Self-Loathing, American Style
As it turns out, self-loathing is more an American habit than it is a human habit.
See, while America has become the world’s epicenter in self-hatred, self-ridicule, and self-loathing, other countries and other cultures have been carefully cultivating compassion in a big way.
That may be a hard concept to even wrap your head around–that entire countries are growing their citizens in an environment that’s suffused with support, encouragement and respect. Those of us with memory banks that stretch back over 50 years remember a time when America tried to be like that. But those are the bygone days of yore. Today, despite how our arrogance may appear to the rest of the world, we’re actually the kings of low self-esteem.
Let me give you a few examples of what I mean.
The Italian Job…and Vacation
Let’s start with Italy. Italy offers a minimum of 30 paid days off a year (the 20 mandated by law plus 10 National holidays). This is granted to every Italian, regardless of who employes them. Why? Because they know that stress and emotional fatigue wear people down to the point of getting sick. And the Italian culture does not wish for anyone to get sick. They care about that.
An aberration, you say?
Italy is actually on the low side of vacation time (tied with Belgium.) France requires 31 days of paid vacation a year, Spain and Germany 34, Portugal and Austria 35.
You know how many days Americans are required to have?
Zero. Europeans are dumbfounded when they learn this. How can anyone manage without paid time off, they wonder?
Good question. I think the answer is, we’re not managing. We’re obese, asthmatic, diabetic, and hypertensive, not to mention depressed and anxious. We are, as a collective, a hot mess.
So let’s check out another area of human support…like education.
Forty years ago, Finland had one of the worst school systems in the world. Incredibly, they didn’t like that–they really and truly wanted good schools for their kids. So they decided to change things. There was no name-calling at the proponents, no filibusters threatened. It was simply a matter of them not liking the way things were, deciding they could do better, bringing together some experts, hashing out a plan, and implementing it. Nationally. For everyone.
Guess what happened?
Finland is now considered to have one of the best educational systems in the world.
Guess how they did that.
More tests, right? Longer days in school, yes? Piles of homework, surely.
They banished homework. They shortened their school day to about 4 hours. And they focused on helping their children find ways of making themselves happy in this world. Seriously.
Well, that’s education. What about something impossible, like compassionate prisons?
On Ice in Iceland
OK, so let’s look at Iceland.
Iceland has a maximum security prison, yes. But just one. They lock up rapists and murderers there. You’re imagining lots of grey metal, horrible food, and an hour a day outside in some kind of empty yard, if they’re not in solitary confinement, right?
Iceland believes in reforming those who have gone outside the social boundaries, not disposing of them. So they provide their criminals with a big, beautiful library, their own private cell with their own private bathroom, time outside to sunbathe or bike ride, and normal clothes to wear. Oh, and the guards have no guns. Why? Because they believe in treating each human there as a lost soul who needs a supportive community to learn new ways. And when they get out of jail, truly reformed, the former inmate retains his right to vote because his voice still matters. He has an opinion and it counts.
But it’s not just Iceland. If you want some really revolutionary ways of remolding criminals, look into what used to be one of the worst prisons in India that was reshaped into becoming a kind of house of prayer and study for all those who lived and worked there (by a woman, I might add!) Amazing.
Compassion is the Way
In all of these (and this is by no mean an exhaustive list of examples), there is an automatic, accepted, core belief that compassion is the way to have a healthy, productive society filled with healthy, productive people. And not just A way to reach that goal. The BEST way.
Imagine for a moment growing up in a community that told you in both direct and indirect ways, every single day, that you and all of your friends, all of your relatives, all of your neighbors, and all of your countrymen, were genuinely valuable and worthwhile. Imagine being treated with dignity and respect every day you went to school. Having teachers who cared about you having a truly happy life.
Can you imagine having paid vacation leave whenever you needed or wanted it, with no retribution from your boss or nasty looks from your peers? For that matter, can you imagine how much happier and healthier your place of work would be if everyone was getting that much rest and recreation?
My point is this: Maybe we say cruel things to ourselves and suffer from toxic shame because our laws and culture have become so devoid of compassion. Isn’t it possible that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with who we are–that we’ve just inherited the degrading, compassionateless American storyline about ourselves?
The Girl Who Thought She Was the Devil
Let me give you an example. Years ago, I was working as a therapist/nurse on a locked psychiatric unit. Back then, America was more compassionate and we allowed people to stay for a full month to receive intensive psychotherapy several times a day. (Not the case today, unfortunately.) There was a young woman there who had been (incorrectly, as it turned out) diagnosed as schizophrenic because she kept saying she was the devil.
I worked with this young woman on several occasions and never once saw any psychotic behavior. She was mischievous, sure, but she was also just 20 years old and had suffered horrific abuse, so that’s not surprising. And she was never mean or violent. But she kept up this story about being the devil, and that kept throwing the clinical staff off.
One day, in private session with her, it suddenly occurred to me to ask her this: “Did anyone in your childhood ever say to you something like, ‘That girl’s got the devil in her!’?” She gasped and said, “My god, yes! My grandmother hated me and used to say it all the time!”
Her grandmother had no compassion for what this girl was living through. Instead of showing her kindness and acceptance, she labeled her, criticized her, and mentally poisoned her. My patient had taken in someone else’s compassionateness story about her and made it her own.
Needless to say, her recovery began to really take shape after that.
Anyone with depression who’s seeking any form of help, whether it’s from a psychiatrist or a Pinterest infographic, will get the spiel about self-acceptance. To be self-accepting is to be compassionate towards yourself.
Start by recognizing the impact your tough, unforgiving environment had on you and how those messages molded your thinking about yourself. Imagine how different you’d feel about yourself if you had simply been born in a community and culture that was compassionate towards you and invested time, energy, and money towards your happiness.
Self-acceptance means having empathy for who you are right this minute and forgiveness for who you have been in the past.
Cut yourself some slack, quiet the inner critic, and forgive yourself your trespasses. Grant yourself the compassion that you were denied. It’s long overdue.