Loving Yourself and Loving Others

In recent years, I’ve seen an idea pop up in articles or blog posts about self-love, and it goes something like this: “If you don’t love yourself, you can’t love others” or “You need to learn how to love yourself before you can love others.”

But is this true? I think it’s simplistic.

Even if you struggle to love yourself, you may still be able to love another person. Even if you struggle to perceive your own worth and good qualities, you may still see what’s good in other people. You may be biased against yourself, and blinded to what’s in you. But your perception of other people may be more generous and loving.

Telling people that they can’t love others unless they first love themselves seems hopelessly pessimistic and discouraging. It can make people seriously doubt if they can ever experience the joy and closeness of a healthy relationship, unless they first meet the goal of loving themselves. (Also, loving yourself isn’t “all or nothing.” There are days when you may not be able to stand yourself, and other days when you’re more accepting of who you are and kinder to yourself.)

That said, self-loathing may encourage a loathing of other people. Meaning that a lack of compassion for yourself may also combine with a lack of empathy or compassion for others. This is one of the potential dangers of self-loathing, especially an entrenched and persistent self-loathing.

Another danger of self-loathing is destructiveness. You may be driven to hurt yourself and to damage your relationships with people. You wind up behaving in unloving ways and hurting them.

So yes, self-loathing can be destructive and needs to be addressed. But I still don’t accept the idea that you need to reach a state of self-love in order to love others.

Maybe it’s also useful to distinguish between love as a feeling and love as a set of behaviors. Ideally, the two go together, but actions are generally more important. For instance, I’m not impressed by people who claim to love their spouse or children but then mistreat them. Do you really love the people you mistreat? Love shouldn’t just be something that’s felt “deep down”; it needs to manifest as action.

I do encourage people to behave in loving ways to themselves, even if they’re not feeling much love for themselves. Likewise, treating others with love and respect, even when you’re in a low mood, is something to aim for. Behaviors can also have the effect of strengthening certain feelings and attitudes, including the love you feel towards yourself and others.

Five Ways Social Media Can Hurt Your Mental Health (And Your Character)

Is using Twitter making you feel depressed or chronically enraged? How about scrolling through Instagram? The answer really depends on multiple factors, such as the accounts you follow, the amount of time you spend on these sites, your personality, and your general state of mind.

It’s simplistic to say that social media is entirely bad, when it can give you benefits, such as connecting with people over books you enjoy reading. But it’s also a potential underminer of mental health and character. In what ways can it hurt you?

Helplessness

It’s fine to stay informed about what’s happening in your community and around the world. But it’s impossible to keep track of everything, and there’s a limit to what you can do about the news you hear. For instance, if you’re reading about a humanitarian crisis, you may be able to donate to a reputable non-profit organization or advocate for better policies to prevent future crises. But you can’t physically swoop in and scoop people out of harm’s way.

If you’re on social media for long enough, you’re immersed in updates of terrible crimes, horrific accidents, and large-scale crises, including wars and natural disasters. It’s one thing to stay informed; it’s another to be steeped in tragedy for hours on end.

You also get a front-row seat to all kinds of propaganda and dishonesty. Dishonesty isn’t limited to one end of the political spectrum. Many people are eager to spread any information that appears to confirm their beliefs. You watch in real time how someone’s reputation gets trashed based on a lie or a profound distortion. Any corrections you share can feel like drops of water in a flood of lies.

When faced with this horrible torrent, helplessness is a common response. You begin to focus more on what you can’t do and on how much is beyond your help. You experience despair, or you become more numb and apathetic. You become less inclined to act in ways that are in your power. You adopt an all-or-nothing mentality: “If I can’t fix all of this, I can’t do anything. What’s the point.”

Dissociation

Spending a lot of time on social media can create rifts between your body, emotions, and thoughts. The relationships and activities of your offline existence fade in importance or resonance. You use what’s on your screen as a perpetual distraction from serious problems, such as chronic loneliness. You become alienated from your body, fixating instead on cartoon avatars or painstakingly tweaked and heavily filtered photos. Good health involves an integration of body and brain, and care for both. When you’re dissociated from yourself, you feel less real, less important.

