“So what do you do when you hate yourself,” I asked the sage across from me, “like, super relentlessly?”
The neatly shaven Gandalf gently took a sip of his probiotic kombucha and waited a moment.
“Radical self acceptance,” he said firmly.
I suppressed a groan, “Not more of that hippie bull*#$!, Nate.” I took a frustrated bite out of the 1/3rd pound burger in front of me and shook my head. “When are you going to learn that’s just nihilistic and self congratulatory.”
“Do you think it’s arrogant?” he asked me, sounding a little frustrated.
“Yes,” I fired back, “I do!”
The stovepipe in my heart kicked up, ready for a fight. Our eyes met and we locked lasers on target. But there was genuine curiosity behind the momentary disagreement, and when I saw it, I forced the dial on my racing heart down a few notches.
He explained to me where he was coming from, and just like the master had taught me I held my amygdala in check, asked questions, and tried to understand his point from his stupid liberal perspective.
I didn’t like empathizing with something I considered so blatantly wrong and evil and postmodernist, but as our lunch came to an end and the months to follow, I caught myself thinking about his point more and more. I didn’t agree with it, but as the basis for cursiary thought, I kept it on the mental books for a while.
Then someone I did agree with said the same thing.
And that’s when I sighed loudly, “Dodge rammit, Nate’s right again.”
I’ve struggled with depression since I was about 8-10 years old. I grew up in a single parent household with a caustically abusive mother and my two siblings. My mom ruthlessly ripped into us, and it has affected me harshly. She had a habit of shredding our self esteem with vitriolic insults whenever she was in a fit of rage. She’d accuse us of being irresponsible, of being selfish, stupid, and more often than not, completely defective. In her house, you had to play by her rules, or you didn’t play at all. You had to do things exactly the way she told you and the way she wanted them, otherwise, you’d be forced to stand there and get yelled at while the parent who is supposed to protect and nurture you got purple in the face, spitting mad. Sometimes she’d go into our rooms, take everything off our shelves and smash it indiscriminately on the floor. She’d say she’s “Punishing us because our rooms were messy”, or “That’s what happens when you don’t clean your rooms.” As with many toxic parents, there’s a lot of projection that takes place.
It’s been a decade since we left that house, but the scars remain seared on my conscience. Her message remains clear, “You don’t matter, nothing you do will ever make you matter, you shouldn’t have been born and you can’t stop me from destroying everything that’s yours.”
Whether it was property or emotional battery, the result was always the same. Be it a prized copy of Back to the Future Part III, my first lego tank I spent hours on, printouts of tabletop game cards, or even my sister’s glasses. It didn’t matter that these were beloved to her kids, it didn’t matter that we were red in the face bawling while she did it, the intent was always the same.
Your possessions didn’t matter. Your feelings didn’t matter. You didn’t matter. You’re worthless. And you can’t stop me from hurting you. And let’s face it, you deserve it.
Needless to say, having a healthy self image isn’t exactly second nature to me. Maybe that’s why what Nate said hit such a nerve with me. Maybe the ghost of my mom, and the wounds of the past still haunt me, and my ability to accept the person in the mirror.
It hasn’t been easy.
As the battle from my brain continued, a recent victory occurred in an unexpected place.
A few weeks ago I was at martial arts practice and there’s a girl I’ve been nursing a crush on for a while now. Some nights I would get really anxious about how other people are reacting to me and this night in particular she and others were avoiding eye contact with me and as a result, I was drowning in self hatred.
Between classes, and fed up with all this energy being spent on the subject, I pried out my laptop and made myself sit down with my thoughts. Desperate to get some kind of bearing, I furiously punched at the keys, and organized my thoughts. I noted times when people seemed to avoid me or posture themselves uncomfortably when I’m talking. Then I noted when they didn’t.
A pattern began to emerge. On my best days I accomplished what I thought was important and as a result, I accepted myself more and others were drawn to me. On days when I didn’t or was in a bad mindset, I hated myself more and people seemed to avoid me.
I noted that I have a tendency of only accepting myself if I’m in my idealized state. Or put another way, “I’m somewhere on this map here (Arbitrary Point A), but I don’t know where that is. I need to be over there (Objective B), but I’m not and I don’t know how to get there. And if I’m not at Objective B, I’m not acceptable. Dammit I really suck!”
It’s a tragic line of reasoning, but it’s one I fall into a lot. I saw that it was good that I had figured this out, but I needed a plan to overcome it.
That’s when Nate’s idea came to mind. Which connected to other corroborating concepts people had offered and the whole picture came into focus.
“Let’s accept myself where I’m at. I’m at…ok…I’m at Arbitrary Point A. And I want to be at B. Oh! That makes sense how to get there now! I just go across the Rubicon, through some mountains and boom! I’m in Rome! Bingo.”
When I prayed and asked God to help me accept myself, the strain on my body faded. A genuine smile for the first time that night really sunk in and I felt better.
A lot better actually.
See, the only form of acceptance I experienced up to this point was earned acceptance. I had to bust my butt just to achieve the right to exist. And on days I didn’t, well, I’d be crushed by debilitating depression.
That moment at jiu-jitsu, it was the first time I just allowed myself to be me, unconditionally. To just be, and not judge myself based on if I improved, changed, or even healed. I accepted myself in the middle of my disfunction and weakness. I accepted myself in Arbitrary Point A instead of waiting until I got to Objective B. I accepted myself where I was, instead of withholding it to motivate self condemning change in my life. And the effect was groundbreaking.
Not only did that girl start making eye contact with me again, she also stood noticeably closer to me for the rest of the night and she asked if I wanted to go grab food with her afterwards. To top it all off, people were looking at me again and I was able to be that much more focused on the class. My sensei praised me for my dedication, invited me to an invite-only advanced karate class and even murmured something about maybe someday being an instructor.
It was a complete 180, and one of the best nights that entire week!
So remember kids, whenever you have a disagreement with someone and you have an instant and strong reaction, do yourself a favour and try to listen to them anyways.
Sometimes they just might surprise you.
(Even though I still think Nate is a weirdo-hippie)