Most people don’t realize that their self-pity and victim-hood are a problem that keeps them locked in-to the ordinary life of periodic complaint, anger, resentment, and irritation. Feeling justified in their self-pity, they claim that they are simply being “human.”
But when we feel sorry for ourselves, we can’t love anybody or anything.
With this poignant series of e-mailed self-reports over a period of months from my friend, Fran, we see how we are unable to love at times, even though our own values require it of us. This is the best story I’ve ever heard that teaches us how difficult it is to erase our self-pity. In this example, Fran seems to know that her self-pity is a problem, but she is unable to transcend it.
Fran’s need to have access to her love of her husband at all times is clear when a cancerous tumor was discovered between the cortices of his brain. Their lives were suddenly transformed.
Fran has considerable self-awareness. She respects poise as the goal, and she notices how it is disrupted when she feels sorry for herself. She understands how she moves in and out of access to her love when she fails to remain poised.
Fran’s poignant report illustrates how difficult it is to understand and suppress self-pity.
A few days after the initial diagnosis, Fran reported her struggle to stay poised in this email:
So much has happened since then. Rich is doing fine, but he’s very tired at the end of the day and goes to bed at 8:00. I’m doing better but the least thought of what he’s going through, and my composure is gone. He spoke to me today about my distraction and lack of focus. He’s right. We almost had an accident while I was driving right on our street. A driver in a big truck turned abruptly in front of me to enter his driveway. I slammed on the brakes, and we didn’t collide but it was too close. I think he never saw us.
Thank heaven I was quick enough to react, but Rich is right. I’m distracted, almost dreamy, have a hard time getting anything done and cry very easily. After his little talk, I realized I lapse into a helpless feminine act too often. I vent my sadness. I wonder how much of it is a childish stab at “see me,” a frightened woman looking, of all places, to Rich for comfort. So, that’s the first lesson. His load is much greater than mine.
The message is to stay in the day we have right now, which is very satisfactory. Troubles will come later, but they aren’t here now. So that’s the mode. Settle down, drive safely, get necessary jobs done. There’s no margin for error these days.
Fran is battling hard to sustain her usual poise, but she cannot stay present, her worries pulling her out of the moment, “distracted, almost dreamy.” She realizes that her connection to Rich is partly a need of support from him, knowing that a more poised response would be focused on his needs rather than her own. She tries to maintain gratitude, arguing with herself, “The message is to stay in the day we have right now, which is very satisfactory.” But instead of gratitude, at times she feels sadness and fear.
She has not been effective but wants to bring a creative response to the situation, rallying herself to settle down and do what is necessary in an efficient way that recognizes that “there is no margin for error these days.”
Finally, Fran has been unable to maintain her usual lightheartedness in the face of this crisis. Lighthearted, she could bring a steady love to her husband, capturing every precious moment with him, boosting his spirits with her lightness. Instead, her own suffering interferes with the focus, support and caring she wants to provide to her husband.
Fran reports in the next e-mail that Rich’s surgery to remove the brain tumor has been scheduled:
I’m really living a miracle right now. I’ve been terribly tense, jumping at Rich’s every call, which isn’t often but enough to induce strain — though it was more my attitude. I was operating on pure emotion, crying at the drop of a pin. The most dangerous words for me were “How are you?”
Then, about a week ago, Rich woke me about 3 in the morning to say he’d been aware of my strain, which was showing in forgetfulness and lack of focus. He assured me things were all right, and he didn’t want me hurt by all of this. I was so grateful and woke up normal. I’m now able to share his robust humor on this topic. It’s all a bluff, of course, but it’s o.k. It’s a fine way to live right now so I’m quite back to normal, and he’s doing very well.
BUT the main thing for me, and I feel it in my bones, is how I’m surrounded by the love of friends. I feel it like a survivor of a flood feels the rubber raft that comes floating by. You (friends) sustain me. It’s palpable. I can almost touch it. It’s life changing. Thank you thank you thank you.
Fran has not been able to regain much poise even with the passage of days since death appeared on the scene. The elements of poise are there some of the time, but she darts from living in a miracle to tension and strain. She understands that battles are going on within herself, but her creativity is dormant, and she must be rescued by her very ill husband to recover normalcy.
