Every day, especially in the era of social
media (from the mental health perspective,
probably the single worst invention of modern
times), we are likely to face enemies. People
who disagree with us, people who tell us we’re
‘bad’, people who say we should be ashamed
of ourselves – or even be destroyed.
The common-sense advice, from well-meaning
friends, is not to listen, to shrug it off,
to assert that no one cares, that the bully
is ‘mad’ or mentally unwell – and to suggest
a change of scene. It’s very kind – and,
sadly, usually, for many of us, entirely ineffective.
The question then emerges: why is it that
some people find it extremely hard to defend
themselves, either in the sense of practically
answering back to an enemy or simply of not
caving in internally in the face of an attack?
Why is it that, when they are being bullied
at work, some people are able to mount a polite,
calm fightback, while others melt into self-loathing
and despair? Why is it that if they are criticised
unfairly in a romantic context, some people
are able to point out that the criticism is
not right and get their side of the story
across and feel steady and solid, while others
descend at once into paranoia?
We might put it like this: in order to be
able to defend oneself against an external
foe, one has to be on one’s own side. And
this is not – for some of us – as easy as
it sounds. Without us necessarily even quite
realising the fact, our entire personalities
may be geared towards interpreting ourselves
as bad, wrong, a mistake, shameful and a piece
of shit. This may sound dramatic and we know,
in our intellectual adult selves, that this
can’t be entirely right. Nevertheless, deep
down, this isn’t only slightly right, it’s
the fundamental truth about us.
A first step towards dealing with an external
enemy is realising that our personalities
are built up in such a way that we’re going
to have a big problem on our hands whenever
we face opposition. We should expect to find
this hard and we do. We are, and there is
no pejorative association around this whatsoever,
a bit mentally fragile or unwell in this area.
We therefore need to call for help, extend
a lot of compassion to ourselves and devote
all the critical care we’re going to need
to get through the crisis. We then need to
take on board that – unfortunately – the real
enemy we’re harbouring is not so much currently
outside of us (though they are there too)
as inside of us.
We need to ask ourselves: why does the accusation
feel so true? Our conscious minds give us
access to only a fraction of the information
about us. Just as we can’t intuitively understand
how a cell operates in our very own body,
so the make up of most of our emotional brain
is sunk in darkness. However, there will be
a history to our self-loathing. We hate ourselves
because somewhere along the line, we were
not properly loved. Somewhere in the past,
we heard a story – you are a piece of shit,
you don’t deserve to be, f*** off… – and
the story has stuck.
How could someone facing an accusation that
they are an idiot but who inside has a voice
saying that they’re a moron ever get the
strength to defend themselves? They know in
the adult part of the mind that they should
be fighting back, but they can’t, because
inside all they hear is: you are everything
your enemy is saying you are. They identify
entirely with their aggressor.
This can get pretty dangerous pretty fast.
If the external enemy is vicious enough, and
joins artfully enough with the internal enemy,
there can be suicidal thoughts – and perhaps
suicide itself. The defenceless are the opposite
of self-righteous. To their enemies, they
are implicitly saying: I hate myself more
than you ever could. I want to kill myself
more than you want to kill me.
The solution to this is a large naive word
we’ll have heard before but which we need
to grasp in its life-saving dimension: love.
We need to hear often enough and clearly enough
from other human beings – and they don’t
need to be romantic partners – that contrary
to what the internal enemy is saying, we are
decent enough, not perfect but that isn’t
the criterion for deserving to exist. We need
to fix ourselves by absorbing, properly absorbing,
the kindness of others.
The problem is that people who feel they are
pieces of shit aren’t very good at letting
others take care of them. They don’t know
how to ask for help, and when help is given,
they may initially push it away, accusing
the kind friend of being weird or inadequate
(why would they be seeking to help a freak?).
We know from the condition known as body dysmorphia
that it’s no use telling someone who feels
they are disgusting that they are in fact
very nice looking. We need to help them understand
how they grew to hate themselves so much and
show them, via a friendship, that there could
be another way of relating to who they are.
We have some hints about how our minds work
from the way we acquire language: children
fluently pick up incredibly complex patterns
of speech from listening to those around them
in the early years. A parallel emotional process
is going on. If someone when we were little
was speaking hate, and shame and guilt to
us, we will have started to speak like that
to ourselves – and it won’t be easy, in
adulthood, to learn a new language, let alone
to come to speak it fluently to ourselves.
Telling someone mired in self-hatred to ‘cheer
up’ or ‘like themselves a bit more’
is going to be as impatient as telling someone
from England to ‘just speak Bulgarian’.
It’s going to take time and a lot of training.
Nevertheless, if we want to think about what
an ambitious project for humanity would look
like, it would be a giant programme of learning
to replace the internalised languages of hate
and enmity with those of love and compassion.
We’ve trying to do this for a couple of
millenia at least. But we’ve done a pretty
poor job of it so far – and the project feels
more urgent than ever. We might start today,
by speaking a few stumbling phrases of love
to the self-hating part of ourselves and to
someone we know near us who is perhaps right
now mired in shame and inadequacy.
At The School of Life we run regular virtual classes for adults. These mini life courses cover such topics as;
how to help relationships work, coping with anger and anxiety, career guidance, finding meaning and purpose in life and using culture as a therapeutic tool.