Friday, September 4, 2015

Carefully Taught

 “I hate myself; I’m so ugly, disgusting and stupid.”

“I hate myself. There’s nothing good about me.”

As an eating disorder recovery activist, I am astounded by the number of young people who approach me with such intense self-loathing. But whenever I ask them why they feel that way, I usually get this response:

“I don’t know.”

Statistics show…

“One in every 200 girls between 13 and 19 years old, or one-half of one percent, cut themselves regularly.”

“About 20 percent of teens will experience depression before they reach adulthood.”

“Suicide is the third- leading cause of death for 15 to 24 year olds in America.” (Used with permission).

It reminds me, of the South Pacific musical number, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.” Its theme was learning racism. However, the song’s lyrics also too eerily teach self-hatred:

“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear. You’ve got to be taught from year to year. It has to be drummed in your dear little ear. You’ve got to be carefully taught…”

Unrealistic body images, consumerism, and conditional love statements are just a few examples of things which are “carefully taught.” And we usually don’t see the damage until years later when, “all of a sudden,” someone has an eating disorder. And then we ask what happened?

The reality is, often times, eating disorder sufferers and self-injurers, kids suffering from this self-hatred, are the “good kids.” They’re the pleasers, the overachievers and the ones we tell ourselves we’ll “never have to worry about.”

Perhaps, we didn’t teach these kids as carefully as we should have about their inherent, everlasting value. The kids learned all too much, all too often, harmful, manipulative and distorted self-worth lessons. Whether it’s the preferential treatment of high school popularity, bullying or the emphasis of celebrity status, what is often conveyed is only “beautiful people” are worthy.

In addition, the toxic message of “conditional love” is also bombarding our youth. It can come from popular culture, school or even from the family unit itself. Whether it’s conscious or not, intentional or not, the message is this: results are prized, warranting love, affection and positive affirmation. If, however, the individual does not obtain these desired results, then he/she is worthless.

I have experienced this conditional love message myself.

“I desperately wanted my dad to notice me…My perfect attendance record in school is an excellent example. For three years in a row, I did not missed one day…knowing that I would win a perfect attendance certificate, proof I was worthwhile…So for the next few years, I went to school with colds, sore throats and influenza…

When I reached junior high, I became so sick I had to stay home…After three days home, my dad…decided he would take me into school...he was fuming…I got up the nerve to ask him, “Do you still love me?” His answer? “If you do this again, I won’t.” …I had to prove myself in order to be loved...”

(Excerpt taken from Cruse’s book, “Thin Enough: My Spiritual Journey Through the Living Death of an Eating Disorder”)

Just like I did, years ago, vulnerable youth are often left to personalize the conditional love message. Besides eating disorders, body image and self-esteem issues, addictions, self-injury, and suicidal thoughts/actions can also occur.

These messages exalt a temporary or nonexistent estimation, like image, fame, achievement or money to make someone loveable and valuable. When we, therefore, subscribe god-like importance to these qualifiers, cries for help often occur.

Love must begin with self. We may nod our heads at that statement, but we still have so much difficulty living – and teaching- it. We can hate ourselves in the name of achieving acceptance, popularity, success and unrealistic beauty/image standards. Yes, it’s sobering to know we can, indeed, model it before the impressionable eyes watching us.

How many addictions, disorders and suicides does it take? Who’s expendable enough to be the sacrificial lamb? When does the insane self-hatred lesson stop being taught?

I’m including some pointers regarding the emphasis too often placed on young peoples’ appearance/worth. It all starts in childhood.

1)      Don’t comment on a child’s physical appearance. There’s no setting in which it’s appropriate. Kids need to be kids, free from the importance of a thin appearance.

2)       Don’t criticize an overweight physical stature. You’re not an expert; you’re not a doctor. If there’s a legitimate health concern, deal with it in a health context, not in the context of your personal appearance opinions.

3)      Don’t recommend dieting. Again, if there’s a legitimate health issue, work with trained doctors, nutritionists and therapists to resolve it. But believing your own “fix it” plan of placing a child on a diet may do more harm than good. You could be setting that child up for a lifetime of negative self-esteem and body image issues.

4)      Don’t praise the child for a thinner body; don’t compare the child with another child’s physique. Again, this is unhealthy. You’re sending a toxic message that the child is inferior and will not be “okay” unless and until he/she whittles down to the particular desired weight.

5)      DO validate the child, as is. Let him/her know there’s nothing which can add or detract from their lovability, value and uniqueness. The child is wonderful as is. Period. Therefore, teach this truth to your child as soon as he/she is old enough to understand.

We, as the adults, can teach different lessons to our youth. But we need to be aware, willing and armed to do so.

 It IS up to us. What do we carefully- or carelessly- teach?

Copyright © 2015 by Sheryle Cruse

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