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Self-Compassion and Self-Pity: What's the Difference?

Is self-pity a mask for one's mistakes, an open wound, or a lure for attention?

Key points

  • While we need to be kind to ourselves, self-forgiveness without examining our behavior reinforces bad habits.
  • The Self-Compassion Scale is useful, but so is a rigorous yet fair assessment of one's flaws.
  • High levels of self-pity can absorb and then explode all the possible sympathy from others in the room.
  • Self-pity and self-compassion, like twins, are alike and share a name:"self." Don't mistake one for the other.

I do poorly on the Self-Compassion Scale, which makes me just terrible about myself.

A graduate student, in one of those necessary steps towards the completion of her degree, recently sent out a survey about the topic, listing those attributes most closely associated with the embrace of self-compassion as an emotional tool, psychology perspective, and philosophical idea. [A good overview of the topic can be found here: ].

My test results were mixed.

While I score well on the sections asking whether I feel alone in my flaws (no, because I've realized that I have no original sins; all my mistakes, flaws, and screw-ups are totally unoriginal and can be found worldwide and throughout centuries), and slightly less well on whether I am consumed by a sense of personal failure when I can't perform something well (I have a tendency to reprimand myself for not knowing, after six years of brave if inconsistent attempts, how to fully operate my television remote), I score in the lowest possible range for self-judgement.

There is no lowest possible-range on the Self-Compassion Scale for self-judgement, so I made one up.

I did this because, frankly, there should be: Not everybody can be good at something, even if that something is self-compassion. There are things at which we are bad; there are places in which we will never ascend to the winners circle; there are arenas in which we fail. That doesn't mean we shouldn't strive, seek, and resist the temptation to yield.

In my first book, They Used to Call Me Snow White, But I Drifted: Women's Strategic Use of Humor, published in 1991, I argued that the wording of the Golden Rule should be changed for women: "Women don't need to treat others as well as we treat ourselves—we need to treat ourselves as well as we treat others." I gave it a gender-specific emphasis, and I would argue that it continues to apply to women even more than it does to most men.

Yet I understood that self-compassion, self-love, self-esteem, and self-confidence were not only desirable qualities but ones essential for success.

Recognition of their importance, however, doesn't make them easy to come by; you can recognize that money buys influence without suddenly discovering you have a cache of krugerrands in your sock drawer.

One of my best friends summed me up by saying she'd never met anyone with so much self-confidence and so little self-esteem. I can speak to an audience of 1,500 about the importance of humor in the workplace without my blood-pressure rising by one degree, but I will sweat through my blouse if I'm going to a 12-person luncheon if I think I'm afraid I'll feel out of place, uncouth, loud, or fat.

I'm embarrassed to write this, but it's true—and why else write about self-compassion if not to tell the truth?

Ah, and it's at precisely this moment when my fear of self-pity steps in and tells me to shut my trap, keep my complaints to myself, stop whining, have some dignity, and admonishes me—not without cause—that nobody wants to hear my troubles because they don't amount to a hill of beans in this world.

"Not amounting to a hill of beans in this world" is a phrase I continue to hear in Humphrey Bogart's voice, straight out of Casablanca. Bogart's voice has a gravelly authority that the softer, soothing voices suggesting self-compassion don't possess for me.

I fear self-pity because I grew up on it and around it: It was the acceptable and, in many ways, approved language for women in my family. I grew up in a version of Queen for a Day, where the woman telling the tale of the most grievous misery was awarded a prize.

Tears were currency and sighs were interspersed with breaths so often that one became indistinguishable from the other. Self-pity swelled with dampness and encouraged a kind of mouldering of the structures that were meant to be immutable and strong. Family stability, unconditional love, noncompetitive support of those we loved, a welcoming and generous sense of community—these were all undermined by self-pity.

I fear being needy and am trying to learn that insatiable need is not the same as self-acceptance. Insatiable need is a form of self-sabotage, like wearing a vest of explosives when you’re coming in for a hug.

I am working on self-compassion in my own therapy and hope my fear of self-pity will cease to eclipse the possibility of self-appreciation.

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