Tag Archives: self worth

Community and identity

The person who doesn’t care what anyone thinks of them is on a trajectory that will likely result in them behaving in selfish and antisocial ways. The person whose sense of self is defined by what one person thinks of them is quite likely in an abusive situation. Somewhere in between these two points lies mental health and social functionality.

Humans are social creatures. We grow up in contexts that shape us, one way or another. We define ourselves through our work, family and social roles. We find out who we are in no small part because of how other people respond to us. The feedback we get will inform our sense of self worth and our sense of social identity and belonging – or not belonging.

How your identity relates to your community may have everything to do with finding the right spaces to be in. It is so important to have somewhere to fit, people to connect with and a sense of belonging and involvement. Life without that is lonely, and the absence of community connection can really undermine self esteem and a sense of self. Most of us do not do well as lone wolves. It’s worth noting that lone wolves do not tend to do well as lone wolves either.

On the other side there’s the question of how much we sacrifice to fit in. How much do we need to mute ourselves to be socially acceptable? How much must be cut off, compromised, hidden or denied so a person can have a place in a community? Arguably if this stops you from being a menace, it may be a good thing! But if what you have to hide is your authentic sexual identity, your not being neuro-typical, or some other vital and intrinsic thing, the price of community is high. Many spaces don’t even recognise the barriers they put up to prevent authentic engagement by people who are not ‘normal’.

What kind of spaces do we create and hold for other people? How much room do we give them? What pressures might we create to have other people stay in line with our beliefs and expectations? How much room is there for difference? What differences are genuinely intolerable? It’s worth asking of your Druid communities, your family spaces, work spaces and social spaces. It’s worth asking what we can do to actively include those who are unkindly excluded, and what we do to deal with people who do not fit in.

A matter of trust

I’ve known for a while that I have a hard time trusting people to like me, or think well of me. When life is smooth and straightforward, it’s not that big a problem – if the people around me are affirming and encouraging, I feel ok and can trust them enough. However, if anything goes wrong, it leaves me rapidly in a place of having no emotional resilience at all.

I’ve put in the time to work out why I have trust issues of this particular shape. I didn’t get here by myself, it would be fair to say. I got here through a number of key experiences where it was made explicitly clear to me that I was not loved or wanted. The details won’t be useful to anyone else, so I won’t go into them. I’ll ask you to take it on trust that they were the kinds of experiences that shaped my reality and that it was reasonable of me to respond that way.

It is really hard to notice the things that enter our realities as normal and being simply how the world works. For me, it has been so normal to think no one would want me, that I’ve had a hard time noticing when people do. I’ve struggled to feel like I have a place anywhere. I don’t feel like I belong. I struggle with this around relationships of all shapes and around involvement in communities. It has, for many years, also undermined my ability to hold boundaries. It’s part of why I feel that having any place at all is totally conditional on doing what everyone else wants, never asking for anything, never being awkward or making a fuss or saying no. This has not gone well for me, historically, and reinforces the sense of not being wanted beyond the ways in which I am useful.

I did not get here on my own. I am not overcoming this on my own either – I could not have done so.

Recent experiences tested my ability to trust to the limit, and beyond. I don’t think it was a scenario in which a really secure person would have found it easy to stay confident. I broke down, over and over, banging myself against that rock of unacceptability. It was in that repeated breaking process that I became able to see the mechanics of how I see myself in relationships. I was able to line up the experiences informing my sense of self, and to look at them properly, and to be properly horrified by them.

I became aware, during this process, of the many people who have gone out of their way to be affirming. The many people who make explicit that they want me in their lives. I have hit a tipping point recently. The people who want me and are clear about it are simply more numerous, more present, more vocal, than the people who taught me I was worthless. The people who value me have enabled me to shift how I see myself. I am, suddenly, able to imagine that I am someone it might be worth loving and caring about, beyond my utility. I am, for the first time in my life, able to imagine that I am a good person to have around – at least for some people.

Self esteem issues are not problems we develop all by ourselves. A sense of self worth is usually underpinned by our relationships with other people. I am increasingly convinced that anyone who says you should not base your self-worth on external things or other people’s opinions simply has enough security to make that security largely invisible to them. A person’s self-worth is very much dependent on how they are treated. We do not get hurt around this stuff alone, and we do not overcome it alone either.

