Does any of the following phrases sound familiar?
“If you could just love yourself, your life would be so much better.”
“If you would practice self-love, you would not attract these kind of toxic relationships.”
“The key to success is better self-esteem.”
“Love yourself by eliminating any negative thoughts or feelings.”
All these statements might have a kernel of truth in them, and at first glance they are meant to be inspiring and motivational. But are statements like these, urging you to grow a better self-esteem and always be positive, genuinely helpful?
If you are like me, your New Year’s resolutions almost always include things like “have more confidence” and “love myself more”. And if you are like me, after the first few weeks of trying to be positive and confident, you fall into a hole of icky feelings and hateful thoughts like “You? Lovable? Successful? Who are you kidding? Just give up now before you embarrass yourself.”
And is it really a surprise? We have been taught by the hype of affirmations and new-age spirituality that loving yourself should be a breeze. That growing self-esteem is just a matter of repeating a few “loving” sentences a day and banishing negative thoughts. Seriously, what’s so hard about that? Why is your life still a mess? You must be failing at this easy task. Try harder, silly.
The problem with these insidious messages is that we adults are not an empty slate. Some of us have been indoctrinated since our earliest childhood with the message that we are not ok, that there is something wrong with us, that expressing our feelings is improper, that in fact we are so worthless that it’s ok for our parents to use violence against us to get us to behave. We have never learned how to process our emotions in a healthy way because there was no one to teach us. We have never learned to love ourselves because our parents didn’t truly love us or only loved the parts of us that they approved of. The other parts of our souls were shamed out of us, banished to rot in some dark cellar of self-loathing.
Children have no choice but to adapt. To them, parents are godlike. In order to survive and to ensure that their primary caretakers will continue to take care of them, they have to mould themselves into something lovable, something that the big adults will continue to feed. So when their parents tell them “don’t be such a nuissance” or slap them for expressing the feelings which are so hard to control, or mock their anger or give the impression that the child is a disappointment in any way, the child will not think “hey, these people are rude and mean, they shouldn’t treat a vulnerable, helpless toddler like this”, but “mummy and daddy are right, there is something terribly, terribly wrong with me and I should learn to hide who I really am”. This is not a conscious thought-process, it happens before children even learn to speak.
Now tell me if it’s easy for a human being who has spent his/her whole life abandoning the child within and creating a false self out of necessity, because he/she knows no other way of being, to suddenly stop and grow proper boundaries/self-confidence/ a healthy dose of self-love overnight? The tragic truth is that there is no self to begin with. How can you know who you are if you never received permission (first from your surroundings and then from yourself) to explore your inner life in total freedom? Would you expect someone who’s never even seen a car to suddenly know how to drive?
Telling someone to stop having negative thoughts is just another version of “you are not ok exactly as you are”. No wonder we end up with a giant hangover of shame trying to follow this positive thinking craze. Why, thank you for telling me to love myself more, I really haven’t tried that already a million times. And when you say “yourself”, do you mean the part of me that is shiny, unbreakable, flawless, and always confident? Yes? Would you know where I can purchase said part? Oh, I just have to buy this life-changing book? Follow this overpriced workshop? Oh boy, what a relief! Thank god I don’t actually have to deal with myself!
Can we please forget the message that it’s supposed to be easy? Can we unlearn everything we’ve heard about the badness of negative thoughts? Or that it’s possible to be happy every moment of the day? Can we please, please, for the love of God, put an end to this utter nonsense?