I secretly hate myself

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, DEC 14, 2007

I seem to be OK on the outside, but inside … you don’t even want to know.


Dear Cary,

I have never written to an advice column before, and I chose you because although I sometimes disagree with your advice, I find I can never predict what that advice will be based on the advisee’s letter. Here’s my problem: I secretly hate myself. I know why, too: I am the adopted only child daughter of nasty parents, who emotionally abused me and controlled me all my life. They constantly put me down, berated me for the smallest thing, and particularly picked on my looks and weight, even when I was a small child. My mother is basically a nasty seventh grade girl, preoccupied with appearances, looks and clothes, and my father is a big, henpecked milquetoast whose only pieces of advice are “turn the other cheek” and “kill them with kindness.” They did, however, do things like feed and clothe me, purchase Christmas gifts, and pay for my college education, for which I am grateful, of course, but which, incidentally, I am often reminded of.

It’s a long story, but I finally got away from them physically. I found a wonderful man who is an exceptional husband — loving, supportive, caring, considerate, hardworking, honest and successful. They naturally hate him, ostensibly because they consider his job to be nothing they can brag about, but really because he stands up for me and won’t let them bully him or me. I have worked my way up from low-level jobs (their idea, despite the college education — “you are lucky to have any job”) to a professional career that I enjoy with a good salary.

I call them only when I feel I absolutely have to (i.e., their birthdays) and dread the calls for days in advance. I tell them as little as possible about my life because, as it has been all my life, everything I say is wrong. After the calls, I feel as if I’ve been poisoned. I just want to cry uncontrollably, but I pretend I’m fine. I spend the next few days hating everything about my life and hearing their nasty voices in my head tearing everything about my life down, and I see the fat, ugly person they (still) tell me I am when I look in the mirror. Gradually I come back to myself, but I am so tired of this process.

Mainly I think I am angry at myself for still believing the horrible things they said (and still say) to me. Deep down I worry that my husband doesn’t love me, because they told me no man would ever want me. They told me that people I thought were friends “were just using” me, so although I have friends, and people seem to like me, deep down I think that they don’t care if I am around or not.

How can I stop hating myself like this? How can I just get past this? I have enough perspective to know that they are the crazy ones, but I can’t seem to believe it. I don’t know what to do. What do you think?

Secretly Hate Myself

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Dear Secretly Hate Myself,

Let’s begin by noting that no matter how much outward success you achieve it will never undo the damage your adoptive parents did by not loving you. And it will never get you the love you didn’t get as a child. The only way you can get that love and undo that damage is by loving yourself.

The logic of it is this: If you are working hard to succeed in the world in order to prove something to your parents, what do you think will happen if you ever prove it to them? What will you get from them if you finally prove them wrong? Will they come to their senses and love the child you were? They can’t give that child their love. That child is gone. That child is grown up. So how can they possibly ever give you what you needed? Can you go back in time and get the love you needed from them? No.

That may be why it is so incredibly painful to talk to them. You are still hoping to get this thing you were supposed to get as a child. You are hungry for it, naturally. Of course you hunger for it. But you can’t get it from them. They don’t have it to give. And you’re not a child anymore. So each time you talk to them, you re-experience the deprivation, the primal, existence-threatening psychological abuse. It does indeed sound like you are being poisoned.

How to end this cycle? First of all, I think you must recognize, really recognize, that it’s a rigged game, and the damage has already been done. That alone may be enough to free you from it, or at least give you some psychological room in which to create some options. I think that is really the first step, though, just really accepting that what’s done is done.

Whatever you are doing today to prove that you are worthy of their love it’s bound to cause you nothing but pain until you fully, deeply accept the sad fact of your upbringing. Until then, performing for them is a hopeless task. And it takes you away from recognizing and loving the person that you actually are. It takes you away from developing the talents you may have that are truly unique.

That is the trap you are in. I dare say it is why you are having these episodes of virulent self-hatred.

You don’t have to prove to others that you deserve love. Nobody should have to prove, as a child, that they are deserving of love. Parental love is a precondition of life. It is the inalienable right of a child.

So the damage has been done, and you’re never going to get what you want from your parents. So you have to learn to love yourself. The way to do that, at the risk of sounding sacrilegious, is to indulge in some self-pity. Yes, pity yourself. Pity yourself as a helpless child who got a raw deal. It’s not whining. It’s a fact: Your parents were supposed to give you what you needed as a child and they didn’t. In not doing so, they did you wrong. They screwed you up. It’s not the kind of thing you just “get over.” It takes a long time and it takes some difficult cognizance of your own vulnerability. So now it’s your job to give yourself some love.

