A negative self-image is based on a narrative you develop for yourself over time.
Once created in your mind, the narrative become hard to shake. The more you run the story-line, the more convinced you are that the narrative is the truth. It becomes your identity.
This is the sad irony: humans are horrible at knowing how things truly are, yet we are convinced that we do know how things are and how things will always be.
On a personal level, when we are convinced that we are a certain way, that belief becomes the narrative that runs our life.
The Story I Told and Believed
My narrative was one of averageness and unlikability. Looking back, it’s hard for me to believe that this is what I wholeheartedly believed about myself for so many years.
Two experiences that set the stage are the following:
I got a zero on an eight-question word problem test in the sixth grade. My math teacher decided to tell a story about a play called “The Perfect Idiot” and announced to the class that there was a perfect idiot in the class. Why she chose to do that, I do not know.
Yes I struggled with word problems, and math in general, but I was far from an idiot.
Reading 1,000 page history books at that age could possibly be thought of as somewhat precocious and an indication that I might be headed for a career as a history professor.
But apparently no teachers or guidance counselor recognized those interests. No one ever said, “you know what, this kid probably will never need to do math, he’s headed for a career as a history teacher, lets encourage that”.
My inability to do word problems, and math in general, became the issue. It stayed an issue until I took Math 110 at Maryland my freshman year, got a D, and thankfully never had to take another math class again.
I thought of myself as an idiot because I wasn’t any good at math. I fretted over my trouble with numbers rather than celebrate my ability to read and write pretty well.
Focusing on my troubles rather than my successes became a constant theme in my life.
Romantic love is one of the most confusing of life’s experiences, especially at a young age when your experience is limited, your body is changing, your hormones are raging, and you are desperately trying to find an identity.
Once you have your heart broken by a girl, you are wary of “letting” it happening again (as if you have control).
For me, the sting of rejection was so brutal, and the uncomfortable sensations it created in my body so strong, I became terrified of feeling it again.
In this way feelings become frightening; if you show a girl you like them, you cede power to them over you. They could hurt you with that knowledge.
That’s the thought process that led to the following scenario, which became the experience I most wanted to avoid, but which I had to see over and over through my high school and college life:
Whenever I saw one of my crushes, in whom I could never express an interest due to fear of rejection, hanging out with another guy, I internalized it as a reflection of my inadequacy. I was too afraid to talk to the girl (cowardice!) because I was convinced I’d be rejected (unlikable!)
So my life’s narrative became one of averageness and unlikeability.
This narrative got stronger and stronger as I interpreted every life event through that lens. I believed that happiness, whatever it was, was something that only other guys experienced, mostly because girls liked them.
I personalized perfectly normal phenomena, normal experiences that happen to everybody, and attributed them to my own personal defects.
I learned to detest uncomfortable or painful feelings because I mistakenly believed that I was my feelings, and that they were a punishment for some personal failing, like if I were someone else, or somewhere else, I would be happier and wouldn’t feel those things.
All I wanted to do was escape from wherever I was, and from who I was, because obviously there was something wrong with me.
I waited for things to change: junior year to become senior year, to go away to college, to get a new job, to find a girlfriend.
But as I discovered, life never works out the way you expect it to, and happiness won’t magically arise due to change.
Doing Away With Anxiety
The Greek philosopher Epicurus taught that anxiety is what prevents people from being happy. Part of getting rid of anxiety included living a simple life.
I found this to be true.
The more I gave up the notion that anything external would make me happy, and started to pay attention to the things that really did make me happy, the course of my life was altered.
I also seized upon the concept of self-actualization and followed my bliss: I quit my IT job and began teaching dancing and personal training. My happiness increased exponentially even if my income hadn’t. But no matter, Epicurus’ teaching turned out to be true for me. Life was already more enjoyable.
For the first time, I started to believe I was actually doing things right, even when others were looking at me like I was crazy for believing what I did.
The main problem was that I was now the main source of my anxiety. My anxiety wasn’t financial, career driven, or family driven.
I simply didn’t love myself yet.
Emerging from the clouds
I recall being on a flight to Dallas out of Newark. We took off in a heavy rain.
As we ascended, the rain and storm clouds were still there but the higher we got, the less menacing they looked. As we flew through the clouds the rain got less. Finally we emerged from the clouds and into a brilliant sunshine.
That’s how I view the process of shedding a negative narrative. The storm clouds, the rain, they are all a part of life and completely inescapable. They are normal meteorological occurrences that we choose to label as bad because we prefer the sunny days.
On the other hand, if you view water as what makes it possible for us to live, which it is, you view the rain as welcome, something to be celebrated. Even if you can’t bring yourself to experience stormy weather in a celebratory manner, you can at least learn to view it as tolerable and completely expected.
To love yourself, you must change your relationship to pain and feelings.
When you view pain and feelings as an inescapable part of the human existence and necessary for life (because it is), and not something negative that only happens to you, and definitely not something to be ashamed of or a sign of weakness, you emerge into the brilliant sunshine that life can be.
My relationship with pain really changed when I realized there is a difference between feeling sorry for myself and feeling compassion for myself, and it has made all the difference.
Feeling sorry for myself casts me into the victim role. By that point, I knew I was not a victim and there was nothing wrong with. I wasn’t inadequate in any way.
However, I did have to learn to feel compassion for myself, for the pain and suffering I had felt in my life. Feeling sorry for myself involved judgement and was anger producing. I mistakenly believed that because I knew what pain was and where it was coming from that I shouldn’t feel it.
But understanding the source of pain doesn’t mean that you’ll never feel it. Understanding the source of pain means that it won’t turn into prolonged suffering–unless you don’t acknowledge it with compassion.
Feeling compassion for myself was simply acknowledging the fact that pain happens and I didn’t do anything to deserve it. I learned not to judge the feeling of pain.
In that way I developed what Buddhism calls Maitri: an unconditional kindness for myself. This subtle shift in my relationship to pain has made an unbelievable change in my happiness.
When I learned to love myself, I realized a couple things:
– there is nowhere else to be that’s guaranteed to be better than where you are now.
– No one else is necessarily happier than you, because happiness is a state of mind, not something that can be purchased.
– goodness is the only thing that really matters in this life.
– all you control is your effort and how you treat people.
– you’re fine the way you are.
That is why my first point of my daily meditation is
“May I love myself just as I am”
Points #2-5 are upcoming and less wordy.
P.S. If you found this post interesting or helpful, please “like”, “share”, or send to someone who needs another perspective on life. You never know what can change someone’s life for the better.