an existence and then be forgotten forever. Because this is a comedy site, please pretend the preceding sentence ended with a fart noise. As a kid, feeling special is easy because you can pretend that Luke Skywalker is your dad and he's sending you to Hogwarts. It's easy as a teenager too, because literally every teenager thinks they have unique problems and you just don't understand, mom. Then they go to college and spend four years primarily associating "special" with 25-cent wing night. But they eventually become adults whose student loans make even cheap wings a luxurious extravagance, and feeling special becomes hard.
Hard is nowhere near the same as impossible, mind you. Careers, families, volunteer work, campaigns of vengeance against the criminal elements of the night -- these can all inject your life with tremendous meaning and temporarily stave off your fear of the inevitable, all-consuming, all-farting void. But if you have a certain mindset, the kind that leads you to use phrases like "all-consuming void," for example, self-pity is life's easy mode. You give your life meaning just by functioning every day.
Up, up, down, down, left, right, existential angst.
There's a tremendous arrogance in assuming that you're the only person in your social circle with problems. But you'll do it anyway, to make yourself feel better and to give yourself an excuse for not having what other people have. Assuming you have at least a modicum of social skill, you'll never discuss it, because no one wants to hear, "You think you have problems? Your life is amazing, stop complaining!" And so you just quietly seethe at the fake lives you've constructed for other people, feeling special but also ridiculous all the while.
It Can Become an Unbreakable Routine
At this point some of you have probably said, "Of course I feel sorry for myself! In the last month I lost my job, my significant other dumped me, and then my pet monkey got into my cocaine and OD'd! My life sucks, and I can't even snort blow to console myself! Why shouldn't I feel miserable?" And this is where it gets tricky, like riding a unicycle across a dental-floss tightrope over a pit of dentists who are angry that you stole all of their floss to make tightropes with.
And now you know the one weird trick that makes dentists hate me.
If you're facing challenging circumstances, feeling sorry for yourself is not only understandable but an important part of the healing process. It's when you use it as a crutch in the face of the everyday challenges that everyone else has to deal with too that you'll find your motivation bleeding away like it took a bullet in the jungles of 'Nam.
And once you've taken that bullet, it's hard to ... return to the country that sent you overseas and recover from the shock of how much the times have changed? Or maybe it's really you that's changed, and ... ugh, this is a terrible metaphor and I'm going to drop it now. The point is that once you fall into that rut it can be difficult to get yourself out. You know that change would almost certainly make your life happier, but change is scary even when it's good.
That fear is, as David Wong wrote, part of what prevents us from becoming better people. Self-pity is as reliable as a beloved dog, if that dog was secretly plotting to eat you. Misery offers routine, the same feelings and bad habits every day (if you're not trying to improve your own life, there's a lot of spare time for drunk Halo marathons). You don't have to deal with rejection, or the fear of failure, or other scary new emotions. You don't have to apply yourself, account for your own failings, or look at other people fairly. Self-pity's like a cozy blanket you can wrap yourself in to keep warm, except the only reason you're cold in the first place is because you're insisting on sitting outside naked in the snow.
Then, at night, the frost spiders come.
Happiness, despite what Bobby McFerrin taught us, is tricky. I couldn't really tell you why I often feel lousy despite the fact that I now live in a solid-gold mansion and sleep in a solid-gold bed with women I've painted gold. Meanwhile, my gold polisher is the happiest man in the world, and I pay him in counterfeit reichsmarks. Many people who are chronically miserable never seek treatment, even though achieving happiness became one of life's main goals after America invented it. I don't know why this is, but I can tell you that feeling too sorry for yourself for too long can send you down a dark path that leads to nothing but misery. Oh, and wacky fart noises.
You can read more about wacky farts at Mark's website.
For more from Mark, check out 5 Things People Don't Understand About Only Children and 5 Everyday Groups of People Society Says It's OK to Mock
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