Social Contagion

Various behaviors, emotions, and psychological conditions are subject to social influence. Suicidality and anorexia are two examples. “Tourette-like behaviors” is another one.

On different social media platforms, there are communities that encourage a lack of well-being. Years ago on Tumblr, for example, I saw groups of younger people fill their bios with lists of mental health problems, developmental disorders, medical issues, and obscure identities. Many times, these would be self-diagnosed, and there was a competitiveness to it. A longer list meant that you were more interesting and more authoritative; people had to listen to you, and you could tell them how they should think and feel about a particular issue. Taking steps to become mentally healthier was a sign that you had no serious problems to begin with. It was a sign that you were boring and “normal.” (Nobody in these circles wanted to be normal.)

This type of behavior isn’t limited to Tumblr, but what I saw on Tumblr was an excellent example of unwellness being turned into an identity. If you were depressed, you weren’t meant to think of depression as a part of your life that you treat and cope with. You’d make it part of your more permanent identity.

Perpetual Dissatisfaction

On social media, you can always find people who are better-looking than you, more talented, more intelligent, and more popular. Many also seem to have a lively social life and strong relationships. Are they actually happier than you? Who knows. You’re looking at curated images and narratives. Some people may be genuinely happy, while others smile and pose through terrible pain. Regardless, a steady stream of posts and images can intensify feelings of dissatisfaction with yourself and different aspects of your life. And you may be fixated, stuck on scrolling past image after image of a happiness that appears to be unattainable to you.

Emotional Manipulation

Social media presents a skewed picture of people and life more generally. Posts that are more extreme and lacking in nuance generally get more views, clicks, likes, shares, and comments. The people most active on a site often behave in obsessive or abusive ways, without a sense of perspective.

You get into heated arguments with bots. You feed on a steady stream of what an algorithm sends your way. The stream of information contains lies and distortions, and how much do you absorb without fact-checking or questioning?

Plugging into social media twists your emotions around. You feel angry and outraged for hours. Or you ride on waves of vengeful pleasure. Or your stomach twists into anxious knots, and fear settles cold and heavy in your belly. The emotions stay with you long after you’ve looked away from the screen (and it’s so hard to stay away!). You’ve plugged in and received currents of algorithm-driven feelings, and it’s addictive – the emotions, the potential responses from people to your posts. Do you sense that you’re in control of your social media use?

The E.R. and Society

I was talking recently to someone who works in an emergency room as a nurse, and she told me about all the non-emergencies at the E.R. – among them, people seeking drugs, people sleeping off drunkenness, people with untreated mental illness.

What she described reminded me of this excerpt from a short story, “Emergency Room Notebook, 1977,” by Lucia Berlin (published in an anthology, A Manual for Cleaning Women):

“Fear, poverty, alcoholism, loneliness are terminal illnesses. Emergencies, in fact.”

Two Major Challenges in Mental Health Healing

Here are two big ones that make people feel discouraged after they’ve already started addressing their mental health issues:

Progress isn’t linear

When they start working on their mental health, people often expect (or hope) to experience steady progress. Whether they’re finding ways to manage anxiety or confront the effects of sustained abuse, they hope for a clear, stable path to success.

The reality is more messy, and the messiness can be discouraging.

You deal with difficult situations, the fragility of new habits, and the persistence of long-established patterns of thought and behavior. Just when you think you’re doing fine, new problems crop up. Long-buried emotions demand attention.

That’s not to say that you aren’t making any progress at all. It’s just that healing can be uneven and patchy. It often involves backsliding and reversion. Some areas of your life may improve dramatically and within a relatively short amount of time. In other areas, you may still feel shaky, like you’re fumbling in the dark.

A while ago, I came across an interesting, hopeful quote about how healing is more like a spiral than a straight path:

“We swing around again and again to the same old issues, but at different turns of the spiral. Each time we confront a similar feeling or reaction we have yet another opportunity to learn and to heal. Each time, we bring with us whatever new understanding we have gained since the last time we cycled through this particular difficulty.”

