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DISCLAIMERS: This blog is based, in part, upon actual events and people. Certain actions and characters have been dramatized and fictionalized, but are inspired by true events and real people. Certain other characters, events, and names used herein are entirely fictitious. Any similarity of those fictional characters or events to the name, attributes, or background of any real person, living or dead, or to any actual events is coincidental and unintentional…or, at least I hope so. If people really are dropping like flies around Nicholas Sparks, someone needs to call the cops.
Recently, for reasons unclear to me at the time, I felt a pressing need to watch all of the movies of Nicholas Sparks, author of perennial favorites such as “The Notebook.” For those unfamiliar with his work, his stories strongly resemble Mark Schultz songs and episodes of “24”: gutwrenchingly sad, and in the end, there will be a body count. If I remember correctly, “The Lucky One” had a higher death toll than the last installment of “Die Hard.” If you are reading this and you have never seen a Nicholas Sparks movie, you can save your time, because they are exactly like Shakespeare’s tragedies - in the end, everybody dies.
I don’t mean to sound negative, though. I think everyone should familiarize themselves with Mister Sparks’ repertoire because his films teach an important life lesson: if you treat others well, don’t compromise your standards, and if you wait long enough, you will eventually find the love of your life who will bring you the greatest joy and fulfillment you have ever known…only to have that person snatched from you via an incurable disease or natural disaster two weeks later.
Just kidding…sort of. Though I am not a fan of romantic comedies or romantic dramas, I found the schmaltzfests of the Sultan of Star-Crossed Lovers consistently entertaining and endearing. However, when I watched “Nights in Rodanthe,” I got a lot more than just a good cry.
Jill Torrelson, one of the secondary characters in the story, died during an operation to remove a hemangioma, a benign cyst, from her face (she had a fatal allergic reaction to the anesthesia). In a critical scene, Paul Flanner, the male protagonist, went to talk to Jill’s widower Robert who had the following to say about his late wife:
“Her eyes were dark brown and soft, like she’d never hurt a soul, and she wouldn’t, neither. I knew Jill since we was in school. That thing on her face, she always had it. I didn’t care about it. I never even saw it, but she wanted it off. I’d find her in the bathroom crying, looking at it. She’d be saying, ‘I want to be pretty for you.’ It broke my heart when she’d say that, because she was pretty. She was so…but, that’s what she wanted. She wanted the operation, and in our whole life, I don’t remember her asking for anything. So, I said yes…She had all the love and kindness in the world right inside her.”
I want to talk about a disease that is running rampant today which seems to affect women mostly. This plague upon the land is called Toxic Self-Loathing. It is the practice of not seeing or actively degrading worth in ourselves because of our perceived lack of external or internal beauty (for those unfamiliar with the disease, click here). Contrary to what we think, it is not harmless, it is not “cute,” it is not representative of Godly humility, nor is it something that goes away on its own in time. It is a disease, and, if left unchecked, has devastating consequences.
What Toxic Self-Loathing Does to Us
The aforementioned scene in “Nights in Rodanthe” opened my eyes to something important: Toxic Self-Loathing is deadly. I never would’ve thought before that a little insecurity could be lethal, like it was in the case of Mrs. Torrelson, but often it does kill the one infected, though not in the dramatic and abrupt fashion seen in the movie. Think about it: the woman who hates herself will often give herself to abusive men, and many of those women end up dead at the hands of their abusers. Another woman who can’t see physical beauty in herself will starve herself in an attempt to attain a physical ideal which, in the digital age of airbrushing, isn’t even real. Yet another woman, believing she can’t be or do any better, might turn herself over to self-destructive behaviors such as alcoholism or drug abuse.
Every time we knock ourselves for reasons other than the conviction of the Holy Spirit, every time we call God a liar by telling ourselves we are not fearfully and wonderfully made, we are drinking poison into our spirits, pure and simple. And if we think we are no good, we will behave in such fashion.
Mrs. Torrelson, despite all the reassurances from her husband, could not believe that she was beautiful unless she got rid of that cyst. Her lack of belief in her own value literally cost her her life. However, her Toxic Self-Loathing didn’t rob just her.
What Toxic Self-Loathing Does to Others
I have a good guy friend I will call the Shadow Boxer. One night on the phone he told me about his ex-wife. She was very insecure and suffered from congenital Toxic Self-Loathing. He said, “She was physically beautiful, intelligent, and had an engaging personality. But she never liked herself. She thought she was ugly, for some reason I’ve never been able to fathom. At first it was flattering, because she needed me so badly, but over time it became draining. It was like a constant drip, drip, drip energy drain. I felt like I had to carry her all the time. The weight became unbearable, and I started to rebel. At some point, I gave up trying to convince her that she was beautiful, because it never worked.”
The story did not have a happy ending. For all he did to love her well, after a short time she left him for another man without much of an explanation, causing my friend a world of longstanding hurt.
