Like Someone You Love
Updated: Feb 5, 2020
Warning: this blog entry has swears. Although, let’s be real, most of my blog entries have swears.
Warning #2: There’s some disturbing content in here, like stuff dealing with self-harm.
There’s a scene in the iconic TV show 30 Rock in which Tina Fey’s character, a neurotic television writer named Liz Lemon, glimpses her boss Jack Donaghy, played by Alec Baldwin, preparing himself emotionally for an event by talking to his reflection in the mirror.
Donaghy tells his reflected self how amazing and competent he is. “Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded,” Donaghy says, meeting his own gaze. “Are you gonna step up? Oh, yeah. Because it’s winning time, you magnificent son of a bitch!”
“Are you psyching yourself up in the mirror?” Lemon asks. “I do that too sometimes before I go to a party where I don’t know a lot of people.”
As viewers, we are immediately transported to a scene where Lemon talks to herself in the mirror. “Stop sweating, you idiot,” she admonishes herself. “What is wrong with you, you stupid bitch!”
And we laugh, because this is funny, and it’s funny because it’s really, really, really relatable.
And as I reflect on it, I believe three things are true:
1) We tend to be way, way more cruel and judgy of ourselves than we are of everyone else, and
2) There is no up-side to doing this, and
3) This actually makes us worse to other people.
A long time ago, like as far in the distance as two or three weeks ago, I thought that there were good reasons I was an asshole to myself. For starters, I deserved all the abuse I was heaping on me. I AM an inadequate mother, I am ROUTINELY selfish, I DO procrastinate, I AM regularly obnoxious. I mean, I have made some epic errors, many of which have slopped over onto people I love. I have a wretched temper. My car looks like I fought a war in it and lost. When I’m hungry, I’m mean as hell. Sometimes I’m mean as hell even when I’m not hungry.
Over the summer when my parents, my daughters and I were visiting my sister, Elizabeth, Liz had the worst idea in the history of both ideas and history, which was that we should play a game with no objective but to force people to answer uncomfortably personal questions. Questions like, “If you could change one thing about your partner, what would it be?” or “Which life mistake do you most regret?” If you think playing this “game” would be painful under any circumstances, (and you are correct), let me just say that there may be no more horrifying group of people to “play” it with than your parents and your adolescent daughters.
I will abridge away most of the sheer, unmitigated horror of this experience, and offer only this anecdote: one of the questions I drew was, “What primary characteristic did you inherit from each of your parents?”
I didn’t really even have to think about it. Helping to forge the neural pathways to permanent mental scarring in multiple generations of my family, I said, “I inherited mom’s judgmental nature. And dad’s tenacity.” I paused. “Which means I can really, really hold on to my judgments of people.”
Oh, I come by it honestly. Our kitchen table in my home growing up was the place where we tore other people to shreds, sometimes over food. My mother, she from whom I inherited the tendency to be judgmental, has very strong opinions on how people should behave, and their (lack of) moral character for failing to behave appropriately. One of her favorite “truisms” was to assert, “99% of the people out there aren’t living, thinking, breathing human beings,” the inference being that the overwhelming majority of everyone was more or less sub-human.
From years of honing the skill of brutality, I can tell you that there is a particular evil delight in articulately and humorously dissecting someone’s soul and finding it wanting. I am never more clever than when I am vicious. I think it was Mae West who coined the phrase I feel represents me: “When I’m good, I’m very very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better."
But the truth is this: nobody, but nobody, got judged by me more harshly than I myself did. I hated myself so desperately for being overweight (I wasn’t) that I developed an eating disorder. I hated myself so completely for being inadequate and unlovable that I started self-harming. I loathed myself for all the ways I saw myself failing, both real and imagined. And because there was no grace for me, there was no grace for anyone else, either. Grace was just something I was fresh out of, or had never had to begin with.
Then I had these kids. I never thought I would become a mother, but then I was, and there were these two tiny humans who relied on me for all of the things.
Charlie, my eldest, was born assertive. They say babies can’t have personalities; she did, and I will fight anyone who disagrees. Her first full sentence was “Follow me,” and that’s basically been her mantra for two decades now.
Abbe inherited my penchant for relentless self-doubt. I swear some of this is genetic, I don’t know how much, but some of it is. I never judged myself or her aloud in front of her, because I didn’t want her to be like me, but it cropped up anyway. Her first grade teacher actually called me in for a parent-teacher conference because Abbe had been building a tower with blocks, and when it tipped over, as block towers often do, she went straight to self-condemnation. “I should just kill myself,” she said, bursting into tears, and proving that pathological self-loathing probably has a genetic component.
Offering grace to my babies was easy, so easy. Of course they shouldn’t be judged by their mistakes. Of course it wasn’t a big deal that the block tower fell, or that they lost their temper or their toy. Everything, everything, was overcome-able.
Which gave my therapist a formidable weapon with me. When I am harsh with myself, she gently asks, “Would you ever say that to one of your girls?”
“My girls aren’t in their forties and still clueless,” I tell her.
