This Little Miggy Stayed Home: The Problem with Pity

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Problem with Pity

Trying her foot at the xylophone.

A scene from the library last week:  A little girl spends a few minutes assessing Lamp then walks up to PSP and says, "I feel so sorry for your sister for missing an arm."  I'm not sure PSP knew what to say, but I think she just smiled and shrugged her shoulders like OK... if you want to.  

Later that evening Lamp said,  "Hey mom!  I've got a good idea for what to say when people say they feel bad for me!"

"OK, what's your idea?"  A little surprised because I didn't think she heard this exchange at the library.

"I can just say, 'It's OK!  You don't have to feel bad for me.'"

"That's a great thing to say."

"Yeah I can just show them my arms and be like 'it's OK, my arms are just different.  I'm not sad.'"

"That's right.  You don't want people to feel sorry for you."


Besides the fact that my 4 year old is often surprising me with just how much her young mind absorbs, I was struck with the fact that 1) she recognizes what pity is and 2) she does not want that crap.  She might not be able to define it, I'm sure she doesn't even know the word, but homegirl does not want people feeling sorry for her.

I know in this example these words were coming from a little girl who doesn't know any better.  But I hope you understand that it's not about the girl.  It's about my daughter, a girl born with disabilities, who doesn't want people to pity her.  And we have definitely had adults share similar sentiments as well, actually using the term "poor thing" in reference to Lamp.  Please do not ever refer to someone with disabilities as a "poor thing."  Yes Lamp still laments that she can't do certain things, and yes she even asks why she was born this way.  Those are legitimate questions and feelings that she feels.  But she does not want anyone else feeling sad or bad for her.

I'm not sure I ever really understood pity before having Lamp.  Truthfully I still have a hard time defining the difference between pity, empathy, sympathy and compassion--it can be confusing.  As this post states, "these things can interconnect, and even at times, seem interchangeable.  They all have to do with emotions that are born out of other people's suffering, sorrows and tragedies."

But here's what I understand about pity now and why it's so damaging.  Pity looks down on you and comes from a place of judgement.  Pity tells you that something is so wrong with you that it is incompatible with happiness.  Pity assumes the worst.  It seems to me that empathy and perhaps sympathy tend to happen as we listen to others, as we hear why they are sad and respond accordingly, i.e. mourning with those who mourn.  Pity isn't listening, pity isn't interacting, pity only judges.  And that judgement is usually damning.  Of course pity tells you more about the person giving it than the person receiving it.  When you 'feel sorry' for someone that revels your fears, your prejudices and your misconceptions.  Unfortunately pity can still hurt the person on the receiving end.

I posted a Ted Talk a few weeks ago by a woman named Stella Young.  She spoke about the objectification of disabled people and many readers had mixed reactions to her talk.  Some of you thought she was looking to take offense at people who simply meant well, while others of you (a few that are actually disabled) agreed with her perspective.  From what I understand part of her message was that when we expect too little of people with disabilities, we hold them back as a society, and that the biggest obstacles disabled people have aren't the limitations their bodies place on them, its the limitations society places on them.  I think pity plays a huge role in that.  Pity isn't looking to elevate, pity holds back.

In short, pity sucks.  At least that's my take on it.

I'd love to hear your thoughts... Do you feel like you truly understand what pity is and would you care to broaden my definition?  Anyone ever been on the receiving end of that kind of pity?  Is there a difference between feeling sorry for yourself and others feeling sorry for you?  Any other thoughts?  

PS--the Spotlight is back tomorrow so tune in!  


  1. I agree so much Miggy. I have written a lot about pity on my own blog and I really hate the judgement that comes with it. I hate the prayers and the sad looks from strangers.
    Have you read Jenny Morris' Pride Against Prejudice? I think you would like it.
    Great post - thank you :)

    1. Glad you agree with this post... I'm sure you've had more than your share of experience with this. And I haven't read that...I will--thanks Carly.

  2. Anonymous10:21 AM

    I don't have any accounts so I'm not trying to be anonymous but this is my only way of posting. I'm just wondering about the difference between sympathy or empathy and pity. I can feel badly that someone has to struggle but I don't view that as pity. It's a fine line.

    Lisa C.

