Emotional Cartography: Self-loathing in the age of hyper-confidence.

I have never been confident. Actually, it’s the one thing I can say with true confidence. This dominates every aspect of your life without you even realizing it. It’s ruined opportunities for me before I even took them seriously. It’s allowed people close to me to treat me like dirt because I never stood up for myself and when it comes to relationships? Oh, lord, that’s a whole other self-inflicted wound. Leaving a gaping hole where your confidence used to be isn’t always the sadness we might imagine in our minds. It’s not always some weak affliction to pity and coddle over. Sometimes when you’re racked with self loathing – when you don’t accept yourself – It makes you a monster. Ladies and gentlemen. I used to be that monster.

I’ve always tried to be a good person. But trying and being are two different things. The reality is, for most of my life, I’ve been a disappointment. I’ve been a prickly thorn that sits among people, soaking up their nutrients but giving nothing back. People getting too close get a sharp pain and retreat. But among all that, I often tried, with varying degrees of success, to be good.

I won’t spend time explaining the things I’m ashamed of – but I will try to explain the fallout from those negative years I spent in the bottomless pit of my mind. The truth is I never respected a damn thing about anyone. I defined myself as a loner with a chip on his shoulder. I brought my attitude to situations that earned me a reputational black eye, sometimes I deserved it, sometimes people just wanted a punching bag and I was the convenient scapegoat. And often times if you got close to me, if you loved me – I hurt you. I disappointed you. John Lydon once sang “you only hurt the ones you love” and for the longest time, that was me.

Maybe it still is.

The excuses I used don’t cut the mustard any more. The reality is simple: I had no self-respect. I had self-loathing built into my DNA. When you don’t respect yourself, how could you be relied upon to respect anyone else? Your psyche nurses a mortal wound. Always. You’re in constant psychological recovery mode. You cut yourself slack because you figure you could use it. Maybe you could, but it’s not nice to live with misery like that. You use it like a crutch. It becomes your excuse and you cling to it, desperately, like a man who grips a life vest in the middle of a ship wreck. You’ll go down with the broken ship rather than build a stronger, more robust solution. This is why trying to be better, and just being better, are two totally separate worlds.

And really, self-acceptance is difficult to describe. It’s not really a solidly quantifiable thing like some other mental health topics – it means different things to different people and often when it’s discussed on social media, it boils down to this an almost arrogant sense of “self-love” which, in and of itself is a noble idea, but one that to me seemed to border on evangelical self-delusion. It works for a lot of people, actually. And I certainly wouldn’t dream of stopping people from feeling that if it ultimately gave them the motivation to get out of bed every day. For me, though? It’s just not who I am. I don’t really value self-aggrandizement and perhaps that’s my privilege speaking but, to me, a healthy life doesn’t look like self-worship. A healthy life is just mere acceptance of myself. It’s a rejection of worthlessness. It’s you telling yourself that you’re doing the best you can. You are! You’re doing!

Worthlessness will stop you from attempting something before you’ve even bothered to muster the energy to do it. For me, accepting who I am, pitfalls and all, has helped me to actually make those first steps in doing positive things. I attempt things knowing what I’ll have trouble with but going for it anyway, rather than letting me bully myself out of opportunity. And that’s great. But the most important part is that I do those things because it’s good to do them. Not for clout. Not to impress someone else. I take a self-sufficient role in doing something good purely for the journey of doing it. Because it’s better than sitting in bed wishing I were dead. I make the decision to be better rather than trying to be better.

Therapy is an important part of making that first step. Therapy, I think, is like a cartographer mapping out the hills and the valleys of your emotional self. It marks on a map where you’re likely to fall down and where you’re likely to get stuck in the mud and now armed with that information you can prepare for the journey ahead. It won’t be easier. It won’t make the problems go away. But now you know they’re coming. Now you can prepare. You alone can pull yourself out of the muck you’ve lost yourself in. It starts with the blame game, whether it’s aimed at the people you love or aimed at yourself. Once you’ve seen what you’re not very good at you can start to do things, be things, rather than feeling content with simply trying.

Your mind can be a prison. But you can acknowledge that it doesn’t have to be that way. Being you isn’t a punishment and it’s not an exodus. It’s the opportunity to become the well travelled veteran of planet You. It’s your opportunity to map the landscape of your brain and stick a flag in the dirt and say you made it. You’re still here, despite all of life’s attempts to derail you. Your flag still flies, the wind carries it effortlessly. You’ve armed yourself now. Not with toxicity and misery, but the knowledge of who you are.

[Banner image taken from Larry Clark’s explosive book titled Tulsa]

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