Helping the Self-Loathing Break Out of Their “Comfort Zone”

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I’ve been reading novelist Richard Russo’s The Destiny Thief, a collection of “essays on writing, writers, and life,” and a passage struck me as saying what I’ve been trying to say on this blog for years, only so much better.

In a story from his days as an English professor, Russo wrote about trying to reach a talented writing student who disappeared from college just as he had found success. Russo surmises that the student, who was used to failing in his other courses, was uncomfortable with the praise he was receiving from his writing professors.

It was the following analogy Russo made that hit me so hard:

Now he was suffering the kind of embarrassment you feel when you flirt with a pretty girl who, for reasons you can’t fathom, flirts back. Since she’s clearly out of your league, she’s either toying with you or has temporarily gone crazy. Later, when she gets a better look at you and returns to her senses, she’ll send you packing. Better to send yourself packing before you fall in love, before you become so lost you’ll never find your way home. What will haunt you, though, maybe forever, is the possibility that you were wrong about her, which in effect means that maybe you were wrong about yourself. (p. 20)

Readers of my posts on self-loathing will recognize this scenario, although you doesn’t have to hate yourself to find it familiar: anyone who has lacked for confidence, or felt “not good enough” for someone you admire, knows what Russo is talking about.

I want to focus here on an aspect of this that Russo just nails: “pre-rejection” and the potential it leaves in its wake. Any time you pass on an opportunity to connect with someone, even if you think you have good reason, you leave that opportunity unrealized. Maybe it wouldn’t have worked out—as you anticipate—but, then again, maybe it would. The first outcome is sad but comfortable, as was the failure the writing student was used to and chose over seeing what would happen if he continued at college. The second is potentially amazing but also frightening—not just because you’re not sure you can handle what would come next, but also because it challenges your doubt about yourself.

For the self-loathing, our low opinion of ourselves becomes a valued part of our identities, the one thing about ourselves we are certain about. It condemns many of us to a life of loneliness, but at least we know what to do in that life—and it leaves that part of our identity “safe.” But if we take a chance with somebody and it actually works out… well, that’s a scary new world. It may contain joy we dare not dream of, but it also shatters that comfy little life we made for ourselves. In our more rational moments, we may realize that’s a good thing, but that doesn’t make it seem less dangerous to leave our comfort zone.

This is where the “haunting” Russo describes can work in the self-loather’s favor. The lingering knowledge that something might have worked out, that maybe our comfy little world isn’t the only one for us, that someone may be willing to show us a different world, a better world, one with joy and love… this just might be enough to tempt us out of our shell and take a chance, even if we’re “sure” it won’t work. But we need to be willing to confront the possibility, as strange as it may seem, that it might work out and reveal that we’re really not as bad as we think.

This may be the key to beating self-loathing: being open to abandoning that treasured part of our self-image, which keeps us miserable but comfortable in our illusory self-awareness. Many of us become good at ignoring the possibility of something better, because to acknowledge it would challenge that illusion, and and to deny it makes us feel better about not trying. What we really need to do, though, is focus on the unrealized potential, let it “haunt us,” and use it to pull us out of the comfort of our self-doubt.

And let’s face it… it’s not that comfortable, is it?

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