– Nancy J. Napier, Getting Through the Day

It helps to not see healing as the attainment of a perfect state. Healing gives you more strength and resources to deal with the inevitable messiness of life. It also opens up new possibilities for what you can do with your life and what you can experience.

regrets are powerful

Healing often brings with it greater self-awareness. In many ways, this is beautiful. You’re in a better position to make good choices. If you’re more aware of your emotions, you can also be more open to joy, excitement, and love.

But awareness can also bring with it pain. You realize that certain relationships in your life are damaging. You become acutely aware of things you’ve missed out on. Even as you grow stronger mentally and emotionally, regret may blindside you. Grieving what’s lost and coming to terms with regret become part of your healing.

There are different ways of dealing with regret – like focusing more on the future, focusing on what you’re doing with your life now, and changing the story you tell about your life, so that it’s more about what you’re overcoming and what you’re working towards, and less about wasted time and loss. Still, regret is undeniably difficult to deal with.

Some Thoughts About Feeling Superfluous

One of the things people fear most is being “unneeded” or “useless.” When people feel like they’re superfluous, and that no one really needs them around, they tend to wonder about two things:

  1. “How will I get by?”
  2. “What am I even living for?”

The question of “How will I get by?” comes from a basic survival fear. If someone is made redundant at their job, and no one else is interested in hiring them, how will they keep a roof over their head and afford food, clothes, and health care? If their family doesn’t seem to need or want them, where will they go? When you’re on the fringes of the pack or out in the cold, it’s much harder to get by.

The question of “What am I even living for?” comes from a loss of purpose. When people feel superfluous, they wonder what it is they’re meant to do. People generally fare better when they’re needed for something or doing something meaningful – when they can create or build things, provide care, render assistance, inspire or teach others, give themselves and others opportunities to grow, explore something interesting, and give love to others in tangible ways.

Why Do Many People Feel Superfluous Nowadays?

The pandemic has exacerbated certain tendencies and accelerated trends that have already been provoking a sense of superfluousness in people, namely:

  • Job loss or job insecurity
  • Isolation
  • A feeling of helplessness

Numerous small businesses have been wrecked this past year, but even before that many were contending with steep competition from internet commerce, along with struggling to pay rising taxes and rent in many places.

Many jobs continue to be in danger from automation, where technology (automated computer processes, AI) performs the necessary tasks and makes human involvement largely obsolete. The pandemic has brought on another wave of automation. For some, job retraining and new placements will be possible. However, there are various barriers to retraining and starting fresh, including the fact that individuals aren’t infinitely adaptable or transplantable. Retraining programs often fall short in various ways as well.

As for isolation, this is more than just being on your own now and then. It’s being cut off from others – family, friends, romantic partners, colleagues, community. The sense of being cut off can stem from literal physical isolation. (For most people, simulations of togetherness via Zoom and other online platforms don’t come close to replacing time spent together in-person.) Isolation may also stem from a feeling of profound loneliness even when you’re among other people. In either case, there’s some lack of mutual connectedness.

Another aspect of isolation is the belief that no one really cares about you. You experience callousness, empty promises, and an abdication of responsibility. This is crushing.

What about helplessness? Sometimes, people have a tendency to overestimate how helpless they are in various situations and miss out on ways to change their lives. But there’s no denying that helplessness goes beyond self-imposed mental limits. People may realize that they have much less influence over their surroundings than they thought. For instance, that their government on multiple levels isn’t responsive to them. One of the issues harshly brought to light by the pandemic is the disconnect between the governing elite and the people they govern, as seen with the insensible policies and the remarkable indifference to serious concerns.

Continue reading “Some Thoughts About Feeling Superfluous”

Four Ways Toxic Relationships Mess Up Your Perception of Kindness

Whether it involves family, romance, or friendship, a relationship with toxic patterns of behavior can change how you perceive yourself and other people. And particularly when it’s abusive, it can mess with your perceptions of kindness. I’ll give you a few examples:

Kindness Becomes Unreliable and Short-Lived

Often, there are moments of kindness even in an unhealthy relationship, or periods of time when kindness and consideration are on the ascendant. You may feel, if not happiness, then relief during those periods. Sometimes, you allow yourself to hope that things will get better in the long-run.

