This article is the latest in a series of articles on the weird things that happen when we make things into “god terms” or “devil terms” (the earlier pieces can be found in part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5). In this article I talk about the weirdly unhealthy things that can happen when self is seen as a devil term and self-abnegation as a “god term.” I’m also going to talk about my journey to healthier views of self, including using what we in conflict management studies call the integrative approach to conflict management as part of my way to view life.
I’ll wander into Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series and Brené Brown’s work on shame along the way.
Some Quick Background Definitions
By the integrative approach, I mean the approach to conflict management that looks to meet as many people’s needs as possible. It took me years to realize that so much of my childhood feared people rising up because we subtly believed the story of a zero-sum world—that is, the idea that if one person won, another person always lost. As I’ll describe, this often actually led to very few win-win situations. In fact, it led to a lot of unhealthy lose-lose situations.
It took me a long time to figure out that one of the roots of this unhealthy situation was seeing self as what I’ve been calling—using the rhetorical studies tradition—a devil term, or something to be fought at all costs. This dichotomy was one end of the continuum that started with “self-abnegation” as a god term, or something to be defended at all costs.
Disclaimer: As I’ll discuss, this doesn’t mean that I think selfishness or arrogance are great. But self-abnegation as an ideal, with self as its perceived opposite? I’m not trying to pick on the people I grew up with by any means, but this idea has unhelpful consequences. Please hang in there while I explain.
The Inciting Incident Behind This Article
At the recent International Listening Association conference in Vancouver, I went to a session led by the lovely Theresa Caldwell that sought to help us process potential difficult emotions using creative exercises. In one of them, we were encouraged to come up with a series of words associated with our childhoods, and then were asked to stand in a line and read them out in a chorus of sorts, starting with the words “I come from…” every so often to ground the series of words.
One of the words that popped up for me in that exercise was “self-abnegation.” After doing that exercise and having read that phrase “I come from self-abnegation” several times, the phrase has been ringing through my ears.
“I Come From Self-Abnegation”—But Not THAT Kind…
As that phrase rang through my head, I inevitably started to parse it in order to get to the crux of the matter.
The fact that we went to the doctor regularly meant we were unlikely to get to the horrible extremes Linda Kay Klein spoke of in her excellent book Pure—in which she describes having taken in the language of self-abnegation and “suffering for Christ” so literally that she suffered undiagnosed Crohn’s disease for years as a young person before she finally went to the doctor.
(If you were wondering, yes, THAT is what happens when self-abnegation is taken in the extremes as a “god term” and self is a “devil term.”)
I Still Came from Self-Abnegation, Though
No, we were unlikely to let Crohn’s disease go undiagnosed where I came from. That doesn’t mean we were “better,” though.
We definitely had our own issues. And the roots of them were possibly found in the fact that we were masters of the “humble brag.”
In other words, we had this culture where the only way we could possibly talk about our strengths was in ironic tones, even before hipsters came along to make that kind of thing hip. We would occasionally talk about our strengths, but only in self-deprecating ways. (See how I just did that in comparing my people to Linda Kay Klein’s people? That’s how it works.)
There are good things about this system. But it did cause a variety of problems. Let’s just say that in retrospect it’s not surprising that one of my first bosses out of college seemed concerned that I was apologizing for everything, all the time.
A Culture of (Unhealthy) Shame
The biggest of these issues was this: we too often confused what Brené Brown defines in her book Daring Greatly as shame (“I am bad”) or (“I am not enough”) and guilt (“I made a mistake”) or (“I did something bad”). We said we were promoting the idea that we were fallible and could learn from our mistakes—but really it too often came out in a subtle kind of shame-filled resentment about anyone who had the gall to claim their strengths or their voice.
(To be “polite,” we kept the resentment directed at ourselves, or behind people’s backs. Virtuous, eh?)
Cynicism as a Sign of Shame
Brown talks in Daring Greatly about how shame can often come out as cynicism. This is often also a common symptom of burnout, when someone has a lot of stress. (And lots of shame tends to lead to a lot of stress.)
When I learned this and started to look for it, I saw that cynicism was endemic in the “Christian Nice” culture around me (your mileage may differ, obviously). We were great at “taking people down a peg,” especially behind their backs. We liked to point out everything that could go wrong with people’s proposals, including our own.
We were TERRIBLE at celebrating each other’s and our own strengths. You just didn’t do that—unless you were being ironic. (Needless to say, we were known to be really bad interviewees but great workers. See how I just did that humble brag thing again? It’s a disease, really.)
All of This Is to Say, I Come From Self-Abnegation—But Also Imago Dei?
The paradoxical part about all of this was that I am also from a strong Imago Dei theology. I come from a people that believe incredibly strongly that all life is valuable and good and worthy of, well, sacrificing ourselves for. Including us.
It’s a riddle to me now, how we believed that our constant stream of negative self- and other-talk could somehow be consistent with this belief. I get it—I mean, I grew up with it!—and yet I still don’t fully understand.
We Didn’t Celebrate Lent—But We Over-Celebrated Lent
I wasn’t from a tradition that “did Lent,” but, well, we sometimes overdid Lent—that church season that’s too often been unhealthily tied to self-abnegation—all the same. All year round, really.
