I have real trouble loving other people.
I sometimes joke that there’s a wide-ranging conspiracy to turn me into a misanthrope — and the conspiracy’s working. But the truth is simpler than that. I’m hard on others because I’m even harder on myself. And it’s hard to stop silently screaming at others when the same inner voice is screaming at myself.
I really want to love other people. In my heart and soul, I know it would make the world a better place. When I was a child, I listened to preachers talk about loving everybody, but I was confused. I discarded their messages as “happy talk,” because I saw that most of them were selective about who they loved and who they hated when they weren’t preaching.
As an adult, I’ve had a growing understanding that Jesus was serious when he talked about loving others. It wasn’t just “preacher talk” that we could ignore until Sunday. The closer I’ve been to the Creator, the more I’ve felt that unconditional force of love — and the more I’ve known that love should connect us all.
But most of the time, I interact with imperfect people. I silently rage at them for not being perfect. For not being what I want them to be. For not being more like me.
I can tell you everything that’s wrong with others. I can point out their character flaws. I can show you why they’re selfish and short-sighted and arrogant.
That person is selfish for the way he drives. The guy over there is a bad person because of the way he speaks to his children. Or maybe to his wife. This other one is a moron because he won’t listen to explanations when he doesn’t understand as much as he thinks he does. And that lunkhead wastes my time every time he shows up. And this guy here is just an idiot.
I know some of these people fairly well. Others are perfect strangers in my life who I’ll never see again. But I’m secretly full of rage — at least some of the time — with almost all of them. Why won’t they be what I want them to be?
What I’ve slowly realized is that I rage at these other people because I have a constant inner voice that’s raging at me. I sometimes feel as though I hate others because — at least some of the time — I hate myself for not being perfect.
When I realize this, I feel shame. It causes me deep pain. I don’t want to be angry at others. I don’t want to hate others. I really want to love them — and I really want to love myself.
I’ve written in great detail about how I learned to be this way. My narcissistic father — who was well-meaning in his own dysfunctional way — trained me to believe that perfection was the only acceptable standard. He harshly criticized me for mistakes. He screamed at me for simple childish errors. He punished me for not being exactly what he wanted me to be.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I learned to apply those same standards to other people. As a child, I criticized my sisters harshly for not being perfect — not all the time, but on painful occasions that I remember — and I know now that I did this in an effort to earn my father’s approval.
If I expected others to be perfect — and if I worked hard enough to be perfect myself — surely he would finally be proud of me. He would think I was like him.
Before I knew it, that was the pattern that I unconsciously carried with me into adult life. It made me a very good newspaper editor, because I was picky and demanding. It allowed me to do a lot of my work along the way to very high standards. But it came at a tremendous cost. Even though I was placid and friendly on the outside, I was harsh and judgmental to everybody on the inside.
I didn’t know how to love other people unconditionally, because I didn’t know how to love myself in the same way. I simply never learned.
I’ve come to believe that our behavior toward other people is a mirror image of how we act to ourselves on the inside. Some of those people who are the nastiest to others in the world around them are also unconsciously filled with rage and hatred for themselves.
Some people believe that we hate other people because we love ourselves too much, but I think that’s a mistaken understanding. It might appear that way on the outside, but I believe that every person who is filled with anger and rage and hatred for others is secretly experiencing something similar on the inside for himself. And I think most of them are completely unaware of what’s going on — just as I was for years.
I’ve done a lot of inner work over the last 10 years or so on trying to adjust my thoughts and judgments about others, but I’ve found that I can’t make any progress until I adjust my thoughts and judgments about myself.
In order to love other people, I have to silence that nasty inner critic. I have to learn to love myself.
If I go back to the message that Jesus gave us about love, I find that the secret was there all along. He didn’t just tell us to love other people. He told us to love other people in the same way that we love ourselves. The two go hand in hand — and it took me a long time to realize that.
It’s really hard to learn to love other people. It’s even harder to love myself. But until I learn how to love you and how to love myself, I’m stuck with a raging and hateful voice screaming in my head. At least some of the time. And I don’t want to live that way.
Learning how to love yourself is the only way to love the world — and it’s the only way you’re ever going to feel real joy about being alive.