I’ve got this incredibly talented friend. She writes music, and sings like an angel. She paints, and has really flawless taste. She’s kind, compassionate and thoughtful. She’s breathtakingly beautiful. She’s incredibly gifted. And she has very little sense of self-worth.
How can this be?
This is a pattern I’ve seen in so many quality people. It’s as if their eyes are blind to what makes them special. They often struggle with low self-esteem, and are genuinely incredulous when people say kind things about them or their work.
I know successful business people who feel like frauds and best-selling authors who only believe the tweets that mock their ideas. I know musicians who question their talents and believe their harshest critics—even though they sell enough records to make a living.
I think most people don’t like themselves very much, and as a result are unkind to themselves in a way they would never be to another person. I hear this voice anytime someone expresses disgust at a photograph of their own face or revulsion at the sound of their voice. I’ve noticed people use the word “hate” most often toward themselves.
This self-hate comes from a couple of wells, both deep and powerful.
The first is shame from the past. Every time we shared some part of our personality or creativity as a child and were ignored, rebuffed or rejected, it left a mark. When a parent didn’t pay attention, or a classmate mocked, our brains store that experience as trauma.
We developed as a social species, and our brains spend considerable energy constantly estimating our social standing. We want to present our best self to others so we have the best possible social standing. This helps us secure a place in our community (we once called them tribes) and secure the best possible mate (our DNA really wants to link up with another set of DNA to replicate).
The second is fear of pride. Religions tend to link shame with sin—it’s a powerful way to create an emotional response. Religions also tend to minimize ego, often for good reason, but this can go too far. We can become terrified of being prideful to the point that we obsessively check our motives and preemptively pull the sprouts of self-worth from our hearts. We value humility.
But humility isn’t thinking less of yourself. Humility is thinking of yourself less. Ironically, constantly worrying about pride is anything but humble—it’s an obsession with self.
Here’s the deal: some of you was a gift, a set of propensities and predispositions that emerged from the unique genetic and epigenetic information that created a template for you, as well as the environment that shaped you. But the you that looks back in a mirror is also the product of thousands of choices you made, like what to eat, or how to respond to the telemarketer that got you up from dinner.
You are in a constant state of reinvention, an unstable equilibrium between nature and nurture. Your template plus your choices creates all kinds of advantages and disadvantages. Maybe you are tall, but shy. Or very short with an incredible singing voice. Whatever you are, you have amazing strengths and weaknesses. And both are vital parts of who you are.
Our shame makes us pretend we don’t have weaknesses, to ourselves and to others. Pretending you don’t have weaknesses leads to arrogance and false bravado.
Our quest for humility makes us pretend we don’t have strengths—to be ashamed of what we do well. Pretending you don’t have strengths leads to low self-worth, and it doesn’t actually help us be humble.
Here’s how this works in practice: I’m a great public speaker—I can dazzle a crowd with words. I write well. I’m a good husband and father. I’m an empathetic, affectionate friend. I work hard. I am a man with many strengths.
I’m really absent-minded and forgetful—I lock myself out of my house all the time and I can go months without remembering to call friends I care about. I’ve got a flabby belly. When I’m tired or excited, I mumble or mess up the tenses of words. I have absolutely no ability to resist hot pizza. I am a man with many weaknesses.
Some reading my strengths may be shocked at my bravado to admit those things, but that’s their own shame talking. I’m grateful for my strengths, but I know they aren’t something I made. But I have worked hard to grow and develop those strengths over my life. Saying those things doesn’t make my chest swell, or make me feel superior to anyone else. They are just parts of me.
Others will read my weaknesses and think I don’t like myself—that I’m ashamed, but again, that’s their shame talking. My weaknesses are also things I didn’t create, and in some cases I’ve nurtured them just as much as my strengths. They are just as much a part of me as my strengths, and in some cases they are even a result of my strengths.
I’m absent-minded because I have a phenomenal gift for mental focus. I forget the keys because I’m contemplating the implications of modern Cosmology on our ideas about God and how that can help other people. Part of why I’m an interesting speaker is the unique, quirky pattern of my speech.
You see, embracing both your strengths and weaknesses leads to health, grace and humility. I am self-aware, but I don’t think about myself nearly as much as I did when I was obsessed with humility. I am who I am, and I can change who I am over time.
This awareness and acceptance is key. It is the beginning of the abundant life Jesus spoke about and the renewed mind Paul wrote about.
You are strong, and you are weak. Both are beautiful. Accept it. Love yourself.
You’ll never be able to truly love your neighbor until you do.
This article was originally posted on mikemchargue.com. Used here with permission.
People call me Science Mike. Christian turned atheist turned Jesus follower. Spiritual & skeptical. I roll with @TheLiturgists. Host of @asksciencemike.