Can't We All Just "Buck Up"? The Lost Art of Feeling Sorry for Yourself
The Unspoken 11th Commandment
It seems as if feeling sorry for yourself in today's American hyper-positive culture is an art. It requires finesse to walk in a world where the unspoken 11th Commandment is "Thou Shalt Never, EVER, EVER, Feel Sorry for Thyself - EVER! (I’m assuming the unspoken commandment has the same rhetorical pattern as Taylor Swift's hit "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.")
Somehow it has become a sin in our society to be sad or confused or to answer the question "How are you?" with any adjective implying we might be less than "just great". Being among the group of those "sad-ists" in the more literal meaning of the term, it's my opinion that many people often feel sorry for themselves for one major reason - not enough people in their lives feel sorry FOR them or are able to empathize with their plight.
While no one wants to wallow in the muck of melancholy, a person can very well end up there by comments from those who encourage you to look on the bright side of every tragedy. An otherwise lovely human being, once asked a friend of mine after her husband left for her best friend, “What the heck are you crying for? No one died." Nothing in my friend’s life would ever be the same again. She lost a husband she loved, a friend she cared for, and would have to face a life of sharing time with her children with the two of adults who did great harm to her family. But no one died.
- Is it EVER ok to feel sorry for yourself?
- Which situation is harder to overcome, divorce or death?
- Which country emphasizes positive thinking the most?
TAKE THE POLL AT THE END OF THIS ARTICLE AND SEE WHAT OTHERS THINK
Addicted to Sympathy? Hardly
Behind the "no one died" response seems to be a belief system that speculates that some people are sympathy addicts. No one, I believe, actually craves sympathy. Surely even the toughest of the tough-love people must recognize that receiving an overabundance of sympathy is like being served a plate of Godiva chocolate at every single meal. You eventually start screaming, "NO MORE CHOCOLATE!" Perhaps those who are best at grasping the paradoxical effect of over-solicitousness are those who have had "chicken-soup-pusher" moms. You get a cold and it's all: "Here, Honey, I made some chicken soup for you. Let me rub your chest with Vick's. Do you want more Kleenex? Do you need another blanket? We better take your temperature. More soup?" Even if you're only seven years old, your sympathy-saturated self shouts, "ENOUGH already, Mom!" And out of the bed you jump - pneumonia or not.
It seems to me, however, that when NO one feels sorry for you, when NO one understands why, after six measly months following the foreclosure on your home, you might be a tad disheartened, you start to feel sorry for your very own situation-ally depressed self. Feeling sorry for yourself seems to be a way of balancing the scales of injustice on which you are righteously standing.
Perhaps "feeling sorry for yourself" is an incorrect term to use. We get sympathy and empathy confused all the time. Maybe we're not even capable of sympathy for ourselves since sympathy implies you feel for the other person, but don't specifically understand what he or she is feeling. Since most of us do understand quite well what we're feeling during times of loss (except a few males left over from the 50s) we might say we are actually experiencing empathy for ourselves - inner empathy if you will. You understand what you feel and recognize it's impact on you and the process it requires to work through those feelings. Inner empathy occurs when your intellectual self has empathy for your feeling self. And perhaps it's inner empathy that allows us the greatest capacity for empathy with others.
There is nothing wrong with positive thinking until we assume it makes us superior.
If you've ever noticed, the people who are most gentle with themselves are the most empathic toward others. It's the "I-worked-hard-for-everything-I-got" gang who seem the least inclined to be sympathetic. Perhaps if they inwardly hugged themselves for their tireless work instead of being resentful and falsely assuming they worked harder than any other, they might have a greater capacity for empathy, Recent studies, unfortunately, have shown that those who have come from nothing and make it to the top, somehow lose empathy along the way.
But surely there must be some grumpy negative people who've made it to the top and scoff a bit at positive thinking. Dr. E.L. Kersten of despair.com created a whole business around what he calls "DE-motivators" and publishes posters, calendars, mugs and shot glasses with quotes such as:"A journey of a thousand miles sometimes ends very, very badly." The website features drinking glasses with lines that show: "Your cup is now half empty," and my favorite, "Maybe the sole purpose of your existence is to serve as a warning to others." I think I could spend a few enjoyable, authentic hours with Dr. Kersten.
