“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ –Martin Luther King
Kids learn in grade school that the answer to this question lies in doing rather than telling. MLK’s question simply threads the gemstone of morality from which all decent human behavior springs. The brilliant heart of the gem Do unto others as you would have others do unto you says
- “Don’t lie.”
- “Don’t cheat”
- “Don’t steal”
- “Don’t bully”
- Share your stuff
It’s true–how we treat each other remains the hallmark of a life well lived. However, how may we treat others well, if we treat ourselves with disgust? We may not realize we slam ourselves with put downs:
- “I’m so stupid!”
- “I’m an idiot!”
- “I screwed up.”
- “I just can’t get anything right.”
- “I’m sorry.” (Essential if we have indeed broken the Golden Rule against another–but have we really committed an actual offense or are we in the habit of putting ourselves down?) “Sorry” gets a lot of air time.
Unwarranted self-denigration is not a moral virtue. Maybe as kids, self-denigration was passed on to us. Some of our adults refused us admission into our own lives. We weren’t allowed to enter the theater, much less look at the screen, to sit in the seat and get acquainted with possibility so that we might individuate, to become our own person, to grow up as our Maker intended. We were hardwired from years of hearing damaging phrases from our powerful adult bullies:
- “Quit your whining!” they said when you were thirsty,
- “You are worthless!” when you brought home a “B” from school,
- “You’re too sensitive!” when a nightmare frightened you,
- “You’re selfish!” when a sibling stole something of yours and kept it,
- “You’re stupid!” when you asked questions,
- “You’re arms are too fat!” when you knew they weren’t…. Or were they? You look at them again.
- “Shut up!”
Some of us learned early and well, that to merely exist was to be labelled rebellious, selfish, and inconsiderate of others. Physical, psychological neglect and abuse were OK because we deserved it. We were worthless anyway. We were barred from that critical growing up process. We were isolated from normal others, cut away from the cloth of peer interaction and rewoven into fabric of fear that failed to keep us warm in winter.
Here’s the morally twisted part: those with power over us–abusers, neglectors–were “right” and we were wrong. Always wrong. So…Abuse was always “right.” For us to question, to have an opinion, to be seen as real meant to suffer psychological or physical injury. Let’s face it: all abuse amounts to psychological injury. So we learned to hide from ourselves so that we could hide from injury. Woundedness became the GREAT AVOID. Our attentions were forced away, diverted to mere survival.
- “Will he find me under the bed?”
- “How can I get warm?”
- “I shouldn’t have asked for shoes that don’t hurt.”
- “It was my fault Mom beat me.”
Worse, in the hands of an abuser who uses morality as justification for abuse and neglect (i.e., religious and cult leaders or a partner who says, “This is for your own good” or, “This is what God commands” or “We all have to sacrifice.”), outward neglect morphs into “self-sacrifice” for the good of the “family.” Neglect of self, then, strangely enough wears a mask of “moralness.” In other words, we are no good unless we suffer. So we learn to put ourselves down.
Not only does “sacrificial morality” excuse the abuser, the sufferer often uses it (unwittingly) to avoid making a change.
So we grown up us, our wiring completed by others, have been set into a pattern for life. We have learned to neglect ourselves, to call ourselves names others got away with calling us:
- “I’m stupid.”
- “I’m sorry.”
- “I can’t get anything right.”
- “I’m sorry. Sorry. I’m sorry.”
Unwittingly, many look for a life partner who will support the tradition. Knowing predators hunt for someone exactly like us.
Until the grown up child decides they’ve had enough. After all the years of suppressing questions of their own, the abused gets to answer the question by asking the one that really matters, “Is my want of safety really selfish after all?” Or, “Might it not be morally wrong–a crime against me–to allow the abuse pattern to continue?”
Dig deep. To those grownup kids who’ve decided to get out of abuse and rewire their learned behavior patterns, change can be excruciating. And the kaleidoscope of change may surprise us, change the way we look at things. When we start with being kind to us, we may find we have perpetuated abusive talk and attitude onto others by which we are now embarrassed.
We are worth it. Others benefit from our change. Others are worth it. Let’s us treat others the way we would have them treat us. But let’s us treat ourselves kindly as grown up we, at last, may parent our precious child within. It starts with the way we refer to ourselves.
Kindness to self is not arrogance, but decency.