Over the last few years I’ve learned some hard lessons about friendships, relationships and the ways in which my own insecurity has found me actively judging others as harshly as I judge myself.
A year or so ago I made a Big Mistake(TM) – the kind of mistake I, thankfully, don’t make too often, and the kind that takes quite a bit to plow through and make peace with. I won’t go into the details, of course, but I will talk about some of the epiphanies I had in the aftermath.
Up until that point, I had a pretty polarized view of morality. There was Right, and there was Wrong, and very few things fell into the middle ground. This, I’ve come to learn, is a pretty tell-tale symptom of self-loathing. I have always had a really strong critical voice in my head (I call him The Sergeant or Sarge for short.) It’s one of the things that makes me a really good activist, but it has also had the unfortunate side-effect of making me unfailingly hard on myself and others when I/they failed to meet my unrealistic expectations of perfection.
Making that Big Mistake wasn’t something I could justify or tuck away. It fell far outside my ethical boundaries and I had to sit back and really re-evaluate the foundations of my morality. I did a Bad Thing. So was I now a Bad Person? Was it as simple as that? My shame spiral was a hot mess, I tell you. Not pretty to look at. And I had no idea what to do with myself for weeks.
During this time I was witness and party to some of the most profound compassion and tenderness of my entire life. My community of friends and family refused to join me in my self-flagellation and were actively supportive and non-critical. Over and over they countered and contested the haranguing Sarge, over and over they reminded me that one mistake didn’t change me at my core. They held space for me to be accountable, but refused to let me designate myself as anything other than the loving and well-intentioned person they knew me to be. I was deeply moved and even more deeply humbled.
The experience of REALLY fucking up and being so deeply loved and learning to love myself through it was life-altering. And frankly, had I not really just totally screwed the pooch (for lack of a better term) I’d never have had the opportunity to know that kind of compassion. The fact that something GOOD came out of something I felt was so horrible was something I really had to sit with and examine. It flew in the face of every rule of ethics I’d ever applied to myself or anyone else.
The ultimate result of this adventure was the realization that I had to throw away my yard stick. Constantly trying to measure up to an unrealistic archetype of what a Good Person looked like meant not only that I was doing myself a great injustice, but it was also making me intolerant of the journey of others and the ways in which life is just messy sometimes, and we’re all doing the best we can with what we’ve got.
In life, everything is true all at once. There are Good People and there are Bad People, but precious few are truly just one or the other. Most of us are a heady mix of nature and nurture, wounded souls traveling a path together, “broken monkeys” (to quote my dear friend) and “imperfect family” (to quote another) who have the best of intentions even if our actions may not always prove this.
The point of this post is to give an example of the ways in which self-loathing turns into a hypercritical state that makes it nearly impossible to sustain healthy, long-term relationships with both our own selves and the others in our life that will invariably fail us – sometimes in big ways, sometimes in small. Being open and loving makes us vulnerable, but learning compassion for ourselves has the beautiful ripple effect of giving us a deeper well of compassion for others.
Learning to love ourselves is the first step in truly learning to love others, quirks, foibles and all.