Self-pity is a feeling we despise in others, but who can admit they've never indulged in it themselves? Lucretia Stewart continues our series on emotions
Two years ago tomorrow my father died. He and my mother had been married for more than 40 years and, though he was 83 and in poor health, his death was a shock. Two months after he died, my mother developed pleurisy and pneumonia (in Chinese medicine, grief is expressed through the lungs).

I was abroad when she fell ill. On my return to England, I found that she had been taken to hospital. I telephoned my then boyfriend and told him what had happened. "What about me? I'm ill too," he said (in my absence he had fallen over while drunk and cut his head quite badly). "I bet she's not as ill as me."

"Oh, for God's sake," I said, "she's 71 years old and she lost her husband two months ago."

Of all the emotions, self-pity is, perhaps, the least attractive. With its connotations of whinging impotence, self-pity is - or ought to be - the emotional condition that dares not speak its name. We all despise those who wallow in self-pity, yet which of us, if honest, would not be forced to admit to doing so at times. My ex-boyfriend's big mistake was to give voice to his self-pity. Most of us are too proud to admit how sorry we often feel for ourselves - and often with so little real reason.

A couple of Fridays ago, I boarded the tube home. A tired-looking woman in jeans and a denim jacket, probably at most five years younger than me, got up and offered me her seat. "How did you know my feet were killing me?" I said. She smiled and I spent the rest of the journey wondering what on earth I looked like to make her give up her seat to me. Paranoia battled with self-pity. Self-pity, already dominating my mood (I felt tired, overworked, under-appreciated, old and fat), won.

Self-pity is such an un-British - in the old-fashioned sense - emotion. But then so is its closest relation, pity. When Edward Said bewails the sorry fate of the Palestinians, Alexander Cockburn - one of his closest friends - often says, "There he goes, still swimming strongly in the sea of self-pity." Cockburn himself went to one of those tough Scottish public schools where men are taught to be men, not sentimental wimps. Behind every stiff upper lip there is a person, usually a man, who has been trained from an early age to avoid and fear, not just emotion, but even the expression of emotion.

My elderly aunt says she cannot understand why soldiers who fought in the Gulf war might need counselling. But, then, she lost friends and family in Second World War. Another school of hard knocks. She also deplores the way footballers embrace each other after a goal. Her generation didn't believe in showing emotion. But, despite their best efforts to suppress them, they couldn't help having feelings; those feelings cry out for expression. There's a theory that, if you bottle up your emotions, if you don't let it all hang out, you are more likely to get cancer - or pleurisy. Keening at funerals, crying and carrying on, may not be the traditional British way, but who's to say it's a bad idea?

Five and a half years ago my friend Janet Hobhouse died aged 42 of cancer. I flew to New York for her funeral and wept for months afterwards. I cried for far longer than people deemed appropriate. I appeared to be wallowing in my grief. "Shouldn't you be coming to terms with Janet's death?" they said. "Shouldn't you be getting over it now?" I didn't want to get over it, I didn't want to forget, and what they didn't understand was that, yes, I was crying for Janet but I was also crying for myself, for all that might have been. That is how death makes us feel.

What distinguishes self-pity from pity, from compassion, is that split second when the appropriate emotion becomes corrupted by thoughts of self. You start off thinking, "It's so sad, my best friend has died." Then you think, "Poor me, no best friend anymore." So far, just about OK. But when you begin to weep and wail and sink into a useless state where you can't or won't do anything, a state where "Nobody loves me" is the song, you can't stop playing, then you have lost the battle with self-pity, and have moved way beyond the level that is permissible of feeling sorry for yourself.

People with real problems, such as multiple sclerosis or bankruptcy or no roof over their head or a sick child, rarely indulge overtly in self- pity. The bravest people whom I have ever met were Cambodian amputees. I remember a 20-year-old woman whose leg had been amputated at the groin after her foot had been hit by bullets in a Khmer Rouge attack and gone gangrenous. Her mother had been killed in the same attack and her father had lost an arm and a leg. She and her father were sitting together on the same bed in a hospital in Siem Reap. Between them was her three-year- old son, who was the only one not smiling. Here were people with every reason to feel sorry for themselves. Instead, they were courageous and dignified in the face of adversity.

Self-pity is the luxury emotion, reserved for the person who has time and money to spare. And it is the nature of self-pitiers never to acknowledge reality (as in their good fortune), but always to find something to moan about. My brother claims - somewhat improbably - to regard self-pity as a pleasure, saying that it is always nice to have someone feeling sorry for one and, in the absence of anyone else, one has to do it oneself. I don't know that I agree with him. I think self-pity merely rubs in the realisation that there is no one there to feel sorry for you, thereby creating yet another reason for self-pity.

But self-pity is also the last resort emotion. When Caspar Fleming, Ian Fleming's beautiful, brilliant only child, finally succeeded in killing himself, people asked, "Why did he do it? He had everything to live for." But that is just it. He didn't - not in his terms, not in a way that made life tolerable.

Self-pity is for those times when you don't deserve sympathy but you need it so much. Like when you are feeling miserable about getting old. I have a friend who, almost every time I speak to her, says unhappily, "I'm going to be 50 next birthday." We live in a society where getting old is a definite minus. It's a society where old peoples' homes have replaced the extended family, where old people are generally regarded as useless. It's not, therefore, unreasonable to feel upset and anxious at the prospect of old age, to say nothing of gloom and doom induced by the loss of one's beauty, one's ability to attract members of the opposite sex and so on. The march of time continues regardless of our feelings, and there are days when the power of positive thinking counts for nothing. When my favourite cat went missing for three days, I got on the phone in tears to my best friend. "Couldn't you," she asked, with a staggering lack of sympathy, "ring up one of your friends who cares about cats?"

Sometimes being told to get on with it is helpful, even necessary. Sometimes it's not. When the same cat was stolen by a crazy woman across the road and was gone for eight months, I never came to terms with the loss. But I learnt quickly enough that I had to appear to have got over it.

The trouble with an emotion such as self-pity is that it can engender a sort of Arctic freeze which stops you from doing anything. Self-pity is a passive sort of emotion, like apathy or depression. The better emotions are the active ones: anger, desire, greed.

There is a good chance, however, that each of us will at some stage fall victim to a massive attack of self-pity. The fact that self-pity is unattractive doesn't make it any less real. If there was more pity, there would less self-pity and less need for it. In a way my brother got it right. If no one else is prepared to feel sorry for you, you have to do it yourself. He also likened self-pity to self-abuse (ie masturbation). He meant in terms of pleasure, but masturbation, ultimately, is just another sad, solitary activity. None of those self-emotions does one much good. Self- loathing and its big brother, despair, are the worst of all. But self- pity has a part to play - as an object lesson in how not to behave. Let others indulge if they must.

The writer is the author of `Tiger Balm - Travels in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia' and `The Weather Prophet - A Caribbean Journey'. She is also the literary editor of `Punch'.