She told me to write 10 things I liked about myself. I had two weeks. My first response was a giggle. The idea felt gooey and sentimental, like giving myself a hug. Really? Ten things I like about myself? It felt kind of bratty, childish, dumb. It took a week just for me to sit down to write it. Ten words. It shouldn’t have been a problem. No big deal – just ten little words. So, what was this massive barrier holding my hand still?
The words weren’t the issue. The thing that stopped me was an over-whelming feeling that I was doing something wrong. Hiding behind a startling amount of eye-rolling, in my mind lived a little monster of my own creation whispering that the assignment was inappropriate, even sinful. I’d never really noticed him before; he’d always stayed out of my line of vision.
But, now, I’d finally caught the little monster in action. Examining him, I realized a little world of lies I had decided were always right to tell. In certain company, I was as ashamed to speak of A’s as I would be of F’s. I would have cringed to admit that I thought I looked pretty one day. I might put my drawings up for decoration, but I’d never mention any awards they might have won.
At the heart of the monster’s power was that it had made me ashamed of my little secret: I liked myself. True, the monster had marred that feeling by feeding on it for so long. It taught me to squash my self-esteem down, but still the little roots of it remained. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t like myself, the problem was that I was ashamed that I did. Hiding in a corner of my mind, there was a sense that if I said something good about myself, I was behaving badly. And, instead of thriving in the vibrant, natural joy of self-esteem, I lived on the sick, unnatural pleasure of self-deprecation that my little monster fed me.
It turned out I wasn’t alone. Talking with friends about my assignment and its troubles, I found others with the same shame about liking themselves. There were people who felt guilty to smile in the mirror, to talk about their awesome running times, or to say they went to Oxford. Even admitting these things to ourselves brought on a wave of internal resistance. And the little monster fed us – we felt good about feeling bad.
Thus, I sat with a pen hovering over a blank page, ready to kill off the parasitic little monster I’d made. It was time to like myself. Still, it was only with trepidation that I began my list. I was like an long-captive critter being released into the wild; all my life I’d wanted this kind of space but – finding myself free – I wasn’t sure where I could go. Slowly, I wrote out ten things, sticking my tongue out at the little monster when he tried to fight me with promises of greater happiness in self-deprecation.
It’s an easy thing for a Christian to fall into. I hatched and nourished my little monster in the nook in my brain formed by misinterpretations of Bible verses about being humble and avoiding pride. But, this isn’t the way of real humility. This is the sort of thinking that leads the servant to bury the talent in the field. Self-hatred is not humility. And, self-knowledge is not arrogance. St. Isaac of Syria wrote, “If you make peace with yourself, then heaven and earth will make peace with you.” The Christian must be brave enough to send the little monster with his comforts away, and to take joy in getting to know the one realm of God’s creation that she has marked as off-limits for admiration: herself.