Is Self-Hatred Really That Heroic?

A couple of months ago, I went to see a Functional Medicine doctor, whose practice brings together Western medicine and more holistic modalities like nutrition and herbal medicine. I was ostensibly there for a “check in,” but the appointment quickly devolved into me crying (heaving) for 30 minutes about how anxious I feel on a daily basis. How much I struggle to quiet my mind. How life tends to feel like a never-ending stream of things to do, including that which I consider a positive influence (e.g. seeing friends, meditating, doing exercise). Along the way, I also mentioned my skin problems, and the fact that my menstrual cycle provides me with trauma on a monthly basis.

“I think you have abnormal fermentation in your gut,” my doctor said.

I don’t relay his prognosis to mock him, #wellness, or Functional Medicine. He is a rigorous scientist, and effectively invented the term “the microbiome.” But I will say that I definitely didn’t want to hear about my gut and what was wrong with it. I didn’t want to add “healing” to another list of things to do.

Ultimately, this doctor also prescribed me a 3-day elimination diet, wherein I was supposed to feed myself exclusively plant-based soups and smoothies—a fast, really. As a formerly anorexic control-freak, I was of two minds: on the one hand, the idea of mild starvation seemed appealing. Since I no longer feel like torturing myself through starvation, I was uplifted by the idea of having an external force to motivate me.

But ultimately, it didn’t. The idea of opening the door to food issues—a door I thought I’d shut, for better or for worse—made my crying spin further out of control. As a compromise, I told my doctor I’d try the elimination diet in January. That is, until I saw my shrink. “You are psychologically unfit for this diet,” she told me. I was relieved. Not fasting for three days didn’t mean that I was a lazy slob. It meant I was following the doctor’s orders! And I guess taking care of myself?

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My morning routine helps me stay calm and present. #ZOLOFT

January is such a bleak time. However annoying “the holiday season” is, this cultural pressure to switch gears from FUN all the time to VIRTUE-24-7 is terribly disconcerting, and, quite frankly, unproductive. As I said to a coworker this week, you would never want to wake up from a long nap and immediately be asked to run a marathon.

And yet…!

This pendulum-like model for change is what we’re culturally conditioned to practice. Somehow, we continue to believe it works—however consciously—despite the fact that 40% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions and only 8% stick to them. Why wouldn’t we? We’ve all been fed the same cultural mythology—that making extreme commitments to self-improvement, usually via deprivation of some kind, is heroic. And typically, such commitments are born from a place of self-hatred.

I should stop here to qualify that I am not very good at the art of being kind to myself, despite my fluency with the vocabulary. Part of the reason why I cried in response to my doctor’s recommendation is because I know no other model for change beyond self-abuse. To embark on any program related to self-care, to me, immediately signified torture. Implicitly, I also knew that if I found myself unable to torture myself adequately, the self-abuse would only persist.

When I think about making any kind of change in my life, no matter how positive, I instinctively worry about this cycle unfolding: 1. A desire to change leads to self-abusive behavior. 2. A realization that said self-abusive behavior is not enough to “cure” me. 3. More self-abuse for not being good enough at abusing myself. It’s a cycle after all, and it’s one that almost seems driven by irony. There’s a certain humor in self-sabotage if you are looking at it in the right mood.

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WORD.

Sometimes, you’re not in the right mood. Take yesterday: I started off the day right. A cup and a half of organic black tea. Oatmeal. A session with my new life coach. Gratitude journaling AND 10 minutes of intentional breath and meditation. Like, I am a fucking parody. I should be the most self-accepting person on earth. Ironically (but not surprisingly) however, these practices often make me feel like I have more homework that I’ve been doing poorly, giving me more reasons to see myself as a let-down. The mind is really tiresome, no?

Fast forward mere moments when I got to work, all ready to #heal and live according to my #truth, and I totally lost sight of everything else beyond my self-loathing. Like every piece of wisdom I’ve been rehearsing for YEARS in therapy, meditation retreats, yoga, craniosacral healing, tarot, life coaching, uh… EVERYWHERE vanished, and there I was, crying under the fluorescent lights (not PMS), craving nicotine, eating snacks too fast when I wasn’t hungry, biting my cuticles—like, all the unglamorous stuff of life that no one ever admits to. Today, when I woke up feeling better, my obvious response was to ask, “Why did this happen? WHAT DID YOU DO WRONG TO AVOID PRACTICING SELF-ACCEPTANCE?”