“So, when they’re in their forties, then you’re going to be mean to them?”
And I have to admit that I probably won’t.
Brene Brown, the high priestess of wholehearted living, once offered this advice: “Talk to yourself like you would talk to someone you love.” Which sounds insane until you start paying attention to the crap that you say to you. If you are anything like me, your internal narrative runs continuously, like the hum of the fridge, and offers such delights as:
“After all these years, you’re still crap at time management. What the hell with you.”
“You are so painfully awkward. Weren’t you supposed to develop social skills at some point in time? It ain’t looking good, bitch.”
“Look how you just wasted two whole hours watching ‘The Office,’ which you have ALREADY SEEN, by the way, instead of clearing the crap off of the ‘clothes ottoman’ in your bedroom.”
“Oh, good grief, this is the THIRD DAY THIS WEEK you have overeaten, and it’s not even Thursday.”
And it’s just like that, cycling continuously, every moment of every day. I don’t even have to try. This is default mode. If I do nothing, this is what happens.
I discover new ways to fail myself all the time. The last few months, I've been making a concerted effort to encounter the world with love. I thought it would mean I suck less. I read books on loving everything and everyone I encounter. I meditated. I listened to peaceful music. I practiced giving unsolicited compliments and boosted the day of strangers.
Then, THEN, in the most representative Laura Fail maybe ever, I went for a run. It was a gorgeous day, especially for winter - the sky was perfectly blue, the sun was uncharacteristically warm. My playlist was perfect. I felt strong and capable and confident as I began my lumbering waddle that I optimistically call a run in front of Brookwood Mall. Brookwood Mall is the conduit for two different running trails, in addition to the hordes of mall-goers, so drivers there have to be especially aware of pedestrians.
Which I thought would be the case when I jogged, with a carefree air, into a crosswalk. There was a car coming, but there was a stop sign protecting me, in addition to the crosswalk, so I wasn't unduly worried. But then the woman driving the car DID NOT STOP and nearly hit me. I leaped out of the way as she rolled halfway across the crosswalk before finally applying her brakes. A little shaken, but determined to be optimistic, I waited until she came to a full stop and then jogged in front of her car onto the sidewalk on the other side.
And THEN, when I was fully on the sidewalk, she HONKED at me. Presumably out of indignation that I would dare to use the crosswalk in front of her car. In spite of the fact that I had a crosswalk and the right of way and she had a stop sign and at any rate I was now past her car and on the sidewalk.
Every thought I had of encountering the world with love and peace spontaneously evaporated as if it had never been, and I did a very me thing without thinking about it AT ALL: I spun around and FLIPPED HER OFF WITH BOTH HANDS.
This was my reflex response. Like I said, no thought went into this at all. MY INSTINCT IS TO FLIP PEOPLE OFF.
Here were my thoughts immediately afterward:
1) I hope that ruins her afternoon.
2) If encountering the world with love means that I shouldn't flip off idiots, then I am damned if I am going to encounter the world with love.
3) I am not cut out for loving people. This is not my wheelhouse.
4) I'm gonna go for hostility instead, I'm good at that already.
Three miles later, when the endorphins started to kick in, I started to remember all of the times that, like that driver, I had been an idiot and felt righteous about it. I remembered when I had done the exact wrong thing, and people had treated me the way I had deserved to be treated, and that did not make anything in my heart or my world better, it made everything much worse.
And then I had these thoughts:
1) You are a huge loser because frankly a bad driver was an extremely easy test for encountering the world with love and YOU FAILED, and
2) If you are this bad at loving people you deserve to be miserable, you pathetic excuse for a woman.
Fortunately, this was a long run, so I was able to evolve a little more. Two miles later I had what, in retrospect, should not have been an earth-shattering realization but somehow was.
I am only able to give others grace and love to the extent that I am able to give it to myself.
It comes from the same well, that grace and love. If you are stingy with it with yourself, you will not have an abundance to pour out to others because you will be operating from a place of lack and inadequacy. Love can't come from that. Honestly, it's surprising that anything besides tears and maybe phlegm can come from that.
Of course I fail. We all do. Of course I suck sometimes. Of course I'm weak and tired and cranky and assaholic. We all are. But when I have those times, when I make those mistakes, I in no way improve when I tell myself that I'm an idiot.
When our kids fail, when they make bad decisions, we don't say, "Hahaha, you suck, I told you you'd never do anything right," and this is because we don't want them to become suicidal drug-addicted homeless people with mommy issues. We don't say that to our friends either, because not only would it mean they weren't our friends for very long, but also they would feel worse about themselves.
But we think nothing of talking to ourselves this way.
And the problem is, of course, that once you've dried up your well of compassion for yourself, you have very little to offer others, and your world becomes very small, and very hard, and very dry.
I'm going to suggest that talking to yourself like you would talk to someone you love is not only a healing practice for you, but also that it will heal other relationships, with family, with friends, with total strangers.
You are deserving of love - not just from the universe, but from the person who knows you best: you are deserving of love from you.
And because I can't say this better than Matt Kahn, I'ma just leave this here: