Liking Yourself and Being a Good Person–Is There a Connection?

Read this quote:

“I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”

If you were to take a wild guess, would you say that the person who wrote this was a productive member of society? Do you think that he or she was the type of person who helped others, who contributed meaningfully to his or her community? Was he or she a good person?

If you’re like most people (which, if you read this blog, you’re probably not, but bear with me), you’d probably answer “no” to those questions.

And you’d be dead wrong, because the author of those dismal thoughts was Abraham Lincoln.

This past weekend, my Jewish education group had its second retreat of the quarter. (I wrote about the first one here.)

One of our many discussions during the retreat was on which qualities are necessary for someone to be a good person (however one defines “good”). Some of my group’s suggestions, such as empathy, seemed completely accurate.

Some, however, did not. One student mentioned that she thinks that liking yourself is a prerequisite to being a good person, and everyone enthusiastically agreed.

I waited for her to explain. She said that you have to be fine with yourself before you can focus on being a good person to other people. She said that not liking yourself is unhealthy. (And unhealthy, by extension, must mean bad.)

I said, “What if the person you are right now just isn’t likable to you?”

She said, “Well, then you would just be bitter.”

I said, “I don’t like myself and I’m not bitter.”

She stammered, said sorry, and left the subject alone.

Here’s the thing. I would agree that genuinely liking yourself is a pretty good goal to have in terms of your own psychological development. However, I completely oppose the moralization of this quality. That is, I oppose the idea that liking yourself makes you a “good” person and that not liking yourself makes you a “bad” person. I also oppose the idea that you can’t be a “good” person unless you like yourself.

I have several reasons for opposing this concept. One is that I truly don’t believe that your opinion of yourself is strongly correlated with your treatment of others and your ability to contribute positively to society. There’s a stereotype of people who have low self-worth as selfish, miserable, and–as the girl in my group said–bitter. While it’s quite possible that not liking yourself would lead some people to be this way, it can also push people to turn outwards and do incredible things for others. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, may have been one such person.

Second, while the argument that you must like yourself in order to be a good person does not necessarily imply that liking yourself automatically makes you a good person, I think that’s something that should be examined. Once you do that, you’ll hopefully realize that there’s simply no connection. Some people who like themselves are great people. Some are horrible people. Some like themselves so much that they don’t give a crap about anyone else.

Third, there is an illness that up to a quarter of adults will experience at some point during their lives that has as one of its symptoms feeling worthless and hating yourself. That, of course, is depression. I hope I don’t have to explain why I find the suggestion that depressed people can’t be “good” people to be inaccurate, superficial, and downright offensive.

Fourth, all of this hinges on one’s personal definition of a “good person,” which was never elaborated on during our discussion. (I find that in conversations of a religious nature, these things tend to just be left undefined.) To me, a person who isn’t good is a person who has the opportunity to help others but chooses not to. A person who cannot help others due to circumstances beyond his or her control should not be labeled as “bad.” So if disliking yourself really is keeping you from helping others, that doesn’t mean you’re not a good person. It just means you have to work on your issues before you can put your goodness into action.

As I told the girl in my group, I dislike myself. There are two main reasons for that. One is that I have depression, and as I mentioned, that’s one of its symptoms. The other is that the culture I live in rejects many of my most defining traits, and it’s really, really hard to like yourself when you’re bombarded with cultural messages that tell you that you’re unlikeable.

With time, I’ll probably learn how to ignore those messages. But to suggest that I can’t be a good person right now because of them (and because of my depression) is extremely condescending. I do my best to be a good friend, daughter, sister, and leader in the Northwestern community. I have found causes that I support and advocate for them tirelessly. Because of my openness about my own experiences with mental illness, I have been able to serve as a source of information and support for many other people that I’ve met over the past few years.

Now, that’s hardly on the level of, say, Abraham Lincoln. But it’s more than a lot of other people my age do. A lot of the ones, I might add, who insist that this time of our lives is a time to “just focus on me” and “just do what I want.”

Liking yourself is great. It feels nice. But we shouldn’t confuse it with having the ability and the desire to do good.

Goodbye Lexapro

[TMI Warning]

Today marks the end of an era of my life.

Today I took my last dose of antidepressants, and tomorrow, for the first time in a year and a half, I will get up in the morning and (purposefully) not take that pill again.

I went on Lexapro as a last resort in July 2010. I won’t go into all those details here since I’ve written about it before, but I’ll say that, at the time, I had no other choice. When a body has been critically injured, it enters a coma. I was in the mental version of that.

