Fear and Loathing in Dark Places

Sunday, 30 December 2007

I've been thinking a bit recently about self-loathing and self-esteem and stuff. I once had a pretty healthy wad of self-confidence or self-esteem, but in some respects it's shredded on the floor. It feels to me somewhat like God has taken this part of my personality down to the ground. Which is okay, because I'm at the point where I am beginning to build it all back up again, thankfully :) And some parts of my self-esteem have never been healthier. I am more comfortable within myself in some ways than I have ever been. The beauty of being in a place that feels safer and safer means that I can explore further and further (not that I didn't do this even when I didn't feel safe - I've always been a fearless inernal explorer :) But it's so much better when you know in your soul that it's all gonna be alright.

Now, I know the whole thing about self-esteem is a difficult one when you approach it from a Christian framework. I used to read about Jesus' directive to deny myself and it really confused me. In hindsight, what I felt like he was asking me to do was to lay down my entire identity. It felt totally weird and I just couldn't do it. Of course I couldn't. He wasn't asking me to lay aside myself (I wonder how many other people think this, that he was asking us to lay aside ourselves and become some kind of Stepford person? Methinks if a child grows up with healthy boundaries - those walls that the Old Testament talks about (some of mine are badly crumbled in places and it lets all sorts of weird shit in) - then perhaps it wouldn't even occur to them that Jesus would be asking them to lay aside their foundational identity. That doesn't make any sense at all. But I felt like that's what he was asking me to do, and so I lay the whole thing aside for years. It makes so much more sense to me now.

Anyway, I digress. I've been thinking about how even people with a healthy self-esteem can very quickly begin indulging in self-loathing. Scrape the skin of any of us, no matter how loud or extroverted, confident or "successful" we are, and you will get someone willing to treat themselves like a piece of poo if things begin to go wrong for them.

It's funny, isn't it, how some of us look so big and shiny but on the inside we are all really just a big pile of marshmallows. Just wanting some lurve. And when I look at those of us in the West, that's what we're starved for. The kind of love that builds us up, keeps us safe, gives us whatever internal warning devices we are lacking in ourselves, gives us a sense of safety, of identity, of protection, a good reflection of ourselves so that we can stand firm and live life with some kind of gusto. The love that comes from God.

So for the past couple of weeks I've been mulling over where self-loathing fits in when compared to Jesus' directive to love others as you love yourself. I remember reading in lots of different places that the implication in Jesus statement is that we already do love ourselves. But then I look around me and see a whole lot of people that have no idea how God loves them. So I guess it follows that they have no idea what it really means to love themselves. Wall-less people who deny themselves in all the wrong ways and who grant themselves a whole stack of stuff they should be walking away from because indulging in it is some sort of form of self-hatred. Choosing life is a difficult thing to do, sometimes, isn't it? Until you're on the other side of the lesson. Then the differences between life and death become so stark that you wonder (sometimes with a touch of horror) just how deathly we must look in cold reality. Eww. Thank God that he is life and we are in that life no matter how much death we may hold within ourselves. He is working to free us of all of that.

So I have been pondering how self-loathing and self-esteem and self-love all fit in together. Maybe self-loathing is tied up in the ego and wanting to be perfect in a power play type of way and it's anger at ourselves that we are incapable of being perfect and so are making ourselves weak, of wanting to be strong so we can be distanced from others by our superiority. Maybe we loathe those weak parts of ourselves because they are keeping us from being the big giants we want to be so that we can lord it over other people (even if we don't admit that to ourselves. It's all related to the comparison approach to life, a boxed-in mindset, the bell curve marking, so that our worth is based on how good we appear in comparison to others. This is the kind of human thinking that enjoys sending other people to hell because it gives us safety by comparison. Maybe that's partly where self-loathing comes in.

But then I don't think that's where self-loathing begins. I think often we learn it from significant childhood elders telling us how small we are; self-loathing then is a mantle that gets given to you whether you really want it or not. It's a protection device in some warped way. We put it on even though it smells horrendous because it helps keep us safe. If we loathe ourselves, then others treating us badly becomes understandable. But if we are worthwhile and worthy of love, the ill treatment of others becomes monstrous, assumes a greater evil. It then becomes, why did they treat me like that, rather than, they treated me like that because I deserve it. The second thought is easier for a child to cope with than the first. The first is far too bewildering a terrain for a child to navigate and so they don't. They put the mantle on instead. Even though it's a terrible fit. But there you have it.

But God.

Does not a sense also co-exist within us, alongside the loathing, that we are terribly special? It's why L'oreal can have "Because you're worth it" campaigns. We know somehow underneath that we are far more special than we are telling ourselves and that the world is constantly reflecting back to us in all its grey concrete deadness. It's there, like a gem waiting to be uncovered with a bit of good spiritual self-lovin', a small but perfectly formed diamond that really does know itself to be a thing of individual beauty that is not repeated anywhere else despite how platitudinous this sounds (! eww Hallmark).

But the paradox is that despite us all being different, we are alike enough that those of us who are further ahead in the healing process can help those of us who are stuck in whatever wound ditches we find ourselves in. This is the Body.

It's a good thing to know that loving yourself is not a selfish thing. It's one of the things we can't leave behind. Denying ourselves does not mean not loving ourselves. That's the spiritual abuse path. Loving ourselves, we will be come more selfless, not more selfish. That's what I think anyway.

What do you think?

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