It was ironic, seeing as how as Protestants some were against such “Catholic” liturgical practices.
Nervous about Passion Week
I do Lent these days, but with a twist. Last year—or was it the year before—I gave up shame for Lent. All the same, even with this twist, I’ll confess I’ve been nervous about Passion Week—the week when Jesus’ suffering is dwelt on—coming up.
With a less intense version of purity culture than Linda Kay Klein, it took me a little longer to get there. But I’m still more than little allergic to overemphasis on “deny yourself and take up your cross” talk.
Self-Abnegation, Modesty, and Power
It wasn’t until I read Brené Brown’s words in Daring Greatly about how women were expected to “stay modest” that I realized that my entire tradition required so many of us in my tradition, across the gender spectrum, to “keep us in our place.”
In other words, we too often confused being humble and being human with keeping ourselves small. We were so worried about people getting “big heads” that we pulled one another and ourselves down so we’d all be on the same level.
The problem was that we were so busy making ourselves and each other and everyone else “modest” that we too often failed to rise up and claim our identities and our voices. Instead, we tore ourselves and others down. And—shockingly—no one won when that happened. We weren’t even entirely immune from bullies or abuses of power. But there was plenty of shame to go around.
Modesty, Fear, and Stress Research
In other words, our self-abnegation messages were too often powered by fear, especially of others rising too far up a hierarchy. Stress research shows that is a reasonable fear—after all, alpha behavior often leads to unhealth. But it also shows us that shame is a stress response—and is often at the root of stress-related illnesses. As I said, the way we reacted to this fear caused plenty of that, in spades.
And unfortunately, our system often left too many people hobbled by doubt (in the name of self-abnegation as “Christian Nice”) to rise up against the true bullies in the system.
Enough of That—To Healthier Models, Shall We?
I could go on about the difficulties of this for awhile (as I’ve said, I and my peops are great at critique! ;)), but I’ve been seeking solace lately through re-listening to the audiobooks of Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series, and wanted to talk a bit about the healthier version of self I see presented in those lovely stories—which is one of the models I’ve been seeking to follow as I heal from the wounds of coming from too much self-abnegation.
In Which I Fangirl on Madeleine L’Engle—But to Make a Point
See, these Time stories (there are between 3 and 5 books depending on what you accept in the “canon”) often present truly self-destructively selfish characters as antagonistic side characters—the kind of behaviors we feared as a community when I was a child. And they do show–often through the protagonists and other characters that are trying to help–the value of doing things for others. But what I love about them is they put these things in nuanced context. And I find that context healing.
What I love most is that they show the true value and interdependence of all things, from the smallest creatures to galaxies and universes. These stories show us that caring for others is also caring for ourselves, and vice versa, and that it is right and fitting and good that it is so.
They show me that self-abnegation on its own isn’t the highest virtue–it’s more about doing the best for as many people as possible–but recognizing that none of us individually has all the perfect knowledge of what that good is. We can work together toward it, though!
Win-Win: More than a Buzzword
These stories remind me of the way I’ve found to give up using self-abnegation as a “god term” and self as a “devil term” for my year-round Lenten practice–for good.
Learning about the value of the integrative approach to conflict management and taking that seriously has given me further depth to this approach. The integrative approach, you see, is one that seeks to meet as many needs as possible in the solution to a given problem. Like Madeleine L’Engle’s lovely books, this approach dealing with conflicts takes systemic complexity and interdependency seriously.
It Doesn’t Need to Be Win-Lose or Lose-Lose
Thinking through both systemic interdependence and the integrative approach, as a vision for both my view of self and an approach to life in general, allows me to value my both my neighbor, myself, and the broader systems we’re a part of.
Not in a me only or others only way. In a way that looks at a given situation and says that I can meet more of others’ needs if I’m taking care of myself. It also tells me that sometimes I can take care of myself by helping others.
We All Need to Claim a Healthier Way
Both of these approaches have helped me understand that negative self-talk doesn’t actually help meet my needs or those of others. It’s human to do it from time to time, absolutely. These days I’m finally able to accept that—and I’ve found that accepting that I slide into it at times is weirdly actually healthier than beating myself up over it or resisting it. I’ve learned that self-compassion and claiming my strengths actually works much better as well.
Making this shift—practicing shame resilience and self-compassion—has gradually set me free in ways I’m still starting to realize. (One tiny way it’s released me? I use the “love” emoji on social media much more freely than I used to. Screw the self-abnegating critics in my head who only want me to “like” things!)
One Final Note: Join Me!
Coming from self-abnegation had so hobbled me from claiming my voice and my expertise to help others that it took years and years for me to get up the courage to start this project—to realize that my voice might actually valuable in the world. If that’s happened to you, you should have figured out by now that I can sooo relate—but we need your voice! Come join us by signing up for the email newsletter in the top bar (you’ll get a free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” once you confirm your email address!) and by hanging out with us over on our FB page.
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! May we all move beyond the destructive sides of self as a devil term and into the healing waters of the integrative approach. Let’s all do what we can to create a more integrative world. We can do this thing!