Bullet Holes In My Self Esteem
Heartbreak riddles self esteem with holes. Can something grow there after? A gardener might know.
Last week, a prolonged fog in my mind lifted after I had an unpleasant conversation. I have been struggling to make sense of this person’s presence in my life and they way they treat me. I have tried reason (my first go-to, since surviving many rage-o-holics). I have tried distance. And this time, I tried vulnerability. It’s not clean. Vulnerability is not a wide-eyed, sweet-voiced child face. It’s a teeming forest with things that bite and sting and snap at your heels. And then there are minefields because that is just the world we live in that hides plastic explosives in plants. My self esteem is hit.
I am shattered and in deep, profound pain. Something about these particular bullet holes is making older betrayals ooze out too. Maybe it is not a coincidence that my teeth hurt so bad I can’t even drink water. Dental issues are not just a letter away from mental issues. When the heart is hurting, everything within starts to ache. And this warrior is about to die on the battlefield of betrayals. At least the brain fog has lifted. Heartbreak has a cleanness about it that confusion & turbulence do not. Lies are poison gas clouds. Gaslighting, truth omissions, game playing, fear projections, control dramas – they are all colours of the same toxin. The showdown brought me clarity through the bloodiness.
Friends have advised me to just forget them (as if life is as simple as clicking an X button). But shared intimacies are like seeds planted in your psyche, where they flourish forever; uprooting them needs you to destroy your entire garden and salt the earth. No, I say no. I will not let any one relationship wreck my carefully tended to inner self. Other’s people’s rush to solve my problem shows at worst their dismissiveness, at best their inability to deal with heartbroken me. But it is not for them to solve me. And this gardener must still tend to all that grows. So I look with pain at the bullet holes in my being, notice the ashes of my self esteem and the fragile things on which I base it.
I have spent days feeling hollowed out from within. Riddled with holes. A sense of smallness washing over me like a hungry darkness. I was too scared to speak to anyone else. I feared they would tell me I told you so I was afraid of the dismissiveness of shaking heads that ask if I’m done with this drama. I am terrified of the impatience of tightly scheduled conversations that demand a certain percentage of levity & entertainment or risk being deemed ‘too intense’. Like a RottenTomatoes entry.
None of this is kind or quiet; judgements are so loud. So I sat alone with the horrible feelings until I could give them a name. Shame. I realised it when I noticed the other flashbacks flooding in. Someone else who cheated on me. The person they cheated on me with. Both of them making fun of my desperation. SLAM. Another flashback. Someone who hit me. SLAM. Someone who dumped me. SLAM. Someone who bullied me. SLAM. Someone who lied to me. SLAM. The loud laughter, the hard halogen lamp smiles. The pointing fingers. SLAM SLAM SLAM. They all happened at different times in my life but all those memories converged till I shrunk into a tiny ball of terrified shame, wishing I could sink into nothingness. Shame is so powerful. SLAM.
In a flash of clarity, I could suddenly see why experts dealing with a traumatised person say,
“It was not your fault. You deserve to be loved.”
regardless of what had happened. Those words are such lifesavers. They center you back to your own self, separate from what other people project onto you. And that self hurts. Not because someone else thinks less of you. Not because they have problems. Not because you won’t get what you want (that’s disappointment, not heartbreak). But because your heart, your own dear heart is hurting. A clean heart has been tended to, cleansed of resentment, guilt, shame. A clean heart that has experienced love. And the only thing a well loved heart can hold is loving. Being reminded that nothing that happened to you is your fault is like putting a plug on the hole it has made in you. A tourniquet to stanch the bleeding. But you’ll still have to open it to clean it out. Letting it fester is just as dangerous. That’s what ‘forget about them’ sounds like. I’m taking off the bandages and asking why it was so easy for someone to put a smoking hole inside me. Why was my self-esteem so fragile?
“Gloria Steinem’s best-seller Revolution from Within cautioned women about the danger of achieving success without doing the necessary groundwork for self-love and self-esteem. She found that achieving women who still suffered internalized self-hatred invariably acted out in ways that undermined their success. And if the self-hating successful person did not act out she may have lived a life of private desperation, unable to tell anyone success does not, in fact, reverse crippled self-esteem. ”‘All About Love’ – Bell Hooks
I felt something ebb the minute I found that word, shame. Shame is a sense of worthlessness. People who treat you badly are projecting their own sense of worthlessness onto you. And perhaps we all do this to each othe. Feeling deep connection with another person is to enter a space of vulnerability. It is to face that vulnerability is something we create, it’s not something that happens to us. This is the thing that brings up our most vicious, martial, vitriolic defenses. Are we then, our weaponry any more than we are the warfare we wage on one another?
