The stranger in my eyes

“I hate myself,” she said matter-of-factly. It was righteous self-hatred she explained. She was a sinner, and so she scorned and hated her flesh. After all, the Bible says that even the good things we do are as dirty rags.

My pastor and his wife had invited me over after church to eat with two of their friends. I now sat across the table from them, emersed in an intense theological discussion. Usually a fairly quiet and passive person, such a debate was far from ordinary for me. But this felt too important to be silent.

I don’t remember exactly how we got to this point in the conversation, only that I’d mentioned self-hatred as something to be avoided. I had not expected the woman to respond with an argument in its favor.

I told her I couldn’t agree. “I don’t God ever wants us to hate ourselves,” I said. “Because I know where it leads.” And I told them this story.

When I was a child, I was taught that it is impossible to hate yourself. If you think you hate yourself, that only shows how much you actually love yourself.

The first time I heard this, I was thirteen and already deeply depressed. For a moment, I felt a flash of anger. I wanted to yell at someone, to lash out against the weight of yet more condemnation. But then the flash was over. In less than a second, I’d sunk into resignation. There was no point in fighting.

There was no way out.

And so, my self-hatred grew. My mind churned criticism until I felt beaten up from the inside out and then despised myself for feeling that way. Sometimes, in the isolation of my basement bedroom, the hateful words would come spewing out of me.

That’s what happened one night when I was sixteen.

I remember sitting on my hands on the edge of my bed, enumerating my many failures. I was a coward. I was selfish. I was a disappointment to God.

“I’m disgusted with you.” I hissed the words into the night.

I couldn’t keep still anymore. I began to pace the floor, spitting accusations at myself until the angry part of me, the part that hated, consumed the sad part of me. It was strong. Stronger than anything I’d ever felt before.

I turned, stomped toward my dresser, and hit my right wrist against its edge. Hard, harder, relishing the sting of it. The hatred was a force. It was alive, snapping like white-hot fire. I was no longer me. I was something “other,” something that needed to be punished.

I imagined myself hurt, killed even, and felt a strange kind of justice in that thought, as if only then would I have gotten what I truly deserved.

It was then that I looked up into the mirror. My reflection stared back at me, and it was as if I was looking at a stranger.

It was not me looking out of my eyes.

I let out a whimper and fell cowering to the floor. “God! Help me!” My voice was hoarse. All the self-hatred was gone. In its place was terror of what I’d seen, what I’d felt. I knew, suddenly, that all hatred was wrong, even if it was directed at oneself. And it wasn’t because it was secretly “self-love” as that teacher had claimed.

The hatred I had just experienced could not in any way, shape, or form ever be from God. God is love.

How had I forgotten that?

I cried, sitting with my knees pulled tightly to my chest. I promised God, promised myself, that I would never allow this to happen again.

“Take the hate away. Fill me with your love instead,” I repeated over and over. I decided that every time I felt anger at myself, I would repeat this prayer.

Outside, the light from my bedroom windows made rectangles that stretched across the lawn, banishing everything outside their edges into blackness. I flipped my light switch off, and immediately moonlight flooded everything.

I knelt at my window. I could see the feathery branches of the tree that marked where the lawn gave way to untamed grass. Beyond that, the wind rolled over the woods, swaying the trees so they looked as if they were one being. Above, stars softly ribboned the sky. And it seemed to me as if all of it was alive and singing.

That was the night I realized that it was good—and necessary—to fight the angry voice inside my head. For so long, I had internalized a false god who stared down in judgement and disgust. And always, when I pictured this god, I also pictured my ultra-spiritual father sleeping at the other end of the house. Undoubtedly, this god was pleased with him. But not with me.

The more I tried to satiate this god, the more self-loathing I felt. Even my pain was an affront to him.

So no, I don’t think God wants us to have some kind of “righteous self-hatred.” And I don’t think he condemns us for feeling that way either. I think he says, “Look in the mirror. This isn’t who I meant you to be.”