This week’s post consists of comments on a reader’s email. This reader (I’ll call him Tony) presents some details of his life and his struggle to find happiness, and he asks for my thoughts and suggestions. In this post, I interject my comments as if we’re having a dialogue.
Tony: I am a 22-year-old student with hopes of studying psychology in a graduate program one day. I am enjoying reading Why We Suffer and I’ve found your words to be very insightful as I come to terms with my own psychological issues.
As briefly as I can, I’d like to attempt to explain to you a dilemma that I’ve stumbled upon during my recovery. I understand you have no obligation to respond, but if you have any ideas for me or know of any writings that could be helpful I would really appreciate it.
I have a deep self-worth void that was created in childhood as a result of my father’s emotional abuse toward me. I have experienced problems with addiction, codependency, and chronic emptiness my whole life, and I believe these are the symptoms of deep issues at the core. I understand that in order to overcome this problem I must validate the inner child that was taught to feel worthless and miserable.
Peter: It’s best not to emphasize the idea that you “must” validate the inner child. Rather, you want to become an observer of how you can be inclined to reject, criticize, and disrespect yourself. All of us, in varying degrees, can be disrespectful of ourselves through the agency of our inner critic. Try throughout the day to observe your tendency to belittle yourself with various thoughts or inner voices. As you recognize this happening, you become aware that you’re producing this emotional abuse through your inner critic. You’re also allowing the abuse to continue through your inner passivity. This inner conflict occurs in all of us, to one degree or another. When we understand it, we can overcome it as we acquire insight, emotional strength, and self-respect.
Tony: On with the dilemma – I am an atheist and therefore do not believe in the existence of any absolutes. I have gone back and tried to validate myself at the core with affirming messages. The problem is, without a belief in an absolute and intrinsic value in every human, I am struggling to come up with any “truths” to counter the negative messages I received as a child.
Peter: You have a basic responsibility in life to believe in yourself. My impression is that you’re making a point or an issue of your lack of belief in a god because that mirrors your lack of belief in yourself. What’s important is that you believe in yourself. This is the one truth that gives you standing in the world. Without it, you will be lost, having rejected or abandoned yourself. Since you have a life on this planet, doesn’t it make sense that you have a responsibility to respect that life and be supportive of it? Now that you’re an adult, you’re the one who has to provide emotional support for your existence if you want to be strong.
However, you’re having a difficult time providing that support because you appear to be emotionally attached to the feelings of self-criticism and self-rejection. An emotional attachment to those negative feelings can be powerful. If you keep seeing the irrational, emotional nature of this negativity, and can refrain from giving credence to the allegations against you, you’re likely over time to weaken its hold over you.
Tony: I try telling myself that I was/am a beautiful, whole, intelligent, loving, perfect human being just as I am—but this message always leads me to believe that my worth is contingent upon those qualities, which does not allow me to fill myself with an unconditional self-worth at the core. How do I establish my self-worth unconditionally if I don’t believe that we’re endowed with intrinsic worth by a creator/god?
Peter: Don’t try to establish your self-worth unconditionally. That’s too difficult. You’ll only feel frustrated. You’ve framed your situation in such a way that you create a sense of helplessness, which means you’re entangled in an unresolved attachment to helplessness (inner passivity). Just live your life with the growing awareness of how, through inner conflict, you are producing unnecessary suffering. In your case, it appears that one way you produce suffering is by refusing, through various rationalizations and defenses, to believe in your value. One possible defense (called a “negative magic-gesture”) would be to say, bitterly though unconsciously: “You see, father, I’m just being what you said I was—some useless person with no value.” A psychological calibration of this sort can cause you to become stuck at this painful inner level.
Tony: Where does a human’s worth come from, and is there a way to love yourself unconditionally without assuming the existence of a deity?
Peter: A sense of worth and self-love comes when we clear away our entanglement in unresolved negative emotions. Feeling your value and worth is your birthright, but it’s not handed to you on a silver platter. You have to do the inner work of clearing out the dregs and debris in the psyche. Many people believe in God largely because, through inner weakness, they’re dependent on feeling validated and loved by God. When we’re stronger, we’re not dependent on feeling loved. Instead, we become naturally loving and compassionate.
Again, when you say “love yourself unconditionally,” you’re setting up an impossible goal. You’ll only generate an impression of being weak, helpless, and flawed. You’ll be hindered at this point by the unconscious choice you’re making to continue experiencing yourself through self-doubt and an inner sense of nonbeing.
Tony: What messages can I feed myself to combat a feeling of chronic emptiness and inadequacy?
Peter: Don’t feed yourself messages. Just look for awareness and self-knowledge through an understanding of how you’re holding on to old painful impressions of yourself. These painful impressions are false readings on your true nature. Once you see and acknowledge the distorted impressions of yourself that your psyche produces, good feelings, as your birthright, will follow automatically.
Tony: Do you believe that in order for human life to be intrinsically valuable one must believe in a god?
Peter: I believe in the importance of our evolving consciousness which grows as we acquire self-knowledge. It’s through evolving consciousness that we know the truth of our goodness and value. As we feel our own intrinsic value more deeply, we can feel the intrinsic value in others and in all life. This awareness leads us deeper into truth and reality.
Tony: Thank you for any thoughts or suggestions you can offer me.
Peter: You’re welcome. I’m sorry that your father was emotionally abusive toward you. If he couldn’t respect you, it means he was unable to respect himself. Now you can do for yourself what he was unable to do for you (and also for himself.) Even though your father was abusive, you can have a great and happy life. Your challenge is to let go of the ways in which you continue to live with (and are emotionally identified with) the negative feelings that your father had for you and for himself.