Your own worst enemy?

Elizabeth Flynn Campbell, Wind Ridge Publishing columnist

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a thousand times. So often, it’s easy to miss its radical message. I imagine that most of us, religious or not, spiritual or otherwise, believe we shouldn’t just give in to our hatred and even dislike of others. But it’s not easy. Sometimes, as Jean Paul Sartre famously said, hell is other people. But still, on a good day, most of us try to get along.

As hard as it is to like, let alone love, others, there is something even harder to do and that, believe it or not, is to love ourselves. I know this for a fact, after almost three decades working as a psychotherapist. You wouldn’t know it by their outer appearance but many, many people are berated by an inner tyrant, who routinely says things like, “Why’d you say that, you stupid idiot! Or, “You’re such a fool for thinking you were good at that.” Or simply, “God, I hate myself.”

Yes, there are some people who are truly narcissists and really do have excessive and pathological self-regard. But I don’t tend to see many of them in my work, since narcissists, as a rule, don’t believe they need to change and usually only come to a therapist when someone else insists that they do. What I do see is the tremendous suffering and anguish these brutally critical inner tyrants inflict on decent, well-meaning men and woman who find it very, very hard to love, let alone accept, themselves.

And so I wonder if the biblical commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” means something more profound than simply trying to respect and be kind to other people. Perhaps it’s also telling us that it is of utmost spiritual importance to try to love ourselves. Not, of course, in a self-centered, narcissistic way but like the way most people naturally love young children and babies. We recognize their essential goodness and beauty and wouldn’t think of treating them the way we sometimes so harshly and privately treat ourselves.

“Perennial wisdom” is the name given to the recurring truths found at the deepest level of all the great faith traditions. These truths are expressed in different ways by different religions but, according to the Franciscan monk Richard Rohr, can be summed up in the following three sentences: There is a divine reality underneath and inherent in the world of things. There is in the human soul a natural capacity, similarity, and longing for this divine reality. The final goal of all existence is union with this divine reality.

If this “divine reality” does indeed course through everything and everyone, then learning to love ourselves is no less important than learning to recognize the divine essence in everyone else. Next time you find yourself berating yourself for some real or perceived failing, try treating yourself with the same mercy you might, on a good day, show someone else. This won’t be easy for many of us, but like any regular spiritual practice, will change your life for the better.

Elizabeth Flynn Campbell lives in Shelburne and is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Burlington.