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Sadness, self-pity are parts of our emotional life

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Dear Mr. Atwater: I’ve been recovering from alcohol and drug problems and in AA for three years, and I have been having some misunderstandings with my sponsor.

I have the type of job that changes a lot, and I’m separated from my wife of 12 years at her suggestion. Whenever I talk about these things and not about being sober, which I am, my sponsor says I’m whining and feeling sorry for myself. The others in the group seem to agree.

I feel like I need to talk about these “other things” to stay sober. I feel like I have taken responsibility for my role in the difficulties at work and at home, but I feel like I’m being taken advantage of at work and feel sad about the breakup of the marriage. How’s that whining and self-pity?

Dear Reader: I’m glad you asked this question because I think there’s a lot of confusion about this issue. My take on it is that whining has to do with the way you talk about something more than the subject matter. Whining has a subtle blaming quality and a distinctly nasal sound. It generally is repetitive and not connected with any particular action or behavior.

I think, however, that it is both healthy and recommended for you to talk openly about your feelings about the job as long as you are doing this in light of how you are behaving rather than what is being done to you. Whining is about “them,” honesty is about you. My impatience tends to come up when people continue to talk about the outside events and what’s being done to them rather than how they feel or how they are responding to the behavior (good or bad) of others.

Self-pity is another touchy subject. My thinking about self-pity is it is a feeling to be expressed rather than a behavior to be modified. I think self-pity has a bad name – that, somehow, any form of self-anything carries the threat of getting drunk. Subsequently, people are scared of this feeling and its expression and try to outlaw it from existence.

I don’t think self-pity is a good place to hang out, but it’s a place most people pass through, and they’ll pass through quicker if they can express it and accept it as a natural part of their emotional life. I think sadness sometimes gets mistaken as self-pity, too.

It might help you to develop a better emotional vocabulary so your sponsor doesn’t get confused about what you’re trying to express.

• Richard Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor. He can reached by email at

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