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Self Pity, And The Benefits Thereof

 

We say that someone is “indulging” in self-pity, as if self-pity is as luxurious as a spa day, or a bowl of ice cream, which it just isn’t. People get stuck in self-pity the way you get stuck in a bear trap. It’s not fun. And it’s not a choice. Something in the brain mechanism gets clogged, and a stage that is supposed to be transitory and enlightening, bogs down.

My sense, with most people, is that the degree of stuckedness is directly related to the amount of noise in their head telling them that they are not allowed to feel self-pity. It’s the conflict between the pain, and the resistance to feeling and expressing the pain, that gets us stuck. If you give yourself permission to acknowledge the hurt you feel, then you can begin to take good care of yourself, and place the blame where it belongs, and unravel the knots, and learn the hidden lessons in the experience, and get to a new place.

Dogs don’t judge themselves this way. They don’t beat themselves up for feeling what they feel. I think that’s a big part of why we love them, because they make us think it might be okay to have emotions and show them openly. Even when they emote vociferously, dogs actually move through an emotion more quickly than we do. They get over things much faster, because they don’t put it on a shelf for later, they feel it, and process it in the moment, and then they are done and move on to the next thing. Usually food.

Cricket is not shy about expressing herself.

Cricket is not shy about expressing herself.

Especially when she's grumpy.

Especially when she’s grumpy.

The benefit of dogs over children as teachers of this skill is that dogs don’t learn hopelessness as quickly as children do. They don’t take the hint. They keep barking. They keep licking themselves. They keep peeing on the carpet if we forget to take them outside. Children learn what we want from them too quickly. They see our disapproval and they adapt. The worst thing you can ever see is a baby who has learned not to cry. It’s not a sign that she is a “good baby” it’s a sign that she is shutting down.

Children automatically cry and scream and act out when they are in pain – physically or emotionally – and this alerts the adults around them that help is needed. This is how it is supposed to be. It is only when the adults in charge tell you to shut up that you learn not to send out the alarm.

As adults, we do our best to make our emotions manageable, often by cutting them off and shutting them away, and when someone else dares to emote in front of us, we get mad. Impatient. Enraged. How dare you make me feel that?!

When Cricket is mad, she barks, or grumps under the couch. When Butterfly is lonely, she pines. And they don’t feel bad about it. They don’t snap out of it just because I tell them to be happy. They get there when they are good and ready, or when it’s time for a W-A-L-K.

Butterfly lets me know when she's lonely.

Butterfly lets me know when she’s lonely.

And lets Cricket know too.

And lets Cricket know too.

The especially nice thing about my dogs is that when I am all wrapped up in self-pity, they don’t yell at me to stop, or try to distract me, they come over to snuggle next to me and give me kisses. They know that feeling sad is part of life, and that, at some point, the sadness will pass. And when that happens, they will be perfectly situated to remind me about that W-A-L-K.

They're waiting.

They’re waiting.

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About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

95 responses »

  1. This is a brilliant analysis of a very strong human emotion. Beautifully written. Though they do remember things, dogs live in the moment, don’t they

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  2. The portion about babies learning not to cry was a direct punch to my feels, at least. Excellent post.

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  3. ramblingsofaperforatedmind

    Excellent point about babies that learn not to cry. They have already figured out that the adults won’t heed their needs, and this leads to RAD kids.

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  4. Dogs can be so unsophisticated and uncomplicated. Talk to them, feed them, pet them, give them attention. That’s it.

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  5. Dogs are the ultimate best friend. I don’t know how I lived so long without Bell and have no idea what I’ll do when she’s gone. Dogs are truly gifts.

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  6. The dogs also set a good example that a walk and some treats make everything better!

    Nancy

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  7. Another excellent post, Rachel. You’re so spot-on about self-pity and the way in which dogs process emotions. I really enjoyed reading this, thanks. 🙂

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  8. Reminded me of DH Lawrence:
    I never saw a wild thing
    sorry for itself.
    A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
    without ever having felt sorry for itself.

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  9. Precious thoughts! Dogs are extremely good in sensing how we feel. And they don’t rush us, just offer empathy, endless empathy.

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  10. I have BIG problems but don’t feel sorry for myself. I’m just gonna worry about my peeps’ future.

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  11. My Daisy was there with the love whenever I needed it. I love my cats but they are so different than dogs. Sometime I think Parker looks at me as if to say, “Hey! You got me–what’s the problem?!” Great post, Rachel.

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  12. Thank you for this post today. I’ve been struggling with financial and health worries for my oldest dog who is steadily fading and having someone basically tell me it’s okay to grieve and feel the pain helps a lot.

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  13. So often I find myself saying ‘Yes’ to your penetrating insights. And your ability to bounce them off your equally penetrating observations into the life of your beloved companions is fabulous. And (as someone who grades papers for a living) your graceful writing style is a delight to behold! I am always eager to read your next post, thanks for sharing.

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  14. ramblingsofaperforatedmind

    Rachel, you should check this site out. It helps bloggers. (Totally unrelated to the discussion, of course!) I am officially inviting you…..
    internationalbloggersassociation.com/certification

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  15. Exactly right! Thanks and peace, John

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  16. Another one of your posts that speak volumes…both my girls with those Hires Root Beer eyes look at me like, uh, Mom…sharing with me? Come on, I know you want to…and they wait so patiently…lol

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  17. Oh Rachel! This post was exactly what I needed to read today … Serenditpity indeed! I am saving this one as a favourite, to be read again and again … you and your little furry family are very wise indeed, and I thank you for your insights 😘.