She is grateful for support, using the raft metaphor to let her friends know how much she still needs their rescue, as well as her husband’s. Not poised, she cannot keep her husband in the center of concern but can only see herself in the middle of this drama, “surrounded by the love of friends.” Assured by her husband that “things were all right,” she deftly places her own emotional needs center stage, and she remains the grateful victim, surrounded by her nurturing audience.
Following radiation treatment to remove Rich’s tumor, but with his future still in doubt, Fran is aware of her uncharacteristic loss of balance and attempts to gain perspective. She reports her inability to sustain poise with great insight and candor:
I have a goal — to walk the path I’ve been given with courage, truth, grace and humor. Having this challenge and having decided how to get through it has made things ever so much easier — but they’re easy right now anyway because Rich is feeling good, he’s highly productive, writing poetry and letters, calling people, setting to the task of saying things he’s never said, settling some accounts, explaining some situations, even very old ones. It gives him an edge. He has a look on his face that indicates he’s going to spring a little surprise. He’s resolutely staying in charge of himself.
My part is to clear the way so he can do all this: help him buy stamps, help him get his special stationery designed, take him to pick it up and so forth. This doesn’t use much of my time even though it sounds like it might. I can’t stay in a selfless manner of servitude very long. Actually it isn’t necessary for very long, but I find I need to get away sometimes, hole up with a book, get out of the house and see someone else for coffee. These moments are accompanied by irritability. Little things nag at me. I use my control so probably no one would guess the present moment has irritated me.
This state of mind is outside poise. I am keenly aware of the condition of the moment. It’s like going from stepping-stone to stepping-stone, each one of them being a moment of immediate awareness. I keenly sense these moments but I’m not in charge of them at all. I’m responding to them like a leaf in the wind, so far hanging on just fine.
The thread through all of this is that Rich is getting born into a man he never knew existed, and I’m a witness of the process, sometimes doing what I can to enable it. It’s a rarified, magical time. Sometimes I’m tuned in. Sometimes I’m bored with it. Sometimes I’m titillated and thrilled. Sometimes I really need a break. Sometimes I’m really pissed, but the bottom line is always that my behavior, or how I’d like to behave, must not curtail Rich’s moments of birth. I’m comfortable with that, even when pissed. Maybe what I’m saying is I feel like a leaf in the wind, but it is part of a very strong tree, and maybe at the heart of things, that’s poise.
Yes, there is some poise there, but there also was the potential to be with Rich in a way that had no neediness attached. Had Fran been able to sustain poise, her love would not have been constantly interrupted by elements of internal drama — irritation, dreaminess, fears.
These thoughts and behaviors are born from self-pity. Each time she wrestles unsuccessfully with her conflicted emotions regarding Rich and his imminent death, she moves out of the moment and takes her love with her.
Soon after, Rich died in Fran’s arms. Two weeks after his death, Fran writes about reading a pamphlet on grieving. She reports that she is feeling most of the grieving symptoms, but her love is flowing, nevertheless:
The pamphlet refers to The Loved One. I think about Rich almost all the time.
There are pictures of him in strategic places, right here at the computer and by the sink in the bathroom. His shirts hang in the closet. I bury my face in them and then go to bed. It’s a way of saying good night.
Nevertheless, her ambivalence about her husband continues.
A friend close enough to notice said once, “I’ll bet Rich isn’t easy to be married to.” I mentioned this to another friend later, and she snorted, “Is any man?” Well, good question.
This excerpt of an e-mail illustrates clearly how it is not other people or life challenges that trigger our lost poise. It is always our self-pity raging away in our mind that insists on poisoning the precious now with long-past victim stories. After Rich’s death, with two helpers, Fran peers into their old barn full of Rich’s machinery and junk for the first time in years.
The thing that sent me over the edge was my 1959 Jaguar, a sleek little white sedan I bought for $2,000 about 35 years ago. I’ve driven it perhaps two weeks in all the time I’ve owned it. British-made Jaguars of that era don’t do well in Southern California. They need a complete overhaul to function here. Rich was always going to get to it. For years I believed him.
