Leaving Behind the Dark Forest of Self Criticism
B posted online about her troubled history with self-image and self-worth, and how it was affecting her intimate relationship with her partner. This was what I offered her.
I hear a lot of pain in what you wrote. I want to start by extending an enormous hug your way for the anguish you’re feeling right now. Some days, the emotional weight of being a human can feel like more effort than it’s worth. So first off, I am sorry you’re in this dark period and I am channeling to you my faith that you’ll step forward out of this valley — eventually — and find yourself in a completely new paradigm of self acceptance, inner peace and intimacy.
I’d like to begin with this pattern of self hatred and self comparison. The first thing I hear in your writing is that, right now, the darkness in you is strong. It has a hold over you. As someone who has struggled with intense anxiety, disordered eating and more, I know all too well the feeling of being consumed by fear, anger, obsessive thoughts and resignation. And I know how it feels to be so obsessed with what’s wrong about yourself that you’re functionally incapable of appreciating the beauty, the light, the strength and the humanity of the person you truly are. So before we get too in the weeds, I want to preface my thoughts with a promise: life, regrettably, has saddled you with an unfair burden. You’ve undergone trauma and pain, disappointment, fear and much more. And right now, you are struggling along in the depths of a dark forest — the physical, emotional and mental result of the wounds that were inflicted on you. And it may feel like this is all life has to offer: it’s been this way as long as you can remember, so why would it change? “Why would I be naïve enough to believe that it’s ever going to be different? I’ll believe it when I see it.” To be honest, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking this way.
But here’s what I can promise you: the distress you’re feeling — the heartache, the anger, and all the rest — will fade in time in the light of your compassionate awareness. I’ll say that again — it bears repeating. The pain you are feeling will fade in time in the light of your compassionate awareness. This I can promise you. Now let’s talk about why. And how.
Right now, you are deeply identified with your negative thoughts, particularly around your body, your weight, feelings of being unattractive or unwanted. This is what Eckhart Tolle refers to as the Pain Body (see Power of Now). He writes, “There is such a thing as old emotional pain living inside you. It is an accumulation of painful life experience that was not fully faced and accepted in the moment it arose. It leaves behind an energy form of emotional pain. It comes together with other energy forms from other instances, and so after some years you have a “painbody,” an energy entity consisting of old emotion.” So the first thing to understand is that you are experiencing a deeply human process — and, lucky us, there are proven and reliable methods for moving forward and healing. We just have to be willing to do the work.
My first recommendation for you is, of course, formal psychotherapy. Learning to forgive yourself, heal and rewire your self-relationship is a labyrinth, inundated with scary creatures, large and small. It would be irresponsible to expect a single response, or single conversation, to deliver you from the hurt you find yourself in. The most effective action step is to engage in therapy. There should be low-cost options in your area (search “community mental health”), as well as some affordable online options such as BetterHelp and 7Cups.
Secondly, let’s talk about some of the assumptions you have in the driver’s seat of your thoughts. First of all, it sounds like you have a deep-seated belief that you are not physically attractive enough to satisfy your partner — regardless of what he says. Take a moment to connect with this sensation — the feeling of being insufficient, of not being enough. Do you have any memories associated with this feeling? Does it remind you of any particular people, moments or events from your past? The pattern works like this: we are innocent young children, initially, but we develop a sense that there’s something wrong with us. Something that needs to be different before we can be whole, complete and perfect. This is the spark of the pain body, the inner critic, the painful inner monologue pressuring us to be different all the time. To be more [fill in the blank].
However, the truth is that we aren’t born with these ideas pre-loaded. We are conditioned by our environment — most directly, our immediate family and social circles — to believe the lie that we are insufficient. That something is wrong. And as children, we have almost no choice but to believe it full-on. So for someone whose parents showed disapproval for getting B’s and C’s, they will come to believe that their human worth is connected to their ability to get straight A’s. The sad truth is that we aren’t born believing that we’re lacking something; we learn it from the people around us and come to believe it as the gospel truth.
