Dear Therapist:

I am a 46-year-old woman and recently lost my mother, who I was so close with. I am getting on with my life but it has been hard and my moods have been up and down. Recently a friend told me that when she lost her father and was having a difficult time she was told by a close mentor that "sadness and self-pity are selfish and self-centered" and that in order to really heal she needed to focus on doing acts of kindness for other people. I guess on some level it makes sense—if you focus on others you won't feel your own pain as much. Still, it really bothers me and doesn't seem right - but I keep going back and forth with it and have really gotten stuck on it. What do you think of this approach? Is this really the way forward or is it oversimplified?



I’m sorry for your loss. Losing a loved one always has an impact, but people deal with loss differently. Simply put, of course the approach that you outlined is oversimplified.

There have never been two people who were exactly the same. Therefore, no two people will ever emotionally deal with the same thing in exactly the same way. As individuals, in addition to any inborn uniqueness, we have different experiences throughout life. The combination and the continual interaction between our “nature” and “nurture” lead to very specific, individualized thoughts, feelings, fears, insecurities, idiosyncrasies, defense mechanisms, and methods of dealing with issues.

From a purely philosophical perspective, I guess sadness and self-pity can be viewed as “selfish and self-centered." However so can love, joy, embarrassment, pleasure, sympathy, and altruism. In fact, one can make the case that all emotions are selfish and self-centered—after all human beings are egocentric by nature. Having someone tell you that your feelings of grief are selfish and self-centered can be terribly invalidating and hurtful. Following the recommendation that you disregard your feelings can retard the grieving process and lead to deep emotional issues in the future.

Although theoretically our feelings may be self-serving, we shouldn’t denigrate these feelings in order to deal with them. Doing so would likely only cause us to bury the feelings, causing larger and more problematic issues in the future. The suggestion that you ignore your own emotions, and focus on doing acts of kindness for others, is essentially a prescription for the use of defense mechanisms such as repression, intellectualism, and denial.  Doing so may to some extent blunt your pain in the short run. However, this will not help you to properly mourn your loss.

You are going through a mourning process. The typical progression (as originally outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying) is from denial to anger, then bargaining, then depression, and finally acceptance. Although this is a generally accepted progression, we all mourn in our own ways. Having lost you mother only recently, the emotions that you describe appear to be normal and appropriate. If you find that you are slowly progressing through the above-mentioned “stages of grief,” you are probably moving in the right direction.

Rather than avoiding your emotions, you can take an active role in appropriately dealing with your loss. There are things that you can do to help ease the mourning period. Acknowledge your emotions and discuss them with others with whom you feel comfortable. Don’t isolate yourself; spend time with family and friends. Continue to involve yourself in your normal activities and socialization. Take care of yourself by exercising regularly, eating properly, and getting enough sleep. Joining a support group can help you to feel that you are not alone in your feelings, and can help you to better deal with your loss.

Recognize that the mourning process takes time. Although we all grieve differently, you should find that things get easier over time. If you, however, find that you need further help dealing with your emotions, a therapist can help you to navigate the mourning process.


Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

 psychotherapist in private practice

 Brooklyn, NY   |   Far Rockaway, NY

 author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 718-258-5317