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Why We Sometimes Enjoy Pity and How to Stop

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“A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval.” ~Mark Twain

When I was younger, I remember occasionally hurting myself while playing outside.

If I rolled my ankle, I might fall to the ground clutching it, but not feel too bad overall. Then, when someone from my family or a friend would run up to me and see if I was okay, I’d start getting choked up.

At the time, this confused me and made me even more upset. Why could I not control myself?

I experienced a lot of self-pity, because I felt like I was weak and could not handle my emotions. And then I would break out in tears.

None of this made any sense to me then, but it would happen the same way every time.

Now that I’m older, I think I “get” it. I actually enjoyed the feeling of pity, and would subconsciously seek it out.

This doesn’t just happen in children. Did you ever notice how when some people get sick or injured, they will practically brag about it?

“Hey everyone! I totally broke my arm the other day. Look at me!”

This whole “enjoyment of being pitied” business is a particularly nefarious form of attention-seeking behavior.

It is a sign of insecurity. We want to be pitied because we crave attention, and without pity, we worry that nobody will care about us.

Pity is a form of external validation that is based off feelings of inferiority. The desire for external validation and the internal lack of self-esteem is a serious one-two punch knocking down our happiness levels.

How does this sort of behavior start? What is the original cause? Why do we think this negative external validation is a good thing?

We all have beliefs about ourselves that require some form of validation for us to convince ourselves that these beliefs are true.

There is something inherently alluring about having a victim mentality. If you believe yourself to be a victim, you surrender your personal responsibility, which essentially gives you “permission” to blame someone or something else for your negative situation.

It also means that you “deserve” pity.

So if something bad happens, your ego seeks out pity in order to reinforce a victim mentality, which then allows you to abdicate your personal responsibility to do something to change your circumstance—while receiving attention that you might associate with feeling important or loved.

This sort of process is most likely internalized through childhood conditioning. For example, when I was visibly in pain, everyone focused on me, which I enjoyed, so I learned to prolong that by crying.

And pity-seeking behavior goes hand in hand with self-pity, which presents a huge obstacle to happiness since you can’t feel good if you’re choosing to feel bad for yourself.

Of course, like all of our ego’s defense mechanisms, pity-seeking behavior will try to hide itself from you.

How Can You Recognize These Behaviors?

You may be seeking pity if you:

  • Frequently start sentences with “I didn’t deserve…”
  • Regularly tells others that life or parts of your life are unfair
  • Repeatedly talk about how someone has harmed you
  • Draw attention to your problems and ask why they had to happen to you
  • Subtly wish for negative outcomes so you can talk about them
  • Get caught up in your own head and become unaware of other people
  • Look at someone else’s misfortune through how it negatively impacts you

With that last one, someone else’s troubles allow you to create a story that you can use to garner more sympathy for yourself.

An example would be a person who explains to her friends about how her husband lost her job. Instead of feeling compassion for him, she focuses on how she’s affected by his loss, as if it’s harder for her than him.

We all do this time to time, but when it becomes a habit, it can interfere with our happiness and our relationships.

How Do You Stop?

As I said earlier, the two main drives that cause these behaviors are a reliance on external validation and a low self-esteem.

In order to fully eliminate these behaviors, you need to address both of these causes.

The first step is to consciously recognize that you are engaging in these behaviors. Once you’ve accepted this, you should take some time to meditate on the effect they have on your life.

Are you more frequently in a bad mood? Do you find yourself sabotaging your own efforts? Have your relationships suffered?

Perhaps you can’t emotionally connect with others since you are so focused on yourself. Or maybe you’re keeping yourself stuck personally or professionally because you’re committed to talking about the unfairness of it all.

Recognizing these effects builds leverage that will help motivate you to change.

Now, when you notice yourself engaging in pity-seeking behaviors, short-circuit your conditioning by practicing gratitude and recognizing how good it feels.

Instead of focusing on how you have been wronged or hurt, immediately think about something positive in your life. Sure, you broke your arm while skiing, but you were able to use your two legs to take a walk in the park, and you enjoyed that without needing any type of negative attention.