    1. Lisa C.--Well I think it's the part about assuming what their struggles are. I've had people look at my daughter when she's having a bad day, maybe throwing a fit and ASSUME it's because of her limbs. That's ridiculous! She's a person who has bad days that have nothing to do with her limbs. Will she have bad days because she's sad about her differences? Sure. But we all have bad days about our limitations, looks, etc. Empathy and sympathy just seem to come from a different place...yes it can be a very fine line. Thanks Lisa!

  3. She is so wise beyond her years in this aspect. I truly feel that this is part of her gift and will not be shocked to hear of her impacting the lives of everyone around her. And her sisters too, showing people what is truly important. Seriously, your girls are pretty amazing. Also, I really don't think I understand the receiving end of pity at all. But my mind is always being opened and I definitely agree with how you have described it.

  4. Anonymous12:15 PM

    Hi Miggy,
    I've been reading your blog for a couple of years now and have never commented but this post is just so thoughtful that I wanted to respond. I think you really nailed it. When we pity we aren't really paying attention. When we don't pay attention we tend to reduce our reaction to a simple emotion. Something like pity just isn't complex enough to be useful when connecting with another human being. It happens in the other direction, too. I bet you have people who simplify their feelings about your daughter to what might seem like worship. "She is so strong! She's my hero!" No doubt it is easier to hear these things but they, too, are instances of people not paying close enough attention. There have got to be more refined ways of interacting with our children with disabilities than the two very flat extremes of pity and hero-worship.

    Rachel in NC
    (My son has fairly significant dyslexia so we as a family have felt the pity of family and friends. My son has developed quite a sense of humor about his struggles but we have become sensitized to how certain concepts many of us take for granted just become completely useless for understanding the experience of a child with a learning difference. For us it is the concept of "smart.")

    1. Rachel--Yes, I'm so glad you mentioned the other extreme...hero-worship can be just as damaging. In one sense I get it...people are drawn to my blog even in large part because of Lamp. She's a cute kid with an extraordinary body. But yes it's hard when I feel like she's given preference over my other kids just because she has limb differences. I've even seen this with grandparents! It's a tough balance.

  5. I understand what you are saying. I think the thing that bothers me the most is that people think that our special kids aren't normal. They don't get it that they are smart, loved, love, beautiful inside and out and are just normal kids with something a little different. I wish I could give you a hug when people hurt your feelings. It's harder that if they were talking about us. It's the mother bear in us. Lamp is beautiful, as I have said before She is amazing in her thoughts.

    1. Debby--right! Not everything is about their disability. They have so many other gifts, talents, likes, dislikes, etc.

  6. The heroic action here is the way Lamp reacted to the little girl. She didn't get offended or upset. She thought of how she could help the girl to understand her better- and in such a Christ-like way. She understands that it is not her with the problem - the problem was the perception that the little girl had. That is pretty amazing to me, and something that I totally could learn a lesson or two from.

  7. Anonymous8:00 AM

    Maybe this isn't something you want to hear or want to have written on your blog, but I'm going to trust that you can delete it if you choose to and post it anyways. Growing up Southern Baptist, I often heard "bless her heart," or "poor thing," or "that's just so sad," or, "I'll be praying for him," whenever the topic of anyone different came up. Gay people, non-Christians, people with mental illness, even people who just liked to dress differently. I spent the first 18 years of my life in church, hearing that sort of pity placed upon those who we decided were "others." Imagine how devastated I was when I grew up and realized that I was a lesbian, didn't even really believe in God, suffered from mental illness, and you know what? I even like to dress a little differently than what my church might approve of. Growing up hearing that sort of pity placed on everyone whom I felt was like me left me feeling like I was worth nothing. To this day, nothing makes me angrier than being pitied for who I am. You put that feeling into words beautifully here. Thank you for that. Much love to you and your girlies xo

    1. Anon--I find nothing offensive in your comment at all. Thanks for sharing and for validating that pity does indeed suck.

  8. I nannied a child w/ only 1/2 and arm from birth. He was eight. He could do everything I could do and most things better then I could. When kids would run up to him and ask about his arm he would mostly say "Shark Attack!" The kids would look at him amazed and run off and play.