A week or so ago, I received a review copy of Anneli Rufus's "Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself," and was immediately excited. "What would you do today if you didn't despise yourself?" the upper right hand corner read.
"This is the book for me," I announced loudly, flashing the cover at Baze.
"Really?" she said. "You seem very comfortable with yourself to me.
"OH NO," I immediately countered. "I hate the s**t out of myself!"
It's not totally true. Or not true all the time. But there's still an engine of self-loathing humming under my behavior, an old fuel that feels as familiar as it does miserable. Self-hatred is horrible, but it's a comfortable horrible, one I know well. Like Anneli Rufus, who has suffered from a lifetime of low self-esteem, I can't remember a time when it wasn't with me -- when I didn't feel exposed, self-conscious, ashamed, somehow less valuable than those around me.
There are still memories from my childhood that make me feel as if I'm simmering in present-day shame -- flicking the lights on during a slumber party at my house to display hundreds of roaches scattering everywhere, walking home from school to to taunts of "lard ass" and objects pelted from passing cars.
"We who hate ourselves came to hate ourselves in many different ways," writes Rufus. "For some it was the big stuff, guns and blood, the kind of trauma you can see. For others it was little things: Laughs. Glances. Words said or unsaid." For me it was both, conspiring together to create a fundamental and deeply held belief that I am bad, wrong, inherently unacceptable.
People with low self-esteem, according to Eckhart Tolle and as described by Rufus, are "stuck with hostile, life-denying, continuously critical and attacking entities that they carry in their heads and they believe." No matter how outwardly well things may be going, my internal monologue is barking it into my head 24/7: You're so fat, you're so ugly, you're annoying, you're too loud, you can't do anything right, you're disgusting, you're repulsive, why did you eat that?, everyone hates you, you always screw up and on and on and on.
It is very difficult to unlearn these prehistoric messages, the ones that separate us from our true selves, which Rufus describes as "the selves we would have been had no one tried to break or shame or change us." But Rufus describes a series of healing exercises to help us get there, in addition to outlining the psychology of self-hatred. Below are a few I found particularly helpful.
1. Find Your Place.
Rufus asks you to think of a place, a place where you hate yourself less. Hers is the seashore -- a place where she feels "inspired, serene...unself-conscious." I thought of several -- in a recovery meeting, playing with my son at home, in my acupuncturist's comfortable office. Once you find your place, you can think of it, can transport yourself there mentally and enjoy the momentary relief from self-loathing. It's like a little meditation I've been practicing daily. Sometimes I can transfer the feeling of serenity into the present moment for a little while.
2. Adopt Yourself.
This is advice I've heard pretty frequently in therapy, to treat yourself as you would a small child, since that's what really exists at the core of your self-hatred: a small, struggling, frightened child who was trapped in time by trauma. I can't stand that advice. Whenever I've been asked to connect with that inner child, to offer her compassion and love, my skin starts to crawl. I don't like that little girl anymore than I like my present-day self. I see her as weak, obnoxious.
I've never before knew that this is a normal phenomenon called "compassion phobia." It makes a lot of sense -- as the book notes, "It's a lot easier to feel compassion toward people you like than toward people you hate." Self-compassion may be uncomfortable, Rufus advises, but tread slowly forward anyway. Try to exert small kindnesses toward yourself -- acknowledge when you are feeling bad and comfort yourself as you would a good friend, authentically -- "I'm sorry you're feeling this way. You don't deserve that." And try not to be critical of yourself if you find that treating yourself well feels bad at first.
3. Realize That You Are a Master Craftsman.
Rufus says that according to happiness psychologists, the road to happiness begins when we recognize our unique skills and practice using them as much as possible. Think of your signature strengths -- are you kind? Funny? Creative? A good leader? Using our signature strengths is what gives life meaning. The book recommends identifying three or four of your character strengths and working them into your daily routine -- if you are a kind person, spend time helping others, for instance. If you are a spriritual person, attend religious services or meditate. People with low self-esteem focus on our weaknesses instead of our strengths. It's as if we are master carpenters and we spend all our time feeling bad about not being able to sew.
The most important message I took from "Unworthy" (and I do recommend reading it yourself) is that self-loathing, ultimately, is a lie. As hard as it might be to believe, as much as my brain and heart may tell me that I actually am the least attractive woman who has ever lived, that I am truly, really difficult to look at, that I am honestly inferior to most of those around me, I can counter with the tentative logic of How bad could I really be? What harm have I really caused? Aren't I good at some things after all, aren't there parts of me to love?
As Rufus says: "So ponder, even merely theoretically at first, the notion that you hate yourself by happenstance and not because you should. That your self-loathing is a concept, a philosophy, a legacy, an entity that you adopted somewhere back there just as people adopt new philosophies when joining cults. That your self-loathing is someone else's philosphy: an individual's, society's, a clique's -- thrust upon you when you were young and/or trusting and/or aiming to please. And ponder, even ligtly, just as opening a window sends air rustling through a room, the notion that whoever stole your self-esteem was not actually about you. That none of this was ever about you. You only thought it was."