“Do you see how being stuck in your own little world makes you do reckless things?”
“Maybe if you just stopped feeling bad for yourself, you could accomplish something.”
“Call me when you’re done having a pity party.”
A friend was talking to me the other day about how when he was a teenager, he was sexually abused. He described the months after as an intense depression where he pushed his friends and family away, unable to deal with the memory of what happened. He finished the story by saying he was probably just stuck in his own “pity party.”
To which yours truly began a long, impromptu, unrequested “Ted Talk” about the phrase “pity party” and why it’s shit. Here’s what I think of pity parties, why you should have them every once in a while and what I do when people give me shitty advice.
First off, when someone is instructing you to not have a pity party, let’s be real about what they’re saying:
“Your sadness isn’t manageable for me.”
“I feel like you’re not even trying anymore.”
“I can’t help you if you don’t help yourself.”
The intent is usually to try to shock someone into changing by saying something hurtful intended as “tough love.” It feels like the equivalent of a mother at her wit’s end lashing out at her hyperactive child — a last ditch attempt to control a situation you feel frustrated by. More often than not though, it’s pressure being applied to someone who is already overwhelmed.
The truth is though, there are some people who are so self-involved and self-indulgent that they only complain and wait for “Mr. White Knight” to come save them. The problem, I would argue, is that many people aren’t having a pity party — they’re having a “shame spiral.”
What many might perceive as a “pity party” is often someone who has lost all hope in something better. It might be someone who feels so much pressure and despair, they feel as though every action they make is doomed to fail.
There’s usually very little pity in this “pity party,” but more often self-criticism and harsh judgment of one’s own worth. In other words, the opposite of pity and compassion, cruelty and indifference. These are people who don’t feel bad for themselves, they feel bad about themselves. And pointing out that they are not fulfilling their duties or responsibilities because of their sadness is like telling someone in a tornado the weather doesn’t look too good today.
How can you tell though, if someone is really drowning or pretending? The truth is, you’ll never know unless you ask and even then, you might still be unaware of the exact state of the other person’s struggle.
A great empathic tool is illustrated by author Brene Brown when she suggests using the phrase, “the story I’m making up.” It’s a way of explaining what you are thinking without applying blame to the other person. If you want to know how someone feels, ask them what their thought process is and really get to know the story in their head.
My personal belief is a positive pity party can actually be healing. My therapist once told me when you are the one stuck in a “shame spiral,” it can actually be beneficial to have an intentional pity party. Buy ice cream, watch a funny movie and write shitty poetry. Feel bad for yourself and what you’re going through and allow yourself to feel what you need to feel. Once you have had some time, you can begin to create some goals and timelines.
Just like a real party, there needs to be an ending. Give yourself the evening to go through and absorb what’s happening and later make a plan to tackle those problems. Be kind and understanding to yourself when you feel bad and push when it’s time to get up.
When someone tells you to stop having a pity party, remember they are not feeling what you are feeling and their “advice” might be a demonstration of their discomfort and awkwardness of not knowing how to help you. If you are stuck in out of control feelings, ask for help from those who don’t belittle your feelings or use judgment as a motivator. Find those who are empathic and strong enough to deal with your feelings, and ideally someone who has experience or is qualified to help those in despair.
This might sound obvious, but I’m sure there are people out there who need to hear it as I did. Just because someone gives you advice doesn’t mean you need to take it. I’ll say it louder for those in the back: Just because someone gives you advice doesn’t mean you need to take it.
Really think about who gave the advice and why. And ultimately, is the advice beneficial or destructive? And if you discover it’s not beneficial for you, you can kindly tell that advice to go to hell. It’s hard enough applying the good advice so why waste time applying the bad kind?
Retire the phrase “pity party” as an army boot camp style motivational tool and instead, feel OK about feeling bad. Guilting people into feeling better by using shame won’t motivate those who are already down. All it accomplishes is isolating those who already feel misunderstood.
And if you need a positive pity party, have one intentionally. Cry about that guy. Belt out that sad song in the car. Write that shitty poetry. And fuck anyone who tells you otherwise. You should have a pity party.
A version of this story was originally published on Broke Bi Borderline Boy.