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Stranded on the Space Mountains of Self-Loathing
Here is how I've been quietly torturing myself
I didn’t think I had issues with self-loathing. I felt pretty confident, and I’d heard that I seemed self-assured and self-possessed.
I just thought it was normal that every day, multiple times a day, I thought of a shameful incident in my past and grunted or made an odd squeaking noise. It didn’t feel at all strange to me that I’d created a private collection of humiliations from my past, like a bracelet of beads studded with little razors. It didn’t strike me as suspicious that I tended to feel these pangs shortly after I did something was proud of, or accomplished something efficiently, as if I had to pay some cost for doing well, as if I had to remember my real station in life whenever current events might convince me I was praiseworthy.
It didn’t feel odd to me, before, that I was very insistent on adhering to a self-image, but was never sure of what that self-image was. I was always finding new ways to evaluate myself every season, creating new, bizarre conceptions of what I ought to be, of what type of guy should be my type of guy that week. I thought of this as kind of a fun variety of self-expression, of experimentation, never noticing that these fragile, untenable self-images were a way to keep myself in a state of convulsive paralysis, flailing in space. I didn’t notice that all my guidelines were vague enough to be unhelpful, but precise enough to be punishing.
It was simply an unquestioned matter of course, too, that these reinventions needed to always be broadcast to my peers, like frantically assembled crazy-colored plumage stuck into my hide, such that they might never notice the bare skin beneath. Similarly, it was only natural that I should somehow need everyone I spoke with to know of my travels, book deal, etcetera, such that their gaze didn’t fall on the blobby excuse for a person malingering behind the curios.
I thought I was just charming people when, during any lapse in conversation, or when stating any desire, my first urge was to self-deprecate or apologize. I was just joking when I was debasing myself. That was what likable people did. And of course, I thought, it wasn’t like I desperately needed to be likable. It was just, I assumed, consideration for others that made me think endlessly about affectations, styles, and conversational rhythms that might make me a tiny bit more charismatic, worthy, endurable.
This kind of self-examination extended beyond the tactics I brought to casual conversation. Of course, I thought, any normal red-blooded male would stew over moments when he didn’t perform well sexually. It didn’t seem weird that, when sex was going well, I would mentally review my less flattering moments, and try to inwardly cancel out the bad with the good, in an attempt to assure myself of my intimate prowess, or an invisible audience that I found myself quietly addressing. (This audience was composed, mostly, if I looked close, which I tried not to, of figures from my early life, whose faces I don’t remember exactly, but whose eyes, or rather, the feeling they imparted, were unforgettable.) All of these shadow shows were never quite convincing—I was always left wanting to prove that I was an excellent lover, in the eyes of, I don’t know, somebody. (The person I was with wasn’t enough of an audience.) But that, itself, didn’t seem like a problem worth addressing.
I didn’t notice that I had a hard time falling into the sensation of love, rather than the idea of love, and that I was scared, absolutely terrified, of what others might think of me if I loved the wrong person, had the wrong friends, the wrong types of conversations, the wrong varieties of vulnerability. I didn’t notice that what I wanted, from love, was being saved, as if that meant anything at all, as if I thought that was even a possible thing, which I didn’t.
Sometimes, recently, I would just lie awake scared of being anything at all, being anything that could be identified, scrutinized, really known. I tended to forget that these evenings happened. I just told my wife I was stressed about work when I emerged, pale and grumpy, into the morning.
It wasn’t strange to me that, during my last breakup, I said the phrase, “I know that I’m just a stupid animal,” and that I didn’t find any compelling reason to disagree with that, that this remained the background view, and that I thought of this as ‘realistic humility.’ I didn’t even notice it, really. It was fine. It was all totally okay with me.
And, really, I thought I did love myself, or at least like myself. That’s what I thought it was when I puffed myself up by rapidly reviewing all of my credentials, pretty sentences I’d produced, muscle tissue I’d accumulated, impressive people who liked me, attractive people I’d seduced. I thought nothing of the desperate character of this process, which less resembled a luxurious spa treatment, and more resembled a hummingbird flitting between food sources but finding none nourishing.
I tended to see the past as a stalking, sinister vizier plotting the hour of my drowning, instead of the suggestive vapor that it is.
I didn’t think I was feeling self-loathing, because I thought that self-loathing was a kind of intermittent physical pain. It didn’t feel like an injury, it just felt like an essential part of who I was, as if I’d become convinced my over-tight boots were a part of my body. It felt like a permanent chore, just my full-time part-time job.
So I was surprised, when it all went away, by what it felt like to not hate myself, even a little bit. (How I got rid of it is idiosyncratic—it took a lot of rumination, a loving marriage, weird self-help books, loving-kindness meditation, and, finally, a drug or two—I wish I could write a universal prescription, but I can’t.)
I think of this moment at Disneyland, when you exit Space Mountain. It’s an amazing ride—the first dark rollercoaster ever made, a plunge through infinite space spangled with uncountable stars. When you’re in it, it’s a vast, cosmic experience. But when you get out, if you turn around, you don’t see infinite space. You just see a big chunky building with a popcorn stand next to it. And you’re like, that’s it? That’s what that was? It seemed so real from the inside, it was so absorbing. But it was just a place. And now I can leave.
What I’m feeling now is that this was all so cute. How adorable it is that I got wrapped up in this so deeply. What an amazingly intricate inconvenience. I have a lot of fondness for the person who believed this insanity.
And I am now aware that self-love means less. It means lightness. It means knowing that I’m not that complicated. It is the knowledge that I’m a simple thing, both bigger and smaller than I dared to believe. It doesn’t mean proving that I’m great; it’s a permanent vacation from proof. It’s the understanding that I don’t require a solution, that there is no actual problem, and that searching for one is so much work, work that never pays off. It’s the knowledge that I can finally admit that everything is okay.