Lexapro did a lot of things to me, some expected, some not so much. I stopped crying every day and wanting to kill myself, at least for a while. I also became, according to my friends, more lively, more social, and visibly happier.

But then, there was the other stuff. Lexapro broke up the one meaningful romantic relationship I’ve had in my life. (Was it destined to break up anyway? Now I’ll never know.) It altered my values and beliefs for some time and turned me into the sort of person I would’ve hated a few months before. Now I’m back to my normal self, thankfully.

It was also a cruel helper at times. If I missed just a day of it, I’d be a wreck by nightfall. If I missed two days, the withdrawal symptoms kicked in, and they were horrible. I’d be dizzy, nauseous, barely able to walk, completely unable to explain to people why I was suddenly sick when I’d been fine just that morning. (“Sorry, I’m going through drug withdrawal” isn’t really an effective explanation for most people.) The worst symptom of antidepressant withdrawal has no official name, but depressives refer to it as “brain zaps.” They’re momentary sensations of being shocked or stunned in the head and they happen every few minutes or so, or even more often.

Theoretically, of course, there’s no need to ever miss a day of a prescribed medication, but when you factor in insurance issues, CVS’s constant fuckups, weird sleeping schedules, and other crap, it happens pretty often. I remember one awful time when I forgot to bring my medication back to school from break with me and I had to get my parents to ship it. Those were an unpleasant few days. Another time, my psychiatrist refused to renew my prescription unless I came in to see her, but I’d already be back at school by the time she had her first available appointment slot, and there was no way I could skip classes to drive six hours home to Ohio. She wouldn’t budge.

I’m not going to go into a whole condemnation of psychiatry or the pharmaceutical industry because they gave me back my life. However, I will say this: there is so, so much work to be done.

My psychiatrist prescribed me Lexapro after a nurse practitioner talked to me for ten minutes, and she for about five. She said that “academic stress” was causing my depression and that antidepressants would help me deal with it. She must’ve missed the part where I said that my depression started when I was 12 years old. She also apparently missed the glaring cognitive distortions and emotional issues I was having, and had been having for years and years. She oversimplified my problems and thus prescribed a simple remedy.

It took a while to even begin to sort out what the problem really was, and I’m still not there yet.

Some other things my psychiatrist didn’t tell me: the personality changes. The withdrawal symptoms. The fact that I was more likely than not to have a relapse (which I did). And, of course, the fact that you don’t really recover from depression. You only learn how to avoid it for bursts of time.

That was stuff I shouldn’t have had to learn through experience.

Now I look at that almost-empty bottle and I just can’t look at it with a sense of gratitude. I will never be an enthusiastic advocate of psychiatry, though I will continue fighting for the rights of patients to obtain complete information about medication and to make their own decisions.

I look forward to the end of that daily reminder of what I’ve lost. For the past year and a half, I have started every day by taking Lexapro and remembering that I’m not okay. Now I won’t have that anymore. Now I’ll be able to go half the day, maybe even an entire day, without thinking about that part of myself.

I’m not nearly naive enough to think that this is the end. For all I know, I’ll be back on the medication in a month. I’m almost certain that I’ll be back on it within the next few years.

But for now, at least, I’m done with it.

For now, the only things I’ll be taking in the morning are a multivitamin and a shower.

Normal, just like everybody else.

Days I’ve Been An Adult

[TMI Warning]

According to our culture and our legal system, I just became an adult.

That is, I just turned 21. Happy birthday to me.

Although 18 is the age of majority, 21 is the age at which we gain control over our own bodies by getting the legal right to pump them full of alcohol until we vomit everywhere and/or engage in inadvisable sexual relations.

Needless to say, I won’t be doing much of that, not on my birthday and not ever. But 21 is still an important age to me. Now I can bring a bottle of wine to a friend’s house as a gift. Now I can order a glass of champagne at a restaurant to celebrate something important.

I’m an adult today.

I’m an adult today, but I’ve been an adult many other days of my life. I want to reflect on those times now.

I was an adult on all the days I left my family behind, when I pretended that my family didn’t matter to me because that’s what adults do.

I was an adult on the day I fell in love with my best friend, and on the day when I left him two years later because it wasn’t right.

I was an adult on the day I sat clutching the phone for half an hour before finally dialing Counseling and Psychological Services.

I was an adult on the day I sat with my notebook and voice recorder, freaking because I was about to go talk to strangers, but I did it anyway.

I was an adult on the day I had my first panic attack and sat sobbing on a bench in downtown Chicago, punishing myself for all the things I couldn’t do.

I was an adult on the day I told my mom that I needed help.