Softening the body

One of the notions that comes up in the Tai Class most weeks, is of softening the body. Relax into the posture. Soften. It did not take me very long to realise that this is a significant issue for me. I’m not physically soft. Often I’m very tense. Pain, anxiety, inflammation of tissues, and whatever else is going on in here conspire to make me stiff and tense. What would it even mean to become softer? What would I need to do in order to achieve that?

To make things more awkward, there’s a lot of stuff in my history around being told the state of my body is my fault. That I’d be healthier and experience less pain if only I could learn to relax and put some effort into that. Oddly, I’ve never found that being blamed for being tense has helped me shift towards being less tense. There was always a subtext of how I would be more useful to someone else by this means, also.

I have a lot of trouble letting go. I’m not emotionally present or expressive in most contexts. I may be making an effort not to let my face show what I’m feeling. I’m not good at opening myself to other people, or letting people touch me.

Softness would mean acceptance – largely of myself, to some degree of others. It would mean trusting people not to hate me or hurt me if I let them in close enough.

I can soften in terms of being kinder to myself. I’m exploring that with craft projects at the moment – slowing down, being gentler with my hands. If I’m not pushing hard all the time to get more stuff done, if I can drop pace with the typing, take more breaks from the mouse and keyboard, that helps with pain with in turn helps with stiffness. Taking care of me takes time, and to have that time I need not to feel under massive pressure to be doing things that don’t help me.

Trying to soften my body seems to call for a heart softening towards myself. Not seeing my body as a means to other people’s ends, not letting anyone treat me as a tool to use and not a person. Holding a sense of self-worth that allows me to be kinder and gentler with myself. Dealing with pain kindly, not pushing through it to be useful.

It’s turning out to be a complex process, but I’ve achieved odd moments of feeling myself soften –physically and emotionally. I have a long way to go and this might well be a rest-of-life sort of project. I realise that being softer would also mean being kinder to myself about the timescales in which I can make those changes. I have to ush out of my head the several people who have shamed and berated me for not being other than I am. They were never trying to help, they were only ever feeding the problem. Experiencing a genuinely kind and supportive space focused on physical activity has taught me a lot about how unhelpful some of my historical experiences have been.

Rethinking my Depression

I’ve been wrestling with depression on and off for years now. It’s not a welcome addition to life, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to manage it – CBT, counselling, talking to the doctor… I’ve managed to stay away from anti-depressants. I’ve also put in time trying to understand it, working on the theory that if I grasp what causes it, I can reduce if not eliminate the problem. A significant part of what went into making me ill came from outside, a consequence of the behaviour and actions of others. I had no control over that, and attempting to step away brought me several years of hard struggle, which made things worse.

However, this stuff from outside is a contributing factor, not the whole story. I observe that depression for me is a direct consequence of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion. Sometimes just the one, often a combination. It’s what happens when there’s simply nothing left to push with, and I keep trying to push anyway. I think depression, for me, is a manifestation of my body saying ‘no, just not possible, we are stopping now.’ If the only way to make me stop is to put me on the floor… well, sometimes I end up on the floor. Finding I am down, I then feel useless, powerless, vulnerable, incapable and of course the inspiration dries up too. That makes me feel worse, creating an emotional pressure that keeps me down for longer.

I tend to assume that I should be able to keep going. I should be able to work and keep house/boat and be a full time parent, wife, lover, author, Druid, volunteer and do everything that needs doing. The ‘what needs doing’ is vast beyond anything I could do, there’s a whole world out there. I am a finite being who has spent a good decade refusing to recognise that simple, critical fact. I don’t have infinite supplies of energy. I cannot take an infinite amount of emotional battering. I cannot run my mind at fever pitch forever. When my body gets close to its limits, the answer is not to always try and push further. Maybe that’s worth doing sometimes, but not, I am concluding, every time. Every day.

I was very, very ill over Christmas. I think I had pneumonia. It took me several days of trying to get on as normal with a desperately ill body, increasingly struggling to breathe, before I admitted that I couldn’t cope. That’s normal for me. Often I do push through but there comes a time when if you keep trying to do that, it can really, actually kill you. It’s that whole being a finite entity thing again.

