Balancing Act

In selfie culture, narcissism often means self-loathing

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Anneli Rufus is launching a dialogue about self-loathing, the underbelly of a culture often vilified for its self-absorption.

"Selfie" isn't just the latest addition to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. It's shorthand for all-eyes-on-me narcissism, brought on, we're told, by everything from social media to participation trophies.

In her new book, "Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself" (Tarcher Penguin), journalist Rufus is less interested in how we came to be obsessed with ourselves and more interested in the dark reality that, for many, this obsession manifests itself as self-loathing.

"Low self-esteem and narcissism are both forms of self-absorption," she told me during a recent phone interview. "Low self-esteem is very paralytic. To even look at another person, to look someone else in the face, is an achievement."

"Unworthy," she hopes, offers people a way out of the darkness.

"There are so many people, and always have been, who struggle with dire self-loathing, either to the point of suicidal thoughts or just struggling with the daily grind of 'I can't look in the mirror.' 'Oh, God, what did I just say,'" said Rufus, who suffered through decades of low self-esteem before writing the book. "It's not so much a question of why, because each person is different — who did you have the misfortune of meeting one day, in which classroom were you picked on, which magazine did you flip through at a vulnerable age."

The commonality, she said, is how all-consuming the feelings can be, and how little they have to do with reality.

"Low self-esteem is a huge delusion," she said. "People are walking around with a deluded worldview and their place in it."

Once we get beyond trying to pinpoint the onset of such delusions, we can work toward combating their effects.

"Can low self-esteem be cured?" she asked. "I don't like to use the disease model because A, I'm not qualified. And B, it's not an on/off, yes/no state of being. We're on a spectrum, and I think the best place to be is the middle — neither 'I loathe myself,' nor, 'I adore myself and you better not criticize me.'

"We need to find ways to stay in the middle, and it's a pretty big space, the middle."

One of the quickest, most effective paths to the middle, Rufus said, is to turn your attention elsewhere.

"By doing something, helping someone, learning something, you are putting your mind to a different use," she said. "But you're also giving yourself a good quality. Now you've rescued animals. Or learned French. Now you have empiric evidence that you're not awful."

I'm reminded of comedian Sarah Silverman's recent quip to Glamour magazine.

"Don't talk (expletive) about yourself," she said. "You'll start to believe it.

"Instead of droning on and on about how the tops of your strong, working thighs touch," she continued, "why don't you ask your friends how they're doing, huh?"

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

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