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Self-Knowledge • Fear & Insecurity

On Being Able to Defend Oneself

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.

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