If We?re So Great, Why Are We So Unhappy?
Never before in human history have people been so focused on telling themselves how wonderful they are. And never before in human history have people been so miserable.
From coffee mugs that tell your boss he?s #1, to pop songs that tell listeners how much the singer slays, to the endless stream of inspirational memes that assure us we are perfect just the way we are, positive messages of self-affirmation are everywhere. Yet the statistics on anxiety, depression and suicide are staggering. Every 40 seconds, somebody takes their own life. Personally, I?ve lost more friends to suicide than to all other forms of death combined.
In much the same way that we as a culture thought that eating sugar instead of fat would make us healthier, we now think telling ourselves we?re great will make us feel great.
Clearly, it doesn?t work that way.
The Problem With Flaws
I?ve struggled with relationship-ending anger, career-limiting anxiety, and debilitating depression since my early teens. It runs in my family. My great-grandmother was institutionalized, and my grandfather committed suicide. I grew up in a household with parents who loved me, but had no idea how to manage their own emotions, let alone teach me to manage mine. They accepted me with all my flaws, and so I accepted myself. In other words, I thought it was perfectly okay to be an asshole.
In the movies, people commit suicide to escape terrible situations. I can?t speak for anyone else, but I know that when I considered suicide ? as I did many times, over many years ? it wasn?t to escape from a situation, but to escape from myself. I was emotionally and psychologically abusive to anyone who got close to me. My actions were toxic, and as a result, I had no reason to like myself, and neither did anyone else.
I knew this, but I didn?t know I could do anything about it. ?That?s just the way I am,? I thought. After all, aren?t we supposed to love and accept ourselves despite ? or perhaps because of ? all our flaws?
Writ large, my experience demonstrates the fundamental flaw in the ideology of self-love, as it is preached by the gurus of self-help. There?s a big difference between accepting flaws in your APPEARANCE, and accepting flaws in your BEHAVIOR. It makes sense to be kind to yourself and to carry yourself with confidence, regardless of your body measurements. It does not make sense to give yourself a pass on acting in ways that are harmful to yourself or others.
There?s a very dark shadow to the cult of self-love, and it is this: if you believe that you deserve love, no matter what, then you must also believe that everybody else deserves it too. This is a logical and moral fallacy. If abusers and sadists deserve love, from whom do they deserve it?
Unconditional love is for God and parents. For everybody else, the degree to which we deserve love ? how ?lovable? we are ? is not based on being born, it is based on our behavior.
This concept is anathema both to the advocates of self-love, and to ?involuntary celibates? like mass shooter Elliot Rodger. Mr. Rodger was young, handsome and rich. In his eyes, the world was denying him the love and sex that he deserved. He failed to realize that the reason he didn?t have a girlfriend was because of the way he acted. He was deemed unworthy of love by those around him, and by exiting this world in a bloody temper tantrum, he proved them correct.
Self-Love & Selfishness
There?s an old joke that states: ?Women expect their men to change. Men expect their women not to change. They are both wrong.? I find this humor rather dark, because the implication is that in a committed relationship, we keep our bad qualities and lose our good ones. In my opinion, the self-love philosophy feeds into this. Having respect for yourself, believing that you have value, and wanting to achieve your full potential as a human being is the kind of self-love that makes sense. Too often, though, the concept of self-love is twisted into self-centered-love, more accurately called ?selfishness.? Selfishness means acting for your own benefit, without regard to others, and there is no surer poison for friendships, business relationships, and romances.
The mantra that ?you have to love yourself before you can love somebody else? has been repeated so often, it has been accepted as truth. But it isn?t true. It?s an inherently selfish premise, and selfishness leads to complacency, entitlement and resentment. If you?re good enough the way you are, then why change anything? And, if somebody else wants you to change something, doesn?t that make them the bad guy?
Loving somebody else, on the other hand, is the path to motivation, initiative, and improvement. It is through loving others that we become worthy to be loved. Why? Because loving others creates an INCENTIVE for self-improvement, and loving yourself does not.
I know this, because I lived it.
