Friday 24 November 2017

The perils of pity

There's a big difference between pity and compassion

Actor Michael J. Fox lives with Parkinson's disease
Actor Michael J. Fox lives with Parkinson's disease
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

I recently rediscovered a book by one of my favourite self-development authors, the late Florence Scovel Shinn.

Shinn, who died almost 80 years ago, was one of the pioneers of the self-development movement, and her work has stood the test of time.

Anyway, while leafing through The Power of the Spoken Word, which was published posthumously in 1945, I came across a story that the author tells about a mother who was worried about her daughter's marriage prospects.

"I know a woman whose daughter's desire was a home and husband," she writes. "In her early youth she had a broken engagement. Whenever a possible marriage appeared on the horizon, she became frantic with fear and apprehension, picturing vividly another disappointment, and she had several."

The mother came to Shinn to ask for her advice and the author immediately noticed the language she used to explain her daughter's predicament. "During the interview the mother said continually: 'Poor Nellie! Poor Nellie!' I said: 'Do not call your daughter 'poor Nellie' again. You are helping her to be demagnetised. Call her 'lucky Nellie', 'fortunate Nellie'."

While some people immediately glaze over when they come across words like 'magnetise' and 'manifest', there is a lesson here for everyone, irrespective of spiritual beliefs: When we pity people, we reinforce the very circumstances from which they are trying to escape.

Sure, everyone likes to be called a "poor thing" when they encounter adversity, just as we all enjoy a little bit of extra attention when we receive bad news, but there is a big difference between commiserating and victimising. The former acknowledges misfortune; the latter entrenches it.

The actor Michael J Fox, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, once opined that "pity is a benign form of abuse". His comments inspired dozens of think pieces and, while not everyone agreed with him, he certainly provided food for thought.

We may feel like we are being compassionate when we express pity but actually they are two very different things. Compassion is involved; pity is detached. Compassion says 'same as'; pity says 'lesser than'. Compassion acknowledges the universality of human suffering; pity fears it.

The late Stefan Zweig explains it beautifully in Beware of Pity: "There are two kinds of pity," he writes. "One, the weak and sentimental kind, which is really no more than the heart's impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another's unhappiness, that pity which is not compassion, but only an instinctive desire to fortify one's own soul against the sufferings of another.

"And the other, the only one that counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond."

Pity isn't just a benign form of abuse; it's a sign of resignation, too. The forced, tight-lipped smile of pity is another way of saying, 'I'm washing my hands of this situation'. The weary sigh of pity is another way of saying, 'You're on your own with this one'.

Sure, expressing pity might make you feel kind-hearted but how does the person being pitied feel? You can't support a person with sympathy or empower them by constantly asking if they're okay. Ultimately, pity is another way of telling someone that they are defeated by their circumstances.

There is also evidence to suggest that it is detrimental. The Pygmalion effect is a phenomenon whereby high expectations lead to better results. In contrast, the Golem effect, as it is known, has found that low expectations lead to poorer performance.

It's worth considering the next time you feel moved to tell a friend that she just can't catch a break or a family member that this just isn't his year. Instead of reminding them of their lack and limitations, why not focus on their prospects and potential? Instead of treating them like a victim, why not treat them like a hero who can overcome these challenges?

Just as we should swap pity for compassion, we should also swap self-pity for self-compassion. The former identifies with the problem; the latter identifies with the solution.

Researcher Dr Kristin Neff, the author of Self-Compassion, puts it best: "Self-pity tends to emphasise egocentric feelings of separation from others and exaggerate the extent of personal suffering," she writes.

"Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows one to see the related experiences of self and other without these feelings of isolation and disconnection.

"Also, self-pitying individuals often become carried away with and wrapped up in their own emotional drama," she continues. "They cannot step back from their situation and adopt a more balanced or objective perspective."

In other words, the best way to overcome the pity habit, whether it's directed inwards or outwards, is to reframe your perspective. When we pity other people or ourselves, we think of the plight as unfair and unlucky. Yet when we remember that their plight could be our plight, or vice versa, we are reminded of the inseparableness of suffering, and compassion naturally arises.

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