When those hopes are dashed often enough, you perceive kindness as something that isn’t a consistent part of relationships. You see it instead as fleeting and provisional. Even if you walk on eggshells in an attempt to maintain peace and avoid any outburst or explosive conflict, it won’t last.

The idea of being in a relationship of mutual consistent kindness may come to seem unrealistic. And when you experience kindness from others, you have a difficult time trusting its longevity.

Kindness Serves As a Get-Out-of-Jail Free Card

In a toxic relationship, acts of kindness may become an effective way of giving cruelty a pass. If you complain about mistreatment, you’re reminded about the times (or time) that the other person was kind to you, did things for you. How can you be so ungrateful? How dare you complain about anything?

Kindness can also be a way of smoothing over a nasty fight or an incident of abuse without having to deal with any of the underlying issues. Instead of a meaningful change for the better, what you get is a gift and some good behavior, at least for a short while. Until the next explosion.

In these situations, kindness comes across as superficial. Like papering over a wall where mold is spreading or the wood is rotting.

Kindness Communicates an Insult

Kindness no longer seems very kind when you realize that someone is helping you just because they’ve characterized you as incompetent. They’re telling you, without necessarily saying the words, that you’re incapable of doing all kinds of things. This sort of “kindness” becomes a way of diminishing your abilities or keeping you from developing.

Kindness Performed for You Isn’t About You

You may come to realize that acts of kindness are more like acts of self-aggrandizement or a performance put on for others. Kindness may be limited to occasions when there’s a third party, an audience for the selflessness.

The kindness may also only occur when the other person wants something from you. Otherwise, you may as well not exist.

How Can You rethink Your Perceptions of Kindness?

A toxic relationship may make you more wary about other people’s motives, and this cautiousness has its benefits for sure. The problem is when you can’t detect or trust kindness when it’s sincere.

What are some of the things you can do to reconsider your perceptions of kindness and open yourself to sincerely kind behavior? Although the following suggestions are broad, and aren’t 100% effective in all situations, they’re at least a starting point:

  • Look at acts of kindness in a wider context, not in isolation. (Pay attention to how someone interacts with you as a whole – and see if the kindness is embedded in patterns of behavior that are damaging or abusive.)
  • Allow yourself time to get to know people better. (For instance, if someone you have just met keeps pressuring you for intimacy, closeness, moving in together immediately, etc. you can definitely take a step back and regard them with caution.)
  • Figure out the things you want from relationships in your life – what mutual giving, trust, and love look like to you. What do you consider unacceptable treatment (to receive or inflict on others)?
  • Distinguish between kindness expressed in concrete actions or speech, vs. a fuzzier “kindly feeling.” There are people who claim to be kind, but their kindness doesn’t seem to manifest in consistent thoughtful behavior. It seems like they’re paying lip service to the idea of kindness.
  • Work on improving how you communicate, both as a speaker and as a listener. This includes strengthening your ability to stand up for yourself and explain your thoughts.
  • Also, work on communicating well with yourself. For example, how do you talk to yourself when you’re struggling? Do you speak to yourself reasonably, or do you tear into yourself and chronically put yourself down? Even if there are various aspects of your life that you’d like to change – and even if you’re full of regret or disappointment about how things are going – there’s no need to be horrible to yourself or to ignore anything that’s good or that has good potential. Treating yourself horribly may “feel normal” by this point, but it doesn’t have to be your normal. With practice, you can start replacing horrible put-downs with more measured and nuanced speech (avoiding extremes of negativity without going into extremes of unrealistic positivity).

An Example of “Good Enough” Parenting

I was doing some research for a client when I came across this article about being a “good enough” parent, with insights from moms who have kids with Down Syndrome.

“The Mediocre Mom’s Guide to Raising a Child with Down Syndrome (or Any Kid for That Matter)” has some good examples of how you can be a decent parent without being a superhero who gets everything right all the time.

Catastrophizing as a Form of Self-Protection?

Considering the health-related and economic effects of the pandemic, and the fact that we’re in the final weeks leading up to the U.S. presidential election, it isn’t surprising to come across doom-and-gloom pronouncements virtually everywhere.

If you have a tendency to catastrophize – to dwell on the worst possible outcomes for every scenario – the constant state of red alert may be strengthening your tendency to brood over all the terrible things that could happen, whether tomorrow or next year.

