Grief or a Pity Party?

Nov 19, 2019 | best breakup books, breakup, featured, grief, grief therapy, pity party, self-pity

by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.

Author, Attorney, Podcaster, Media Commentator, Motivational Speaker, and Creator of the World's Most Successful Breakup Program. 

  • Getting Past Your Breakup: How To Turn A Devastating Loss Into The Best Thing That Ever Happened To You (Hachette Book Group 2009)
  • Getting Back Out There: Secrets to Successful Dating and Finding Real Love After the Big Breakup (Hachette Book Group 2015)
  • Getting Past Your Past Workbook: The Definitive Workbook to Emotional Healing, Health and Happiness (La Bella Vita Publishing 2012)
  • GPYP Power! Affirmations (La Bella Vita Publishing 2019) 

How to tell the difference between moving on and wallowing.

In the first reviews of Getting Past Your Breakup, the book was lauded for its depiction and explanation of the grief process and how it applies to breakups.  It hadn’t been “done” by many other authors and having spent almost 15 years doing academic research (including 3 theses on grief and 3 different subjects: literature (for my B.A. Honors thesis), adoptees (for my Master’s degree thesis), and the 8th Amendment and victim statements (for my J.D. (law) thesis), I rolled it into the subject of breakups as I had been helping people through the grief after a breakup for years.  In the years since, I have spoken in person and in webinars and videos and recently, on podcasts, about the grief process.  (To see a listing of grief and attachment podcasts go HERE).

Many therapists and counselors have not been schooled in grief so they are not aware of what their clients are going through.  And that is not their fault.  I’ve looked at many Master’s in Psych or Social Work or Counseling and very, very few offer a course in grief counseling. Very, very few.  It’s terrible. I’ve watched so many therapists in my supervision group or on the job purposely lead their clients away from their grief when they started to get close to it.  That made me more adamant to work with people to get them to it (because that is where the healing is) and to write about it.

John Bradshaw said, “Grief is the healing feeling.” Stephen Levine said, “People who have dealt with their grief are the lightest and happiest of beings.” Because it’s true and though the work is hard, the payoff is immense. But people cut the process short and don’t complete it because they either feel foolish or broken that they are, somehow, still feeling bad over this relationship that is forever shattered or this person who treated them poorly. Elisabeth Kubler Ross said “Grief will happen either as an open healing wound or a closed festering wound, either honestly or dishonestly, either appropriately or inappropriately…” So if you try to ignore, circumvent or avoid your grief, you will pay for it. Unresolved loss and unexpressed grief will come out SIDEWAYS. 

The enormity of breakup grief has nothing to do with the quality of the relationship or still loving the other person.  It has to do with a loss, the secondary losses that go with it (the hopes and dreams, maybe the ex’s family and friends, the feeling of belonging to someone and being a part of a couple etc. etc. etc.).  You probably also have other unresolved losses in there.  It’s all part of the package, but the GPYB program is about HEALING and you can heal the pain of this breakup and any unresolved losses that may be mixed in. 

The GPYP workbook goes into greater detail as to how to work with your devastating breakup grief so you may move on.  It’s imperative that those healing from a breakup understand they are grieving and don’t shortcut the process as sometimes well-meaning friends and family seem to want you to do.

Your grief may make others uncomfortable. None of us are taught how to respond to a grieving relative, friend or coworker.  So people will tell you not to waste your tears or there are other fish in the sea.  These sentiments are not helpful to someone grieving, but most people have NO CLUE how to behave around a grieving person.  The way is to let them talk (as it says in the books and workbook, it’s important to LET IT OUT) and just listen in empathic silence.  You don’t have to do anything else. If you hug them, it’s often a signal for them to be quiet.  After you listen a while, ask them if they want a hug. Don’t just try to hug them. Be a good empathic supportive listener to someone in grief.

But people ask me all the time:

How do you know the difference between grief and self-pity? 

This is my reply:

Grieving over a loss involves some self-pity but there are healing tears and hollow tears.  Self-pity alone leads to hollow tears that don’t really cleanse the soul and help heal the heart.  Grief work, even if it involves self-pity, leads to healing tears.

The core issue in grief work is “I am alone.  I am never going to have X again.  My life has changed and I hate it.”  It’s a very self-centered type of work because you have been deeply wounded.  Some (again, just some) self-pity and self-absorption is normal and natural.  You’ve been hurt.  You hurt.  You have to feel sorry for yourself in some way.  It’s okay.