I was an adult on the day my psychiatrist told my mom that I’d been cutting myself, and she turned to me and asked if it was true.

I was an adult on the day a careless driver totaled my car, with me and my little siblings inside. I jumped out of the car, my face stinging from the airbag, and carried my brother and sister off of the street, glass crunching underneath my flipflops.

I was an adult on the day I took my first dose of antidepressants, the first of many, and I was an adult on the day I decided that I didn’t need them anymore.

I was an adult on the day I turned down a paying job for the chance to volunteer in New York City.

I was an adult on the day I realized that I wanted to die, and I was an adult every single day after that, when I chose to keep living anyway.

I was an adult on the day I chose my major and my future career.

I was an adult on the day I told the world I have depression, and on every day I’ve done it ever since.

I was an adult on the day I had to tell a guy “no” for the first time, and when I realized how much worse things could’ve gone.

I was an adult on the day I had to tell my best friend what to do when I can’t stop crying.

I was an adult on the day I lost a close friend because of who I am.

I was an adult on the day I met my newborn nephew and wondered how there could be a whole person there that hadn’t even existed 48 hours ago.

I was an adult on the day I realized that I have enemies. I have enemies because I like to say what’s on my mind. That’s not a reason anyone should ever have enemies.

I was an adult on the day I realized that my little brother is growing up to be just like me, and the thought of that made me feel awful.

I was an adult on the day I realized that I could never believe in God again, and I was an adult on the day I begged Him for help anyway.

I was an adult on the day I knew that I never wanted to leave New York, and when I decided that I was going to return even if I had to crawl there all the way from Ohio.

I was an adult every day I opened up and gave someone new a chance.

I was an adult every day I sat at the kitchen table, waiting for my dad to drive me back to college, crying.

I was an adult on the day I realized that things were never going to be the same again.

And I was an adult today.

I know that anyone reading this probably thinks this is all really sad. They will probably wonder why I would choose to think about such sad things on my 21st birthday.

It’s because, sad as they are, these things give me strength. I feel prepared for an adult life because I have been an adult so many times already. While reflecting on happy memories feels nice, it doesn’t give me that feeling of inner strength, because everyone can deal with happiness. Not everyone can deal with despair.

I can.

When Tough Love Becomes Abusive

Okay, so, I realize I’m showing up rather late to the laptop-shooting party, but I didn’t want to let this bit of news pass by without writing about my reaction to it–not only to the incident itself, but to the various responses I’ve seen to it from the public.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch this:

In short–for those who don’t want to waste their time–girl rants about her parents on Facebook. Daddy decides that the correct course of action is not to, say, sit down and have a chat with his daughter, revoke her computer privileges, have her deactivate/delete her Facebook, or otherwise utilize actual parenting skills. No. Instead, Daddy posts a video rant about his daughter on the Internet (sound like anyone else in the family?) in which he shoots her laptop with a gun.

Okay. A few things:

  1. This father’s actions are abusive. I’m sorry if you don’t like that. I’m sorry if that doesn’t fit with your view of “traditional” parent-child relationships. According to modern definitions of domestic violence, destroying someone’s property in order to hurt or manipulate them constitutes abuse. (It’s in there, look it up.)
  2. And that’s only regarding the actual shooting of the laptop. As regards posting the video online, well, I hope it’s pretty obvious why I have a huge problem with parents exploiting their children for their fifteen seconds of fame. Especially when this involves violence.
  3. This girl does seem quite bratty and entitled. However, there is nothing a person can do–especially not if that person is a child–that justifies abusing them.
  4. That said, I’m not entirely sure that the girl’s Facebook rant was entirely unjustified. Immature and ill-advised, sure. But based on her father’s reaction, I wouldn’t say that her parents treat her fairly.

According to the ABC article I linked to, the police and Child Protective Services promptly paid the man a visit, but apparently they didn’t find anything wrong with the scenario. In fact, they told him, “Kudos, sir.”

There are plenty of tragic things about this incident. One is the fact that a girl is being abused. Another is the fact that her abuse is now captured for posterity on the internet. Another is that things are only going to get worse from here, both in terms of her relationship with her parents and in terms of her emotional health. Another is that her father seems to genuinely believe that he did the right thing by “teaching her a lesson.” And another is that the only “lesson” this girl has been taught is that guns are an appropriate way to express your anger at people.

One more issue, however, stands out as particularly sad, and that is the public reaction to the father’s video.