Generally, catastrophizing isn’t helpful. It’s one thing to make plans and provisions, as best you can, for when something may go wrong. It’s quite another thing to get swept away in darker and darker thoughts about the future, and to obsessively visualize the most terrible things happening. Your mind is in turmoil over things that may never happen.

In a strange way, catastrophizing can make you feel powerful and helpless at the same time. Powerful, because you feel as if you know the future, every detail of it. About 7 minutes and 20 seconds into the video I’ve shared at the top of the post, there’s a part I want to highlight: the idea that catastrophizing may serve a protective function, because you feel as if you’re using it to fight against uncertainty and save yourself from future disappointment.

Basically, you feel like nothing bad can shock or overwhelm you because you already expect it. But how much power does brooding over catastrophes actually give you?

Catastrophizing may protect you from taking all kinds of risks. However, some of these risks may be worth taking, such as learning a new skill, or approaching someone to ask them out on a date or hopefully become their friend. Thanks to catastrophizing, you imagine nightmare outcomes even for situations that are mildly or moderately risky. Maybe you fear rejection, for instance, so you imagine harsh and humiliating outcomes to keep yourself from approaching someone and potentially exposing yourself to their indifference or dislike.

What if something terrible does happen? Even if you’re overestimating the possibility of horrific outcomes, there’s still a chance of catastrophe. What then?

For one thing, you can’t know exactly how everything will play out. Even if you imagine a horrible scenario, it won’t unfold exactly the same way in real life. There are factors you aren’t thinking about and twists and turns you can’t anticipate.

And I don’t mean that in a bad way. For example, you may be underestimating your capacity to deal with a terrible situation. Maybe you’ll be able to act in ways you can’t currently imagine or haven’t even considered. Maybe there are avenues of help you don’t know about, other people who will assist you or resources that will become available to you. Even if what you fear is a recurrence of something, maybe this time around you’ll have a greater capacity to deal with it, in part because of the knowledge and wisdom you’ve gained.

When you’re catastrophizing, you may confuse the intensity of your thoughts with the certainty of your knowledge. Turmoil doesn’t mean truth. For better and worse, you can’t predict everything. But it’s easy to overestimate the likelihood of the worst thing happening and underestimate our own ability to respond to it better than we can imagine.

I wrote this post in part as a reminder to myself, and also because it may be helpful to other people in this crazy year and beyond. One of my friends told me that in the midst of catastrophizing she tries to at least get something out of it – like thinking of a solution to a future problem or thinking of something she can change in her life now. The challenge is to not let the thoughts become obsessive and paralyzing.

Dangerously Pretending That You’re Separate From Your Body

Maybe at some point I’ll write a longer post about this. For now, I just want to point out strong tendencies I’m seeing on multiple fronts – in commentary on sexuality, pregnancy, dieting, surgery, and other topics – where the body gets treated as something separate from you as a person.

The tendency to think of the body as an inert meat sack. Or as a mere machine. Or simply as a glove you’re wearing, nothing more. That the “real you” isn’t connected to your body.

That you can have all kinds of things done to your body or do all kinds of things to your body – physical harm, modifications, deprivations of different kinds, sexual acts you’re gritting your teeth to endure, the commodification of organs or the body as a whole – and that somehow this will leave your mental well-being untouched. (Or at least, you can move on quickly if you just don’t think about it too much.)

Ignoring the body is easier than ever with all the distractions around you. Is your body persistently sending you signals that you’re always ignoring? Even if you think your body is “misfiring” in some way – for instance, warning you of a danger that you don’t think exists – it’s still important to make note of how your body communicates with you. Maybe the danger is legitimate. Or maybe you’re experiencing an anxiety that you need to learn how to understand and soothe. Regardless, it’s important to engage with yourself. Ignoring your body isn’t a long-term solution. Any underlying problems don’t go away.

Talking about the body sometimes gets you accused of “reducing people to body parts,” but this usually isn’t the case. The body is made up of complex, interconnected systems, which of course include the brain. People’s experiences of worthiness (vs. degradation) and well-being are deeply connected to their bodies. Mistreatment, whether from others or perpetuated by the self, undermines the self.