Healed By Love
In my teens and twenties, I was arrogant, depressed and angry. I was also, unsurprisingly, single. I was a toxic person, and as such, although I loved myself just fine, there was zero reason for anyone to want to be close to me. Although ?love yourself first? wasn?t the meme du jour at the time, I accepted myself for the volatile jerk that I was. I felt that it was my right to act and express myself the way I wanted.
Of course, it was everyone else?s right to stay away from me, and they mostly did just that. Naturally, this only made me more bitter, resentful and unpleasant. This was decades before the ?incel? movement, but if it had existed then, I probably would have bought into it. I was angry at the world, angry at myself, and I had no idea what to do about it.
I have no doubt that, if I had never met the woman who became my wife, I would have continued down a path of anti-social and self-indulgent behavior rooted in the premise that other people should be okay with me the way I was. That, after all, is the promise of the ?self-love? movement: ?You are perfect just the way you are. You should accept yourself with all your flaws, and other people should too.?
Except it really doesn?t work that way. If you accept yourself with all your flaws, and expect other people to do the same, you?re likely to be alone and miserable. Trust me, I learned that the hard way.
And then ? I met her. I was immediately smitten. I don?t know what she saw in me, but somehow she looked at the angry boy I was, and saw the decent man I could become. She was smart, sassy, sexy, and took no crap from anyone, including me. She called it like she saw it, and from the moment we met, she told me when I was out of line.
I didn?t know what to do, so I listened to her. It was the smartest thing I?ve ever done.
You see, up until that point, I had flattered myself that I was ?intense.? I was a highly sensitive person, you see, and my feelings were so strong that they just couldn?t be restrained. I had to express them, or I?d go crazy. If I got angry, I?d yell, punch the wall, and throw things. It was just who I was.
She called bullshit on that, and told me that I was just a spoiled brat indulging in temper tantrums. She accepted me for who I was, but she didn?t accept my inappropriate behavior. She told me that I could choose how I behaved. She also told me that I could either choose to be with her and control myself, or choose to be by myself and do whatever the hell I pleased.
I chose her. To put it another way, I chose to love her, rather than to love myself. Instead of accepting myself with all my flaws, I took a hard look at those flaws. I realized that they weren?t actually part of my personality at all. In fact, they were obstructions to my personality. Because I loved her and wanted her in my life, I was willing to change, to become a better man.
And I did change. Actually, I still am changing. It isn?t easy to break bad habits and learn good ones. It takes work, and there are good days and bad days, over years and decades. But, making the choice to try was the best decision I ever made.
I will never be perfect, but I was ? and am ? willing to make a genuine effort to improve. And, to paraphrase Robert Frost, that has made all the difference.
Looking back on the person I was, I realize that my self-love was actually self-loathing. I erroneously believed that my bad habits ? what neuroscientist Shirzad Chamine now calls ?Saboteurs? ? were the sum of who I was as a person. Although I made excuses for myself, I didn?t really like being the way I was. I was broken and unhappy. It wasn?t loving myself that healed me, it was loving somebody else, and being loved in return.
One note: although the love that healed me was a romance, I have seen the same kind of transformation occur in people motivated by other forms of love, such as that of a teacher for students, a business owner for employees, or a soldier for brothers-in-arms. The circumstances may be different, but the decision to look in the mirror and say, ?I?m not good enough, but I want to be,? is the same.
Self-Love Is Blind
The expression ?love is blind? is doubly true when referring to self-love. None of us want to confront things about ourselves that need to be addressed, and self-love is the perfect excuse to keep avoiding them. It?s perfect, because it tells us that we are all worthy of love, no matter what.
That?s a lie. We?re not all worthy of love.
If a boy who acted the way I used to act wanted to date my daughter, I would be completely against it. He would not be worthy of her love, or anyone else?s. And that?s a relatively low bar. I never enjoyed hurting people, I was never physically abusive, I didn?t set out to dominate or control anyone. If you do any of those things, you don?t deserve love either. Nobody has the right to expect anyone else to tolerate any of those behaviors.