This is what I mean by the dark humor—the tried and true irony—of what it means to be human. I should say that as I write this, I am on my first day of a MODIFIED elimination diet—thanks, doc!—meaning mostly that I’m just avoiding sugar, coffee, alcohol, and dairy (rather than the full fasting thing…in case you cared). The idea of modifying such a regimen for self-improvement (er, healing, I guess?) initially struck me as horrifying—like, why would I only torture myself a little bit if I could go full force? But I suppose I am practicing what I am preaching here, even if it feels annoying and uncomfortable and all I want to do is binge eat pizza and cream-filled coffee donuts with Bailey’s in them. That is: self-acceptance kind of, well, just is.

A final-ish note that I actually have no idea what that means, because I am not sure I have ever felt self-acceptance. But I have felt the exhaustion of self-abuse, arbitrary and couched in some vague mythology about heroism. I’ve also realized, experientially, that self-loathing tends to behave a lot like a splinter: the more you try to pry it out of you, the more it gets stuck. More often than not, splinters extract themselves when you let them be, rather than when you stab yourself with a tweezer to make your body swollen and inflamed. You know?

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It seems many of us struggle with this question.

So whatever happens this year, let it be known that I am done making myself feel like total garbage about myself on a regular basis, no matter how tied up it is with my feelings of worth and competence. On some days (like yesterday), I will probably do a bad job and bite my nails and smoke a cigarette and ask myself unproductive, self-critical questions about my past actions. But at the end of the day, I can probably try my best to take a big breath, and see that alone as a gesture of a self-acceptance. Just one breath! We can all do…at least try to do…that.

So. WHO ELSE IS WITH ME?!?!?!?!?

Acknowledge Your Shit (+ Say No Thanks)

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Week after week, day after day, I wonder about the origins of my self-loathing. When did it begin? And why? The answers remain unclear, hence asking all the time.

When I refer to “my self-loathing” in everyday conversations—with random people at parties, friends of friends, colleagues, etcetera—I’m always amazed to find that so many people seem to really hear it, and express some kind of relief—as in: You hate yourself on a regular basis? You mean you feel the thing I thought no one else felt?

It’s like a more positive version of the feeling I have when I read WebMD message boards about hypochondriacal scenarios I’ve conjured for myself and see that everyone is bugging the fuck out. Like, oh yeah, we’re all crazy and typing in our bizarre psychosomatic symptoms into Google on a Saturday night. NBD.

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Story of my life.

Anxiety is one of those feelings that is addictive because it’s recursive. It’s cyclical. First there’s the rumination— on habits (or habits of mind), rhetorical questions, obsessions, behaviors, other self-referential objects. Then comes a “bad” feeling. Anxiety, of course, then wants to solve the feeling, because we’re wired to survive. And then more unanswerable questions pile on. Then more feelings. Usually “bad” ones.

(FYI: I don’t mean “bad” or “shitty” with self-blame. I get that any feeling is “just a feeling” but I’m trying to bevel the edges of my Buddhist ideologies by writing with more raw and colloquial language.)

In Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist texts, there is a word—papancha—that refers to this recursive, addictive, cyclical process. Sharon Salzberg, who is my meditation teacher and friend and colleague (and the amazing author of a new book, Real Love), once defined papancha as “the imperialistic quality of the mind towards negativity.” Anxiety, to me, is imperialistic. It somehow always feels like it conquers you. To add insult to injury, you always seem to want to fight back.

Exhausted by this pattern,  I’ve spent the past month or so experimenting with seeing my various judgments and obsessive thoughts differently—and deliberately. For sake of contrast, below is the “before” part of my work-in-progress “before and after”:

Usually, my thought patterns look something like this.

  1. I feel thirsty.
  2. I must not have had enough water today.
  3. I should’ve had more to drink earlier.
  4. Well, just go fill your water bottle, it’s not that hard.
  5. Why do you buy water bottles if you don’t use them?
  6. If you weren’t thinking so much about this, you would just drink water.

It could go on and on.

The irony here is obvious. Anxiety tends to preclude me (you, anyone) from taking a proactive approach to dealing with the very object of the anxiety. It’s often self-sabotaging. For instance, if I’m so anxious about thirst, the best and most pragmatic choice would be to drink. But over the years, I have gotten so used to my habit of rumination as a response to anxiety that I typically lose sense of what I am actually wanting, what my body feels, and what’s best for me in a given moment.

What I have referred to as the “after” stage is a process. But the shorthand is that I am trying to practice welcoming “bad” thoughts, checking in with how they make me feel, and then choosing to say “no thank you!” to them, if that seems self-caring.

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This was a to do list of mine for a recent Saturday. I obsessively make lists, as they keep me feeling bad about my productivity. #dysfunctional

Let me give some context.

