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Is Low Self-Esteem a Sickness?

Understanding where poor self-esteem comes from.

What can we call something that deludes and disables us and sometimes runs in families? What can we call something that resists talking-to-it and talking-about-it and for which there is no standard treatment so, instead, it spreads?

It's risky to call self-hatred a sickness. When we call things sicknesses that are not entirely physiological — manifesting instead as thoughts or beliefs, while our bodies function apparently unimpaired, able to board trains and kick balls — critics accuse us of debasing the power and pain of "real" physical illness.

Critics warn that we overuse the terms "sickness" and "illness" to explain or excuse vast realms of behavior not-yet understood.

Mental illness exists, mercifully shedding stigma daily. But does low self-esteem straddle both minefields? Starting in the brain, as a belief that one is ugly, evil, or otherwise bad, it creeps through muscles, vessels, organs, bones — becoming or informing or disguised as body-maladies such as addiction, anorexia, or insomnia.

This core idea comes from somewhere, but not within. No animal is born hating itself. Our species is wired to survive, built to kill (under pressure), for comfort and joy. But some of us were messed with: Our first and most fundamental instincts were stolen, then replaced in reverse.

And now, despite our actual achievements, the monsters we see as ourselves loiter somewhere on the spectrum between true and false. Except for murderers and such, that beastly, brutal image is almost always inaccurate, unmerited, a lie.

Who believes lies, and why?

Children do, likely upon being called piggies and freaks by those who seemed to know them. Or, when we began emulating our self-hating parents. Self-esteem, high, low or medium, is already taking shape by age five.

Who else believes lies? Naifs. The delusional. Had strangers sidled up to us in sandboxes or cinemas and hissed into our ears Priests drink pee or The moon is made of cheese, would we have believed them — not just at first but decades later, clinging to those whispers all our lives? If not, then why do we believe this all-consuming lie, which is potentially disproven daily by our deeds?

I think it is because we were too young when first fed lies to fight them off. Throughout childhood, the human brain grows exponentially: collecting, imprinting and implementing deep channels of learning which are meant to last lifetimes: the shapes and rules of sight, sport, language, calculation, interaction, protection, hand-eye coordination. Arpeggios learned at age four resonate forever in the fingers. Adults dwelling half a world away from home think in their mother tongues.

Self-loathing is my native language, learned at birth from those who thought it was the only one. When fellow speakers of this language meet, sparks flick between us although often we have no idea why. We share slack shoulders and a lie.

We also share not-knowing that this is a lie, that other possibilities exist.

Are we sick when, invited anywhere, we decline — thinking our inviters are either cruel pranksters or pathetically polite? Are we sick when, predicting failure, we always abstain or quit or cheat?

Are we sick when contrary "evidence" such as achievements, therapy and praise — piled up for years, even — do not dislodge self-hatred but only blunt its effects, like bandages?

When we would rather go outside in mismatched clothes than see ourselves in mirrors, are we sick?

The chemistry and circuitry that translate blessings into I-do-not-deserve would baffle normal souls. It even baffles us. If not sickness, then what? Hypnosis? A "condition?" Quirks?

We picture ourselves not as potential partners, parents, and friends but as leeches, cuckolds, and oafs.

Sometimes we harm not just ourselves but others. Underestimating what we mean to them, disbelieving their claims of love, we rip their hearts right out. I have.

This is no plea for mercy, more a frayed edge of amends. Saying "I am sick" hurts less than saying, "I suck." Saying "I am sick" is both softer and stronger than saying, "I'm a monster" or "Goodbye."

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