I’m still deeply ashamed to admit that I’m beautiful. My self-esteem teeters on a constant tightrope between fleeting moments of self love (usually received from external factors) and horrific self depreciation. But I’m not the only one. British women are renowned for low self esteem and there are many of us suffering from mental health problems because of it.
She loves herself
I grew up in London and learnt pretty quickly that ‘she loves herself’ was not a compliment at all. In fact, to have a girl admit she was pleased with herself was instant social suicide. My point was proved each time I discussed this article with my friends.
“Gem, do NOT write about how amazing you are it will sound ridiculous,” and ‘‘OMG, you’re going to talk about loving yourself, that’s the most cringe thing I’ve ever heard, even I will have to take you down a peg or two,” and these were just the reactions of men.
Of course, as a woman, loving yourself always relates to the feelings you have around your appearance, because ultimately that’s what most women are judged upon. If you happen to be deemed attractive? Loving yourself is an even greater emotional minefield.
So how did our collective self loving become so bruised? Why is it so difficult to admit that you’re beautiful, that you love yourself, or that you’re ‘pleased with yourself’ when really it’s one of the main factors that can help improve your mental health?
The fundamental meaning of shame is that you cannot be loved because you are not lovable. That there is something wrong with you at your very core. It’s such a painful emotion that we develop a thousand coping mechanisms, conscious and unconscious, numbing and destructive, to avoid its tortures. But shame and guilt, in small amounts, are very necessary for us all to live together in a society.
All of us were nurtured by parents who were in some way shame-bound. Up until fairly recently, amongst the general teachings that were woven into the curriculum of prep schools was the idea of Original Sin. Boys between the age of 5 and 13 were taught first and foremost that they were inherently wicked. ‘Little fools’ they were referred to, born sinful and violently beaten for it. Richard Dawkins speaks of it in The God Delusion, and Church of England priest, Giles Fraser in this article.
For women, the shame formed around the idea of sin is even more catastrophic as it’s woven into a darker process of historical teachings, for mankind was led into sin by Eve. The original sinners of the world, in this respect, were women.
Most people when watching the movie The Help are deeply moved when Aibileen (a black maid and nanny) tells the child in her care (who is neglected by her mother) that she is smart, kind and important, because we all know to some extent how painful it feels when you are first taught shame. Since this kindness comes from an archetype who historically has one of the worst of all cultural projections of shame – a black female, it strikes us even deeper.
Another popular teaching at schools was the idea you must always put others before you. The house system was there to stress the importance of teamwork. Children were taught that if they let themselves down they let down their house (see Harry Potter) but this combination of putting others before yourself and the belief that you were born sinful was a catastrophic combination.
Perhaps this became popular due to the competitive nature of the empire but it seemed to have the effect of making us all even more separate. Of course, the more gentle Christian teaching of loving others before yourself is impossible if you believe yourself to be a bad person, as countless years of psychotherapy will teach you. Yet we still teach our children shame and guilt because, in small quantities, they are very necessary. These thoughts are part of our collective unconscious.
One of the most destructive effects of shame is envy. When we don’t love ourselves and we see a girl who dresses well, makes the most of herself, is happy and confident, it’s not uncommon for the shame-based individual to dislike her for no reason. Usually the feeling is fleeting. It’s not a spur to action or even a source of lasting unhappiness and let’s be honest here, the tendency to feel a pang of envy at another’s good fortune is universal.
Perhaps you’ve had a difficult boss who didn’t appreciate your hard work and made your life a misery for outshining her. When this once happened to me I remember thinking that the answer was making less effort so as not to step on anyone’s toes. It just seemed the right thing to do if I was causing someone else discomfort (and subsequently myself too) but I was only four years old when I was bullied by a primary school teacher. I later found out she had a mental illness but by then it was a bit late to undo the deep sense of shame it left me with and the damage to my self esteem.
The answer isn’t self depreciation. It isn’t lowering your standards and staying small. Thinking you are above others is arrogant and will not get you far in life, but appreciating yourself is a very different concept.
There is a greater benefit to loving yourself. The funny thing is that loving yourself overflows to those around you, whilst a lack of self love – the result of shame, can make you destructive both to yourself and others.