The Self in the Mirror

How do you feel about yourself? No, really. Take a moment, think about it, and be honest. Do you enjoy your own company or dislike it? Do you take care of your Self or ignore your Self or abuse your Self? Do you try to get your needs met? Do you even know what your needs are? Only your Self will be privy to your answers, so be honest. Why? Because the one person on your life journey who is with you 24/7, beginning to end, is you. So it might make sense to be friends with your Self.

mirrorIn general, the stories of everyone’s individual life journeys begin in the same way: with family and friends. During our first few years, our paths are usually chosen for us. But what we’re taught to believe as children is just the beginning of our path. Each year the world of our journey broadens until, by the time we reach adolescence, we not only see a wider variety of paths to choose from, but we also start choosing our own paths. This is a prime time to question taken-for-granted beliefs and start forming beliefs of our own. This is coming-of-age at its most intense. We’re waking up to the world, forging our own identity, and figuring out just who this self is.

In adolescence, besides wanting to establish our own identity, we also desperately want to belong, so we may hop aboard bandwagons, try on beliefs of all kinds, and explore a variety of paths. Or just the opposite: The wide world may intimidate us or look so foreign that we choose to stay within our comfort zone and duck back under the tent of beliefs we’ve been taught, securing our place of belonging in the community we were raised in. Whether we spend adolescence exploring new paths or rooting into our comfort zones, when we reach our mid to late 20’s (generally speaking), we settle into a more stable identity, enough to feel like we know who we are.

But that doesn’t mean our identity and beliefs are settled forever. As our journey progresses, we continue to find ourselves at acrossroads variety of crossroads where we pause to question ourselves. We may have begun feeling foggy about exactly what we believe and who we really are. We’re like Jacob, who paused in his journey and sent everyone else across the river while he stayed behind and, alone, wrestled through the night with an angel. If our faith is growing, we can expect to do some wrestling.

After wrestling with our identity and beliefs, we usually emerge thinking that now we know ourselves. (Jacob was even given a new name.) It’s almost like waking up again. We journey on more confidently, even if we limp a bit. But this isn’t the happily-ever-after. The journey is not done. Farther down the road, we hit a rough patch and discover that some of our beliefs crumble under close inspection. Again we get fogged in. Again we wrestle. All our lives, we “come of age” again and again, wrestling with beliefs and with the dark side of our selves.

We do have a dark side, each of us. Are we born with it? In the previous blog, we considered one view of Self that answers no, because the individual self does not exist. A second viewpoint we considered answers yes, because the self is innately sinful. But there’s a third viewpoint, and it also answers no.

Viewpoint 3: Each self is good, special, and unique from the start and should be honored as such. In some families and communities, self-esteem overrides the born-a-sinner doctrine. The idea of self-esteem became popular back in the 1970’s when I was in college getting a teaching degree. Maybe we decided that kids needed the affirmation because, more and more, both parents worked outside the home. Plus single parenting and blended families were becoming common, so maybe we sensed that kids were feeling displaced and blamed themselves for divorce (as kids tend to do). Whatever the reason, Mr. Rogers assured us that there’s no one just like us, and any number of adults were ready and willing to affirm that each of us is special. Which is true. Each of us is unique and truly valuable.

hairpincurveBut the I’m-special aspect of self-esteem comes with its own challenges, the most obvious being that if everyone is special, is anyone special? Out in the real world, we discover that no one cares how special we are. The bumps in the road don’t smooth out at our feet. The hairpin curves don’t straighten. No one rolls out the red carpet. In fact, there are plenty of people willing to pull the carpet out from under me. So how do I keep my footing?

In a church education committee meeting one time, I mentioned that hands-on activities in the Sunday school classroom are good for bolstering children’s self-esteem. The woman beside me gaped at me, appalled, and pointed out that we should be teaching children not self-esteem but self-denial, self-sacrifice. I understood what she was saying. It seems logical that self-esteem would lead to conceit, narcissism, and an egocentric neglect of others. But that’s not what I meant by suggesting self-esteem. So what did I mean?

Kristin Neff, Associate Professor of Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas, suggested in a Psychology Today article that instead of self-esteem, we emphasize self-compassion. Yes. That’s what I meant. I also meant self-confidence and self-respect and the joy of discovering life (which you alone can do). I certainly didn’t mean selfishness and narcissism. But neither did I mean denying the self to the point of becoming a doormat, which happened to many of us in the effort to esteem others as better than ourselves. We buried ourselves and ignored our own needs.

The irony of accepting and caring for self is that when we take care of our selves, we’re better equipped to care for others. We actually have a greater capacity for generosity. Respect for self sets the stage for respecting others. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus advised, implying that there’s no way we can love our neighbors if we don’t love our selves.

Of course, Jesus also said, “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” That doesn’t mean we stop loving our selves, though. It means we stop feeling sorry for our selves, get down off whatever cross we’re always whining about, pick it up (which we can’t do until we get down from it), and follow the One who is moving on. All of that requires self-respect. After all, we’re asked to follow the One who respects himself (and us, too), stands up for himself (and us, too), and makes the journey as a healthy self (enabling and expecting us to do the same). That requires learning to love our selves and others as well.

The author Anne Perry states it plainly and eloquently through her character Aunt Vespasia in Half Moon Street: “If you cannot love yourself, and believe you are worth loving, then it is impossible to love anyone else.” Another author, the apostle John, wrote, “We love because God first loved us.” In other words, we love because we were first loved. We also respect, because we were first respected. We treat others with dignity, because we were first treated with dignity. We’re able to give, because we have something to give.

Some of us, in the interest of self-sacrifice, have given until we have nothing left to give. I think this is especially true of women raised in communities of faith. I wonder if that’s why the ancients sometimes sculpted many-breasted goddess figures. So many want so much from women, and we’ve been typically taught to deny the self and give.red-poppies

There’s another twist to this. You’ve heard of the Tall Poppy Syndrome? Anyone who gets ahead or achieves more is chopped down like a tall poppy. Many of us chop ourselves down. In our attempts to be equal and fair and honoring of others, we belittle ourselves until we’re the size that fits someone else’s vision or expectation of us. But as long as we diminish ourselves, we’ll never grow into the fullness of who we are. It’s okay if our vision is broader or deeper or simply different from what someone else sees for us. Trying to fit into someone else’s box serves only to bind and bend our wings. To fly, we must leave the box.

So on one side of the scale is total denial or condemnation of self, focusing only on others. On the other side is total ego-interest, focusing only on self (which, by the way, is not necessarily haughtiness but can just as well be self-protection resulting from abuse). It seems to me that a healthy, open-eyed faith is found in the balance at the center: loving self and loving others, respecting self and respecting others, treating self with dignity and compassion and treating others with dignity and compassion.

But there’s another view of self that’s worth considering, and we’ll take that up next week as we continue to explore Self and our life journey.

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Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy morguefile.com.

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