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  18. While I love your elegant turns of phrase, Rachel, I’m not sure I agree with you this time. Although I stand up for animal rights, I am not a dog owner and therefore may be lacking in understanding. It seems to me, however, that dogs (who, let’s face it, are basically helpless without people) do shut down if their needs are regularly ignored and people do not respond to them. That goes double if they are physically abused. I think that’s why we have so many messed-up dogs in our shelters. Here in California, I constantly see dogs running loose, nearly getting run over, fending for themselves. A loved and cared-for dog knows that it need not resort to self-pity. I wonder about the others, though. I am willing to bet that dogs who must scrap about for survival engage in some canine equivalent of feeling sorry for themselves.

    As far as people go, it would be a far different (and likely better) world if all of us had “permission” to emote and express our needs in the way that babies do. I don’t think that the emotional damage done to babies who are taught not to cry is any different in adults who are taught not to cry. However, rules need to be the same for everyone. So as long as I am not permitted to scream my head off when I’ve had enough, I think I have the right to complain when someone else does so.

    I guess we are just on different planes on this one.

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    • Uncle guacamole, I would argue that stray dogs wouldn’t feel self pity because they are too busy trying to survive. But even if they did, I think Rachel’s point was referring to the average pet dog, saying that rather than being a species trait, that the average pet dog has no need for self pity because it can express its other emotions, and that if we cared for ourselves and others the way we care for our dogs (the happy loved ones, not the abused ones) we would not resort to self pity either. That’s how I viewed what Rachel has written anyway. Though obviously I don’t know what she intended. As far as people having ‘permission’ to express emotions, I don’t think there would be anyone screaming in frustrating, because we would be able to express minor frustrations before it built up to scream worthy proportions.
      Rachel, this is really interesting and thought inducing, and I love the photos. What you said about them coming to cuddle when you feel self pity, I know exactly the situation. My dog has cuddled me through mental and physical illness and I don’t think he’s ever doubted that his love is the cure for everything.

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    • We’ll agree to disagree on this. I’m sure we’ll survive it.

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    • Uncle – I think you’ve missed the point here and I don’t agree that dogs are helpless without people. They are certainly better off WITH people and people in most cases are better off with dogs. Not having a dog yourself it may be hard for you to directly relate to this.

      Yes, dogs eventually will shut down if basic needs are not met for an extended period of time. But as Rachel points out it will take them longer than a child to shut down – because it takes a dog so much longer to become helpless and despondent than humans. Dogs are so much more resilient than humans and that is a great lesson we can learn from them: to “get over it” and move on. I have a rescue and I have seen many rescues before and after “rehab” – it doesn’t take them long to let go of the bad and accept the good.

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  19. You did a phenomenal job of talking about such a strong emotion as self-pity. We could learn a lot from our dogs as a society. Often they remind me of what’s important. Especially when they want to go for a W-A-L-K. Is there a “love it” button because “like” isn’t enough.

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  20. As always a good post. To me, dogs are better therapy than any pill or potion, nor do they give you false platitudes. They just love us as we are.

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  21. that is for sure High Paw! We could teach the pawless a lot about love and life

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  22. It’s lucky we dogs are so good at letting things go, in a world where so many of us get mistreated. Excellent post! Millie and Pearl xx

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  23. as always, very well written. you give a lot of detail and specific examples but also move things along so nothing feels preachy. so happy you have Butterfly and Cricket to keep you company and inspire you.

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  24. Thoughtful post – and I loved the photos of the dogs! How can you go wrong with a post that features such cute photos of dogs? You can’t!

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  25. Wow–what would life be like if people were as non-judgmental of themselves as dogs are? Great thinking post, Rachel!!!

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  26. Really enjoyed this post. Great perspectives on both sides of the leash…

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  27. Well said. It is not easy to give to others what we refuse to give to Self. In my world, there is nothing quite as comforting as to have a friend sit with me when I cry and not try to get me out of my grief. Being present to Self and others is a beautiful thing.
    I so love the way you wrap your stories around your furry children. ❤

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  28. Very well written analysis 🙂

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  29. I look forward to your posts Rachel! My heart goes out to the abused dogs, the unloved and the hungry ones…

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  30. Enjoyed your post Rachel. Not only can you see you put a lot of thought into your writing. You also give the reader something to ponder.

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  31. Suppressing emotions can lead to big problems. A profound post!

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  32. “They get over things much faster, because they don’t put it on a shelf for later, they feel it, and process it in the moment, and then they are done and move on to the next thing. Usually food.” Good advice. I’ve got the food part down, now if I could just….. 😉

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  33. Beautiful post, really enjoyed reading it. I miss my dog. She does exactly what yours do and sits beside me when I am upset or sad or goes and gets a toy to engage me in play. Aren’t they fabulous!

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  34. When I’m in my depressive state, Jack doesn’t know he is helping me with his cuteness, but he does. Our German Shepard Rex he was in tune with me and he knew when I needed his big solid body right next to me to give me comfort. We are so lucky to have our best friends with us.

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  35. Tweeted this and two more of your wonderful posts 🙂

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  36. What a touching stream of warm and genuine feelings dear friend ! And,as for the dogs,they have so much to teach us;love them for forgetting easily and for never resenting …
    All the best to you and the sweet girls 🙂

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  37. Your dogs are very wise…as are you. hugs…

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  38. If the world just lived by dog wisdom we would all be better off. 🙂

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  39. Thought you might enjoy this story if you’re not already familiar with it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vlNGvO2XEkQ The Dog is now a permanent fixture at the Hospital. 🙂

    Reply

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