There are so many memes and quotes out there that say, “Be positive, not negative. Focus on the bright side.” I’ve never been very good at ignoring the negatives and focusing on the positives.
Call me a critical, over-analytical over-thinker if you want, but at no point in my journey of self-love and self-discovery have I learned to ignore all my flaws, all my mistakes, all my regrets. At no point in my journey of compassion have I learned to ignore all the times that someone has hurt me or all the destruction caused by abuse. That never felt right to me. And you know something? It hasn’t actually been necessary.
Rewind to six years ago when I was staring at my makeupless face in the mirror. My thoughts said, “Ugly. Horrible. Pale. Look at those blemishes. Look at those hairs. Disgusting. Revolting. Put a bag over your head and hide.” But I kept looking.
I couldn’t unsee those blemishes. There they were. I couldn’t unsee those hairs. There they were too. Plain as day. I also couldn’t stop myself from thinking that these were disgusting and revolting. Those thoughts were certainly there too! And no amount of positive self-talk was going to make them go away.
What happened next was fascinating. In addition to observing those hairs, those blemishes, and those thoughts, I saw something else. I saw my face as pure visual information—the way I’d perceive the colors and shapes in an abstract painting. I was giving my face meaning, and I was seeing it as something meaningless.
Those moments revolutionized my relationship with myself. I didn’t erase my negative self-image. I just added a new perspective. That new perspective balanced my view of myself.
I think balance is a key word. What bothers me about the whole “be positive, ignore the negatives” idea is that I was abused by some very mentally unstable people in my childhood who did that very thing. They refused to see how they hurt others. They focused only on their good intentions.
A certain amount of self-criticism, self-judgment, and self-doubt is absolutely essential. It’s what makes us apologize for hurting someone. It’s what makes us improve the areas of our lives that are lacking. It’s what makes us question idealistic, romanticized notions of the world and see things clearly. The so-called “dark side” is essential. It isn’t bad at all.
A few years ago, my partner and I were in an argument. He was very angry, and the way he was expressing his anger to me was extremely triggering. I felt victimized, oppressed, disgusted. I thought, “I would never do this to you.”
But then, something happened. Beneath his unhelpful delivery, I saw something. I saw him trying to communicate something about my behavior toward him. Something that hurt me to see. A huge blow to my ego. And he was trying to tell me about it. He was trying to say, “I don’t do this to you.”
Sure, he wasn’t communicating about it well. But he was communicating something important. We ended the conversation temporarily and went to our separate corners.
Alone, shame and self-hatred suddenly returned to me, like old friends who don’t bother to knock. My thoughts said, you’re a horrible human being. Look what you’ve done to your boyfriend. Look at how patient he’s been all this time with your intolerable actions, and look at how you treated him for trying to tell you about it.
Extreme. It was all so extreme. And I couldn’t delete the extremism! I couldn’t remove my self-judgment, and I couldn’t remove my resentment for his angry words. All I could do was find balance.
I told myself that just because I had made mistakes doesn’t mean I’m a horrible person. I told myself that I could acknowledge that I had room to grow and also respect myself as a human being. I could do both.
As for him, I could admit that he had something valuable to say and that his communication needed some work. I could see our argument as something that contained pain alongside valuable feedback. It wasn’t good or bad. It was both. It was neither. It just was.
These moments pop up for me all the time. Last month, when I was travelling, I had something stolen. I felt betrayed, angry, lost. I didn’t try to stop all those feelings, but I also didn’t stop with feeling them. I continued to explore my experience until I found new perspectives on the situation. So being robbed turned into an amazing learning experience! Not because I ignored the pain but because I balanced that pain with lessons.
Life is paradoxical. Where there’s joy, there’s sadness. Where there is control, there is surrender. Where there is speech, there is silence. Where there’s destruction, there is growth. We do not need to ignore the so-called dark side. It’s an essential part of the way things are. We only need to add an awareness of the other side: what we call the “light.”
I think this is especially important in these times of political and social unrest. When we try to replace darkness with light, red with blue, wrong with right, we create war. Because what we call dark and wrong exists for a reason. Sometimes, it exists because it is meant to serve us in some way. Sometimes, it exists because it’s a symptom of some bigger issue.
No matter how much we try to triumph over and defeat our enemies (including our inner enemies), if we do not understand where they come from, they will keep returning in different forms. We need to wage peace, not war, and peace comes from understanding.
My perfectionism, which destroyed me for many years, was not a malignant tumor to cut out of my experience. It is a helpful pattern. Sure, it doesn’t help when I’m looking at my face or my mistakes. But as I’ve learned to embrace the art of continuously perfecting something (without ever expecting it to be perfect), I’ve become a better writer and a better editor.
My self-judgment, which almost brought me to an early death, was not a disease. It was overgrown, but it wasn’t unnecessary. My ability to look critically at things helps me expand my perspectives, open my mind, and understand people better. My ability to look critically at myself helps me work on myself, admit my mistakes, and constantly improve.
My bouts of intense, debilitating self-loathing weren’t useless either. They always had a message. Sometimes, I hadn’t taken a break in months. Sometimes, I was ignoring my own needs while codependently following the desires of the people around me. Sometimes, I had allowed my anxiety to spiral endlessly for weeks and weeks, and my mind had just become tired. I realize now that, in my suicidal moments, I didn’t really want to die. I just wanted to rest. I wanted a break from it all.
I’ve learned that there is no good or bad. There is only what is most helpful and useful at the time. The answers, as they say, are all within you. They are. And this also means that, in any given situation, some of your inner answers will be more appropriate than others. Everything has its time and place. Everything is a valuable part of your experience.
This doesn’t mean we should condone rape, murder, or violence. But this attitude can help us understand these tragic occurrences more than judgment can. Why do some people feel like the right answer is to hurt someone else? I think this line of questioning will bring us to a more helpful place than calling those people heartless monsters. It can actually help us work toward solving those social issues.
And learning to look at ourselves and, instead of asking, “How can I get rid of this horrible part of me? How can I stop doing this unhelpful thing?” We can instead ask, “What could this mean? Which needs might I be meeting with my actions, and how could I meet those needs in a way that serves me more?” We can focus on holistically understanding why something has happened and allowing ourselves to explore different, new solutions to the puzzles of our existence.
I suppose what I’ve learned over the past six years has been more than self-love. I’ve learned balance. I’ve learned that real happiness is being unafraid of my emotions. I can be sad, angry, happy. I can feel it all, whenever it comes, and know that I won’t get stuck on it. I will let myself experience all the available emotions, and then I will come to peace.
Instead of trying to focus on the bright side, my task is to let myself see all the sides, remove my judgment about what they mean, and try to appreciate the complexity of my experiences.
That is the power we have as human beings. We can let ourselves be curious instead of always fearful. We can choose to work on understanding who we are instead of always trying to be who we think we should be. We can let ourselves see what is there and not only what we are used to seeing. We can choose to understand better. We can choose to be aware.