The Myth of Self Love

Depression is such a difficult illness for me. I can deal with physical pain so much better. But when that dark cloud hits me, even though my intellectual self is very aware that it is the illness and not reality, my emotional self takes control and no logic or reason makes it through until the clouds thin out. The problem with that is when I’m in the midst of it, I do and say things that scare the crap out of people I love – and for good reason – I have always been quite capable of self-destruction.

This is what can happen when children are abused. My father’s last words to me were “I’m going to kill you.” I was 13, and he was removed from my family home, voted off the island as it were, that same night. This followed about a year of beatings and he even tried to run down a neighborhood boy he thought I was fooling around with (we actually really disliked each other).

Yes, my father was seriously mentally ill.

I walked around for another 13 years with my eyes over my shoulder thinking he was coming back, all the while struggling with substance abuse, medical illness and the inner belief that I was unworthy to live life.

For after all, if The Father says you’re not worthy, he must be right.

This has happened in some way to the people with whom I am closest – you know who you are. And the damage seems to last a lifetime.

There are times when I am so overwhelmed by the fact that my life is filled with a global, diverse family ranking in the thousands. How did the bad little girl who was so awful her father wanted her dead become this? It overwhelms, it feels so undeserved and yet it appears to be the greatest gift I’ve been given with which to manage the fact that I have a sense of self only slightly higher than the sidewalk, no matter what successes it appears I have achieved. If anything, I’ve overcompensated to prove to others I am worthy of life.

I’m turning 50 in January, and one would think the distance between the trauma of my abusive childhood and my own self would be softened. And it has been, a little. But the storms still come, and when they do, all that inner horror comes out.

My father died of a rare brain tumor. Between his psychoses and that tumor, there’s an explanation that intellectually I use to reason this through. I am still without peace. Perhaps it’s because I remember him when he loved me. And for a few years, before he became sicker, I loved him fiercely too.

It is a myth that we must love ourselves before we love others. In fact, if anything, loving others before yourself is the greatest gift I believe we can give the world.

What I personally must learn is quite simple in theory: to let others love me back. It has taken half a century and I’m only just beginning to learn how to do that.

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25 thoughts on “The Myth of Self Love

  1. As a child of a mentally ill parent who is also entering that second half of life, let me say thanks for a beautiful if difficult post. It’s so helpful to know others (especially people as fabulous as you!) struggle with this too. The gift of being loved without being worthy in our own eyes is truly a terrifying and awe-inspiring thing. You are loved, dear, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

    Richard Rohr talks about “falling upward” in the second half of life – that the second half is a series of lessons in letting go: letting go of the idea that we can control anything, letting go of the images we have of ourselves, letting go of the idea that this one thing will make everything good or even better. There’s a peace in there, and I’ve seen glimpses of it now and then but wow, is it hard.

    Right there with you, Mols.

    • I love that, Carolyn “Falling Upward” – I’m going to check it out. Thank you for your care and understanding.

  2. Oh Molly, what an emotional post and how wonderful of you to share this story.

    Knowing a few people who I care for deeply who also suffer from depression – I can (to some extent at least) understand your turmoil. And it is sad that there seems to be nothing one can do to help you see, recognise and appreciate the wonderful person you are – and how deserved you are of the love you receive.

    Life does form us from the moment we arrive on this planet ~ and it easier for those of us who had a happy upbringing to cope with the challenges life throws at us all. But I do believe that life is what you make of it, and it is the process of constant learning, feeling and change which will shape you. To accept the respect and love you get from those who care for you is what should never be too far from your mind and heart.

    • Thanks Prisca. I’m interested, for obvious reasons, on the influence of family in terms of how we mature and grow our own selves. On the one hand, the idea of a perfectly stable childhood seems like it would give rise to more stable, healthy adults. On the other, it also seems the instability of my life has given me experiences that others will never have – experiences that ultimately are important to creativity, innovation and discovery. It’s such a complex topic, but ever so fascinating. Perhaps this is why we both are so drawn to teaching – for it leaves us always learning :) xoxo

  3. This is such a powerful and brave post. Thank you for sharing. Something that I have learned over past few years, is that loving someone else intensely can sometimes teach us to love ourselves. I’ve been where you have been Molly, and understand deeply the strength it takes to rise from the depths of personal despair. The internal scars do not heal nearly as quickly as our physical ones. May peace and love surround you in light and joy. Keep learning and growing.

