Self-Pity

The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016

Self-Pity

He mopes. He sulks. He slumps in the corner, head hanging between gleaming brushed-metal knees. Marvin the Paranoid Android in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is programmed with the latest in Genuine People Personalities (GPP) technology. His irritation at his fellow space travelers is outweighed only by the fierceness of his conviction that he is being mistreated and misunderstood.

The philosopher Max Scheler wrote that self-pity demands an imaginative tour de force: we must stand outside ourselves in a fantastic doubling. The person—or android—who feels sorry for himself “regards himself ’as if he were someone else,’” wrote Scheler, and looks down upon this helpless being, shedding a tear for the unfairness of their pathetic situation. By splitting ourselves in two like this, self-pity seems rather a beneficial emotion: when things don’t go our way, one half of us gets to feel superior to the other, enjoying the RELIEF that pitying someone else can bring.

Sometimes self-pity is little more than a short and pleasurable indulgence, one that we are all entitled to enjoy. We get bored. We move on. But sometimes, like Marvin, we become stuck with our feelings of unfairness. And isolated by them too, since self-pity brings our horizons so claustrophobically near that other people’s viewpoints, and even the fact that they might be struggling too, become impossible for us to imagine. It’s here that the contempt that is at the heart of pity really makes itself known: not only do we loathe ourselves, and see no hope of things improving, but we can’t bear anyone else either.

Frustrated families and friends have used all kinds of techniques to try to snap their loved ones out of the absorption of long-lived self-pity. Usually, they are variations on the “look how lucky you are” theme, which frankly just makes everyone feel worse. One technique that might work is suggested by recent research on altruism. Encourage your own beloved paranoid android to perform small and random acts of kindness toward strangers (or aliens) and they might just rediscover their compassion muscles—and find some kindness for themselves too.

See also: COMPASSION; PITY.