The Psychology of Pity (and Why It Matters More Than You Think)


Pity is an emotion most people don’t like to talk about much.

Unless, of course, it’s someone telling you:

Don’t pity me!

Putting aside how strange it is for someone else to tell you not to have a specific emotion, the belief that we shouldn’t pity people—including ourselves—is unfortunate. Because a person (or a society) that closes itself off to feeling pity is one that deprives itself of one the most important parts of human nature.

In the rest of this essay, I’d like to make the case for why we should actively embrace pity and some of the benefits that come with it.

But first, let’s get clear about what we’re actually talking about when we use the term pity.


What is pity, exactly?

Pity is an emotion.

In that sense, it’s similar to other emotions like sadness, fear, anger, joy, jealousy, shame, frustration, etc.

And while there are lots of ways to think about how pity is distinct compared to these other emotions, here’s how I think about it:

Pity is when you feel sad for someone else.

For example:

  • You feel pity when you notice your 6-year-old son has tears in his eyes after school and starts recounting his first episode of being bullied.
  • You feel pity when you notice an old, 3-legged dog hobbling painfully across the street.
  • You feel pity when you watch that scene in your favorite movie showing the likable protagonist’s ill-fated decision to compromise his values and go down the road you know leads to pain and tragedy.

Let’s also take a minute to talk about what pity is not…

Pity is not a thought, belief, behavior, or habit.

The biggest confusion I see people have with pity is conflating the emotion of pity with thoughts and behaviors related to pity.

For example:

  • You see a homeless person on the side of the road.
  • You start thinking about how awful their life must be… How uncomfortable it is to sit outside in the cold all day, how painful it must be to be hungry all the time and not know where or if your next meal is coming, etc. In other words, you’re imagining what it must be like to be homeless.
  • This imagining is a mental behavior that leads to the emotion of pity. But the imagination and thoughts about the person are not pity. Pity is the emotional effect of thinking about someone’s loss or misfortune.
  • Now, as a result of feeling pity, you’re motivated to reach into your wallet, pull out some cash, and hand it to them. You also awkwardly mumble out some kind and encouraging words. These are behaviors. And while they’re motivated by the emotion of pity, they are distinct from it.

This distinction between the emotion of pity and all the thinking and behaviors that are associated with it matters because you can’t directly control whether you feel pity or not. Just like you can’t simply decide to feel happier or feel less anxious, you can’t decide to not feel pity.

You can indirectly influence how much pity you experience through how you think and what you do (including what types of things you expose yourself to), but the emotion itself isn’t something you can change directly.

A quick note about self-pity

If pity is feeling sad for someone else, then self-pity is… just feeling sad.

In other words, I don’t think there’s much difference between feeling self-pity and feeling sad.

I bring this up because I often get asked how to deal with self-pity. And I think what people actually mean here is not how do I deal with feeling sad, rather, it’s something closer to how do I stop unhelpfully dwelling on my misfortunes.

So when people want to deal with self-pity, I think what they really mean is how to deal with the thoughts and behaviors associated with feeling sad…

  • How do I stop dwelling on the memory of my girlfriend breaking up with me?
  • How do I stop ruminating on how abusive my father was growing up?
  • How do I stop obsessing over that promotion I didn’t get?

In other words, the emotion of sadness (or self-pity) is not really the issue…

If you struggle with self-pity, what you likely need to work on is your mental habit of ruminating, or your behavior of complaining and venting, or your lack of good mental boundaries around old memories.

Okay, now that we have more clarity around what pity actually is, let’s get back to the main idea: Why pity matters…


Why pity matters

When you ask yourself why the emotion of pity matters, the first general point to consider is this:

Pity matters because it’s an emotion and all our emotions matter.

You might not like a particular emotion. And a specific emotion may not be nudging you in a helpful direction. But in neither case does it mean the emotion doesn’t matter.

This is similar to other people… You may not like another person. And they might not be doing or believe things you think are good. But in either case, that doesn’t mean the person doesn’t matter.

Emotions, like people, always matter.

But pity also matters in some very specific and distinctive ways, and it’s easier to see this once you start asking what its job is, or what function it serves.

All emotions have functions. And usually the function is a combination of drawing our attention to something and motivating us to take action on it:

  • Anger draws our attention to injustice and motivates us to correct it.
  • Fear draws our attention to danger and motivates us to avoid it.
  • Guilt draws our attention to mistakes and motivates us to not make them in the future.

So what function does pity serve? What job does it do?

There are probably many. But here are three I’d like to highlight:

1. Pity reminds us to be empathetic

Empathy is the act of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagining what life might be like from their perspective—this includes their physical circumstances and environment as well as their internal world of thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and desires.

From marriage and relationships to sales and marketing, the ability to empathize is obviously important.

And while it takes some skill, the act of empathizing isn’t that hard. We’ve all been using our imaginations since before we could talk.

The bigger obstacle to being empathetic is mindlessness. We just forget to do it…

  • You’re in an argument with your spouse and, because you’re feeling defensive, all your attention is on yourself and you forget to imagine what they might be thinking and feeling.
  • You’re working on a new ad campaign for your business and you’re writing copy for the ad based on your own intuitions about why your business is amazing rather than doing the work to empathize with potential customers and think through what their wants and needs really are.

Pity helps us to be empathetic because it reminds us to be empathetic.

Because we feel pity emotionally, it can break us out of our current mindset and help us attune to the thoughts and feelings of another person. But only if we allow ourselves to be open to pity.

