I didn’t realize that for a long time. Because my internal dialogue was all I’d ever known, I didn’t realize there was any other way to live.
I’ve always been vicious to myself when it came to my physical appearance. When I was a child, I was honestly convinced I was the ugliest boy around. As I got a little older, my worst fear was that no woman would ever be attracted to me.
For my entire adult life, I seem to have been looking for one reason after another to feel shame about myself. Even when there was nothing objective to feel bad about, I couldn’t seem to help myself. I found things to criticize, to doubt and to cause shame.
This has been my template for so many things in life. One of the reasons I know my faults so well — and am willing to admit them to you — is that I’ve spent so much time cataloguing my failings and setting up plans for improving myself.
Lately, though, I’ve found myself dialing down the shame. I’ve started feeling that maybe — just maybe — it’s OK to accept myself, even as I work on becoming a better person.
The biggest source of shame in my life for a long time has been my weight. Ever since I gained a lot of weight about 10 years ago — as an emotional reaction to a difficult breakup — I’ve been stuck in a spiral of shame that can become self-hatred at times.
Because of this, I’m terrified of people seeing pictures of me. I know they’ll be horrified. They’ll talk about me. They’ll think I’m too lazy to exercise or to stop eating. They will see that I’m really just as ugly as I always thought I was.
I feel ashamed of everything about myself which isn’t perfect. (If you have awhile, I could go over the list with you.) I do have plans and goals for myself about all sorts of things. I’m constantly working on improving one thing or another. I do think it’s important to be aware of your faults and to constantly be getting better.
In fact, I think there’s some truth to the notion I once heard that experiencing hell would be for the person you are at your death to meet the person you might have been at your best. The fear of never becoming my best self does stalk me.
But I’ve been seeing something different lately. I’m not sure why.
I’ve found myself thinking that if I keep myself in a constant state of shame and fear, there’s no way I can become what I need to be. If I’m constantly fighting myself — constantly shaming myself for not being perfect — I’m not going to fulfill the vision I have in my mind for who I really am.
If a sick man is in a hospital bed and has to exhaust all of his energy physically fighting off those who want to attack him — for the sin of being sick — he’s not going to get well. And I’m coming to see this very much the same way.
I still have a lot of things about myself that I want to improve. I came across something from a book about personality last night that speaks to that. In their book, “The Wisdom of the Enneagram,” Don Riso and Russ Hudson gave this advice to those of my perfectionistic type.
“Realize that you are not going to quickly get rid of the parts of yourself that you do not like,” they wrote. “Stop treating yourself as a self-improvement project and learn to accept yourself. Be with who and what you are right now.”
For me, that is profound, because nobody has ever really given me permission to just be the imperfect person I am. It doesn’t feel as though anybody who loved me has ever said, “Just be yourself while you deal with what you need to change. I’ll love you while you work on it.”
Instead, I was always afraid at every moment — afraid of losing love, afraid of being shamed, afraid of not being good enough. And now I understand that I have been the accuser. My father was the accuser when I was a child, but something in my own mind took over once I became an adult.
Three times recently, I have intentionally posted photos of myself online very prominently. (One was this photo and the other two are here and here.) It’s not that I’ve suddenly become a vain person who wants to share my good looks with the world. It’s strictly a part of my effort to accept myself — to learn to be OK with what I am, while at the same time continuing to work on changing the things I still dislike.
I find myself thinking — every now and then — that I’m not the ugly creature I’ve always believed I was. I even wonder if I can reach the potential that I’ve always had, that I might be able to have the big success I’ve always wanted. Most of all, though, I feel a sense of awe — almost fear of a false god who I no longer believe in — that maybe I might be worthy of love.
I’ve never been very kind to myself, but that doesn’t mean I can’t start now. It doesn’t mean I can’t unlearn the shame of the past and finally accept myself for the imperfect but loving man I really am.