So right now, much of the darkness you’re experiencing has to do with this: you have yet to fully identify, acknowledge, heal, accept and move through the distressing beliefs you learned as a young woman, and been gathering mental “evidence” for since then. There might have been 10 people this year who told you that you looked attractive, that you had a nice smile, etc. — but at the end of the year, the memory that will stick with you is the one where your partner made a side-comment or hesitated when you tried to make a move. You’ll hang onto this memory for one very specific reason: your inner critic’s memory is nearly perfect, and it is ALWAYS looking for evidence of you “not being good enough.” See how unfair that is? To you, to me, to everyone. Our inner critic is a powerful foe — one of the core battlegrounds that unites us as thinking, feeling and often self-critical human beings. So we’re all in this battle together.
Part of the work you’ll do will be to identify and bring awareness to the assumptions and biases you bring into the relationship. For instance, notice that you will believe anything negative he says — that you’re not a great cook, that your room is too messy, and so on — but it will be infinitely more difficult for you to absorb the positive words — that you’re beautiful, that he’s happy to be with you, that he sees nothing but a radiant woman in a perfect (and yes, petite!) frame. But until you are able to do the emotional heavy lifting of exploring these thoughts — and again, bringing the compassionate light of your awareness — you will continue to hit the same barriers in your current and future relationships. Cliché as it sounds, we truly can’t feel loved (or return love in a genuine way) until we’re able to love, embrace and care for ourselves as we would a crying child.
I know this has been a lengthy reply, but I hope it’s served you to read it. Before signing off, I’ll say one thing about the context of this issue: the porn industry (and more largely, the mass media industry). Much like Instagram keeps us hooked through a goosebump-worthy variety of manipulation techniques, the porn industry has one goal and one goal only: turn a profit. At all costs — and there are MANY. One of the paradoxes of how we consume media is that, despite something making us miserable, we will often come back to it. It’s been shown that people almost universally feel worse about themselves after scrolling through their newsfeed (on any platform) — and yet, social media engagement is at an all-time high. Strange, right? Well, pornography has a similar thing going for it: people tend to feel worse about themselves and their physique — people of all genders, I’ll add — after being exposed to porn. And yet, we come back the next day for another bittersweet binge cycle. In any case, the porn industry (and mass media in general) has gradually become more and more absurd, assaulting our eyeballs with the bodies of supermodels and steroid-packed bodybuilders, every day less human, more photoshopped and less desirable. But our “reptile brain” absorbs these images and goes to work making self-comparisons: “If only I had abs like THAT!” Or, “Man, if my boobs could just be a little more like that, I’d feel incredible.” In sum, the effect is that porn violently distorts our sense of normal human proportions, and triggers our self-condemning thoughts, leading us to suffer from feeling unattractive and sexually flawed. The sad thing is, this turns out to be an extremely effective business model.
Ultimately, both you and your partner will need to reckon with the ways that the porn and media industries have conditioned your sense of human beauty, and the negative emotions you may carry about your body as a result. All this emotional and mental healing may sound like a lot of work. And it some ways, it is! But the bright side is, there is an exquisite beauty in liberating yourselves from the mental patterns that are keeping you stuck in the mud. There’s a world out there waiting for you to step into it; a world where you can see yourself (as others can) as a complete, multifaceted, courageous, caring — and yes, imperfect — human being who has more gifts to offer the world than she realizes. The bright side is that, once you’ve taken steps out of this dark underbelly of self hatred and comparison, you’ll be able to turn your attention toward the strengths you have in your heart, in your mind, and in your connectedness to other humans. The anger and sorrow that were dealt to you weren’t fair; not at all, and I wish you hadn’t needed to go through everything you’ve overcome. But part of what gives life meaning is the fact that, every day, these difficult experiences give you the fuel, fire and focus you need to learn and grow. They may form the bedrock of your personal sense of purpose — your mission to help others heal the wounds that once kept you from living your full life.
B, I’m sending you my most sincere wish that you decide to face these fears and begin your healing. Couples and individual therapy can work wonders. Awareness practices and meditation are powerful tools as well. But ultimately, nobody will decide to climb this mountain except for you. The universe will keep giving you hints; only you can pause, reflect, and make the decision that it’s been long enough. You deserve to be happy, and there’s not a goddamn thing that’s going to stop that from happening anymore.
Wishing you strength and healing,