Obvious Advice About Self Pity That Doesn’t Work

And two practical, actionable steps that can actually help you get to a better state

Self pity is a trap that many of us fall into at some point in our lives.
Obvious Advice About Self Pity That Doesn’t Work
What if the worry, regret, and doubt we carry with us is instead replaced by gratitude and hope? (fizkes/Shutterstock)
Mike Donghia

Feeling sorry for yourself and can’t snap out of it?

Self pity is a trap that many of us fall into at some point in our lives. However, generic advice to simply “think positive” or “focus on the good” just doesn't cut it when it comes to breaking free from this destructive mindset.

What you really need is specific, actionable advice.

And a degree of confidence about what to expect.

The generic advice isn’t wrong, exactly, it’s just missing key information. Everyone knows the key to overcoming self-pity is gratitude—that’s obvious. It’s like saying the key to longevity is to lead a long, healthy life.

Too much advice assumes you can readily muster the very thing you need in order to make it work.

Easier Said Than Done

I had a bout of self-pity recently that was the result of a disagreement with my wife. It’s honestly a rare event, and so when it happens, it can catch us both off guard.

I remember wanting to move past it but also wanting to wallow in the fact that I was misunderstood. I also remember thinking through all the obvious advice about how to defeat self-pity, and none of it seemed more appealing than the status quo. It felt like too much work for the payoff.

The obvious advice usually goes something like this:
  • Focus on the good things in your life instead of feeling sorry for yourself.
  • Create a plan to fix the problems under your control, and stop worrying about everything else.
  • Challenge negative thinking by identifying unhelpful thoughts and reframing them.
Not wrong. All great advice. But in the internal struggle of self-pity, these obvious solutions feel impossible.

Why is that?

Self-pity is one of those weird emotions we love and hate. We know it’s destructive in the long run, yet in our feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem, disappointment, or frustration, it’s sometimes the easiest comfort available.

Dwelling on our problems allows us to justify the emotions we feel. And strangely, feeling sorry for ourselves is sometimes easier than facing the thing that hurt us.

Real Solutions for Defeating Self-Pity

In my experience, when it comes to really tackling self pity, there are two key things you need to do: find a side quest and talk with someone about your feelings.

The Side Quest

Engage your mind in a side quest. When your emotions are running hot, there’s pretty much nothing you can do to improve your situation before you calm down. All the best advice in the world will feel impossible.

I don’t find it helpful, for example, to think about things I’m grateful for when I’m feeling sorry for myself. My brain knows I’m just trying to trick myself into getting over it, and it easily resists that effort.

The key is to approach the problem indirectly. Get back to emotional neutrality as quickly as possible. How do you do it? The fastest way is to stop thinking about your emotions and become fully absorbed in something else. I suggest a small side quest. Here are my go-to activities:
  • 30 minutes of aerobic exercise where my heart rate is between 60 and 70 percent of my max, just enough to break a light sweat.
  • Read 30–45 pages from an inspiring or thought-provoking nonfiction book and take notes.
  • Create a detailed outline for a new article and then write a 200–300 word introduction.
The point is that all of these activities engage my mind completely and start moving my emotional energy away from self-pity and toward something else. I don’t have to convince myself to give up my self-pity completely, only to pause and take on the side quest.

Talk It Out

Engage in a serious conversation with someone about your feelings. It’s absolutely essential that you 1) speak your feelings out loud and 2) do it with someone you can trust. There is something deeply therapeutic about expressing your emotions, putting your chaotic thoughts into actual sentences, and having someone offer you empathy and gentle feedback.

You can do this with anyone you love, even the person who offended/hurt you.

Try to do this in a calm, measured way. You’re trying to de-escalate your emotions, not stir them up again.

You don’t need to have a grand, cohesive theory about why you felt how you did. Just put words to it. Most learning comes through trial and error and repeated practice, not merely dealing with your problems as an abstraction.
Engage in a conversation as soon as possible. The longer you wait, in my experience, the harder it is to pull yourself out.

Don’t Confuse the End and Means

That’s it. The first steps to defeating self-pity are to diffuse your hot emotions with a side quest and to engage in conversation with a close friend about how you’re feeling.

All the other stuff about “focusing on the good,” “creating a plan,” and “challenging negative thoughts” are the kinds of things you’ll naturally want to do as you come out of self-pity, but unfortunately, they usually aren’t the right tools when you’re in the heat of battle.

The underrated advice is not to fight your negative emotions directly, but to pursue other activities that help them pass.

Mike (and his wife, Mollie) blog at This Evergreen Home where they share their experience with living simply, intentionally, and relationally in this modern world. You can follow along by subscribing to their twice-weekly newsletter.