Friday, September 5, 2008

Martha Beck: Yes, It Was Awful...Now Please Shut Up

by Martha Beck

The perils of self-pity

Poignant, tragic, funny, outrageous—most of us have at least one story we tell (and retell) to explain our emotional bruises. But there's a big difference between understanding the past and being stuck in it.

The perils of self-pitySelf-pity, a dominant characteristic of sociopaths, is also the characteristic that differentiates heroic storytelling from psychological rumination. When you talk about your experiences to shed light, you may feel wrenching pain, grief, anger, or shame. Your audience may pity you, but not because you want them to. Obsessing aloud, on the other hand, is a way of fishing for pity, a means of extorting attention. Healthy people instinctively resist this strategy. When you grieve, they will yearn to comfort you. When you demand pity, they will yearn to smack you.

All day I've been telling stories to evoke my own pity, and it's working. Partly. The unhealthy part of me, the world-class codependent, is just mesmerized. "Oh," she cries, "you poor darling! Tell me that sad story again—the first 400 times didn't do it justice!" The healthy part of me finds this annoying: "Oh, for God's sake," she says, rolling her eyes. "Could we please stop the drama and get on with our life?"

The healthy part of me is such a heartless bitch.

On the other hand, she's got a point. Compulsively examining my stories never works for me. I keep sinking into sorrow (self-inflicted though it is) until it occurs to me that I will drown unless I can drag myself out. This can be difficult, but after decades of practice, I've created a sort of verbal tree limb I can grab in a pinch: Am I presently learning the truth about my life's work? If this sentence sounds a little vague, that's because it's actually a mnemonic code. Each phrase reminds me of a concept that helps me escape the marsh: being present, learning continuously, seeking truth, and committing my energy to my real life's work.


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