The Center of Focus
Curled into a fetal position, stuck in a debilitating state by a hatred that seems detached from you, and yet it's speaking from inside your own head. It's using your own voice, and somehow, it's directed entirely at you. This emotional reaction began as a crack and fractured enough to turn into a fit of incoherent sobbing and a storm of thoughts, poisonous thoughts, all aimed at you. An impulse sets in to hurt yourself. A few minutes pass of being in this state that is both befuddling and terrifying. You neither understand it fully nor doubt its hold. It can come on a full stomach, with a good night's rest, in the middle of a workout. It can arrive at work or in the most peaceful chair at home. Either way, it arrived, but the storm is finally beginning to ebb, so you take a few deep breaths. Now that it's nearly over, your chest feels like something's scooped out the insides, good and bad alike. You're not empty, but you aren't strong, either. Your confidence drowned somewhere under all of that insurmountable, strange suffering. You're raw and even ashamed at this episode.
This is what self loathing is like.
I approach this topic cautiously because it is something so close to me that to speak of it is like confessing secrets to a crowd of strangers. My unusual degree of vulnerability for this article isn't for nothing. I do this in the hopes that I can communicate what methods and insights have helped me, so that I might, at the very least, nudge others who struggle with the same challenges in the right direction.
Sleight of Hand
It is all in the title. Self loathing. It's like narcissism without all of the arrogance and confidence, often arriving in intense bouts of fixation on the self in exclusively negative and destructive ways, and none of the fun I-can-accomplish-anything-I-am-the-best you might expect from somebody who is constantly analyzing themselves. It's not always as dramatic as the scene described above; other times it is in more subtle degrees, a constant nagging throughout the day, a feeling that builds up for weeks before finally boiling over. We may have even convinced ourselves into thinking this sort of thought pattern is good and realistic.
If you experience it, you know that at its foundation, it is a positive force that has been horrendously twisted. Like all of our darknesses, its essence still harbors a significant, powerful purpose. That is, to analyze oneself critically, so that we might make adjustments, improve, evolve, and continue to challenge ourselves, lest we fall prey to consistent weaknesses left untended or lazy, complacent thinking. This is self-loathing's lighter half. This is tough love, but love done well, done maturely, effectively. And it's a damnably tricky skill, one that takes a lifetime of practice to perfect, if that word is even applicable here.
At its worst, if you have experienced it, you know that it is a rampaging, blind, and hapless creature. It may target one specific attribute, such as outer appearance, but at the peak of its nightmarish hold, it will be ruthless in grasping, tearing, and ripping apart every single attribute we may very well possess, perhaps even characteristics of ourselves which, just a day before, we appreciated. This is self loathing's dark exterior, its potential to turn our own mind against itself, such that we despise breathing in our own skin, such that we feel undeserving of any forgiveness, grace, or happiness at all, that we deserve nothing else. Nothing else, of course, but that suffocating, desperate need, to be anyone but ourselves. Depending on their severity, these bouts may feel like 'attacks', working against any positive voices in our psyche.
I believe that this demon spawns whenever we invite ambition, dreams, or challenges into our lives. Like an opponent on a battlefield we are constantly conquering, it returns over and over again with reinforcements. It loves opposition, and were it not for the flame in your heart, like a moth, it would flutter passed and not bother you in the slightest. It's that glow, that blazing cinder that keeps inviting this creature back to play. It's a response to your growth.
There's not a single person whose potential should be marred by an inability to encourage and love themselves. On social media and daily conversations, the theme of doubting oneself and taking humility to the point of a debilitating lack of confidence is ubiquitous. In some circles, it seems that being hard on ourselves in a dangerously toxic way may even be trendy or perceived as admirable at first glance. Just as well, individuals who continually struggle to perceive themselves wholesomely are rarely getting to the work and pursuits that they scold themselves for not achieving.
It is something that astonishes, infuriates, and now subsequently inspires me to write this. Whether it has gone so far as to push you to the edge of life as it almost did for me, or is merely getting in the way of a passion project, I don't want it to hold you back.
What is most appalling about the way we think to ourselves is that its habit often starts with a trojan horse. Remember what I said before, about its potential to be a positive, powerful analytical tool to evolve ourselves? That, I believe, is how it starts, with positive intentions to reform ourselves from bad habits, to construct ourselves into something brighter. It starts with language such as, 'that's stupid of me to do that,' or 'how could I think I deserved this?'. The telltale sign is comfortability using words with powerful, negative connotation such as 'idiotic' or 'foolish' or 'weak' when we speak to ourselves. It is important to recognize that we would never carelessly throw such words around to advise or motivate a friend. The golden question is this: if you wouldn't speak to your closest friend or your partner this way, why are you talking to yourself like this? Moreover, why do you think it is healthy, constructive, or the least bit productive?