I couldn’t get the conversation out of my head for many days following. Shortly thereafter, I conducted one of my famous Facebook opinion polls. I asked, “Which is harder for you to handle: a person who is conceited and thinks he’s perfect and doesn’t make any mistakes, or the person who is rabidly insecure and always putting themselves down?” Overwhelmingly, my friends answered the latter, to my shock. They said it’s easier to bring a haughty person down than to lift an insecure person up, and most said that being around a self-hating person is draining.
The conversation with Shadow Boxer and the surprising results of my social media survey were hard to hear, but I needed to hear it. A lot of women need to hear it. So many of us become emotional black holes, so incapable of believing we are beautiful, valuable, and deserving of love that all the validation we receive is like pouring water down the drain.
Toxic Self-Loathing is not only a danger to us but a danger to those who love us. Shadow Boxer’s ex-wife didn’t believe she was worthy of love, so she left (and thereby hurt) a good man to be with a bad man. It is not uncommon for someone who questions her own value to leave a healthy person for an unhealthy one, which often causes the healthy person to wonder what was so terrible about him that his woman left him for an axe murderer. A woman who marries and stays with an abuser because she thinks she doesn’t deserve any better sets the example for her daughters that they deserve to be abused, too. I have also talked to a number of women who said they learned to berate themselves and their physical appearance because they had a mother who denigrated her own figure on a regular basis. After all, if Mommy is ugly, and I come from her, then I must be ugly, too, right?
So, in other words, and I don’t know how else to say this, our not feeling good enough, in one way or another, makes those who try to love us feel not good enough, too. Therefore, unless we do something about it, Toxic Self-Loathing is not only in danger of killing us, but infecting those around us. Just ask Mister Torrelson what it was like every time he tried to reassure his wife she was beautiful.
(For the record, it’s not just women who suffer from Toxic Self-Loathing. However, men usually berate themselves over their perceived lack of accomplishments and the mark they’ve made on the world, whereas with women it’s usually about their appearance or loveability.
I have a good guy friend who for many years constantly beat himself up because he felt he wasn’t where he needed to be in life and would never be good or strong enough to achieve anything. Every time I tried to encourage him, he would tell me I didn’t know what I was talking about. This is a man who started several extremely successful and profitable businesses and has also received numerous well-known accolades in the music world! To hear him speak of himself as an utter failure, no matter what I said to the contrary, left me devastatingly sad .)
Now that we’ve clearly defined the problem, what is the solution? Telling ourselves or others to stop the Toxic Self-Loathing doesn’t work. No one gets into the habit of hating herself overnight, so she won’t break the habit overnight either. (For those who doubt the ineffectiveness of just telling someone to stop thinking negative thoughts, watch this.)
Jesus said the second greatest commandment was to love our neighbors as ourselves. That says to me that there is a kind of selflove that is not only healthy, appropriate, and beneficial, but also natural. I don’t think anyone comes into the world thinking they are ugly and worthless. I think we all start out with a good self-concept, because apparently a good self-concept will allow us to see others in a positive light. Therefore, the question is when is it that we begin to hate ourselves? It is usually a traumatic event or a series of messages from people whose approval we seek early on that begins to plant those seeds of doubt about our own worth inside of us.
Many of us think all kinds of crazy things about ourselves: we’re not pretty enough, we will never be successful, we will always screw up the good things in our lives, we will sabotage whatever relationships we have so it’s best not to get close to anyone, and the list goes on and on. What I have discovered, however, is that there is usually one or a few foundational lies from which the Redwood Forest of Self-Hatred sprouts. As with a tree, the most effective way to destroy those lies is to burn the root. Kill the root, and the fruit has no choice but to follow. The hard part often is finding that root.
I had a terminal case of Toxic Self-Loathing from the time I was eight years old until March of 2013. Lie upon lie that I believed about myself compounded, and the weight of them almost killed me. I got desperate and asked God to show me when and why I started to believe I had no value. He showed me what that root was. It was a lie, a message given to me by someone I both loved and trusted. It was also deeply rooted around my heart, and it wasn’t going to give up that ground without a fight.
I am not going to say that following that revelation I never had an insecure thought about myself. However, two things happened. First of all, I stopped seeing that lie as a part of me and recognized for the first time that it was a tool from the Enemy to keep me from receiving love from God and His people. Second, with that big lie exposed, a ton of lesser but still debilitating lies I had believed about myself for years lost their control over me, too. God showing me the source of my problem was one of the tools necessary to fix it. I had a lot of work on my part (and still do) to see myself as the beloved child of God that God says I am. However, the war against Toxic Self-Loathing, for me, has become winnable and and my victory permanent.
Reader, you are beautiful and you have value. God says so, and He wants to heal you of your Toxic Self-Loathing. After all, He loves you too much to let you become Mister Sparks’ next casualty. *grin*