Yes, I know, we’re not supposed to feel sorry for ourselves. Well, sorry, but sometimes that’s exactly what we need to do. Nobody took care of you. So there was a stage of development you didn’t go through, a stage where, by having them like you and treat you well, you learn to like yourself and treat yourself well. So you have to go through that stage later.

It’s OK. You can do it now. You can get braces as an adult, and you can learn to love yourself as an adult. There’s nothing wrong with doing it. It runs counter to what our culture teaches us about the proper relationship between self and self. Self is not supposed to love self. Self is supposed to control and discipline self! But too bad. Self, in this case, is going to love self. You can do it. You can say to yourself, You are an innocent child of the universe and I love you. You can do that. You don’t have to do it in public. You don’t have to do it with a straight face even. There may be so much loathing there that the mere idea of loving yourself is untenable.

But there’s nothing esoteric about this. I am just speaking the stupid obvious truth. You say, how do I stop hating myself; I say, by loving yourself.

Not complicated. Pretty simple.

The only thing is, you have to actually do it. Thinking about it won’t help — any more than parents thinking about loving a child is going to help the child. They have to actually do it. Yours didn’t. So now it’s up to you.

 

Our person of the week: Eva Finn

First, I’d like to give a shout out to the other featured writers, some of whom I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting at Cary’s first Creative Getaway. It’s good to see their faces again and inspiring to witness the success they’ve achieved with their writing. Going to the Creative Getaway and meeting Cary and Norma changed my life. I knew I wanted to do more with my writing but I didn’t know what. Cary was very generous with his time and counseling. After asking me a few really good questions about what I wanted to write, because seriously, I had no idea, he suggested young adult fiction might be a good area of focus for me.

I didn’t know that that conversation would lead me, five years later, to writing a blog that gives advice to young women. But I always loved Cary’s Salon.com advice column, and his book, Since You Asked. I felt a very personal connection to him through his writing and always thought he was better than any psychologist I ever had.

Which brings me back to what I’m doing now. I made a lot of mistakes in my 20s and sometimes wish I had done things differently or had had more guidance. I started the blog, Wisebefore25.com so young women could avoid some of my misfortunes. The topics range from finances, to boyfriends, to roommates, to family, to sex, to entertaining and beauty tips. But most of all, the goal of the blog is to help young women feel better about themselves and know that they’re not alone.

I also hope to finish a young adult book I’ve been working on. Not surprisingly, it’s a coming of age story. I plan on enlisting Cary and Norma to help me self-publish it once I’m done. It will be great to have their passion, devotion and inspiration once again.

Jan Rosamond

Our person of the week: Jan Rosamond

Happy New Year! After slowing down for the holidays, Cary and I are back working at full speed. The “Featured Person of the Week” is back, as are more columns and creative writing from Cary.

A note: because many commenters have mentioned that they would like the ability to edit their comments after they post them, we’ve changed our method of posting comments. You now need to log in to our site to post a comment, as this is the only way out site will let you make edits after posting. I hope you won’t find this extra step too cumbersome. Please keep the comments coming!

Have a great week!

 

We first met Jan at our writing retreat at Marconi Conference Center. Since that time, Jan has embarked on a “self-funded, self-directed, multi-media inner research project” called Dharma Town. Dharma Town is intended as a sangha-building resource for practitioners of Insight, Mindfulness and Metta Meditation in the St. Louis area. For the past 2 years she’s been writing every weekday on Dharma Town Times, where she posts her reflections on all-things-dharma.

Below is Jan’s unique take on the Creative Getaway:

I’ve been to several of Cary’s Creative Getaways…the first one he ever held and then the second, and the third one, too, I think…and they were all wonderful, joyous, inspiring and quite amazingly productive…but the one I remember the most was the one where the Bear showed up. Not a real, live bear, of course. Not exactly.

Cary had given us a prompt which asked us to let that part of ourselves that is afraid to write—write. He said to let it say whatever it wanted to say. Which sounded a little too “woo-woo” for me, but then I got started and I found myself writing the words: “You don’t trust me, you don’t believe in me, you don’t feed me.” And then: “You put me on display—like a bear on a chain—and you expect me to dance for you, but you don’t own me.” And then it was like the power of whatever it was that I had been afraid of for so long took over and these words just poured out:

“I’m a bear. I’m a huge, smelly, filthy bear. I have sharp, yellow, slobbery teeth. Don’t try to pretty me up. I have wounds that oozed. I have festering sores. But my eyes are clear and my great, soft belly is the color of ripe peach. Let me be what I am. Let me breath and drool. Let me claw through the garbage and break things. Let me roam and let me stumble in the dark. Let me stink the place up.”