This is a hard lesson in my own saviour complexes. Hurt people hurt people. People who are struggling lash out. Insecure people tear other people down. Liars & bullies are cowards. But I have had to realise that I cannot rescue people from themselves. Not only is it not my responsibility, it is also not my place to do so. When a person mistreats you for treating them with love, they are telling you that they are not ready to let go of their pain. Rescuing people from their pain is not the same as supporting their journeys.
I am realising that I must respect that. It is arrogant of me to think I know better, a violation of consent. People have the right to wreck their lives (or what looks like it to me). After all, we do allow people to smoke cigarettes even as we know that it does nothing but harm. As with cigarette smoking, the only thing to do is to take care of yourself. If your health is important to you, walk away from that which could wreck it. There is no need for judgement or rage (that’s just carrying the poison with you). I needed to face my saviour complexes before I was able to embrace this idea. There is no such thing as ‘for their own good’. There is ‘for my own comfort’ and if it involves so much carnage, then I have to ask myself what the hell I’m doing. Saviour complexes are to the ego what alcohol is to the liver. And self-esteem is the first casualty.
I am as yet new to this lesson. Then Topher gave me a double-edged gift of empathy. I say double-edged because after a point of being brutalised, you become so numbed to pain that the only thing that hurts is kindness. And he said,
“Maybe it’s not your job to protect yourself. Just because others aren’t doing their job to protect you doesn’t make you bad.”
It was light in my darkness. A call to something tender that had been quashed in me a very long time ago. We can only love in collaboration. There are no lone wolves of love & compassion. How can one live a loving life when one also has to protect from harm and when attacked, have no time or space to heal? Love, loving and a loved heart cannot survive in such a world. To be shamed for not healing soon enough, for choosing the wrong people to care about, for being hurt by humanity’s cruelty, to live in a world where people tote weapons with shame bullets – that is a dead world. ‘Snap out of it’ trivialises all that you feel and your feelings are a rich, powerful force after all. It is another form of shaming, another bullet.
Today I spent the day in deep pain. I even refrained from reaching for the painkillers I still have from weeks of dental pain. The floaty feeling is pleasantly numbing but the crash afterwards is horrible. And I do not want to be addicted. I have been strong, I have always been fearless, I see that now. It takes a great deal more courage to be a gardener than a warrior in this world of hatred and cowardice. I brought home some new plants, all with flowers. It’s anybody’s guess which of them will live to see a new day, which will fight it out in my window, possibly starving out the others. Somehow my garden finds its equilibrium, with a little help and a lot of hope from me. And it reciprocates with the stability and straightforward living that I don’t find in human beings. It took me 3 hours to pot them all and I feel exhausted. Heartache still lies heavy but I’ve gotten to the end of the day without adding pain in the world. That kind of pride washes away shame. It is balm to bruised self-esteem without the side effect of narcissism.
Bell Hooks is watering my tenderest seeds of reflection. Maybe I should read Gloria Steinem next. The shame is ebbing, the bullet holes haven’t closed. But I find myself engaged in quiet self-inquiry. It gives me the same sense of purpose that my garden gives me, that patience of a gardener who knows the pests will come, the weeds will sprout, the birds may break the stems of your precious plants, the insects may build a nest & sting you. Yet, you uproot the weeds as gently as you can so you don’t break their stems & leave behind roots to grow back. You accept the fact that the beauty of flowers is a gift from nature to all the universe, not just you and you must learn to share with insects and birds; you learn to respect and then love your garden neighbors. And through it all, you water the mud, quietly meditating on the joy that it will bring you some day when it sprouts. The mud must stay soft but but still be earth (not a puddle). It’s a good reflection on dealing with difficult emotions and what they do to my inner being. Eventually a flower will grow in my bullet holes.
So many people don’t grasp that when someone is in emotional pain a friend’s job is not to “fix” that pain, but to bear witness, to make room for that person to work their own way through the forest, knowing their friend is with them, without judgement and without facile solutions.
“It takes a great deal more courage to be a gardener than a warrior in this world of hatred and cowardice.” This is so wise and so true.
@Kern Windwraith: This is invaluable context. Thank you so much for the knowing. Bearing witness is such an unknown, unseen treasure.