Some time ago, I was sitting alone, thinking about my family of origin and extended family. I considered the abuse and brokenness, the chasms of hurt between us. I also thought about the place where I was currently living, so far from home, and my lack of true family-like connection with anyone there. I felt desperately lonely and unloved. I started to cry, which has always been rare for me. I cried harder and harder until I realized that if I didn’t reach out for help, I was on the fast track to relapse.
I called a woman on my phone list who had many years of recovery. She listened quietly as I sputtered out my feelings of abandonment and isolation. What I wanted was for her to say, “Oh, poor you!” or to tell me how wonderful and deserving of close relationships I was. Instead, she addressed my self-pity head on. Then, she told me, “You need to sit down and write a gratitude list.”
I’d like to say that I thanked her for her insight and wise counsel, but I did not. I felt offended and misunderstood. Didn’t she care that I was pouring my soul-ache out to her? What kind of trite prescription had she given me? Besides, genuine sorrow at genuine loss wasn’t the same thing as self-pity! I politely but stiffly ended the conversation and added her lack of sympathy to my list of woes. All right, all right. To may list of justifications to wallow in self-pity.
It took me close to a year to realize that she had been speaking the truth to me in love. I had just been to self-absorbed to appreciate it. It didn’t really matter if the things I was feeling sad about were valid or not. Dwelling on them and wallowing in my negative feelings was indeed self-pity. And as an addict, I can’t afford that. Self-pity is much too handy an excuse to act out.
So, what’s the number one line of defense against self-pity? Gratitude! Keeping an ongoing gratitude list as a part of my daily routine is something I have struggled to be consistent with, but which always brings great returns when I follow through. I receive balance, perspective, awareness, joy and self-confidence.
Those gifts are increasingly magnified when I put together several days (or weeks!) in a row of writing down my gratitude. Rather than each list standing on its own, they snowball into a bigger and bigger flame in my belly, thawing me from the inside out. Then, when bad things happen, I am so much better equipped to meet them with level-headedness and even a with a sense of humor. I move on from offenses and setbacks more quickly. I stay more solidly sober and accumulate even more to be grateful for. What a simple, yet impactful gift!