Then I wrote: “You’re scaring me.” And then: “I know. Let me scare you.”  

But the thing is, I wasn’t afraid. I was energized. And since then, I’ve never been afraid to write.

Cary Tennis writing retreat in Chester Connecticut

 



Can I write and publish this book?

Dear Cary,

What a delight that you are continuing. Bravo!  The quality of the world dipped there for a moment, but now it is leveled up again, thank, goodness. I’ll be sure to do my part to spread the word so that everyone I know can enjoy your column.

On another note, I do want to ask you a few related questions about my writing. Some background: On a deep and sweet level, I am an artist–singing, composing, writing, playing. This artistry was supplanted seven years ago when I discovered the intense pleasure of teaching and facilitating personal growth during a five minute segment I was asked to teach in a personal growth class in which I was assisting. That kind of activism attracted me.

To be part of the solution, rather than a complainer, I wrote a roughly 400-page book six years ago by sitting down every morning, remembering my divine nature and writing what came of that. It was an incandescent journey, saving me while I was going through a total financial meltdown. (Real estate; says it all, doesn’t it?)

To my bafflement and distress, I was unable to pull the book together into one coherent entity. I had 57 short chapters and no single through-line, no simple overarching context.

I tried to cobble the chapters together, writing segues. But each attempt seemed to destroy what I had already written.

I hired an editor. After viewing the first chapter, I decided not to continue. She had no better luck than me; it seemed her efforts, as mine before, were extinguishing the light in a text conceived during, what felt like, illuminated moments. I decided to set the book aside.

Last Wednesday evening, a dear close friend, a horror writer, of all genres (!) suggested I frame the book as a collection of essays. This has sparked a little hope.

I am currently reading an exquisite book, When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams, who is an artist, teacher and writer. This book seems a little outside of the usual and expected in every way. In how she circles back to a theme; that there is more than one; format changes; images of a bird in the margins that “flies” when you let the pages run through your fingers. The non-conformity is subtle but adds up to something unique and genuine, even pure, perhaps.

And here are my questions: If I let myself be encouraged and inspired by Ms. Tempest Williams’ example, being unknown and untried, do I have a candle in the wind’s chance of appealing to a publisher? Would it be tantamount to a pointless labor of love? Should I stick with the recommended approaches that have been suggested in How to Get Published workshops?

And secondly, from your perspective, is wanting to be widely read an “evil” I should shed, or is that a legitimate consideration? As an artist, I feel that the work is its own raison d’être. But as an activist, I don’t see the point in writing something my five closest friends will read.

I am so looking forward to your thoughts.

Blessings,

Writing from the Heart

Dear Writing from the Heart,

Of course you can write and publish a book. Whether you actually do it will depend on whether you are willing to put in the time and effort.

Right now you sound like you are not exactly sure if you want to do it badly enough to devote your life to it. It’s best to assess that possibility now, before undertaking what could be a long and painful journey. It doesn’t take just time and effort. It takes unexpected personal sacrifice. You say you do not want to write the book unless many people are going to read it, but you cannot force people to fall in love with your book and recommend it to their friends. All you can do is devote your life to writing it well and seeing that it is published, and then do everything you can to bring it to people’s attention.

Here are some of the difficulties you may encounter along the way.

You may have to guess, from a sentence or two from a professional editor, what actually has to be done in concrete terms to fix a problem in the manuscript, and then try several different approaches to the same problem — writing the same paragraph, or same chapter, over and over, not knowing when you might hit on the solution. Then, after doing that, you might find that the solution actually lies elsewhere. Such frustrations are common, and there is no clear way to eliminate them, because the material has its own secrets.  But if you are willing and able to endure such frustrations, then of course you can publish a book.

You may have to listen to and take advice from people you don’t like, people who seem arrogant and short-tempered and dismissive. The book business has such people, and their knowledge is valuable. If you can learn from them and not dismiss them, then of course you can write and publish a book.

You may need to acquire certain traits, skills, knowledge and sensibility. It might be necessary to spend a few years reading all the books you can find, thinking and taking notes and studying the inner workings of sentences. Yes, sentences. You might have to change in certain fundamental ways how you perceive units of meaning, how you structure your thought. This can be hard, especially after the university years. But if you can do that then of course you can publish a book.

You may discover what you are saying has already been said by geniuses, in clear, evocative, compelling language. How then will you persuade an editor or agent who has read most everything and is not easily amused that what you have written is relevant and important and moving and salable? How will you recast your insights to apply to specific people in our time? Will you be willing to take the time to solve this problem, coming up with flawed solution after flawed solution until you find one that is uniquely suited to your style and your time? If so, then of course you can publish a book.