Excessive Tribalism Enables Abuse

Whenever a new report emerges about an abuse scandal in some community or organization, a common reaction is a tribalistic “us vs. them.” For instance:

“How horrible! That sort of thing would never happen in my community.”

or

“That’s terrible. But of course it’s going to happen among [people of a certain religion, political leaning, race, sexuality, ethnic group, nationality, or profession].”

A distancing mechanism comes into play. People acknowledge that sexual abuse or other kinds of abuse have occurred. But the main reason they’re fine with talking about it is because the problem lies with some other group, or perhaps with an individual they never really liked.

What happens when it occurs among people they feel an affinity for? (Such as congregants or leaders at their religious institution, popular athletes they admire at their school or in major league sports, politicians or celebrities they love, a long-standing volunteer at a respected charity, a political activist who rails against injustice, or a local business leader who’s an upstanding citizen in their small town.) What happens when the abuse emerges close to home?

In that scenario, the reactions are much more likely to involve:

  • Looking the other way or actively covering up the abuse, including blocking or derailing an investigation into it.
  • Calling abuse something other than abuse, to make it seem weaker or more sanitized. Sometimes saying things like, “Nobody’s perfect, ok?”
  • Dismissing, vilifying, misrepresenting, harassing, and/or threatening victims. Coming up with justifications for why the victims “deserved it” in some way. Doesn’t really matter how much strong, compelling evidence emerges to support the victims’ claims.
  • Making excuses for perpetrators (“so-and-so was under a lot of stress or struggling with some psychological issue, and they’ve done a lot of good, so maybe this one thing isn’t such a big deal…”). Generally showing much more mercy for the perpetrators than the victims.
  • A refusal to see any patterns of institutional coverup or abuse-enabling norms by claiming that the perpetrator is just “one bad apple.” And if more perpetrators crop up, they’re just more bad apples. Apparently these bad apples exist in a vacuum.

Virtually no community is free of abuse or the potential for it. It doesn’t matter how virtuous, just, kind, or moral you think your group is. What allows for abuse to go unchecked?

  • When you have power differentials and a lack of accountability and scrutiny.
  • When there are certain groups or individuals deemed above reproach, untouchable in some way (they can “do no wrong,” they should not be questioned, their behavior can be downplayed or excused entirely).
  • When the reputation of the group/community/organization and everything they stand for is deemed much more important than the trauma and profound betrayal of victims.
  • When people have invested so much of their identity in someone or something that they don’t allow themselves to confront the possibility of abuse. It would damage the affiliations they use to help define themselves.
  • When people are afraid to speak out in favor of an investigation or in defense of the victims because they’ll be socially ostracized, financially damaged, or threatened with violence by other members of the group.

Excessive loyalty to a group makes life much easier for perpetrators of abuse. They know which roles or positions will deflect scrutiny or vest them with authority and a sufficient degree of power. They can determine when people are likely to look away and deny what’s happening. They know what language to use (such as religious pieties or political jargon) to downplay the abuse or wave it away with a superficial resolution (such as a weak apology or call for immediate reconciliation) that silences the victims.

And if abuse is something that can only happen somewhere else, perpetrated by people who aren’t like you in some key way, it continues unchecked. Outsiders can help uncover the abuse, but an investigation becomes much harder without the cooperation of a group or organization.

It’s possible to feel loyal to a group while remaining aware of the following:
– The potential for abuse exists in pretty much any community or institution.
– Perpetrators of abuse often don’t appear to be outwardly monstrous, but may in fact be individuals who are largely admired, respected, or well-liked.
– The extent to which you like someone often has little to do with whether or not they’re capable of abuse. (Perpetrators of abuse may be quite nice to people generally – though obviously not to their victims.)
– It can hurt badly or be painfully disillusioning to face evidence of abuse. However, looking away from it or actively quashing an investigation into it is extremely harmful. In many cases, it’s possible to preserve a group while instituting better safeguarding measures. An abuse scandal can be an opportunity for meaningful reforms in policies and practices. Victims don’t need to be sacrificed for the sake of keeping certain people free of accountability or maintaining the illusion that everything is just fine as it is.