I’ve wondered whether to write this. I think Western society tends to err on the side of too much self-disclosure, and personally I’m inclined to be quite happy when people tell me they can’t tell what I’m thinking. But some recent events (not involving me) have suggested maybe the topic should be discussed, and it feels like the right thing to do. Perhaps I am selfishly seeking for people to understand me better, although I am not writing this as a cry for help (things aren’t too bad at present). Or perhaps this might help some other people: I’ve had these feelings for as long as I can remember, but it is only comparatively recently that I became aware of these issues. Others may be in the same position.
I wrestle with self-hatred. I’ve alluded to this before. It waxes and wanes, and at times can be almost dormant, although it hasn’t been the last couple of years, and it is always there deep down. When dormant, it is little more than a spike in my mind, an occasional inner voice or reflex. At its worst, however, it burns like fire in my veins, so that it is almost – or rather even – physically painful. When it gets inflamed (and a variety of things have been able to do that over the years) it can be debilitating. Even something as simple as looking in the mirror can be a difficult experience, as sometimes I want to punch the person looking back at me (seeing video footage of myself, even at the best of times, has almost triggered nervous breakdowns). At the worst of times, it includes very vivid and detailed suicidal thoughts. These thoughts are not just driven by feelings of despair, though they can be very present, but often also feelings of rage and anger towards myself. I hasten to add, however, that while there have been times in the past when these feelings have come close to overwhelming me that I have not made any attempts, and never plan on doing so. But an accurate description of this phenomenon also includes those thoughts and feelings too.
As mentioned, I’ve wrestled with these feelings of self-hatred for as long as I can remember, but I wasn’t aware that that is what I was feeling for many years, even though the worst of it (including the suicidal impulse) has been a recurring experience for over two decades. I’m not sure how I never quite twigged that I hated myself earlier in life: I guess that that for some reason the outbursts of negative feeling and so on all seemed a normal reaction to who I am (and particularly any feelings of personal failure I was experiencing), even when that came out vocally as “I hate me”. Over time, however, and particularly in recent years, I have been able to gain a better understanding of what I’ve been experiencing and some of the things that fuel it. I’ve also gained a better understanding of how it in turn has affected or affects other areas of my life. Awareness really only came from working on other issues and realising something else lay behind it.
There seem to be three principle nexuses (nexii?) for the manifestation of these feelings. The first is a sense of failure. I frequently feel that I have failed God, let down people I care about, or just been a failure in general terms. Sometimes this feeling is a reaction to a specific “failure” (such as not finishing my PhD thesis yet – or the fact that I’m still a “student”), other times it is simply a more pervasive sense. I recognise that at times I have distinctly unrealistic standards here: I recall being asked once (in response to my declaration that I felt I had achieved “nothing”) who I was comparing myself to, and I half-jokingly replied that at my age Alexander the Great had conquered the known world. Yet to be honest any comparisons with others tend to be on far simpler grounds of family and job, and I really often just feel that I have accomplished nothing, without any comparisons except to what I feel I could or should have done.
The second nexus is a feeling of being inherently unlovable, about which there’s a whole bunch of insecurities that I will not go into. Perhaps simply because I don’t like me, I don’t understand why anyone else would either. I often feel difficult being in the company of other people (something I can find difficult anyway because of other factors) because I feel they are only putting up with my presence out of charity or kindness, and I don’t want to burden people with my presence (perhaps it doesn’t help that I can’t read body language, though part of me fears that’d simply underline the truth). The emotion of “feeling loved” – whether by humans or by God – does not appear to come to me easily: in fact a few years ago I wondered if I could feel that at all. At that time I discovered I could, and I’ve had a handful of such experiences in my life (a couple involving people, a couple involving God). It can be hard to hold onto memories of such fleeting experiences though. Ultimately I often simply feel that no one could or sometimes even should love me, and sometimes that feeling extends to God himself. And then part of me feels weak for even wanting that love.
