I used to think that the words pity and compassion were synonymous; both mean having feelings of sympathy or sorrow for another. But the difference is pity stops there. There is no further feeling other than that of feeling sorry. Compassion extends itself to include a desire to alleviate that suffering or sorrow. Compassion recognizes humanity where pity closes everything and anyone off. “I’m glad that didn’t happen to me”, “thank goodness it wasn’t me” are expressions of pity. “I’m so sorry for them, maybe I can help”, “What can I do to help” are expressions of compassion.
It wasn’t until my thirties that I was introduced to the true meanings of self-pity and self-compassion. It wasn’t until I had an up close and honest look at myself that I came to know the meaning of these terms. To me, self pity means feeling bad for yourself and believing that you are the victim and have done no wrong. It is a self-indulgent, exaggerated view of the circumstances with the belief that someone else is responsible for fixing things. It means to dwell on ones misfortune and expect everyone else to feel sorry for them. “Why did this happen to me”, “why does my life have to be like this”, “nobody understands” are common expressions of self-pity. Self pity is dominated by fear, guilt, shame. It forces one to compare one’s own circumstances to another’s rather than to identify and understand with another. Self-pity sets you apart from others, leaving you feeling alone and desperate.
Self-compassion is feeling sorrow for yourself but recognizing that you are not alone in your suffering. It has a level of humanity to it that allows you to see others’ suffering and sadness and to identify with them rather than alienate them, as if your troubles were somehow more important than theirs. With self-compassion you can embrace yourself with love, allow yourself room to suffer and find ways to help yourself. It is not much different than compassion for others. It puts us in a position to help ourselves get up and move forward because we care about ourselves. Self-compassion doesn’t look for blame and doesn’t feel guilty. It recognizes your misfortune but empowers you to pick yourself up. It makes you part of a community and that can be healing.
Knowing the difference between the two has made a huge difference to me since the death of my daughter. A tragedy has happened – is it ok to feel bad for myself? Yes. Is it ok if I dwell on my sadness for a while? Yes. Is it ok to expect sympathy from others right now? Yes. By doing these things, we honor ourselves and our feelings. Grief includes feeling badly for ourselves, for that is compassionate.
But as a bereaved parent, I must remain diligent in paying attention to my feelings so as not to fall into the trap of self-pity. Being in the dangerous pool of self-pity would mean I expect someone or something to get me out of it. It would mean I am relying on others to make my situation go away or get better. Truth is, my situation cannot get better and it cannot be fixed. I have lost my daughter and will never recover to the person whom I used to be.
So today I’m being realistic and logical and instead of expecting someone to fix me, I am expecting myself to care for me. However, we bereaved walk a thin line and could slip into the morass if not careful. Part of me thinks I have a right to slip; part of me knows I have a duty to take care of myself for my own and others’ sake. Fear of going forward in life without her keeps me in a place of darkness; knowing I have another daughter to care for keeps me in the place of compassion. Reality makes the definitions of the two clear however my emotions are often cloudy.
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