Experts can point out the flaws in your manuscript, and people like me can cheer you on, but you will eventually meet your own shortcomings, your own darkness, and you will be alone with your insufficiency. Writing and publishing a book may require you to face a kind of spiritual desolation you had not counted on as part of the price. But if you are willing and able to go through those things, then of course you can publish a book.

If your life is such that distractions arise, or if disappointments set you back, or if you do not know how to continue writing after you have lost interest and do not feel inspired, or if you are not able to differentiate between when your sentences are clear and when they are muddied, or if you do not know what kinds of linguistic phenomena offend cultured and sophisticated readers, or how long the average attention span is, or how the brain works when it reads, or how to create tension on the page, then of course it may take longer than expected. But of course you can write and publish a book.

Writing talent is just part of what is required. Can you motivate yourself to learn difficult new skills; can you manage your own emotions over a long period of time; can you bounce back from rejection; can you creatively solve problems; can you find the money to hire professionals when needed?

The difficulties are not insurmountable. They are merely huge.

Assuming you have the resources, you could begin today. You could begin by finding a careful, experienced nonfiction book editor currently in the business who would read the book and tell you all the things you would have to do to make it marketable. You would have to commit to that process. If it was unpleasant hearing these remarks, then you would have to sift through the unpleasantness, seeking to know what was unpleasant because it challenged a false assumption you had, and what was unpleasant because it failed to address your true intent. Having worked through that, you could come up with a plan for how to address each perceived shortcoming in the manuscript.

Then you could hire a coach and/or editor to keep you on track and coach you along the way.

I suggest you spend the next few days or weeks on this one essential question: Is this something that I must do, that I am driven to do, for which I am willing to make any sort of sacrifice?

I want to strangle stupid people who say stupid things about Obamacare

Write for Advice

Dear Reader,

Right now I’m writing this column here on my own site on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can bookmark http://carytennis.com to always find it. I’ll announce it on Facebook and Twitter whenever it goes up, and we’ll send out an email newsletter about it, too. Might miss a day or two here and there but that’s the schedule.

Since I left Salon some people have asked how they can contribute to see the column continue here on CaryTennis.com. Norma and I are trying to figure all that stuff out. Your patience is appreciated as we weigh the options. We have plans. They’re just taking some time to work out.

Also, let’s not forget, I’m a writer, for heaven’s sake, and also a musician, so I’m enjoying my relative unemployment even though I’m probably not supposed to. I am also working all the time on other stuff that doesn’t pay money, just like the old days. Plucking my guitar, messing around with poems, etc.

So here’s the letter, something we can probably all relate to in some fashion:

 

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Dear Cary,

I know that you overcame a health crisis of your own not long ago and I congratulate you on your valiant fight! Over the past decade, my husband Kevin and I have had several health issues including two back surgeries and a hip replacement for him and an emergency appendectomy and broken foot for me along with several smaller, but still costly illnesses. My husband lost his advertising job after Sept. 11 at 51 years old and we’ve been doing everything we can to right our ship. Unfortunately, between a significant loss of income and HUGE medical bills, we went through all of our retirement savings (~a quarter of a million dollars) before going through bankruptcy. We are down, but we are definitely not OUT!  We are regretful, but not full of self-pity. We are extremely focused on rebuilding.

My question for you is how can I keep from completely losing my shit when someone (usually at my office) makes a negative comment about Obamacare? It happened again last week and I blasted a coworker and shrieked, “DON’T YOU DARE BLAME IT ON OBAMACARE!!! I WENT THROUGH BANKRUPTCY ON GEORGE-BUSH-DOESN’T-GIVE-A-RAT’S-ASS-CARE.”

How can I either walk away or provide a cogent argument without sounding like an angry nut? I’d like to come up with something having to do with “What kind of a country do we want to be?” but I can’t stop seething long enough to sound reasonable.

Thank you, Cary.

Broke But Not Down

Dear Broke But Not Down,

Imagine somebody says something stupid and insulting and you’re about to scream but instead you say to the person, “Could I please have a minute of your time? In private.” And the person looks at you and goes, “Right now?” or maybe, “What for?” or just, “Whaaa?”

And you say, “Now would be fine. In private.”

I love to imagine this scene. It would play out all different ways for different groups. Like if it was a group of men, or a mixed group, or all women. If it was men it might be like asking a guy to step outside. But you just stick to the script. You just say, “Could I please have a minute of your time? In private.”