Are you beginning to see the illusion? If it hasn't clicked yet, stick with me.
Especially in western culture, we love to value and praise back-breaking workloads, stoicism, and being able to endure immense pressure and stress with ease. In fact, we are encouraged to highlight our best attributes while shunning discussions concerning our weaknesses. I discussed the potential problem of this phenomenon in another article. Under too much stress, we are bound to crack, slip up, fall on bad habits, and inevitably, we are set for a course of mending mistakes and trimming the fat off unfavorable tendencies we collected along the way. Although these are all things we should do if we expect to achieve our highest ambitions, I often find that the method becomes confused with the virtue of the intent.
For example ...
Let's say one week I find that I only wrote 5,000 words when I know I can pull closer to 10,000 to 14,000. One Sunday evening, I find myself looking at the past week in disappointment. Starting the following morning, or so I journal, I aim to write 2,000 each day, thus setting myself closer to my potential should I follow through with this throughout the week. This is the virtue of my intent. The ideal change. It is mature, admirable, ambitious, and sets me up to achieve personal deadlines.
The language which I use to motivate myself to make this change, however, isn't always as virtuous. Oftentimes, such urges to reform are triggered from discovering flaws or mistakes. Thusly, on Sunday evening, I might agonize over how lazy I've been, how I procrastinate, how I failed, and therefore I berate myself for how foolish, stupid, and arrogant of a person I was to ever think I should write at all. If I am in a particularly black mood, that is only the tip of the iceberg. A single desire to fix or alter myself can become plagued by apocalyptic degrees of self evaluation wherein I condemn not only my present state of functionality, but my past, my intelligence, my choices, or even my looks. This is the method.
It is imperative that we keep the method or motivation as pure as the virtue of our intent.
When we set out to change, right, or otherwise evolve ourselves after spotting something we don't like, it is important not to attach the mature virtues of that decision to a possibly toxic approach. We may be intelligent, proactive, and mature to see this opportunity for change, but it is not mature, proactive, nor intelligent to browbeat ourselves internally into fixing it. Somehow, it has slipped into our culture that being uncharacteristically harsh and down on ourselves is a mature, adult, and productive tendency. It isn't. It merely masquerades as progress while standing in the way of it.
This is the grand illusion, and it's a strange truth to swallow: that it is both more mature and efficient to be forgiving, patient, and loving with ourselves than it is to be a petulant, impatient taskmaster. No matter how much we feel we might 'deserve' negative self-talk, no matter how impressive it seems to treat ourselves with severity, our ability to reconcile and move forward without seeking to first punish ourselves, will ultimately become the crucible in our efforts for an efficient, consistent mindset to tackle challenges, recover from disappointment, and move forward into the unknown. In this, we find ourselves not just savoring achievement, but reveling in the chaos of getting there.
Remember ... living can be, believe it or not, fun. Although difficult, we can find a way to approach it with a full-bodied smirk and confidence in ourselves. That sort of liberation starts with trusting, loving, and supporting ourself on a deep, fundamental level.
So, are you wondering how I've started to feel this weight lift off me?
Compliment yourself. Encourage yourself. Learn to laugh with and at yourself. Notice and feel your achievements, both the ones others may recognize, but more importantly, the internal battles that nobody else will bat an eye at. Those ones are the most important, because they are the ones you'll never receive praise for. It may feel awkward, forced, and absurd at first, to try and pinpoint characteristics of ourselves which we appreciate, but like any muscle, supporting ourselves must be practiced daily if it is to become intuitive. Which, it will.
Personally, my practice with this started out just about as smooth as chucking a cat into a tub of bath water. I hissed, fought, and screamed the whole time, convinced that I could be a healthy individual who felt most comfortable when hating and insulting himself in his head. To me it was 'normal'. I could even don a mask of confidence while I did!
It began to rot me from the inside out ... :)
If you are going to appreciate yourself for anything you do ... beyond your grand achievements, beyond the brightest moments, beyond what society would commonly label as your largest successes, take pride in those dark times when the only hand to lift yourself up was not anyone else's but your own.
And despite how undeserved it might've felt, a resounding strength, a voice inside you found the will to harness that tricky, dual compassion. And it whispered, "It's okay. You're all right. But ... it's time to get back up."