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Self-Pity vs. Self-Empathy

You know it's important to be kind to yourself.  As a general statement you can get on board with this.  But when it comes to the details, you might get confused about what's self-pity and what's self-empathy.  

Sometimes this confusion is triggered by an inner critic.  Your inner critic might attempt to keep you focused on caring for others by telling you that you're selfish, self-indulgent, or having a pity party.  

Other times confusion comes up when you perceive criticism from others or hear someone's expectations and lose connection to your choice.  

Sometimes you might find yourself slipping back and forth between self-pity and self-empathy.

Regardless of where the confusion comes from, staying grounded in some basic distinctions can help you navigate towards true self-empathy.

Let's start with a definition and description of self-pity.  Self-pity is a reactive state, that is, not something you choose, but rather something that pulls your attention toward your own pain, sorrow, and difficulty with no particular purpose or intention.  

A reactive state is a sort of trance in which you lose access to mindfulness, a broad perspective, an ability to distinguish observations from interpretations, and a sense of agency.  Acute reactive states also include a sort of limbic stuckness.  This usually means there is a flood of emotions or complete emotional shut-down.

In self-empathy, your attention might also be on your own pain, sorrow, and difficulty, but in an entirely different way.  Self-empathy is distinguishable from self-pity in the following ways:

  • In self-empathy, you begin by anchoring* in a grounded and expansive perspective.

  • In self-empathy, you choose to give mindful attention to your difficulties.

  • In self-empathy, the choice to focus on your difficulties is accompanied by a clear intention and purpose.  For example, to gain clarity, to heal, to find wise action, to find freedom from old habits, to experience relief, to be more available for others, etc.

  • In self-empathy, you end each session of self-empathy with some new action or commitment to action, regardless of how simple or small that action is.

Perhaps the most obvious way to discern the difference between self-pity and self-empathy is in the result.  When you have engaged in self-pity, you feel worse as a result.  Feeling worse you likely turn towards addictions or distractions (screens, busywork, etc.) for relief.  

When you have engaged in self-empathy, you feel better as a result.  Feeling better you likely turn towards the new needs alive for you in the moment.  You are free to engage life in an authentic way that aligns with your values.


Take a moment now to reflect on a time in which you were unsure whether you were in self-pity or self-empathy.  Use the bullet points above to help you discern what was happening for you.


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1 Response

  1. Aug 07, 2017

    Thanks for this distinction. I feel encouraged at the clarity emerging for me and look forward to learn how to better anchor in an expansive and grounded perspective.

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