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  • Dr. Ted Klontz

Reflections on the Circle of Life


Let’s pretend that you are attending a workshop. You are asked to participate in an exercise that asks you to take a selfie. A close-up picture of your face.


Imagine then you are asked to list the first words, thoughts and feelings that come to mind as you look at yourself.


If you are like most of us, the words are not in the realm of, “my, how strikingly beautiful,” or “Wow, what a masterpiece.” Most often, the words are from the opposite side of the “beautiful/special/fascinatingly unique” continuum. The first impressions that typically come to mind reflect a sense of darkness, negative self-judgment, rejection, disgust, and self-criticism.


These negative reactions are pretty universal as far as I can tell, at least in our culture. I was wondering why the other day. What is it with our species (or is it just our culture) that plants those judgmental perspectives in our brain?


I do not know of a baby that looks at itself in a mirror and registers disgust, refusing to look in any detail, at what it is seeing. It is mostly fascinated, often with a smile, seemingly marveling at everything it is seeing. “Wow, what is that?” “I think I will put it in my mouth to get to know it better.” When we were infants, I’m guessing we felt pretty good about ourselves and what we saw when we looked into a mirror. As I observe new infants, they feel the same way about others like themselves. Fascinated.


Quite quickly however, we seem to lose that perspective. It isn’t long before we feel ugly. Mocking, teasing, put-downs from loved ones within our own family, about the size and shape of our nose, ears, cow-licked hair, crooked teeth, lack of height and weight can be perpetual messages; indelibly imprinting themselves on our psyche before we had developed even the barest element of self-defense.


I was wondering why we do that to little ones? Is it natural or is it cultural?


As we move into adolescence the pressure mounts. It doesn’t get any less as a young adult. Middle age certainly doesn’t help. As we continue to age it just gets worse. Turkey neck, wrinkles, hair loss (actually I call it unauthorized follicle migration), eye drooping; all the natural progression of the effect of age, gravity, exposure to the elements…… As we experience old age, our faithful servant of a body makes many things difficult and painful, some things impossible. Why and how are we taught to despise and reject our own self?

At the time I was actually living through each and every one these life stages, the primary driving internal message to myself about myself, was a condemnation of who I was, how I was, how I looked, level of success, and how I measured up compared to others. I had, very early on, successfully internalized the external messages from childhood. As my external world continued to give messages of not measuring up, they only served to reinforce what I had already integrated into my internal belief system.


Self-doubt, self-criticism, and negative self-judgment reigned supreme. Even when, in some cases, others tried to tell me they saw me differently. I rejected those messages, I knew the “truth.”


I have found that many others can relate. Some easily admitting having had the very same experience.


Once again, I am left to wonder if this is an innate human condition. In other words, is this self-mutilation a universal, species functional, characteristic? A process that is somehow essential for our species’ survival, genetically programmed into each and every one of us? A phenomenon that we move normally from experiencing ourselves as one of the most amazing things in our world (watch an infant who is engrossed in just how visually fascinating and tasty the big toe on their right foot is), to being a being that doesn’t measure up. I don’t know of an adult who is still fascinated by their big toe (or if they are, dare to let anyone know) or who still enjoys interacting with it with their mouth (if they would have the flexibility to do that). Have we learned this? Or is it nature’s course?


Is this self-rejection an effect of our world, our culture into which we were born and raised? If it is culture created, what is the purpose? To control us. If so, control us so that we……? Would our culture explode like a supernova if we thought of ourselves (and others) as being totally competent and beautiful and …..?


What are the consequences of this negative self-judgment? Doesn’t it give us permission then to see and judge others the same negative way? So that we might be able to justify what we do and don’t do to and for them, up to and including justifying destroying them?


If it is so functional, why do some of us spend so much time, money, and effort to change this negative perspective of ourselves and our loved ones? Especially our loved ones. Children, grandchildren………


It has been established that the better one feels about themselves, the better, kinder and more considerate they are towards all other human and non-human parts of our world. The inverse is also true. The worse I feel about myself, the more rejecting I am towards all other parts of my universe.


Is it nature that wants us to hate ourselves or is it a culture that needs us to do that? “Let’s convince humans that they smell bad, then we can sell them a product that can make them smell like a flower or a tree.” Where’s the potential upside of that? Who benefits? Ah, yes…


Old photographs offer me an interesting perspective. They offer another narrative about my physical self at least. When I come across a picture of myself taken 20, 40, 60 years ago, I am amazed at how automatically the words, “Wow, I didn’t look that bad”, impulsively, automatically, surprisingly, (silently of course) roll off the lips of my brain.


I also can smile inside (of course) as I remember the fun, the innocence, the adventure, and beauty of those times, as the pain, loss and suffering of those times moves into the background for a moment.


I wonder if, looking back 20 years from now if I will feel the same, about now. About myself, and these times. I wonder if retrospective perspective is the only way I (we) can allow and experience the raw beauty of ourselves and our world now, right now. It keeps me safe, from what?


I wonder if I look back 10, 20 years from now of a picture that was taken yesterday, will I smile, and think, “Not bad.”


I wonder if, at the moment of my death, will I smile, looking at the journey of my life and say silently “Not that shabby.”What terrible fate would befall me if I did that now, about now?