Let’s be blunt: I have a lot of self-loathing.
Sometimes, when I’m getting enough sleep, eating enough vegetables, feeling safe in my relationships, and listening to a ton of Tara Brach podcasts, I think I have conquered the self-loathing. I think, “How silly I was last week, when I thought I was a fundamentally bad person.” But then something very small will go wrong (I’ll lose my wallet; someone will write a mean review of one of my books; I’ll forget a deadline), and the illusion of my self-evolution will come crashing down. Before I know it, I’m back in my empty bathtub, sobbing into my hands and thinking, “I am incapable of change. I am bad and wrong. I am failing at literally everything a person could be failing at.” (How soon one forgets that one has recently eaten enough vegetables!)
Sometimes I’ll encounter a person who seems to experience life in a polar opposite way. She’ll be scolding a waitress who messed up her order, or arguing with anyone who gently asks her put her dog on a leash. And, sure, this Karen-y behavior is entitled. It’s unacceptable. It lacks compassion and makes the world worse. But whenever I see this kind of person (and it’s not always a white woman; it is more often than not a white man), a small part of me thinks, “It would be nice to think everything is someone else’s fault. It would maybe feel good to have the kind of self-confidence you need to never believe you have to apologize for anything.”
But, as I have brought up this kind of person to my therapist (because I have this kind of person in my life), my therapist has gently pushed against the idea that people like this have great self-confidence.
Let me quickly take a step aside to talk about the language of self-esteem. Sonya Renee Taylor writes in The Body Is Not An Apology that self-confidence alone is not enough. Believing in yourself is fine for your self, but it doesn’t contribute to the greater good. She clarifies that “[Radical self-love] is the difference between an endeavor that is individualistic and one that is collective.” She is right, and you should go out and buy and read her book right now.
For my purposes, I’m going to conflate some of these terms, in order to simplify my point: that self-love requires taking responsibility for one’s behaviors and actions. When I use the words “self-confidence,” “self-esteem,” and “self-love,” for the purposes of this essay, I’m talking about, simply, the opposite of self-loathing.
Loving yourself radically means you know you are not defined by your mistakes.
For some people, the shame and pain of taking responsibility for missteps, mistakes, or hurtful actions is too intense; they can’t hold it, so they offload it by blaming other people. Really loving yourself isn’t the same as deifying yourself or trying to convince the rest of the world that you have never been wrong. Loving is accepting the parts of something that still need to grow. No one is “finished.”
Loving yourself means you are not reflexively defensive or automatically apologetic when you make a mistake.
When you realize you’ve done something wrong (and everyone does things wrong sometimes; and what’s more, most people realize it), you have a few choices.
- You can let the wrong thing define you as a person. “I broke the plate because I’m fundamentally clumsy. I should never be trusted with plates or anything breakable ever again for the rest of my whole life.”
- You can find justifications as to why the wrong thing happened so you can release yourself from responsibility. “This plate was way too high up. When Leonard put it up here, he should have known that anyone who grabbed it would break it. God, Leonard is such a fucking moron. This is not my fault.”
- You can accept that you’ve done the wrong thing and treat it as a growth opportunity. “Wow. I was really rushing to get these plates to the table. When I rush, there’s a greater potential that I’ll break things. I’ll have to keep that in mind for next time.”
These three paths lead to some different ways of responding. Staying with the plate example:
- Maybe you apologize profusely. You offer to pay for not only this plate, but a whole new set of plates. You keep bringing it up, way after the person who owned the plate is over it. You publicly berate yourself and talk about what a terrible klutz you are. OR, you are so ashamed of your behavior that you hide the broken plate; you lie about knowing how it broke. You feel bad for not being able to take responsibility, but it would be too risky to let anyone know what a terrible plate-breaking monster you are, because they would leave you. Your shame leads you to engage in some kind of numbing behavior: withdrawing, watching TV, eating a lot of ice cream, drinking alcohol, etc.
- Maybe you get defensive. You explain to the person whose plate it is how this is not your fault. You get into an argument with them; you come up with more and more aggressive ways of convincing the other person that you are not to blame. OR, because it’s not your fault anyway, you hide the broken plate; you lie about knowing how it broke.
- You apologize to the person whose plate it is, and offer to replace the plate if you can. If the person whose plate it is gets angry at you, you understand that they’re entitled to their feelings, but that they’re having their feelings because of them; not because of you. You made a mistake and you’ve owned it. You will try to be more careful in the future.
Only path number three is the path of a person who loves themselves enough to not let a mistake be the defining feature of their life. Mistakes are inevitable. All humans make them. None of us is defined by the worst thing we ever did; nor are we defined by the best thing we ever did. We are defined by a complex network of experiences, thoughts, relationships, and choices that make us ever-greater than the sum of our parts.
Shifting into a person with this kind of self-love is especially tricky because humans are designed to repeat mistakes, even when they don’t want to. The reframe: “OK, I did it again. I need to apologize to the person or people affected, accept the consequences of my actions, hold the reality that I’ve caused pain, and move forward truly believing I can be better next time. Growth is slow, but I believe that it’s happening.”