We?re not all worthy of love. But we can all BECOME worthy of love. As I learned, and as researchers such as Shirzad Chamine have proven, we are more than what we do. We can amend our bad habits, temper our selfishness, and learn to act with greater consideration, kindness, and compassion.
My wife has a saying: ?Impress me with your patience.? I repeat it to myself often. Growing up in this society, we learn that being impressive means being flashy, loud, dramatic. Throwing a tantrum is impressive by the standards of media (both mass and social). But in a peaceful home, in a loving family, the exact opposite is true. Taking a moment to think and breathe is impressive. Not reacting impulsively and short-sightedly is impressive. Listening and honestly trying to imagine how you would feel in the other person?s place is impressive.
If you notice, the qualities of consideration, kindness and compassion apply equally to both yourself and others. Considering only yourself is harmful to others. Considering only others is harmful to yourself. Striking a healthy balance requires self-awareness. You need to be honest about how you feel, and about how you?re making other people feel. In this regard, small changes can make a big difference. I?m far from perfect. Sometimes I get upset and yell at my kids. But when I do, I see how it affects them. I feel bad, and I apologize. I remind them that although all feelings are acceptable, not all behavior is acceptable. As I do this, I am reminding myself of the same thing.
Stuart Smalley unconvincingly telling himself he?s good enough.
Stop Trying To Fool Yourself
Back when Al Franken was on Saturday Night Live instead of in politics, he played a character named Stuart Smalley, who was more focused on positive affirmations than on positive behavior. What was a humorous parody in the 1990s has become a sad reality today. We tell ourselves we?re good enough, but it doesn?t stick, because we know it isn?t really true. We know those flaws, those Saboteurs, those things we want to accept and love about ourselves really AREN?T good, and that no matter how much we pretend, we?re never really going to love them.
So don?t. Stop trying to love and accept your flawed behavior, and start trying to fix it. In order to be kind to yourself, you have to acknowledge that you have the power to do things better than you have in the past. Then, when you try and fall short, you can have compassion for yourself ? BECAUSE YOU TRIED. Having compassion for yourself without making an effort isn?t really compassion at all, it?s self-indulgence. And self-indulgence is just another word for selfishness.
This Valentine?s Day, we can expect to be inundated with messages promoting all forms of love. There will be plenty of entreaties to ?love yourself? among them. But instead of taking them as excuses, try taking them as challenges. Deep down, you KNOW the things you don?t like about your behavior. Stop trying to convince yourself that you should love them, and start trying to fix them. Take responsibility for your actions and their consequences.
I?m still far from being the person I?d like to be, but I know I?ve come a long way. I was fortunate enough to find a wonderful woman to motivate me and hold me accountable. Without her, I?d probably still be at square one, or worse. Whether or not you have somebody else to motivate you, you can choose to pay attention to how your behavior affects yourself and others. Then, find something you could improve, and choose to improve it. It?s not brain surgery, it?s just misbehavior. It?s hard to change, but it?s not complicated.
By taking responsibility for our actions, by making a genuine effort to correct personality flaws rather than accept them, and by acknowledging that we are not perfect, we can become better people. We can become more worthy of love, and we can also gain the strength to insist that the people who want our love deserve it too.
Maybe You Do Deserve Love
So, how do you know when you deserve love? In my admittedly unscientific opinion, it?s when you make other people feel good more than you make them feel bad, as long as you aren?t making yourself feel bad in the process.
In reality, it isn?t a pass/fail system. Life is messy, and being a human is even more so. We all have days when we act selfishly, and make other people feel unimportant. Then, there are days when all we do is take care of everyone else, and don?t get anything we need for ourselves. As long as it comes out in the wash, it?s okay.
Just imagine, though, if we all tried to make other people feel good more than we make them feel bad, without making ourselves feel bad in the process. Instead of trying to convince ourselves that we were perfect the way we are, we would try earnestly to act better, to be better. We would pay attention to how our actions affected ourselves and others. We would try to be considerate and kind, and maybe to impress each other with our patience.
That would be something to feel good about. That would truly be something to love.