Also, for years I forgot I owned a Jaguar sedan. I forgot right to the minute when I led Don and Jack to the garage, and there was my Jag, dark gray with dust, buried behind a stack of tires. My soul gasped, “Oh migawd!” I looked inside. The interior stunk of rats. Chewed pieces of the roof lining lay on the seats.
My heart broke, and I was furious with Rich. He’s been gone 14 days, and I am furious with him. So much for grieving about my Loved One.
Fran resurrects her dead husband, at least briefly, and loses her poise once again. Even though she had forgotten the car, she is incensed that Rich had failed her once again. Self-pity fired up, she invents another victim story to explain her distraught feelings and to re-ignite her case that Rich had been difficult to live with.
Deeply conflicted between love and fury I went to bed. In the morning I felt better. Every part of me wanted to love Rich. I realized we’d just had a fight. I’d made up. I buried my face in his shirts. I have his belt in a roll by his picture at the sink. I touched it remembering how it wrapped around his waist.
I let go of the Jaguar, as I have in the past, making the conscious decision that loving Rich was more important, but I also went to see a counselor who has been invaluable off and on for a while. In her office, I got a better picture of what loving is. It’s a commitment to the whole person.
There were parts of Rich that made me uncomfortable. If I could have picked and chosen I’d have taken his voice, his intelligence, his passion for me, his sense of humor, his love of music, his appreciation for the authentic and the real, his reliable grasp of the larger issues, his moral courage, his attention to and love of our home and my art, and discarded his lack of focus on the goals I wanted for him, his procrastination, the dirt picked up around old cars, and his gruffness when he was irritated.
… I saw that in our 38 years together, there was no doubt we loved each other. His love of me was open and uncomplicated. My love for him was stormy because that is the way I am. I want certain things and get mad if I don’t get them, but under all my storminess was the certainty that I’d return to loving Rich when my storm blew over.
Trying to summarize their relationship, Fran rationalizes her anger and self-pity in the marriage. “My love for him was stormy because that’s the way I am.” What was stormy were the times, still occurring now even after there is no husband to be stormy about, when Fran was angry, feeling sorry for herself and losing her poise. She puts a shine on her behavior by calling it stormy and suggesting that this is part of a passionate personality.
She is convinced that the issues of the marriage were caused by Rich’s difficult personality, habits and behavior. Instead of taking full responsibility for the marriage she created for herself, she justifies her lack of poise by speaking through her friend: “I’ll bet Rich isn’t easy to be married to.” She does not assume that her “storminess” caused any problems in the marriage, since she virtuously returns to loving her husband after each storm.
All of the responsibility for marital problems is given to Rich, the projection that marks every victim story. But it’s a bad explanation, presented with brilliant seductiveness. Well, most people might say, what a nice woman. She had a difficult man to live with, but she loved him much of the time. When she wasn’t angry at him.
Fran is, indeed, a good woman, but a better explanation of her marriage might contrast Rich’s open and uncomplicated love for his wife with Fran’s love, which is complicated, ambivalent and interrupted by patches of self-pity, victimhood, anger and irritation.
Like most people, Fran wants to pick and choose what warrants her love and what doesn’t. She was able to love when Rich’s qualities aligned with her own needs and predilections, but not able when she didn’t get what she wanted. After his death, she begins to see that love embraces the entire person.
There is plenty of love here. Love flames much of the time, then flickers and goes out, smothered by self-pity and victim explanations. But Fran always re-ignites her love. She has an extraordinary capacity for self-revelation. She has an eagle eye for her own melodrama, and she has the courage to look deeply at what she sees. She is close to a breakthrough in poise that would allow her to move self-pity into the background and take full responsibility for the life she is creating. Until then, without full access to her love, she will suffer with her storminess.
Many would argue that Fran’s marriage is about as good as we can do. This is the human argument when we stop short of our potential. This argument is not true.
Our full potential can be achieved when we erase our self-pity and move more fully into the poised life.
Note: this story is included in my book, Poise: A Warrior’s Guide.