Late last summer, I was settling into a new apartment and getting into a routine of preparing for my first time teaching introductory theology at a Catholic liberal arts college in northeastern Wisconsin. I opened my little brown journal and began my usual practice of reflecting on the day that had passed.
My entries included a range of emotions. There were reasons for gratitude: I went to a concert by the river with my roommate. The WiFi in our apartment had been installed after a few weeks delay. I had a list of things to do the next day: meet with a former professor and now colleague to review my program, complete my program, and write a letter to a friend.
I also wrote a short note with a minus sign next to it: “I hurt myself this morning and was cruel to myself. I hate myself.”
I wish I could reach out to myself through time and tell her that life will get better.
Reading these lines now makes me thoughtful, sad and a little scared. I wish I could reach out to me through time and tell him that life will get better the more he asks for help. I also want to remind him that he always was, is and always will be loved unconditionally by God, an easier truth for his future self to accept.
Part of my hatred stemmed from my inability to be honest about what I had done to myself that morning. Even in the privacy of my journal, and even before God in prayer, I could not bear to write that over the past few months when I felt extremely stressed, overwhelmed or frustrated, I had started to slap me.
The same day I wrote the purposely vague line in my diary – I hurt myself and I was cruel to myself – I had also dug my nails into my calves until I did flow blood. I prayed to God for relief from my misery as I did. I couldn’t see that I was putting myself in a misery that God would never want me to experience.
I prayed to God for relief from my misery as I hurt myself.
Part of my self-hatred came from why I hurt myself that day. I got hurt because there was a delay in installing wireless internet in my apartment. I thought that not having wi-fi installed in my apartment would make me look incompetent and rude to my new roommate. From my perspective while journaling, this was a pathetic reason to hurt myself, but earlier today this reason seemed so momentous that hurting myself was the only “right” and “logical” thing to do.
Another part of my hatred came from my repeated use of self-harm as a coping mechanism. Driving my fingernails into my skin was the most severe episode, but several months before I had started slapping myself whenever I felt like I was losing control. At that time, I had terminated a job that provided me with my accommodation and I had moved three times in two months before finding stable accommodation. In those situations where I lacked control, where I didn’t know exactly what my future held, I was not patient. I couldn’t reach my relatives. I didn’t trust God.
Instead, I clung to my crutch of perfectionism, deciding that being “perfect as my Heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48) meant that I always had to do and be “right.” In a way, I tried to set myself up as my own god. And I was a ruthless, demanding, and ultimately violent god.
I thought being “perfect as my Heavenly Father is perfect” meant that I always had to act and be “right”.
Part of my self-hatred stemmed from my ongoing struggle to seek and accept help for my mental health. I had gone to therapy a few times in the last half of 2020 at the request of my sisters, and it helped me with my self-degrading thoughts and habits for a few months.
However, I had been on stage as an actor for over a decade. When these self-destructive thoughts and habits began to creep back into my daily life, I was able to play the role of a stable, happy, productive person and hide the reality of my life from my family, friends, and myself. .
“I hurt myself this morning” concealed the whole reality of how I physically hurt the body God gave me. It nullified the truth that God cherishes me and wishes to raise me up in the resurrection on the last day. You could also say that “I hurt myself” also referred to the extent to which I hurt myself because of my dishonesty, my perfectionism, and my refusal to seek help for my mental health.
All of these habits have damaged my relationship with God and the loving people in my life.
Hurting me nullified the truth that God cherishes me and wishes to raise me up in the last day resurrection.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus prays that all who believe in him will be one and be perfected in unity between him and the Father (John 17:20-23). I believe fellowship with God is our goal as Christians and our fulfillment as people. By hurting myself, I was missing the mark of my fundamental purpose. Both the Hebrew cat and Greek hamartia means “to miss the mark”, and these are the main words used in the Bible for sin. By hurting myself and believing that I necessary and deserved to be hurt, I was sinning.
I thought I was trying to love God and my neighbors with all my heart, soul, mind and strength by being a perfect Christian, son, brother, friend and worker; never admitting my failures and doubts or asking for help in my struggles. In reality, I failed to recognize that I needed to love my neighbor as much as I loved myself, as the rest of this passage goes. (Mk 12:30-31) And I did not love God by recognizing and accepting the infinite and constant love that God had for me.
believing that I necessary and deserved to be hurt, I was sinning.
In my unhealthy pursuit of divine perfection, I couldn’t, or didn’t want to, read the passage from Luke 6:36 that parallels Matthew 5:48: “Be merciful, as your Father is merciful. Mercy is the divine trait that Jesus tells us to imitate and modeled in his ministry, death, and resurrection. It’s about loving people pushed to the margins of our societies.
Specifically, mercy involves acts of charity addressing suffering and acts of justice addressing the root causes of that suffering. Mercy also involves recognizing and healing the traits that push us to the margins of our own worth: our own weaknesses, fears, limitations, and sorrows.
Our perfection, my perfection, does not come from exercising total control over life. It’s not about knowing what to say or what to do in every situation. It is not about installing the Internet in time as if by magic. It comes from gratefully receiving God’s mercy and humbly embodying it and extending it to others in our daily lives.
Mercy also involves recognizing and healing the traits that push us to the margins of our own worth.
God has given me immense mercy in my support network. The people to whom I eventually disclosed my self-harm episodes inspired me to return to therapy. My friends and my therapist challenged me to honestly confront how, through my comedy, I was deceiving myself and them about my sanity. This network of friends, family, and my therapist challenged me to fundamentally love myself honestly.
Perfectionism is part of my life. I try to become more comfortable asking for help with difficult tasks, sharing my sorrows or frustrations with others, and accepting the typos and small mistakes that are part of everyday human life. The temptations to hurt myself in words and even, very rarely, in deeds also persist. I am grateful to write that I have not followed this last temptation by physically harming myself since last year.
God’s grace is active in the therapist I have seen, in the people who love me, and in the prayer habits I have cultivated. All of this keeps me on a safe path. God, through all these blessings, reminds me that I am closest to perfection when I am merciful to myself and others, imperfections and all. This truth about the need for mercy in my life is always on my list of things to give thanks for. It’s something I want to teach and practice.
If you or someone you know is suffering from mental distress, mental illness or suicidal ideation, please call the Suicide and Crisis helpline on 988.