what keeps you in your cage?

Today we ask that you examine the way you treat yourself.

Are you kind to yourself?  Or do you constantly attack and criticize the person in the mirror?

For the most part, people are very mean to themselves.

People are sometimes meaner to themselves than anyone.  Their enemies might not be as mean.

What is it all about, this cruelty to the self?  Why all this casual self-abuse?

Little children are not mean to themselves, in this way.  Yet by adolescence, self-attacking behavior is often deeply ingrained.  What happens between early childhood, and adolescence, in terms of the construction of self-image?

At a certain point of development, adults consider it useful to expose children to harsh judgment and criticism.  This is an essential part of the human “domestication” process, by which children are transformed into young adults prepared to occupy the roles considered appropriate and acceptable to their culture.

This varies from culture to culture.  In some culture, the roles of men and women are extremely constricted.  Arranged marriages in adolescence are the norm.  Men are expected to go into the family trade, and women are expected to be wives and mothers.  One does what the family expects.  That is what it means to be “good.” To whatever degree their true selves and deeper yearnings clash with these cultural expectations, they believe they are “bad.”  They suffer.  They are not good enough.

In more developed countries, there is certainly the appearance of greater choice.  One would think that people would be much happier — but this is not the case.  The self-image is still heavily shaped by familial and cultural expectations.  Even if one rebels against this, most people still buy into cultural ideals regarding what makes a “Successful Man” or a “Successful Woman.”  Given the hierarchical nature of society, not everyone can be successful according to these standards.  Only a few can reside on top of the pyramid.  The rest struggle and strive to improve their lot, or give their children a better chance of climbing the ladder.

And this is the main argument for why cruelty to the self is useful:

“Without criticism and attack, people are lazy and unmotivated.”

“If people could do whatever they wanted, they would just sit around and do nothing.  Society would crumble.”

This is like believing you need to whip a horse to make it run.  Only a poor horseman believes this.

“Society will crumble” is a very common justification for all manner of cruelty, abuse, and enslavement.

In societies that believe in arranged marriages for teenagers, the thought of individuals choosing their partners is perceived as deeply threatening.  “Society would crumble.”

In the antebellum American South, “society will crumble” was the justification for the continuance of slavery, and all the abuses of slavery.

Racists, sexists, bigots of every stripe — always they claim that “Society will crumble,” if people have greater freedom.  People must be abused and suppressed in order to protect society.  

So: why do people engage in self-abuse?  Why do they attack and whip themselves?

Because they have been conditioned to believe that their personal “society” would crumble, otherwise.

They believe that their identity would collapse.  And this is seen as an existential threat.

So people beat themselves up all day, in order to keep doing what they think they’re supposed to do to keep their society, their identity going.  And there is terrible misery.  

Despite what the racists and bigots say, society does not collapse when people are freed.

Society changes.  For the better.

And it is the resistance to this change that can cause far greater suffering, as was the case in the slaveholding American South.

The Voice in your head that beats you up all day long is the slaveholder.  You are the slave.

Imagine a thirteen year old girl living in a culture where she is told that she must marry a man in his fifties in order to bring honor and security to her family.

If she screamed “No, I won’t!” would you judge her for doing so?

But her family would surely beat her into submission.  They would feel very justified in doing so.  They would say, it is for her own good.  Society would crumble, if girls did not obey their parents.

You would probably think that was wrong, wouldn’t you?  

And yet some of you may know people who marry for security, not love.  

Some of you may know people who enter careers they do not like, to make their families happy.

And when their souls scream out against these choices, they beat themselves into submission.  They say, it is for your own good, that you do this.

So consider how much of your self-abuse and self-cruelty is cultural in this way.  If you had been raised in a different family or culture, you would be abusing yourself over completely different things.

Of course, it is possible to imagine a world in which people do not abuse themselves at all.  A human child raised in that world would not learn self-abuse, and would in fact be quite horrified by a field trip to Planet Earth.

Do not despair, that you live here.  Just question, really question, whether the Abusive Voice in your head is really acting in your own best interest, as it claims to.

What if you stopped whipping the horse, to make it run?

Isn’t it possible that the horse would actually run faster, if it weren’t terrified and exhausted all the time?

Many of you don’t even know what it’s like not to act from the place of “whipping the horse.”

And if this is the case, no matter how much you love your children, you will eventually teach them that they must whip themselves to be motivated to accomplish things, for their own good.

All of this can stop right now.  Your world will not crumble.

If you are someone who finds abuse abhorrent, please end it in your own mind.