I used to think it was me.
I knew what other people thought about me. They weren’t exactly covert about it. The less they liked me, the more they found opportunities to make snarky comments. The larger the audience, the better.
Rudeness is more than socially acceptable these days…
It’s just so easy to enlist social support in condemning or belittling those you dislike, if you’re witty about it.
It’s not half as easy to get other people on board in openly complimenting those you admire, no matter how effusive your praise.
There’s something vaguely embarrassing about saying nice things about other people. You can get accused of being a flatterer, or not recognizing your hero has flaws.
If you dare speak up in praise of someone anyway, you often get a wisecrack back, followed by uproarious laughter.
Soon, you stop sticking your neck out. You keep your positive thoughts to yourself. It’s cooler to be cynical. Pointing out other people’s faults gains you more friends. The more people laughing at your jokes, the fewer laughing at you.
It’s not just teenagers in this tough bind.
It’s anyone who works in a competitive office or workplace. It’s mothers navigating the gauntlet of the school run. It’s politicians on the campaign trail.
Friends, parents, and well-meaning folk try to be reassuring. “Don’t let it bother you. Rise above it. They’re not worth it.”
But those words ring empty, and they know it.
This is the world we live in.
A world where social acceptance matters.
We’re social animals. We’ve evolved to function best in groups. Isolation hurts us physical and emotionally. We need friends, and we need the sense of safety they provide.
The old saw, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” hasn’t stood the test of time. Scientists now know that social pain registers in the same part of the brain as physical pain.
That sharp ache in your heart isn’t just emotional; it could be stress-induced cardiomyopathy, a condition also known as “broken heart syndrome.” Get divorced, and your risk of a heart attack skyrockets.
So does it matter when other people, even people you care about, say hurtful things about you?
And no amount of pretense can change it.
So what can you do?
You can’t stop people from talking. Gossip is as old as humankind. Negativity sells newspapers. Smear campaigns win votes.
You could surround yourself with positive, loving people. There are communities where the old hippie values of love and peace preside.
But even then you have to go out into the world…
Where strangers shout at you, your co-workers turn frosty, and a phone call from Mom brings up those old inadequacies.
You could put up a shield and keep everyone out…
Or you could take out the sword of love and slash through the illusion.
The illusion is your belief that other people are seeing something in you that isn’t good enough.
After all, their criticism wouldn’t bother you if you knew it was just hot air.
The comments that feel cruelest are those that target your areas of self-doubt.
If you were really Zen about it, you could say that those people who talk badly about you are doing you a favor. They’re pointing out the parts of yourself that are unloved. The parts of yourself you haven’t accepted. The parts you can’t adore.
Your job is not to silence the critics.
It’s to look at those unloved spots with such tenderness and compassion that you forgive yourself, completely and conclusively, for being human.
When someone says something about you that hurts, don’t give into defensiveness or anger. Exit the conversation politely, then find a quiet space where you can nurse your emotional owies. Self-love is the best Band-Aid.
It’s not easy to remain vulnerable, kind, and unerringly polite in a confrontational world.
You may not behave as other people want you to. You may not look like other people want you to look. You may not respond the way they want you to respond, or give them the answers they want.
But that small little voice inside you doesn’t have to echo theirs.
It can speak of love, and acceptance, and pride.
And maybe, just maybe, loving yourself can give you the courage to speak boldly of your love for others…
Who are just as humanly imperfect as you.