Repeatedly practicing gratitude will reverse the conditioning that caused your behaviors in the first place and help you create positive feelings without needing negative reinforcement.

Over the long term, you need to build a sense of self-worth by accepting personal responsibility for your life and consciously choosing to change the situations that aren’t working for you. When you feel like you control your own fate, you stop being a victim and you feel far more valuable as a person.

It feels much better to actually enjoy your life than it does to talk about how much you don’t.

This isn’t an issue that you deal with once and then it goes away forever. It is deep seated within us, and it requires consistent self-improvement to minimize it.

As I grew up, improved my self-esteem, and started to take responsibility for my life, my pity-seeking behavior decreased drastically, but it still exists.

What’s important isn’t to eliminate the behaviors entirely, but to deal with the underlying causes as best we can.

Do you enjoy seeking pity? Why do you think you do it?

Photo by lupzdut

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About Michael Davidson

Michael Davidson has written for over a year about finding happiness and health. The keys to his heart are dark chocolate and an encyclopedic knowledge of Simpsons quotes. Get his free 8 day e-course on how to create a healthy lifestyle that makes you happy and follow him on Twitter.

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  • Lorrie Jones, MBSR

    I love your honest and inspiring article on pity and thank you for it. I had an opportunity a few short years ago to bring out the pity in everyone I knew. I was in a car accident and survived life support – and a long healing process. I found that pity didn’t ‘work’ for me…I felt disconnected from the other person and kind of alone and sad. When I was able to talk again, I voiced (most sincerely) how grateful I was for being alive, having such loving care-takers and for the promise of recovery. I noticed a sunlit day, the quiet of a dark night in the hospital, re-read the lovely cards and messages from family and friends and experienced deep happiness when my grown children and grandchildren visited.

    Now in my life, pity isn’t an option for me. I’m not even tempted. Gratitude was my way and I hope it can be for others as well.

  • http://www.the-cupoflife.com/ The Cup Of Life

    Great Article Michael !
    I am glad I read that I never saw this as one of the results of low self esteem.
    Suddenly everything falls in place and I understand why I have done some things to get some pity and why others were doing it as well.
    I think I will write a post on my site about this topic as well :) Thanks for the inspiration !
    Have a good one Michael !

  • lv2terp

    Thank you for being so vulnerable with your message, and being so open and honest about such a sensitive topic. Wonderful insight, advice, and perspective!!!! :)

  • Jo Atkinson

    I honestly feel that every time I stop to read a new post, it is speaking directly to me. This has helped me immensely this morning, thank you! Today I start with gratitude for the wonderful things in my life, NOT the challenges (although, I can now be grateful for those too).

  • Kai

    This hit the spot. Thanks for making me a better man :)

  • Just Me

    I might appreciate a few moments of compassion when injured, but do you really feel pitied in those cases?? What an unusual emotional response.

  • kk

    yes very true full article, i lost my victim mentality through some years of effort and help from loved one. i was glad to have someone fighting for me and not loving me as I was.

  • PKS

    I couldn’t have read this post at a more apt time in my life. I am going through a professional crisis and showering myself with self pity in the EXACT same way you’ve described in your post. Your honesty allowed me to brutally honest with myself and accept the fact that I have indeed been seeking pity all my life, and with that came a sense of relief. Every time I went through a personal or professional crisis, I made it a point to call all my friends and tell them about what I was going through. The funny part is that I used to share my tales of woe with them so that they could validate my feeling of worthlessness and give me a perverse sense of satisfaction. Although as a person I’ve always looked to improve myself, little did I know that by doing this I was actually inhibiting my growth and ruining my self-esteem. Having had this mentality for a long time now, I’ve found it difficult to get past it for good but I have managed to identify it when it resurfaces and continued to take that one crucial step forward. Posts like this and many such posts on Tiny Buddha inspire me to move forward everyday, giving me the assurance that I am not alone and need not take the difficult road to peace and happiness alone. Thank you for this honest post!

  • -A

    I was never able come to understand what’s wrong with me and how much I enjoy being pitied by others and after reading this article, i have to agree this is true. great article~!