I’m going to try and rethink my depression – not as failure and shortcoming or proof of inadequacy, but as a simple, biological response to running on empty. If I feel depressed, I need to slow down and be gentle with me until I feel better, not try to keep running anyway. I’ve mostly moved away from situations where there is any external whip cracking, and the emotional pressure from outside is passably low at the moment. I can try to keep it that way, but life does what it does. If I allowed myself a bit more slack in the system to begin with, I wouldn’t be so exposed when unexpected things come in from outside. I’d have more resilience. I am going to be less tolerant of external pressures and demands, too.

Underneath this I think there’s an issue of how I value myself and how, as a consequence, I have permitted others to treat me. I had a lot of help with the under valuing, but I can step away from that and rethink. I do not have to be bound by the opinions of a vocal minority with questionable motives. I have no doubt that I will on occasion push to my limits and beyond, there are times when it’s called for and it makes sense, but it’s not a viable way of life. Other people finding me inadequate should not be the only factor here. I need to accept that if I do as much as I can sustain, that should be good enough most of the time, and if it isn’t, I’m not the only person who can shoulder responsibility. While I value myself only in terms of usefulness and achievement, I can’t actually look after myself properly. I wouldn’t ask this of anyone else, so why am I doing it to myself?

What is sacrifice?

Making my annual blood sacrifice to the blackberries, I’ve been pondering the nature of sacrifice. I’ll come right out and say that the more I think about it, the more I think that the very idea of sacrifice is a nonsense. The idea, as I understand it, is about giving up something, enduring, suffering, going against your own interests for the sake of the gods, the land, ancestors etc etc. The nature of sacrifice demands that there be nothing in it for us other than the act of submission and relinquishing.

There is nothing a human being can consciously choose to do that they cannot also consciously choose to gain from, or perceive as an advantage. If you want to wear a hair shirt and sit on top of a pole in a desert, eating only dry bread, that might look like sacrifice. Doing so allows the person that ‘more holy than thou’ feeling. There is a self righteousness to be had, a sense of spiritual worth and significance. We feed ego at the expense of the body. If we eschew wordly goods, it’s because we think we are spiritually better for so doing. If we give our time, money, energy to some good cause, we get something out of that – it may be the joy of giving, the sense of self worth from feeling like a good person or the feeling that our gods, like watchful parents, will be pleased with us.

Our pagan ancestors offered sacrifices to the gods. As best I understand it, this was undertaken for pragmatic reasons – a safe journey, a good harvest, protection, promotion, success. When we ‘sacrifice’ we are, really speaking, doing something for ourselves. We are trying to make a bargain. I give you this goat, you give me an uneventful voyage. I build you this temple, you make sure my children prosper.

The second conclusion I am coming to is that sitting on top of a pole wearing a hair shirt (to revert to my previous example) doesn’t necessarily achieve much. You might, I suppose, hallucinate, and learn something useful from your vision. Meaningful sacrifice should, allegedly, hurt. It should cost us in a significant way. It’s very easy to give yourself opportunities to experience pain. Any door jamb will do. You could shut your hand repeatedly in a door as an offering to the gods. You could fast for a week, or put stones in your shoes. I believe the mediaeval Christian mystics went in for all kinds of strange and masochistic activities in the name of faith. What does it do, aside from giving you the warm glow of being all noble and self sacrificing? ****all.

If you want to give of yourself, do so in a way that makes a positive difference to something, or someone else. There are plenty of jobs out there that will hurt your body, stretch your mind, dismantle your comfort zone and otherwise give you a hard time, but which result in change. They aren’t sacrifice, they are opportunities to be and do more. At the end of which you can still feel like you’ve done a spiritual thing, but have some wordly impact too.

Sacrifice is only possible if we do things to ourselves and then steadfastly refuse to learn, grow, change or feel anything as a consequence. Everything else, we stand to benefit from, because all experience takes us forwards in some direction or another. I think service is a far more useful idea, consciously recognising that in service, we may also serve ourselves, and looking for ways to take our individual spiritual journeys forward in ways that share the benefits and bring greater good. That has to be a better way to go.