During a recent interview about my new book Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself, the interviewer asked me to suggest a practical anti-self-loathing strategy.
"Engage in activities," I ventured, "that occupy your mind."
"I get it!" the interviewer interjected. "You mean helping others! Volunteering at a food bank or animal shelter! Cooking for sick friends!"
"Sure," I said, swamped by her conviction and enthusiasm, eager—as my own self-loathing taught me—to agree.
"That's right," I said.
"Because," she went on, "by helping others, you improve the world! Which gives you a reason to love yourself! Win-win!"
On that bright note, the interview ended. As usual, I then experienced "interview hangover," replaying in my mind things I had said that suddenly seemed ridiculous.
One such thing was that bit about helping others: Sure. That's right.
Because while helping others is all well and good, it wasn't what I meant.
And it isn't required.
In fact, helping others in order to love yourself could actually have the opposite effect.
What I meant to say was that we can short-circuit self-loathing by undertaking activities—whether helpful to others or not—that occupy our minds.
The key isn't what these activities are—they could be anything from fixing cars to studying foreign languages to playing chess to building chicken coops to scrubbing floors -- but rather what they do: take our minds, if we let them, off ourselves. I call such activities Outer-Directed Distractors, or ODDs.
ODDs may or may not require effort, even labor. ODDs may or may not entertain, enlighten or exhaust. They share in common just one thing: one crucial, healing thing.
They show us, kindly but matter-of-factly, that it's not all about us.
Low self-esteem is the process of listening nonstop to negative self-talk. I'm so stupid! So ugly! What'll I ruin next?
It's as if whoever stole our self-esteem—back then, in their power—told us harshly, "Now sit here in this corner and think about what you've done until I come back and say you can come out."
And we thought and thought and our thoughts got worse and worse and they never said we could come out.
Self-loathing is a loyalty vow that we made to our tormentors long ago and which, with every I'm so stupid, we obediently keep.
But, as such, self-loathing is self-absorption—just as unhealthy, useless and isolating as the self-absorption we despise in narcissists. Like narcissists, although for different reasons, we think constantly about ourselves. We do this as if it was our destiny, our penalty, our prison sentence, our expertise, our career.
And we're afraid to stop. We think we have no right to stop and might be punished if we stop.
Counterintuitive as it sounds, we must give ourselves permission to stop thinking about ourselves, to know that it's not all about us. In that knowledge, in that permission, is sweet liberation.
Get up, tear off your dunce cap and charge out of that corner. And find yourself some ODDs.
Our ODDs might not directly help others—but in giving us confidence, experience and hope, they do improve the world.
Taking our minds off ourselves is a radical act, an open revolt and a blessed relief. It's a simple yet, for us, profoundly courageous practice that reveals amidst its soapsuds and conjugations how fascinating, absorbing, vivid and large life is outside our I'm so stupid echo chambers. The more time we spend in that open space, the more we'll believe it's where we belong.