In her informative yet entertaining book, “Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself,” Anneli Rufus tells this story:
Accepting his third annual Teacher of the Year award, Jeremy gazed out at an auditorium packed with wildly applauding children, parents, and colleagues. Silently he mourned. I was supposed to get my doctorate. I should be famous by now, not teaching fourth grade. I was supposed to have made earthshaking discoveries. It was expected of me. And I failed.
I laughed when I read this because not even 24 hours earlier my inner dialog was essentially the same. I had accomplished something—swam 4.4 miles from Annapolis, Maryland to Kent Island–that should have given me enough warm fuzzies to fill my quota for a week. This was huge for me not only because there exists no tiki bar between the two pieces of land where you can hang out for awhile if you need to catch your breath or are feeling particularly parched. It was profound because shortly after the swim last year, I had a physical and mental breakdown from which I’m still recovering. With lingering symptoms and aberrant sleep cycles, I gave my participating in this year’s race a 50/50 shot.
I was basking in my achievement at the post-swim party when I opened my mouth and said something stupid. A guy I swim with told me a few weeks ago that he was thinking of dumping his girlfriend. When he introduced her to the group, I whispered to him, “Is that the one you want to get rid of?” There was no way she could hear, but still.
“No, I don’t. I mean, that’s rude,” he said. “I can’t believe you would bring that up here.”
Ugh. I hate myself. Why do I say such stupid things all the time? The familiar tapes of self-loathing began to play and I fought back tears. However, before I uttered the familiar “And I have failed” like the distinguished high-school teacher above, I got angry. “Look, you damn voices, you get my ear 24/7, let me have this one moment to celebrate victory. Bother me tomorrow if you want. But right here, right now, I did something that I am very proud of. Don’t try to ruin it.” The night didn’t end in a happy dance. My mind was a war zone like usual. However, that’s progress. I didn’t accept the self-hate memos blindly and cower in a corner.
“Self-loathing is a dark land studded with booby traps,” writes Rufus. “Fumbling through its underbrush, we cannot see what our trouble actually is: that we are mistaken about ourselves. That we were told lies long ago that we, in love and loyalty and fear, believed. Will we believe ourselves to death?”
I hate myself much less today than I did 25 years ago, when I accidentally embarked on a journey to wholeness and self-respect. I can identify the lies. I know when they were first told to me and why. And I know what I need to do to believe them less. Much like Rufus, I am not cured, but I am better.
It’s hard work, not hating yourself, especially when you’ve spent a quarter of a century or more believing untruths. Coming to respect yourself and building some basic self-esteem is a grueling, tedious process with enough setbacks to make you feel like you’re not moving. Rufus writes:
You go a ways. You stop. You go a ways, remaining ever sensitive (although less than before) to certain triggers—gestures, places, words—but treating yourself like a buddy who has certain sensitivities. You go a ways. You learn. You go a ways. You stop, fall, and freak out. You get up. Go a ways. You go.
So what do you do first to escape the land of self-loathing?
For starters, Rufus found a place where she hated herself less: by the seashore … a wild, rolling, splashing sea. “The sea expects nothing from me,” she explains. “I cannot disappoint the sea. It does not care. It does not hate me, does not love me, does not wonder who I am or what I wear, because it does not care whether I am or am not there. The sea roars, either way.”
I found that place when I went away to school. I didn’t realize until I landed on the campus of Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, how hollow my insides were. The first week of classes I inquired with the counseling department about support group meetings in the area since I had just quite drinking. The therapist suspected that I needed a whole lot more than 12-step meetings to get me right and graciously invited me back to see her … every week until graduation. My sessions with her combined with the support and guidance of some incredibly caring professors allowed for me to address my self-loathing and start down a path of self-respect. Whenever I visit the campus, I get filled up again, breathing in the energy of recovery and self-awareness and self-acceptance.
And then there’s the process of adopting yourself, which isn’t any easier than adopting a baby from a foreign country. There’s just no paperwork involved. I did some inner-child work with a therapist a few years ago in which I designated a doll as my inner child. My adult self adopted her and kept her safe while revisiting some of the painful episodes of my childhood. This was an opportunity to emerge from it unscathed and to form new neural passageways that would allow me to become emotionally resilient. All was going well until I found my inner child in the Good Will pile to be dropped off. That did wonders for my self-esteem.
You don’t need a doll to adopt yourself, of course. You just need to know how to offer yourself compassion. “Compassion comprises three stages,” explains Rufus. “First, notice that someone is suffering. Next, be verbally and physically kind and caring in response to that suffering. Third, remember that imperfection is part of the human experience.”
As part of the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course I took a month ago, we participated in several loving-kindness meditations in which our instructor told us to place our hand over our heart as we repeated affirmations to ourselves. Really?? I thought, like I was being asked to stand in front of a mirror and tell myself that I am good enough, smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me. The hand-over-heart exercise, however, did seem to soothe me once I got over the looking-stupid part. In her pages, Rufus includes compassion studies that suggest that we can tap into the physiology of compassion by adding a comforting pat or squeeze, that as mammals we calm down easier with a soft touch than with an explanation. Our brain is often too busy to register compassion, so our body must lead the way.
One last tool that has been effective for both me and Rufus is to concentrate on your signature strengths. This step requires some preliminary work because you don’t go from hating yourself to celebrating what’s great about yourself. It helps if you have a few“saints” in your life, those people who believe in you despite what you tell them. I have one such saint in my life that would tell me that I’m wonderful even if I called him from prison with a death sentence for murder. He is a fellow self-loather who has gone down the path before me and is nice enough to inform me of the hidden traps and blind turns to avoid. Saints can be trusted to give us our list of core strengths because they are our heroes. We believe them when we can’t believe ourselves.
“No matter how much we hate ourselves, we have to admit that we are better at some things than others,” writes Rufus, “maybe even moderately gifted at a few. “The road to happiness—and out of self-loathing—starts when we recognize those skills and practice using them as much as possible—becoming ‘master craftspeople,’ crafting our lives.”
Finding a place of peace, adopting ourselves, and concentrating on signature strengths are just a few of the strategies Rufus throws out to help self-loathers hate themselves less. But even if we remain with some serious dislikes to our DNA, there is an upside to low self-esteem, a paragraph in her book that we need remember in our most desperate hours:
Low self-esteem does not enlighten us. Self-loathing is not holy. But, all else aside, low self-esteem makes us contemplative and introspective. Our perfectionism makes us diligent. We celebrate small pleasures—albeit because we believe ourselves unworthy of big ones. We try hard. We aim to please. Low self-esteem makes some of us creative—as we seek meaning in pain. Low self-esteem makes some of us respectful—because we assume everyone is better than us. Low self-esteem makes some of us hilarious—because self-deprecating humor is humor indeed. Low self-esteem makes some of us good listeners—because we do not want to listen to ourselves. Low self-esteem makes some of us empathetic—because we have suffered, so we know….We who hate ourselves are not saints. And yet self-loathing in spite of itself—has given us gifts that we get to keep.
Originally published on Sanity Break at EverythingHealth.com.