I am ashamed to say that I saw this video posted by my friends in my Facebook newsfeed with comments like “hilarious” and “what a hero.” I’m not proud to have friends who apparently condone domestic abuse as long as it’s amusing to them. If you watched this video and you laughed, I really urge you to reconsider your personal definition of humor, and I hope that you’ll take abuse out of that definition.

A hero is a parent who raises a difficult child with compassion. A hero is a parent with the strength to not take children’s bad behavior as a personal insult, but rather as a sign that more growth is needed.

This father is not a hero. He’s an abuser. Let’s call a spade a spade.

Why Hookup Culture Sucks

This week’s Daily column.

Most people over the age of 35 would probably tell you that the college hookup culture is a terrible thing.

To them, the truth is plain to see — casual sex leads to sexual assault, has all sorts of negative psychological consequences, and is usually a sign of low self-esteem. Popular books like Laura Sessions Stepp’s Unhooked and Miriam Grossman’s Unprotected, along with countless news stories and opinion pieces, promote this viewpoint tirelessly.

I agree that the hookup culture as it currently exists is unhealthy, but not for those reasons. The way I see it, the problems writers like Stepp and Grossman identify within the hookup culture are very real, but they are not caused by casual sex itself. Rather, they’re caused by a lack of education and communication.

For instance, two possible negative consequences of hooking up — sexually transmitted infections and accidental pregnancy — could be eliminated almost entirely if people knew how to protect themselves from them. Of course, the issue of obtaining access to contraceptives is also a valid one, particularly given recent political events.

Sexual assault, too, can be curbed by educating people — and no, I don’t mean educating women not to drink too much or walk home alone. According to a 2010 study in the United Kingdom, two-thirds of people think that victims of rape are partially to blame if they initially got into bed with the rapist, and about one-fourth think that the victims are partially to blame if they dressed provocatively. It’s difficult to end rape on college campuses and in our society in general if so many people still don’t realize that rape is caused by rapists, not by revealing clothes.

Furthermore, our culture is saturated with TV shows, songs and other media that make it seem acceptable to “get” people drunk in order to make them willing to have sex, and I would not be surprised if some people take that message to heart. Of course, a drunk person cannot legally consent to sex, so people who try to get potential partners by using alcohol may not realize that they are actually making them legally unable to provide consent. A Columbia University study implicates alcohol in 90 percent of sexual assault cases on college campuses, showing that the relationship between alcohol and sex is not an entirely healthy one.

Even if the hookup is completely consensual, communication frequently gets the shaft. We’ve all seen movies like “The Notebook,” which usually climax with two people having sex for the first time without uttering a single word. Yet the sex still manages to turn out fantastic. I hate to rain on the parade, but that’s not really how it works. Sure, there’s a chance you’ll go to a party one night and meet someone who just happens to like having sex the exact same way you do, but it’s a pretty small chance.

Those lucky people can probably skip the rest of this column, but the rest of us should remember that you can’t get what you want if you don’t ask for it.

Unfortunately, expressing yourself clearly isn’t easy when you’re slurring your words, which brings me right to my next point: In order for hooking up to be safe and fun, we need to stop depending on alcohol as a social lubricant. According to a study done at Syracuse University, nearly two-thirds of hookups involve alcohol. Though drinking can be great for letting go of inhibitions, it also tends to make people less willing and able to speak up when something’s not right and to treat others with respect.

Respect might seem like an outdated word to use, but I hope it isn’t. I’m sure there are people out there who truly don’t care whether or not their hookup partner respects them, but I think most people do.

One common justification I hear from people who like to hook up is that, “It’s okay if they use me, because I’m using them too.” That is a terrible way to look at it. Just because you’re only spending one night with someone doesn’t mean you should treat him or her like an object.

Besides, the hookup can’t be that enjoyable if each person is simply “using” the other’s body, because sex requires a certain amount of teamwork.

Luckily, Northwestern does not ignore these issues. This past fall, the Essential NU program for freshmen was revamped to include an updated presentation on sexual health and assault. Staged in the form of a play, it emphasized the need for open communication between sexual partners and for challenging the cultural scripts that lead to both bad sex and rape. But this is a conversation that we need to have more often than just once a year during freshman orientation.

Though we do discuss issues like this on occasion — such as in meetings and events planned by organizations like College Feminists, Sexual Health & Assault Peer Educators, and Rainbow Alliance — they need to be higher up on the agenda.

Unlike the authors who write books with titles like “Unhooked” and “Unprotected,” I don’t think that casual sex is intrinsically wrong, unhealthy, or dangerous. I do think, however, that most of us are going about it the wrong way. For those people who want no-strings-attached sex, hookup culture could be a great thing — just not the hookup culture that we currently have.