    • Loving someone intensely is only helpful IMO when that person is able to love you back with some equivalent of that intensity.

      What’s helped me a great deal in recent years is recognizing who is still in my life after all the ups and all the downs, through the thick and thin – those are the people from whom I can learn to accept love. For me, it can’t be about “one” as in soulmate. I’m just not built that way.

      Peace and love and joy back to you!

  4. Beautifully written and incredibly brave. Thank you for sharing, and letting others know they are not alone burying their own demons. You and I have not known each other for a long, but through our conversations, I can tell you with all my heart…. you are loved Molly, you are loved.

      • It’s easy for me to spill my heart and speak my mind. There’s nothing brave about it. Brave would be actually allowing myself to accept being loved and not keeping those closest to me at arms length.

        There’s a line in an Indigo Girls song that I’ve always related to: “oh the fear i’ve known / that i might reap the praise of strangers / and end up on my own”

  5. That sort of pain is unfortunately so deeply built in. The people who raise us make an everlasting impression. Well, anyone close enough does. But especially parents.

    I love this idea of having a global family. I think you deserve it, though I know myself how difficult that can be to believe.

  6. Thanks so much for posting this. It’s hard to know where to start in answering really, but I think you’re right—with depression it’s possible to be in a place where you don’t actually feel capable of loving yourself but are able to love others. Then maybe we eventually see that we’re no different from them and that if we only love others and not ourselves we’re being discriminatory, so to speak.

    I don’t want to diminish the meaning of love by suggesting that we love with an ulterior motive. That wouldn’t be love. We love because humans are human with human needs which love cares about. But maybe loving others is good practice for loving ourselves. ;)

  7. Thanks for your very private insights, Mols.

    The relationship between love of ourselves and love of others is certainly complex.
    I suspect there’s no “one before the other”: somehow I must try to do both in parallel, as well as I can at any given moment.
    Then – I hope – each strengthens the other incrementally, in a positive feedback loop, and both abilities grow.

    The others who love me back are an outside source of “energy” which helps sustain that growth. Whenever possible, I need to let that energy in. Maybe just a little sometimes seeps in during the Dark Times, maybe not…

    And it’s never as easy as it sounds – but I suspect it’s worthwhile.

    Thinking of you from 2π/3 around the world,
    ~ Eridanus

  8. wow! Deeply personal post, well done for being able to post something like this publicly.
    I have suffered with clinical depression for over 20 years, and have for the most part hidden it from everyone.
    I am very good at hiding things!
    I am a little bit ashamed by my depression, it is a dirty secret that the world judges me by. From the lack of understanding, to the well meaning but misplaced attempts to help (solve) the problem – that’s what you get when you work with problem solvers and engineers.
    So I write this as A Nony Mouse, because I don’t want anyone to know, lest they change the way they see and interact with me.
    The endless, well meaning, but really annoying “how are you doing today?” questions.
    When a black time does come (and boy do they come hard and fast) I can be self destructive and self loathing. I have plenty of physical scars as a result of this – from dangerous sports and activities for the adrenaline buzz to self harm for the immediate, but later shameful, endorphin hit.
    5 years ago I had a complete breakdown, and the extent of my problem and the fact that I had successfully hidden it came to light.
    Now I take medication to stabilise my moods, a solution I understand but despise my dependency upon.
    The meds help, but they don’t solve the underlying chemical imbalance in my brain – much like insulin helps diabetics, but doesn’t cure it.
    So I live with the knowledge that I can, without warning, feel so low that I could end it all – and be smart enough to justify it using logical arguments, all be it from a flawed premise.
    What keeps me going through those dark spells is my family, my love for my wife and kids – who I have no desire to hurt in any way – but I do not love or value myself. Even on my best days I am plagued by self doubt and worthlessness, hidden behind a facade of good humour and thoughtful consideration, with a sprinkling of theatrical performance. The “me” that faces the world is a character I play for the the world to see, it is not me anymore than an actor is the character they play.
    So I say to you, as one smart person to another, you are not alone and you have my email address if you want to talk, rant, scream, shout, cry with someone who will not awkwardly try to fix you.