A couple of years ago, I was in one of those bad, donation-based yoga class where the teacher kept encouraging us to “not think about our fear.” I remember thinking, “That’s not rly that yogic.” Shouldn’t you acknowledge and accept your fear? The same way you should acknowledge anything that happens in the present moment—even if it’s realizing that you are spending 10 minutes berating yourself about why you don’t drink enough water? Because by acknowledging it, then you can at least be like, OK, now I’m going to release that. If you don’t pay attention, the feeling (and its effects on you) have to go somewhere.

Meditation is the first and only tool I’ve encountered that has enabled me to begin developing a more productive relationship to anxiety. I no longer want to eradicate it, but want to kindly let it know that it’s not welcome as much as it has been in the past. I don’t ignore it (“I don’t hear you knocking on my door!) but rather say something to it like a, “Hi. I see you’re here, but I’m busy at the moment. Sorry!”

I think meditation seems to be so uncomfortable because people (myself included) don’t want to watch what their minds do, and where they go, if without significant distraction. It’s unpleasant to be honest about what we’re capable of making ourselves feel. We’re confronted with watching our mind do things as unproductive as my thirst and water bottle dialogue—and constantly. But it’s only when you notice these things that you can pull yourself out of them. The process REQUIRES that you first acknowledge what’s happening—and that is courageous and useful in and of itself. Even if it feels shitty and seems like it’s showing a part of yourself you don’t want to see. Bottom line? You can’t not think about your fear. It will be there no matter what you call it, or don’t.

Fear is just one emotion in the camp of feelings most of us hate, and that often encourage us to act in ways we don’t like—acting out “our shit.” Maybe you’re feeling loss or are going through a life transition, and, like me, spend 954,334,549 hours on your phone for no reason and then hate yourself for it. Or maybe you drink too much alcohol or have gained weight or sleep too much or are a compulsive online shopper. You get my point.

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Sometimes, I like to drink Campari but I don’t think it’s destructive.

Somehow, I’ve found that calling “my shit” what it is—my shit—has given me both some emotional distance and a sense of relief. In many self-help slash wellness contexts before, I’ve heard that you should “treat yourself like a child” or to “pay attention to your inner child”—that being nurtured like that is self-love. But I’ve never wanted to create that dynamic with myself; it just doesn’t appeal to me, and I think that’s OK (though I’m sure it works for many, and that’s great). In my case, a mix of cynicism and kindness is mesmerizingly comforting: I notice that there are elements of me that can simply be shitty (to others, to myself, etc.), but also that they can probably change. To start that process, I make the observations I need to make, and then experiment with saying no thanks! to some patterns. The notion of this being an “experiment” has also lowered the stakes for me. I feel less pressure to “succeed” in being less self-critical.

#innerchild

No thanks is kind but clear, direct but open-ended. I’m not saying I shouldn’t be having the thought, or denouncing its existence through avoidance. It’s not shutting it down. It’s strangely a technique to objectify the thought as something Other, so that you re-situate yourself in an empowered position. Like, do you want to feel horrible now? the aftertaste of self-criticism may intimate. And your answer can sure as fuck be no thanks! 

I wish more self-help books said fuck and shit and didn’t pretend like change was actually something that feels tenable when you’re urgently seeking it. It will never feel that way! At least I don’t think so.

BUT if you treat your thoughts like little offerings you can take or gently say, “No thanks!” to, the project becomes far more relatable—like politely turning down an offering for fresh ground pepper at a restaurant. You’re neither rationalizing nor criticizing your behaviors. It’s a conversation, and during it, it’s possible to feel change happening, just with one decision.

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Offerings in my bedroom. OBJECTIFY YR THOUGHTS.

Dealing with Anxiety + Embodiment

Can I eat
what you give me. I
have not earned it. Must
I think of everything 

as earned.

            –Robert Creeley

The speaker of Robert Creeley’s poem “For Love” stutters these sharply enjambed lines just after gaining momentum at the beginning of the staccato, recursive poem.  Desperately, the speaker (Creeley himself) asks his lover, the poem’s addressee (whose name is Bobbie, as we learn from the dedication)  if he is capable of eating what she gives him. Of course, he is also asking himself, rhetorically, performatively—is he capable of receptivity? Can he really accept love? Pleasure. Acceptance. Being seen.

Immediately, Creeley decides to answer for himself: “I have not earned it.” His insecure, questioning mind then chirps in with an additional, new question—no question mark: “Must / I think of everything // as earned.” In characteristic fashion, Creeley’s question is a statement, likening his interrogations even further to the circular, often contracting ruminations of the mind.

