Lois tried to think of a plausible excuse to beg out of lunch with the other teachers. They were a great group of women and there was a time not long ago when she really looked forward to being with them. But, now it seemed too much to bear.

Yesterday, Lois lost her patience as Marge droned on about her son’s fabulous job offer. She cringed as Jill gushed on about the travel agent snagging a free upgrade to a suite on her upcoming cruise. These women had been friends for years and Lois genuinely tried to feel happy for them. But she couldn’t listen to another word.

Life was just so darn hard these days.

Lois’s husband Mitch had been out of work for six months now. Her salary didn’t cover their expenses, so they’ve been tapping precariously into savings. Her daughter Sara was going through a messy divorce and fighting a prescription drug addiction. Lois wasn’t talking to her son after a heated misunderstanding. She came home exhausted every day to a messy house and a depressed husband.

So when her colleagues looked at her expectantly when it was her turn to share, she had nothing encouraging or upbeat to offer. She especially hated when one of them asked: ”Any news?” Did they honestly think that Lois’s life was going to improve dramatically in a week? She wanted to scream, “No, Mitch hasn’t found a job since you last asked. Can you get off my back?” She knew that they weren’t deliberately trying to hurt her feelings so she was ashamed of her attitude.

It was just so humiliating when others pitied her. She didn’t think she owed any explanations but somehow she ended up answering their questions anyway, blabbing on defensively, and volunteering way more than she felt comfortable sharing: Mitch had gone on another interview, and no he didn’t get the job. Sara’s divorce proceedings were costing a fortune, etc. Lois kicked herself when she was done, feeling embarrassed and disloyal that she shared her family’s heart-aches.

The motivational tapes and self-help books she sometimes consulted urged her to be grateful for the aspects of her life that were going well. And yes, she knew that she should be appreciative for her health and a roof over her head, but frankly, she was disgusted. When would it be her turn?

According to Wikipedia, “Self-pity is the psychological state of mind of an individual in perceived adverse situations who has not accepted the situation and does not have the confidence nor the ability to cope with it. It is characterized by a person’s belief that he or she is the victim of events and is therefore deserving of condolence.” The definition goes on to add that “self pity may be considered normal, and in certain circumstances healthy, so long as it is transitory and leads to either acceptance or a determination to change the situation.”
And indeed, Lois may need to give herself some room to feel the depth of her frustrations and disappointments. The effort of smiling and showing interest in her friends’ seemingly better circumstances may tap strongly into Lois’s inner reserves of resilience. She therefore needs to clarify the steps she can take to be self-protective in stressful times, but hopefully to do so without alienating her friends.
Would she feel better taking a break from the lunch meetings? That certainly is one option. On some days she may choose to run errands or go to a quiet place to read a book. Or she may choose to sit in her car quietly to listen to music for a bit, and then join her friends.
Lois can also prepare herself beforehand to reduce the stress of the lunch meetings. She can control her participation in the discussions by reminding herself that if she is put on the spot, she is not obligated to answer any questions or to volunteer embarrassing information. If she prepares an answer ahead of time she might be able to deflect the inquiries (to head off providing details) and give herself a better sense of control. Even firmly saying: “thanks for showing an interest. I’ll keep you updated” may put an end to uncomfortable inquiries. Setting boundaries without being antagonistic may take some finessing.

The person who shrinks into a corner may be denied the opportunity of being supported by others and may unintentionally imply they have something to hide. Importantly, it is very possible that these very friends may be unaware that their conversations have kicked up the sensitivities. What would happen if Lois were to share that she was going through a tough time? Is it possible that, once alerted, some of these women might have the capacity to offer compassion and concern? Lois would certainly be able to discern which friends she could count on, and potentially strengthen her bonds in these relationships.

Let me go on record to say that I’m a strong believer in positive psychology and the benefits of gratitude, positive affirmations and counting your blessings. However, I am well aware that there are times that life is pretty discouraging and a person can’t help but feel self-pity. Sometimes, reaching out to a close friend or confidante, and eventually connecting with others, (even if it feels awkward at first,) may help to increase self-acceptance and offer hope that life can be improved.

Author's Bio: 

Linda Lipshutz, M.S., LCSW is a psychotherapist serving individuals, couples and families. A Palm Beach Gardens resident, she holds degrees from Cornell and Columbia and trained at the Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy in Manhattan. She can be reached at her Gardens office at 561 630 2827, or online at www.palmbeachfamilytherapy.com.