Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Pity, Suffering, and Psychotherapy

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Pity, Suffering, and Psychotherapy

Article excerpt

Every day psychotherapists are called upon to assuage and give meaning to human suffering. This report examines the ways in which therapists' and patients' attitudes towards giving and receiving "pity" can advance or interfere with the realization of these goals. Clinical observations, introspective analyses, interviews, and questionnaires are used to investigate the following questions: What feelings and thoughts are encompassed by the state of pitying a person or an aspect of a person? What are the similarities and differences between pity and compassion? How do pity and empathy interact in the therapeutic situation? When is taking and showing pity therapeutically beneficial? Is pity a force that brings people together, or is it a way of distancing ourselves from those whom we regard as "other?" Based on the phenomena brought to light by investigating these questions, the author proposes that pity is an inevitable and integral component of our reactions to the ordeals suffered through by individuals facing tragic situations. As a background, an overview of the two radically different conceptions of pity that coexist in our culture is presented.

Pity is a rare and fleeting virtue whose essence is freedom, to be freely given, it must remain unsought or accidental, even fought against.

Leslie Farber (1996, 23)

Psychotherapy holds the promise of helping people come to terms with their traumas and tragedies. Great responsibilities are inherent in this promise. The primary aim of this paper is to bring into sharp focus the ways in which patients' and psychotherapists' attitudes toward "pity" influence therapists' attempts to fulfill these responsibilities.

First, I will present an overview of the varied and contradictory meanings pity has acquired over time and circumstances. Then I will consider the distinctions and connections between pity, compassion, and empathy. I believe that a clarification of the relations among them would advance efforts to provide our patients with optimally effective forms of "caring concern" (Geller, 1994; Pope & Vasquez, 1998). Following that, I will distinguish between the bondage imposed by non-productive forms of self pity and the occasions when self-pity is the first step taken toward helping victims of traumas and tragedies feel empathy for themselves. My basic assumption is that anxieties about experiencing and expressing pity exert a restrictive influence on the capacities required to assuage and give meaning to human suffering.

In order to study pity and its place in the therapeutic situation, I have relied on a variety of methods-interviews with therapists, a questionnaire survey of therapists (1994), and my own clinical and introspective reflections. The motivational roots of my concern with this topic are both professional and personal. My family became the target of pity, and I fell prey to self-pity, when my youngest daughter was diagnosed as profoundly deaf. I have written about these experiences in Thank You for Jenny (1996).

I have also drawn heavily upon the insights of theologians, (e.g., Augustine, [trans. 1958; Houlden, 1984; Noueman, 1976; Boteach, 1995), ethical philosophers, (e.g., Aristotle, trans. 1961; Boleyn-Fitzgerald, 2003; Cioran, 1963; Goldstein & Kornfeld, 1987; Worthour, 1991), poets, (e.g. Bishop 1983; Dante, trans. 1954; Yeats, 1959; Stevens, 1982,), literary critics (e.g. Scheff, 1979; Slatoff, 1985; Ulrich, 1989) and social historians (e.g. Jackson, 1994; Reiff, 1966), in preparing this paper. From ancient times to the present, written works have explored the modes of relatedness that lead to the arousal of pity, the feeling aspects of pity, the functions which pity serves, and the moral judgments it implies. The themes of these works are varied and include the intimate linkages that exist between pity and the inevitability of death, pity and forgiveness, pity and status, pity and shame, pity and love, and pity's relationship to acts of kindness. …

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