There’s a standing joke in the recovery community about the “self-pity salute,” which depicts a substance abuser’s family members greeting someone with the back of their hands pressed to their foreheads and a look of agony on their faces. This attitude of self-pity comes from the reality of living with the wreckage of life with a substance abuser, but also from the fantasy of constantly making every disappointment into a major crisis. Addicts and their family members are accustomed to drama. It takes the tools of recovery to turn the “self-pity salute” into a friendly handshake or a warm embrace.

Self-pity of addicts

Substance abusers often use self-pity as a way to justify their behavior while using and drinking, or to justify a relapse.  They have become so accustomed to placing blame anywhere but with themselves, they easily can contrive reasons to feel sorry for themselves. They have to learn to replace such negative thinking with acceptance of their addiction and their own responsibility. Recovery teaches coping skills so addicts can begin to see their situations with a realistic perspective instead of exaggerated self-pity. Once people in recovery recognize their thinking patterns, they then must learn to focus on what they can do instead of what they can’t do. They need to develop realistic expectations of themselves and view obstacles as opportunities.

Self-pity of family members

Family members respond to the addict’s behavior in many different ways, with self-pity high on the list. As resentment grows in the family, so does low self-esteem and feelings of failure because of inability to control the addict’s drinking or drug use. Thus a downward spiral begins and leads to self-pity. While the situations caused by substance abuse are very real and often frightening, self-pity does not change them. In fact, self-pity can aggravate the problems. In recovery, families learn to replace self-pity with compassion and gratitude. They come to realize that they cannot control or cure the addict’s behavior.

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