I’ve always read these lines in a somewhat symbolic way: in the often-sheltered universe of one’s romantic relationship, love itself becomes objectified, something to be earned, deserved, returned—a commodity. We “invest” in others, and wonder if it is “worth” it. Love—something we feel with our bodies and ultimately do with our bodies—becomes an idea. A thing. And our vocabulary adjusts accordingly. This poem gets that, and has been my favorite poem for many years. I even have one line from it tattooed on the back of my right thigh!

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DAT INK.

I love this poem for many reasons, but I am especially fascinated by how strangely the body figures into it. Take the act of eating, which is presented as a symbol of the “give and take” of love, of what the speaker earns (or doesn’t) from his lover. In the world of the poem, Creeley’s body is not hungry; he simply wonders whether it is deserving of love’s nourishment. “What have you become to ask,” Creeley immediately then asks (characteristically without a question mark), “what have I made you into,” he says again, growing desperate with each question. His potential answers include: “companion, good company, / crossed legs with skirt, or / soft body under / the bones of the bed.” Creeley’s lover is an idea— “companion, good company,” a compartmentalized fragment, “crossed legs with skirt,” or a surreal composition, “soft body under / the bones of the bed.” Creeley’s recursion is his defense—from himself, from the body. And from his need for defense, we know of his vulnerability. We see the absence of his being, his loving, in the poem, and in the absence we feel his anxiety, which is basically the poem’s subject.

Throughout “For Love,” the speaker and the lover’s bodies both are no longer bodies, but rather the ideas of bodies. And love, perhaps, too, becomes an idea as the speaker’s experience becomes circumscribed by the circularity of the poem’s language. The poem talks about itself, creating distance from the thing it seeks to describe (love), and defends itself against its own admission: a desire for presence, connection, expression—being, in other words.

This dynamic—defensively thinking about something in abstractions such that it becomes disembodied—was central to my 11 on-and-off years with anorexia, and even my current struggles with anxiety and OCD (not unrelated to the anorexia, but I’ll save that for another time). Food was everything I thought about. It was the object of my focus, of my craving at all times—intellectually, but of course, physiologically, too. I kept food at a distance from myself, situating it as a constant other, an object of craving that I always knew was there—separate from me, something I thought I could control. Being hungry all the time made my body feel like something else, an idea, an object. It kept me from actually feeling, being, alive.

Looking back on that time as the person I am now—someone who not only eats enough but also wants to grow and be happy—I can see that my biggest fear during those years was embodiment. The stuff of life that makes us human—in the bodies we inhabit. Connection, compassion, love, loss.

Our culture makes it hard not to fear embodiment, especially for women, I’d argue. We are told to eat this, not that. Wear this, not that. Move our bodies this way, but not that way. As film critic Laura Mulvey wrote in her iconic essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” “[W]omen are simultaneously looked at and displayed… they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” In a traditional framework—the one Mulvey is using—women’s bodies are typically regarded as objects, as ideas, as vessels for what she calls to-be-looked-at-ness. This leaves many of us clinging to our bodies, trying to follow the rules about our bodies that we’re given by the outside, so that our bodies can be legible to the outside. So that we can be beautiful, worthy of being looked at. For many of us, this narrative was rarely critiqued; or, even if it was, how easy is it to internalize a belief that resists everything you were ever taught?

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“The Male Gaze” causes women to possess “to-be-looked-at-ness.” Hi Ryan Gosling!

Learning to meditate has been my life’s greatest healing practice thus far—for my anxiety, OCD, insomnia and more—but it has also shown me just how much I fear embodiment. Sitting with myself brings up terror. Each day during my practice, as I try (an infinite number of times) to focus on my breath, my mind panics, and I feel it clinging to thoughts that try to jostle me out of my body. Experiencing that anxiety—the push-pull between my body and mind—is almost always unpleasant, but it reminds me to see my thoughts (particularly my anxious ones!) as separate from my body, as fleeting, flexible. My body, too, of course, is fleeting. And OBVI mortality is my #1 anxiety (I freak out about death on a daily basis probably). But the practice of actually SITTING WITH THAT ANXIETY, and feeling it, is meditation, despite the belief that meditating necessarily = inner peace. Meditation creates a space within which being a body can’t be rendered into an idea. 

BODY ≠ IDEA

I should admit: I often hate it when I meditate—the act of doing it. I hate sitting with my body, being with it, of it. I feel uncomfortable—physically, emotionally, intellectually. But that doesn’t mean I buy into the thoughts that challenge me to step outside of myself. I receive whatever it is my mind gives me, and go onto “accept” the thought if the invitation appeals. The scariest thought of all, perhaps, is that we always have the choice to either receive—or gently turn away from—everything we are given. But we all certainly have the power “to eat” what we are given, and not to think of everything as earned.