Now, maybe when the person says, “Why?” you say, “Once we are alone together and can talk in private, you will know why.” This introduces some mystery and suspense, making the person perhaps a tad curious. It’s less threatening than saying, “Because I want to beat your ass in private where there are no witnesses.”

In any case, if the person agrees, you go, together, to an empty conference room or outside on the street or to a cafe.

And while you are walking to this place you calm down just a little bit but you maintain your focus on the emotional energy that has been unleashed. And you maintain your focus on your own personal experience. For that is what is important here: to regain your equilibrium and some sense of personal validation by relating your personal experience and being heard. You’re not going to change any political opinions necessarily but you’re going to make a connection with another person. Now, this person may not like you. You can’t control that. But by taking this action, you have the upper hand, morally speaking. You get to do this. You get to be heard. You get your moment.

Or maybe instead of agreeing to meet with you in private the person says something insulting, like, “No, you cannot have a minute of my time,” or just something vaguely dismissive like, “Not now, maybe later.”

Now that would be a crucial moment, because people would be looking at you to see how you respond. Without preparation, you might not have anything to say back to that. But if you were prepared, you could say this:

“I will be in touch, and we will have some time together, and I am looking forward to our conversation.”

And then you walk away before the other person can say something to you that you would have no comeback for. You’ve stated that you and that person are going to meet in private and that’s that. You have the upper hand because you have stated a fact. And you’re out of there. And a question lingers in the air.

So, either right now, or eventually, you have a private chat with this person who said this thing.

In this private chat, you begin by saying that you were upset by this person’s words. You avoid saying that the person is a dumb shit or that her political beliefs are naive and uninformed. You just say that her words were hurtful to you because of your own personal experience, and then you ask if you can relate that personal experience. You tell what it was like to be forced into bankruptcy by medical bills.

You don’t ask the person to change her views. You just relate what it is like to be forced into bankruptcy by medical bills.

Because here is the thing about hearing a person’s story: If we are merely listening to someone’s story, we are not required to make political sense of it. We do not have to rebut it or try to fit it into our scheme. We can simply acknowledge the truth of it, and the truth of it is not about policy; the truth of it is emotional: Here is what happened to a person because of the lack of medical insurance.

Let’s think for a minute about why might it be so insulting to you that this person would say what she said. Can it be partly because what she touched on was not a matter of policy but a matter of personal hurt? Let’s say you’ve been through the Gulf War and you were wounded and I start going on about what a stupid, unjust war it was. You might agree with me in principle about the the war but still feel hurt and offended because it was your war; you went through that war and got blown up in it and that’s what’s real for you. So what I might say about it would feel like a transgression. It would feel like I don’t know what I’m talking about, because for you, that war is about your injury.

In the same way, the issue of health insurance is about what it feels like to be ruined financially. As with the person who went to a war he might not have believed in, you did what you thought was right. You didn’t shirk. You paid, just as a person who goes to war goes to war because that is the honorable action. So to hear others make political hay of it is personally offensive.

Perhaps in a private setting, if you tell your story, something like that might get across to this person. You did the right thing and were screwed, and scarred, and left with feelings of abandonment and betrayal.

There’s a larger picture here, too, in which all but the very richest of us have been abandoned and betrayed by our country. Our soldiers, our women, our working people, our minorities, our artists, our writers, our intellectuals, our students, all of us have been hoodwinked by a system of government and business geared to profit, not to the protection and care of its citizens. We all carry some anger and resentment and feelings of betrayal about this.

Still, sometimes you just want to hit a person who says something stupid about Obama and Obamacare. And why not? Is that such a terribly wrong thing to feel? Is it so terribly wrong to want to say, “You, motherfucker, just don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about!”? Is it so terrible to want to say, “You, motherfucker, are a fucking idiot!”?

Well, especially in a work environment, it’s preferable to count to ten. But not to just let it go unchallenged. Make an appointment in public to challenge it in private. Make time with the person where we can tell our story, so there is some understanding between us about why we feel as we do.

And by telling this person, you might have some influence on this person’s future political thinking. For our political attitudes are shaped by emotion. If you can touch someone with your own personal experience, you have a chance to change their political calculations regardless of what they may outwardly profess because, having once felt something, we cannot unfeel it. Some are better than others at shutting out feeling that conflict with their beliefs, but feelings are powerful. They can change lives. They can change opinions.

Then, having told your story, having thanked the person for hearing you out, you might also think to yourself, I can tell that story pretty well. I could put this story on the Internet. I could write an article about this. In that way you might indeed have some influence on policy.

And then, finally, after all this, you could always go to a martial arts class and beat and kick the shit out of some inanimate object and pretend it is this person.

Write for Advice

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