“Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone.”
From the poem “Everything is waiting for you” by David Whyte
I’m writing this as the days grow ever shorter, darker and colder. It’s not my favourite season. I’m having difficulties with the lack of light, leaving home and coming back in the dark as if the days never really start. It’s the time of year where I notice my mood going downhill and I can get a bit grumpy.
In the past, winter was often a time of gloom and depression for me. Now I’m still not its biggest fan, but it doesn’t bring me down so much anymore. Rather than pitying myself and slipping further and further down, I ask myself what I need most. And I try to work out ways to respond to that need. Going outside even when it’s dark and rainy, spending as much time as I can in nature, using my daylight lamp, getting exercise are all things that help me, so I try to give it to myself as often as possible.
The isolating effect of self-pity
I’ve learned that self-pity can be a slippery slope. Self-pity isolates you. It says, “Poor you, you are the only one suffering”. It’s a small step then to “There must be something wrong with you because you are the only one”. Which makes our suffering a lot worse, because being alone – and even ridiculed because of it - is the last thing we want. Being isolated from others is one of our biggest fears, yet we do it to ourselves so often when we engage in self-pity.
Unfortunately, it seems like our mind is very good at isolating us in self-pity. Even in the midst of a pandemic, when we are made very much aware of how literally every person in the whole world is affected by it, our mind still plays the game of isolation. Making it seem like the pandemic was invented just to punish us and us alone.
Do you recognize situations in which your mind plays this trick on you? You might feel like you are the only one stuck in your job, the only mother or father having trouble with raising their kids. How does that make you feel?
Using self-compassion as the antidote to self-isolation
In the practice of self-compassion there’s a strong antidote to the self-isolation of self-pity. It’s called “common humanity”. The idea of common humanity is the deep realization that we are not alone. That suffering is actually what connects us with each other, that it’s something we all share – even with the people who don’t look like they are suffering at all.
As a therapist, I often get to peek behind the scenes. I’m always amazed by the very inventive ways our minds can create unnecessary pain. I’ve worked with a very successful businessman for example, who first spent his nights lying awake about how to be financially free. When he reached his financial goal, he started worrying about how he could make his kids financially free, and when that happened, he started fretting about his grandchildren (who weren’t even born yet). All this worrying kept him stuck in a career that was slowly crushing his soul.
How to integrate common humanity into your life
If you want to integrate common humanity into your life, there are some simple but powerful exercises to feel less alone with your pain and suffering.
One exercise that I particularly like is to reflect on your food. You could do it the next time you eat something. Can you imagine all the people who contributed to the food that is on your plate? Not only the farmer who grew it, but also the people who transported it, who packaged it, who cooked it (if you didn’t cook it yourself). It can be dazzling to notice how deep you can go in this exercise, thinking also of the people who made the truck that transported your food, the HR person who pays the salaries of the people in the supermarket where you bought it. Eventually you might sense how we are all part of an enormous network, and maybe feel some gratitude for how connected we all are.
Another fascinating exercise you can do is next time you take public transport, you could watch random people and deeply look at them, as if you could look into their heart. Imagine and feel how they, too, have things in their life that are painful – small and big things. How they also fear being rejected, how they too get ill, lose loved ones, encounter disappointment.
Of course, you don’t need to focus on pain and suffering alone. It can also be very inspirational to do the same exercise and see the joy that is also present in people’s lives and savour the happiness of others.
It has helped me a lot to realize more deeply – beyond the platitudes of “everyone has their cross to bear” – how we are all sharing the same feelings and experiences in life, and how that makes us even more connected, not less. I hope that you can bring some more common humanity into your life as well.