Some grief work is “oh, woe is me,” but it’s also about working through all the emotions, the anger, the pain, the guilt, the sense of betrayal and change.  It’s exhausting and sometimes we are having mental and emotional temper tantrums and might even think “Why is this happening to ME??”  It’s all part of the emotional spectrum of grief.

Doing grief work is much like having a bad toothache…Your pain is all you can think about…and becomes very all-encompassing.  It’s about “*I* hurt” and sometimes we can and do feel sorry for ourselves in the process.  “Why me????” is part of it.

It’s okay to feel self-pity at times but too often I hear someone describe a perfectly normal and natural grief day and they say, “Well I’ll get out of my pity party now…” or I hear someone doing the “woe is me” without really grieving and I have to tell them to get out of the pity party.  Hopefully those who have read the book and done the work in the workbook are a bit clearer on the difference, but even to me, after all these years, I sometimes can’t tell the difference, so yes, it is hard to tell sometimes. Sometimes you absolutely must take to your bed and cry and feel bad and not answer the phone or any of your friends’ texts and calls and FB messages.

Sometimes a day like that is absolutely necessary and can be grief and not self-pity.  I used to joke that I was going to stay home and eat soup from a can. It made my friends laugh but sometimes you really do need a time out.  But, if the time out goes on too long, it does turn into a pity party.  Sometimes you have to force yourself to feel the pain and stay in bed and other times you have to force yourself OUT of bed and get ON WITH IT.

And sometimes it’s hard to tell what it is you’re supposed to do.  That’s okay, go with it, you’ll figure it out at some point.  So long as you’re doing the work and allowing your sadness while doing the self-care and positive rebuilding, you’ll be fine whether your sadness is indeed grief or self-pity. 

If you’re NOT doing the positive self-care things and you’re NOT re-building your life, then you are most likely stuck in self-pity and THAT needs to end.  Immediately.

I have taught people to attend to their grief at least once a day for the first few months.

In the first few weeks it might be all day every day.  After 6 weeks or so you should be able to contain your grief and work through your life responsibilities. (For a guide as to how the program works and some timetables go HERE)

After 6 weeks, you might cry at a certain time of day but you are in control of your grief sessions. If you’re unable to do that, you may need to get a depression screening.  If you’re not depressed, just feeling blue, you will emote for a while but you have the ability to shut it down and get on with what you need to do.

After my husband passed, I would cry on the way from my bus to my house.  As soon as I opened the garage door, it was my cue to ZIP IT UP and get dinner ready for my kids. When they went out on Saturday nights, I would cry again.

The sound of the garage door opening was my Pavlovian way of pulling myself together for the rest of the night.  After my mother died I would cry on my way to an off-site meeting at work. Pulling into the parking lot of the meeting was my cue to stop crying. It helps to limit your grief, after a while, to certain times of the day or night with a clear signal that it’s time to zip it up and get on with life.  

Allowing your grief while still living your life is an important part of the process.

Of course there are days you will feel unable to pull it together and just realize you’ve been knocked around by grief. But an important part of the process is to trust it and deal with it as it comes along.

There are some weekends you might not feel like getting out of bed.  That’s very usual in the beginning but after a while you have to give yourself a bit of a break but not so much you’re wallowing in it.  If you’re finding yourself refusing to do things and see friends as time goes on, it’s time to assess if you’re having a big pity party or truly need solitude to worth though your feelings.

Watch your thoughts carefully.  Listen to what you’re saying to yourself. It they are too self-pitying (Why me?  Everything awful happens to me!  It’s not fair!!), then you are wallowing in self-pity.  You have to stay away from those thoughts as much as you can. Otherwise you may be, indeed, throwing a gigantic pity party for yourself.

Pity parties and real grief are each part of the process.  The important thing is that it’s not the only part of the process.  Make sure that in addition to feeling pain and sorrow you feel gratitude and relief as well.  Make gratitude lists and give yourself some good pep talks when you’re feeling too dark and gloomy.  Keeping a tab on your thoughts is very important.  GPYB is about BALANCE.  Letting the bad stuff out and the good stuff in. Remember self-care.  Remember building a life.  Remember being good to you as you navigate the stormy waters of grief. 

It’s hard and it hurts.

Cry, let it out. Whether it is because you are alone and you feel sorry for yourself or because you miss this person or this situation (i.e. marriage).

Just make sure that self-pity is one of many states that you are experiencing…not the only one.  Pay attention to your extreme thoughts such as you are worse off than everyone else and life is just so unfair to you.  Monitor that while allowing your grief and you will get through it.

And like all of them:  this too shall pass.

Peace to you this holiday season.


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