A third nexus which I have come to see kicks in occasionally is anger. In the last couple of years I have become aware of a great store of inner anger (and I’m aware of some of the roots of that, which I won’t go into). Over time, I seem to have established various mental banks and earthworks to lock up this anger and prevent that erupting over people as it used to do from time to time. Yet it hasn’t gone away, and it is still there. Part of me is ashamed of that, and considers it another failure. Part of me is perhaps sensitive to things like would-be fascists in our society, because I have a far greater monster locked up inside of me, who sometimes just wants to see the entire world burn. It’s partly why I can’t help but dismiss it when some other kindly people tell me I’m a good man, because I know I’m not. For the most part, however, the reaction seems to be that the anger gets reflected back into myself. I’ve mentally observed this happening as a reflex when I have gotten angry at other people: feelings of anger (because of what is stored up, vastly disproportionate to any supposed offence) deflecting off those inward mental walls and then directing themselves at the only remaining target. At other times, it simply adds extra venom to my feelings of failure or unlovableness,
Of course, with all these feelings, I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a believer in the gospel of Christ. People might wonder how that can be the case: how can I claim to believe something which teaches of a loving God, yet still experience these sorts of feelings?
On one level, it is very simple. Due to the spiritual experiences I have had, I know that God is very real, I know that Jesus is the Christ, I know He revealed Himself to His prophets. They simply are true, regardless of what I feel about things.
On the other hand, it does make certain things a struggle. There have been a few occasions in my life, as mentioned, that I have felt the love of God as a supernal experience. And I try to hold onto those experiences. Sometimes I find I can remember an event so clearly I can put myself right back into it. At other times, they can feel like pale reflections, where I’m not quite sure about the emotions involved. But while I do know there is a God, and I know he is perfect, just and merciful, and know he loves all mankind, I find it a struggle to believe he loves me. I can know of it intellectually, because of what I know about him and because of memories of the experiences I’ve had, but sometimes its hard to feel it. It’s slightly easier when I simply include myself in all mankind, but when talking about any kind of love or compassion personally it gets more difficult. But on the other hand, sometimes it feels like that doesn’t matter. One should obey God because he is right, because he is perfectly good and so whatever he wills is good. And I can trust in that, and follow that, and so on one level the issue of whether God loves me or not seems almost unimportant. I should follow him anyway, and I’ve tried to.
And in certain situations, that’s kept me alive. On a few occasions the only thing keeping me from an exceptionally unwise act has been the knowledge that suicide is wrong, and my body is not mine to dispose of, and there’s covenants involved. Were I of a clearer mind at those moments, I could doubtless also reflect that if escape is any motivation, the afterlife doesn’t really provide it. Clear thinking tends to be difficult at those times though.
Yet in other things this continues to be a struggle, and one that does not appear to be likely to disappear any time soon. I know – I absolutely know – that the feelings I experience are not ones that the gospel is trying to inculcate, and that there are doubtless many inaccuracies in my feelings and how I perceive the world. I want to overcome that. Yet I’m not always sure where those inaccuracies are, and while I’ve gained a better understanding of what I feel and where some of it comes from, it has yet to allow me to dispose of these feelings. Sometimes what some people suggest doesn’t seem any more truthful (especially when explicitly justified on “don’t ask if its true, ask whether it is helpful”). I don’t find myself convinced by modern gospels of self-esteem, which likewise don’t seem to tally with the scriptures either. The scriptures themselves, however, don’t seem to explicitly address this issue all that often, which is perhaps why I’m interested in things like Jacob’s experiences. But perhaps they’re not meant to be addressed, but endured. I’ve had these feelings before, and I know I’ll feel them again, and perhaps with Christ’s help I can persevere through them yet again. I’m not entirely sure whether this is at all relevant to my situation, but I find my mind thinking of the words of Paul (who elsewhere wrote of himself as “the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle”, 1 Corinthians 15:9):
And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.
For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.
And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.
(2 Corinthians 12:7-10)
I know the way I feel is mistaken, somewhere along the line, and I want to feel differently from the way I do. Yet I do believe in God (which is to say, I know he’s there and I trust him), and in Christ’s grace. If there is to be any solution to this, either in this life or merely persevering through it in this life, I know his grace is sufficient, and to be found in his strength, not any I can cobble up myself. Perhaps there is something yet more I can learn from my weakness, or perhaps there’s simply the humility of knowing that I depend on his strength to go on. I honestly don’t really know, but I know of God’s power, and I know there’s even times that’s been able to work through me, as flawed a vessel as I am. I’m not able to “glory in my infirmities” (Paul is a better man than I). But perhaps I can simply hold on.