Learning To Feel – Grapevine Article February 2023 by Laura S.

Early in my sobriety, my sponsor Linda told me that I was allowed to call and whine about a situation exactly once. After that, we were going to talk about solutions, not problems. She also gave me a time limit on feeling sorry for myself. I can’t remember if it was 10 minutes or 15 or an hour. Maybe it was dependent on the seriousness of whatever had just occurred. But there was a definite parameter.

Thirty-seven years later, I think 10 minutes is a perfect allowance. It’s enough time for me to let the story of self-pity rise to the surface and feel the release of frustration and melodrama and maybe even a few sobs. And then, because of the daily reprieve I’ve been granted, I almost immediately see and hear the inherent flaws in whatever story I’m telling myself. If I indulge in one of these self-pity sessions—which I did, in fact, just yesterday—I tend to find myself laughing through my tears within minutes. What “sanity will have returned” means to me is not that I will never have insane thoughts, but that I no longer believe them.

Last week, my husband lost his job. This happened at both a very bad time and at just the right time, as these things tend to do. I had left my job the spring before and so when he got his news, our income dropped to zero. We are in our 50s (me) and 60s (him) and we both suddenly found ourselves unemployed and without health insurance (bad timing). However, during the year my husband was our sole earner, I was able to help care for my mom during the last months of her life.

After her death, I spent four months grieving and reflecting and writing. I even finished a lifelong dream of completing a manuscript for a book. It was only after all that that my husband lost his job (good timing).

All week I could feel myself wash between these two stories. Both are factually accurate. One is certainly a more positive telling of the story. But here is another thing I’ve learned in sobriety: It’s not productive or healthy for me to use either story (the self-pity story or the you-should-be-grateful story) to circumvent honest emotion. Even in sobriety, I’ve wasted a great deal of energy and occasionally created serious wreckage by attempting to avoid the feelings that come from loss.

Yesterday I was on a walk with a sponsee who is going through a difficult time after a divorce and she asked, “How do you know the difference? How do you know when it’s self-pity and when it’s sadness?”

It was such a good question, and in attempting to form my answer I realized that I used to think self-pity was a feeling. I no longer do. Today I think of self-pity as a story I tell to justify or manage or control how I feel. Like resentment, self-pity is a rationale, a case I’m making for a particular feeling. Self-pity became easier to untangle from my feelings when I began to see it as a pattern of thought and a character defect rather than an emotion.

I’m sad my husband lost his job. It affects us in a variety of ways that I find challenging. It’s only human to feel that loss. But I know I am turning to self-pity when I hear myself say (even silently to myself), We don’t deserve this because we work hard. Or, We do deserve this because we are unworthy. Or, Things never go our way, or, People are out to get us, or Why can’t I ever get a break?

Self-pity is rooted in self-centeredness and it’s the voice of my disease. It tells me I’m different, separate, picked on and worse off in any variety of ways. Self-pity is isolating and if unchecked, deadly.

Still, having experienced some significant losses lately, I think my first sponsor might have been onto something in allowing for 10 minutes of wallowing. Sometimes those minutes are just what I need to jog loose tears that were destined to fall. What started with the “poor-mes” yesterday, moved quickly into an expression of sadness. And the sadness felt much different than the story I had started with. It felt true.

A good friend in the program reminds me often that grief is not a character defect. That was another lesson Linda told me early on: Feelings aren’t good or bad and I don’t have to justify them. I just have to feel them.

Unlike self-pity, grief makes me more compassionate toward myself and others, and it can exist simultaneously and very well with gratitude. I can feel sad that my time of creative fiddling around is coming to an end and also be grateful for having had it and for all the choices I have in front of me—because I’m sober. I can be sad my mother is gone and also deeply grateful that she was my mother and that I was able to be with her during her last days.

Because of the spiritual tools of AA and so many people who have shown me the way, my eyes and thoughts and heart are trained toward gratitude rather than self-pity today. In continuing to both feel my feelings and practice gratitude, I’ve come to trust that the next adventure will bring new opportunities to grow, to be of service and to enjoy this beautiful life.

One thought on “Learning To Feel – Grapevine Article February 2023 by Laura S.

  1. It’s true sadness is different to pity. sobriety should not have to be analysed but trusted. you can at times find the sadness but it’s difficult. It’s clearer than pity . Pity is much lower but in small doses. Living is so sad so tough and empty but you can correct yourself


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