Most people are almost completely closed off to difficult emotions like pity and actively avoid them. And while you can never escape difficult emotions completely—especially the really big ones—you can be relatively “successful” avoiding title bits of pity unless you make an effort to acknowledge and be open to it.

Try this:

  • Over the next week, try to acknowledge feeling pity at least once a day—even if it’s a very small amount of pity (e.g.: you feel a bit of pity for the person pulled over on the side of the road who got a traffic ticket).
  • When you do, write it down and name a few brief notes: What triggered the pity? How did it feel? What did you feel moved to do or think as a result of feeling the pity?
  • After the week is up, look back over your notes and look for patterns in what triggered the pity. If you can anticipate feeling pity, you’ll be more likely to experience it, and as a result, find it easier to be a little more empathetic.

2. Pity motivates us to be compassionate

When we really feel the sadness and suffering of others, it reminds us that we are all similar…

  • When you feel pity for the protagonist of a movie after their best friend dies, it’s a reminder that everyone experiences loss and grief.
  • When you feel pity for your child after they did poorly on a test, it’s a reminder that everyone experiences disappointment and regret.

Especially these days, it’s easy to get overly-focused on the many differences between us—political differences, spiritual differences, lifestyle differences—and to ignore all the ways we’re remarkably similar…

  • We all have dreams and aspirations but fail to realize them sometimes
  • We all experience love and loss
  • We all have a moral code and know how it feels to see that code violated

When we acknowledge and really feel these points of commonality, it motivates us to act more compassionately.

For example:

  • It’s easier to hold your tongue and not respond to your spouse with sarcasm when you realize that they’re in such a bad mood because they’ve had a really stressful day. When you take the time to remember that you’ve been in that exact same situation—irritable and negative because of an overly-stressful day—it’s much easier to treat them with compassion rather than being cruel or cold.
  • It’s easier to take time out of your busy schedule at work to help the new guy when you remember what it felt like to be the new guy yourself.
  • It’s easier to let go of your own self-criticism and negative self-talk when you remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes—even the people you admire most.

Feeling pity not only inspires us to think empathetically about others, it also motivates us to take action in a compassionate way.

3. Pity inspires us to be curious and creative

You have to see and feel a pain point in order to address it creatively…

  • Great entrepreneurs are able to see opportunities to create value because they’re especially sensitive and attuned to what people actually want and need.
  • Great novelists create such vivid, compelling characters because they’re sensitive in their own lives to what really makes people tick, including how they suffer and experience loss.
  • Great leaders and politicians are effective in part because they’re especially sensitive to and good at feeling the frustrations and injustices of their constituents, then transforming that into a vision for how things should be in the future.

The capacity to feel pity helps us be genuinely curious about other people—what they think and feel, what they struggle with and desire, what frustrates and inspires them. And the more curious we are about people, the more we will learn about what they really want and what really motivates them, which in turn helps us to offer more creative and effective solutions.

For example:

  • You feel pity for your mother after she describes how lonely she’s been feeling recently.
  • As a result, you start wondering about what it must be like to not only be lonely, but to be lonely and old—lacking the younger person’s energy and resources for connecting and making friends.
  • This then inspires you to start mocking up a simple website design for older adults who want to build friendships around common interests.

Effective solutions are typically creative solutions. And creativity begins with curiosity. So how do we become more curious?

One under-appreciated way to be more curious is to open yourself up to pity—to be willing to feel sad for other people and genuinely try to understand their losses, frustrations, and difficulties.

The more attuned we are to people’s difficulties, the more likely we are to uncover creative ways to be helpful.


All You Need to Know

Let’s review some of the key points:

  • Pity is an emotion. It’s not a thought, belief, or behavior.
  • A simple definition of pity is feeling sad for someone else.
  • Self-pity is simply feeling sad. When people mention self-pity as a behavior, usually they mean rumination.
  • Pity matters because it’s functional—it helps us do things. Specifically, there are 3 key jobs that pity does if we’re willing to listen to it:
    1. Pity reminds us to be empathetic
    2. Pity motivates us to be compassionate
    3. Pity inspires us to be curious and creative

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6 Comments

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I love this article and always have had a felt sense that the negative connotation associated with the word pity is a detriment to empathetic behavior. Although I do think it is essential to be mindful when communicating feeling pity towards someone else.

Being pitiful has two definitions pop up on goggle. One definition, “Very small or poor; inadequate.” I believe that this definition leads to the reluctance to feel or express pity.
By expressing pity for someone it could often invoke these feelings that could potentially make the other person feel more helpless.

If you ever write more on the topic, ideas on how to feel pity and express it in a way that is productive for the other person would be amazing!

I think of pity and compassion as one and the same(?) I enjoyed this article so much. Never connected compassion as a motivator to creativity!

I really appreciated this article and how he broke down what pity is and isn’t. I also liked the fact the he used examples and said it’s an emotion and not behavior or thoughts. I agree that we need to better understand our emotions and there is a large spectrum of emotions most people don’t know or explore further throughout their lives. Thank you fir this wonderful article.

This was extremely helpful. I felt pity for someone recently and as a result shelved my issues and emotions and was empathic. Now I know that was the right move, for me, and that it’s not a bad thing that I felt this pity (though they might have taken offense if they knew due to the misunderstanding around pity).

Love how clear and to the point your articles are. Thank you!

I’d have liked to see a discussion on how to act on it while maintaining respect of the object of pity. Too often we manage our feelings of pity (and powerlessness) with judgement.

Love your stuff, Nick, and often send your articles to clients. Thank you!

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