Poor Me Syndrome (PMS)

by Haley Elder, M.A.

Upon first thought, self-pity sounds like a good idea–an effective means of comforting oneself when no one else around seems to “understand” what one is going through. Some individuals might say that verbally explicit statements of self-pity allow them to meaningfully “vent” their problems, perhaps finding solace as others become more aware of their plight. For instance, the following statements might be viewed as therapeutic to the individual who sees himself as under attack by the world and those “evil” constituents who make it up:

“I’ve been in school for 25 years and cannot find a job. I’ll never have money to support myself, even after all these years of education. Life is unfair and lousy, and it shouldn’t be like this for someone who has worked so hard.”

“I cannot make friends because others are more social than me. I don’t get the respect I deserve for being the quiet, creative type. Others don’t understand how I like solitude and reject me because of it, and therefore, they are mean and inconsiderate and should try harder to get to know me.”

The common theme of these self-piteous cognitions and verbal declarations can be described as the “poor me” phenomenon, where one globally labels others as well as life/the world at large as harsh, cruel, unfair, or bad for treating them unjustly. While some might believe that vengeful statements about the malevolence of other individuals and situations external to self help protect them from the unforgiving world, this is wholeheartedly inaccurate. By stewing in hatred of others and life, one is in fact perpetuating their own misery, inflicting further harm on the very individual whom they are trying to protect the most. One’s chronic insistence that life circumstances change and others behave differently towards them as well as the whiny rehearsal of self-talk like “others and life are bad because they don’t give me what I want” do nothing but self-defeat and propagate negative, unhealthy states of being. Chronic depression and unremitting rage flourish within this frame of mind.

That isn’t to say that life and others are not capable of unfairness at times and that they never deal us a shitty hand. Quite the contrary. Life is hard and people do behave contemptibly, and these are some of the unfortunate truths of being alive. But that is not to say that you have to make it worse by catastrophizing about bad events and the unsettling behaviors of others, and you surely do not have to demand that things outside of your control be different. Instead, tell yourself that life at times can be a complex, challenging series of adversities and that others have, are, and will continue to treat you poorly at times. However, also remind yourself that you have control over your own emotional well-being regardless of the injustice that occurs around you. Tell yourself that life circumstances and maltreatment by others could always be worse, that at least some aspects of your life and relationships with others are positive, and that NOBODY, including Mr. Life, HAS TO give you everything you wish for.

One of my favorite Dr. Ellis quotations encapsulates this final point most perfectly:

“The universe doesn’t care about you, it’s not for or against you, it just doesn’t give a shit.”

Well put.

Next up: Kim Kassay, M.S., on REBT and Buddhism: Similarities in the Paths to End Suffering

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