By Claire McGrath
When I was in high school, the movie Mean Girls was arguably the most popular movie among my peers. I probably watched it an average of once a month, and my friends would constantly quote dialogue from the movie or reference funny scenes. Although my friends and I have moved on from our preoccupation with Mean Girls, there is one scene in the movie that came back to me recently. There is a part in the movie where the main character, Cady, who has just moved to the US after growing up in Africa (her parents are zoologists), visits a new friend’s house. In the scene, several girls stand in front of a mirror, and each girl takes a turn saying something that she doesn’t like about herself—my pores are huge, my arms look fat, etc.—before looking expectantly at Cady, waiting for her to join in on the self-criticism. Even though this scene is presented in a comical way, I think it portrays an unfortunate reality: that the practice of self-rejection is encouraged in our society.
We live in a culture where sometimes it feels like we’re all given a mirror and expected to point out all of our flaws. This rejection of ourselves reaches much deeper than physical appearance—it affects our sense of worth. Sometimes, I think it feels like we are living in a paradox. Our culture encourages us to pursue perfection, yet because perfection is impossible to attain, we will always fall short. We are expected to be critical of ourselves, to be disappointed in our shortcomings. If we are satisfied with ourselves despite our failure, then it would seem that we aren’t pursuing the standard of perfection that we are supposed to be striving for. It would mean that we reject the notion that happiness is being perfect, in eliminating all flaws. It is viewed as a shameful thing to be at peace with our imperfections in a world where weakness is viewed as an ugly, disgraceful trait to be hidden away.
As we become accustomed to self-rejection, we are no longer able to see our beauty. We have been conditioned not to recognize our own sacredness. I recently read a quote by Henri Nouwen, a priest and spiritual writer, in which he says, “Self rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.” This quote challenged me personally because I have often confused self-rejection with sacrifice. I thought that being overly critical of myself, to the point of rejection, was a way for me to become a better person by placing others above myself. I believed that in order to be pure I had to experience constant, deep guilt for my sinfulness.
Self-rejection can manifest itself in many different ways. For me, it manifested most prominently as guilt—which has affected me since childhood. It wasn’t necessarily guilt over something that I did; often, it was more like a deeply rooted suspicion that at the core of my being, I was a bad person. I clung to this guilt because I thought it would motivate me to constantly strive to better myself. In reality, there wasn’t much I could do to rid myself of this sense of unworthiness, because self-rejection isn’t a hatred of the actions that we do, necessarily—it’s a rejection of the people that we are, of our very selves. Guilt did not make me more able to love others, or serve fully, or become closer to God. It kept me from seeing the truth: that I am Beloved. At our very core, each of us is good, beautiful, and sacred. It is here, in the most authentic part of ourselves, where God dwells, constantly reminding us that we are Beloved. Self-rejection rips us away from ourselves; we hide and push away and berate ourselves until we can no longer hear God at the core of our existence telling us that we are valuable and important and lovable.
I realize now that in my quest for perfection, this voice was drowned out by a sense of guilt, telling me that I was never good enough, that I had to try harder, that I had to keep pushing myself. Now I realize that the true way to better myself is not by looking outward, trying to remake myself into a new and improved person, but by focusing my attention inward, and becoming more fully myself. We become more beautiful by recognizing the beauty that we already possess. Instead of aiming our expectations upward to an unattainable level of perfection, we must listen inward, to the voice of God calling us His Beloved.