  9. There’s something really hard to face when it comes to facts which belong to the past. I was clinically diagnosed as bipolar back in 2002 and, surprisingly, that was a relief. I’ve spent 6 years of my life trying to figure out what was wrong with me or my family but there was nothing wrong at all: it’s a simple matter of some obscure molecules which don’t work as they should. I don’t think there’s nothing to blame or to regret. My recipe is simple: face the present, forget the past, embrace the future. I’ve learned a lot from Randy Pausch last lecture. I hope you’ll find it useful too.

    Hugs,
    Gabriele

  10. Dear Molly
    I have followed you on Twitter for a year or so, but only started to ‘absorb’ your posts over the past few weeks.
    I feel for you.
    In this time, I decided to re-evaluate myself. Does everyone have these ‘dark spells’?
    I know I do. It has affected my past relationships and decisions I have made.
    I am not sure if I regret those decisions, but I do accept them.
    I use these episodes to shape my future-self.
    I don’t think anybody can offer advice to anyone in a position like this, except:
    Molly you are gorgeous and so is life.
    Grab life by the goolies and give it a ruddy good twist!
    We only get one chance at ‘it’, so absorb all that it is beautiful and flush away the rest.
    When your time – naturally – comes to an end (and I am talking decades here), be proud of those who have loved you, those you have loved and all you have given.
    Yours faithfully.
    R

  11. Hello Molly, The coincidence in my life that after almost it being 14 years since I read you HTML 4 book I today decided to look what you had going on for HTML 5 because your book was the easily the best tech book I had ever read and the experience stuck with me. My surprise to find your first post after google searching ‘Molly HTML 5′ and to find it discussing depression is so incredible and timely to me since my decision to study HTML 5 is part of my recovery from my latest bout. If I can share… 9 months ago I started a psychotherapy process that has focused on getting to the real me, warts and all. The main theme appears to loving my child self enough to fully grieve for the loss of her innocence and safe childhood… exhausting, painful process of all the stages of grief but I suspect this might be the key to future health.

  12. Wow. I don’t know what to say.

    I know a girl who’s gone through the things you’re describing here and she’s been in treatment her whole life. She’s half your age, and also not through it.

    Would you mind sharing what role your mother played in this? Did she support you in any way? Did she know? Did she blame you for what happened?

    Posts like this make me wanna help in some way, any way. But thats not possible I suppose. Not only because I live on the other side of this planet…

    I wish you strength and people who love you and make you feel like you’re worth a whole lot. Because you are.

    All the best,
    Florian

  13. Also, I know EXACTLY what you mean talking about depression.

    I suffered from it (for organic reasons, not psychological, but the symptoms are the same) and just like you, I hoped it was something like a broken arm, a virus, something you can get rid of with a bunch of pills and three days in bed. But it’s your very soul that’s aching, and a soul is hard to bandage.

  14. Welcome back Mols. An awful lot of people were worried about you, including me. I never had an abusive childhood. My ongoing depression is related to PTSD stemming from events in the mid-70s as a serviceman.

    All the defences that I’ve built over the years still slip now and again.

    You’re in great company by the way. Winston Churchill suffered from periods of depression. He called it his ‘Black dog’.

    Welcome back to those who think that “You’re just brilliant.”. Sorry, corny David Tenant/Dr Who line. But it’s said in truth and all honesty.

    It’s not easy writing something like you have here, but I admire you for it.

    Keep safe Mols. :-)

  15. Thanks so much for this post. You have given me courage to confront my own demons and try to achieve a fraction of what you have done. You have given me hope for the future despite my depression.

    Many blessings

  16. Mols,

    So glad you’re back. I’ve suffered depression for years and it’s not easy when you think it’s OK then something just triggers it.

    Stay strong yeah?

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