Pull Yourself Up by the Bootstraps
Even when a person experiences a tragedy that is significant, real, and of sizeable magnitude, friends and family often seem to have an invisible timer that goes off somewhere after a year or so. That timer signals the release of the phrase,“You have to get on with your life.” either in spoken word or through unspoken attitudes. We live in a "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" kind of society. If only we realized that the etymology of that phrase indicates that it's meaning, in fact, was the exact opposite of its modern day use. The phrase, it seems, was actually thought to have meant to show that it is impossible to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. The laws of physics don't allow it.
A May 11, 2011 post by a blogger on wordpress notes: "Interestingly, the expression itself wasn’t originally intended to describe something we should expect from anyone at all, ever. ..Indeed, many suggest that the phrase originated from the fantastical stories of the adventurer Baron von Munchausen (circa 1785) who had, among other fantastic feats such as riding on a cannonball, pulled himself–and his horse–up from a swamp by his bootstraps (or his hair, depending on the person telling the story). Searching through Google Books reveals that the expression held this meaning more or less consistently throughout much of the 1920s and even up to the 1950s." And then somehow maybe with advent of the "Mad Men" ad men or the Norman Vincent Peale's it became a phrase that suddenly was brought out of the fantasy world and into reality, similar to the recent "Once..." TV series and the enigmatically popular Vampire and Zombie movies. And here in the 21st century will the fantastical bootstrap concept stay with it's interpretation of imagined possibility until someone comes up with a more accurate cliche.
Positive Thinking and Purple Loosestrife
Don’t get me wrong. I can appreciate the effects of positive thinking. I was six years old when Norman Vincent Peale came out with his alliteratively titled book, “The Power of Positive Thinking.” My mother seemed to embrace those empowering concepts of “mind over matter," and Guidepost magazines were neatly piled on our blonde coffee table. "Nothing is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so" was my mother’s version of Hamlet’s quote and she laced my childhood with that mantra to comfort our little family when things were gloomy. But today's version of positive thinking feels like purple loosetrife gone wild in the wetlands of Minnesota. It's no longer mixed with the vibrant colors of truth in our gardens. When you ask a co-worker of friend how they are, do you hear any thing other than "I'm great" "The kids are doing well"? The very worst you'll hear is "Well, I'm trying to stay positive," or "I'm sure things will pick up soon." Those phrases are ubiquitous in American society.and they're choking out all authenticity and, I believe, a certain kind of intimacy. Surely someone's kids must be a little bit of a disappointment. Isn't anyone worried about how they're going to pay the rent? And why can't we discuss the bombings in war-torn countries or the plight of people in refugee camps when we get together with friends? It seems as if everyone is concerned about bringing each other down. Heaven forbid, we should call rain, rain. A June 11, 2001 article in Scientific American titled, "Can Positive Thinking be Negative?" notes that "Not all positive psychologists push cheerfulness at any cost—in a 1990 book Seligman warned that optimism 'may sometimes keep us from seeing reality with the necessary clarity.'”
"...Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking"
My mother always said of my lovely Aunt Marion, "Marion's philosophy is 'don't look at it, and it will go away.'" My sweet Aunt Marion lived to 94 years old, so it worked for her! However, my Aunt Marion never "promoted" or "evangelized" this positive belief system to others. She simply lived that way and we all observed her and followed her philosophy when appropriate. To evangelize one's positivity on another is disrespectful. The author Barbara Ehrenreich addressed this type of imposition in her recent book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. It's a brilliant system of social control. When bad things happen to people you say, "Well, it's really your attitude that has to change." Ehrenreich uses an example of the kind of motivation services that are offered to laid-off white-collar workers where the message is simply that your attitude will determine if you're going to get a job. While this may be true, the unspoken implication internalized by many is that the reason why they lost their job is because they didn't have the correct attitude.
How To Be A Gracious Persistenly Positive Person
Certainly don't give up your positive attitude towards life. You do trickle down to all of us. However, don't assume that you yourself have to buck up always; it blocks intimacy in relationships. We know that sometimes you're disappointed that your daughter didn't call or that you're worried about money. Don't think that sharing those feelings every once in a while will set off some karmic cataclysm of doom. It won't. It will make you more authentic to your friends and family.
Realize that your sunny cliches will fall on ears deafened by tragedy. Your friend or family member realizes that things always could be worse. "Look at it this way..." or "You have to get on with your life," are phrases that seldom help. And no, you don't really know what they are going through. Pain is very personal. Just being there to actively listen is the best gift you can give. "I can't imagine how that must feel," followed by an opening for the person to tell his or her story is much better than worn out "buck up" phrases.
Most importantly, never judge another's ability or inability to be positive. You can take great pride that you have overcome and are able to look at the bright side of any situation, but don't judge another's inability to do that at this moment of his or her life.
When my daughter was only 4 years old, she was in a little children's church choir. The director wrote a song in their little singing range and added the lyrics: I'm a very happy person You should be one, just like me!
It's the should that's disturbing in this little lyric. "I hope you're very happy too" would have been a much better lyric alternative. Even a silent or subtle judgment, an unspoken "should" on your part can be sensed and is hurtful, even damaging.
In the June 11, 2011 article in Scientific American titled, "Can Positive Thinking Be Negative," it's noted that...
"Even if more optimistic results about optimism eventually surface, a rosy outlook is unlikely to benefit everyone." Certain individuals,for example, "tend to fret a great deal about upcoming stressors such as job interviews or major exams, and they overestimate their likelihood of failure. Yet this worrying works for these individuals, because it allows them to be better prepared." Work by Wellesley College psychologist Julie Norem and her colleagues shows that "depriving defensive pessimists of their preferred coping style—for example, by forcing them to “cheer up”—leads them to perform worse on tasks. "
You don't have to understand a person's difficulty with being positive or why you seem to have slayed the dragon of negativity and they can't. You just have to "buck up" and accept that for some reason beyond your understanding, your style of coping doesn't fit for everyone.
How to Cope with the Persistently Positive
If you are among those who psychologist Julie Norem at Wellesley College found perform their worst on tasks when forced to "cheer up," the following tips may be of help.
1, Find Your Peeps
To wander amidst the persistently positive when you're part of the walking wounded is good thing. It's like getting out in the sunshine after being in a hospital bed for weeks. You feel better; you'll look better; your mental health is improved. However, if you feel inauthentic and lonely with friends who feel are uncomfortable if you tell them when you're down, you really need to seek out supplementary peeps at this point of your life - your brothers and sisters who have experienced pain similar to yours. These people can be strangers actually, but the fact that they're going through what you're going through will create the bond of intimacy that you need, if only temporarily.
Many church groups serving Divorced, Separated, and Widowed individuals have a structure that illustrates the unique needs that should be addressed at various stages of loss. St. Timothy Catholic Church in Blaine, MN, for example, divides their DSW support groups into those whose experience is very recent and those who are out of the initial phases of grieving. There is a Comfort Groups for Divorced and Separated Individuals and separate Comfort Groups for those recently widowed. The wisdom in that delineation is the understanding that while both groups are under going loss, a loss through death of a spouse is very different than loss of a spouse through divorce - thus the type of grieving is different. The parish also recognizes that handling grief progresses in phases. They therefore call their support groups for those who feel they are out of the "raw" emotion first phase of loss Personal Growth groups. It's important to find a group of individuals with whom you can freely express yourself.
2. Walk and chew gum
If you can walk and chew gum you can walk among your dear friends who have been "positivized" at the same time you hang out with the peeps who understand you. It's like the old Girl Scout song - make new friends, but keep the old. Like-minded friends who you find on your own or in a support group may last only as long as the pain you're experiencing endures. But it's ok if your friendship is temporary. Everyone knows that sometimes we just need friends that meet the needs of the moment. If you actually have mutual compatibility outside of this time of your life, they will stay as life-long friends. If not, you can be grateful they were there for you on your journey.
3. Know Your Audience Let' face it, you can't get apricots from a pear tree. You might try to get a little sympathy or empathy from your "get-on-with-your-life" friends, but you'll walk away frustrated and disappointed. Pears are good for you and the juice helps with gall bladder pain (seriously it does) so enjoy your friends who offer the pears of positivity, talk pear-talk with them and don't be disappointed that they have no apricots to offer you.
4. Set Your Inner Timer
While this essay advocates self-empathy, it's important to point out Plato's means between extremes. The art of "feeling sorry" for yourself or of possessing "inner empathy" requires a judicious sprinkling of your negative emotions. Remember it's only a dash of bitters that are added to a martini. It's your party and you can cry if you want too but limit your time with the waltz of negativity and start trying to learn a few jive steps.
5. Laugh at Your Yourself
I'm the kind of person who becomes irritated when friends imply that I should embrace contentment or look at all the positives in my life as they do. They assume, because I express my worries, that I don't look at the positives in my life. I know that's a very wrong assumption on their part, but I think if I "came out" as the walking wounded cynic that I am, it would go a long way to lessening my irritation and their critique of my style. I call myself "The Cynic Critic" on a blog that's more analytical than cynical, but sometimes when we exaggerate the flaws others see in us, it minimizes those flaws in others' eyes Josh Blue, former winner of last comic standing, is a perfect example of laughing at his own condition which actually makes it a non-condition. Those of us who analyze the world a little differently than others, either in general, or during a specific situational time in our lives, might make our journey a bit easier by laughing at ourselves.
6. Be a Little Bit Country and a Little Bit Rock and Roll
Be sure to lace your John Denver with your Pink. In his song "Sorry" Denver plays with the concept of sorry as apologizing and sorry as sympathy. He mixes the concepts of being sorry for the way things are in China (our realization that there actually are troubles greater than ours) being sorry for his actions and omissions, and ends with the painfully honest line: "More than anything else, I'm sorry for myself..." It's a true expression of my favorite word - authenticity.
But research has indicated that listening to sad country songs can actually heighten our depression, so be sure to mix up your John Denver and Lonestar with a little Pink.
It Doesn't Hurt to be a Little "Pink" and 'Try,Try, Try'
7. Take Your Inner Empathy on the Road
The gift that those who are able to feel sorry for themselves give to the world is sensitivity. If you are sensitive enough to know your own pain, you're also sensitive to the pain of others and thus have a unique gift of being able to help. It doesn't really matter which venue you choose - the world, your neighborhood, your family. Everyone will benefit from your insight. Your motive, however, should be purer than the modern paradigm promulgated by so many churches. That philosophy to be very reward-based: "Good will come back to you." "What goes around comes around." "You'll feel better about yourself if you give to others." It's a modern day something-for-something approach that has a selfish ring to it.
If you're a sensitive individual, reach out to the world, take to the open road (so to speak) solely because you have been given the gift of understanding pain in yourself and thus can understand pain in another. Be gentle with yourself and gentle with those you know need you. Never assume they can pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Understand that each one of us would if we could. Throw the word "judgment" out of your vocabulary. Assume the best in others, and use your gift of sensitivity generously.
Maybe We Don't ALL Need to Buck Up 24-7
So if, like the individuals in the Weseley College study, you tend to fret a great deal about the stressors in your life and find that your worrying makes you better prepared for tasks, then go with the coping mechanism that works for you. Realize that you value authenticity. Know that there are those who understand that the deeper the scar, the longer the healing, and that only you know how deep that scar may be. Be gentle with yourself and in a Kipling "If" sort of way, just "walk with crowds and keep your virtue," in this case your ability at inner empathy. Most importantly, let that ability extend outward from you in a radiant way, for it is our capacity for empathy that can change the world.