You Are Not Ugly

Originally posted in February of 2011


Children who come from the hard places hate themselves.

Their very young brains try to make sense of how all of the horrible things could have possibly happened, and they come to one conclusion very early on: it must be me. I am the problem. I am bad. I am unlovable.

And they believe it.

Over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over.

You can tell them they’re beautiful, but they won’t believe you. You can tell them they’re lovely, but they won’t believe you. It’s not embedded in stone, but it is definitely a tattoo. Covering it up does nothing to change or remove it.

So, they spend a huge chunk of their time doing whatever they can to reinforce what they already believe to be true about themselves. If you put a bunch of therapeutic moms together, we could probably write an entire book just listing all of the many nauseating creative ways they make themselves unappealing, which then causes others to react to them as unappealing … thus reinforcing what they believe.

There are still certain things, food, places, clothing and activities that I avoid because of what a huge trigger they are for me. It is because of the hours I have been exposed to some of these behaviors. No matter how much I read about the shame and how our children live that lie, nothing could have ever prepared me for the depth of their self-loathing and the measures they actually take to verify said lie.

They believe they are ugly. It is not even on the same planet as how most of us feel about ourselves as we flip through fashion magazines. Not even in the same zip code as what happens to us when someone insults us. They feel truly and utterly disgusted with every inch of themselves, every word that they speak, every step of their walk, every exhale of their breath, every blink of their eye.

Even when this faulty thinking improves, we have discovered that it is still one of the biggest, ugliest hurts to cause most of the problems and hold on the longest. Shame and fear love to duke it out for the top spot in jacking with our kids.

I would tell you not to get frustrated when the shame behaviors keep rearing their ugly heads, but I might as well tell you to stop breathing. Just not possible. It is weird to find yourself wanting to scream at your child, “You are beautiful and great, damn it! Just accept it already!?!?!” heh. heh. Strange to be angry at your kid because they refuse to like themselves. But the behaviors that result from this big mess are what you really hate.

I will tell you to have an arsenal of things you can do WITH that frustration so that you stay therapeutic in the moment (even when that means walking away, curling up with a blanket in the corner and sucking your thumb – not that I’ve ever done that or anything). I will tell you to write yourself sticky notes all over the house reminding you that your child did not choose to be this way and they do not like being this way and they would love to live like everyone else, where they can receive a compliment without an overwhelming urge to smear themselves with Limburger cheese.

Today I did the dance with one of my kids:

We talked about how they did not get their needs met and/or were hurt when they were very, very young. We rewound and replayed the same conversation of how their hurt part tried to make sense of such a thing. We said the words, yet again, “When a child is hurt and their needs are not met, they try to make sense of it all as they grow. They assume that something must be horribly wrong with them and THAT is why all the trauma happened – they must be bad. Very bad. To the core.” For the millionth time, we answered the question, “What on earth could a baby or preschooler do, that is so horrible, it would cause someone to do those things on purpose?”

As I tried my best to not sound sing-songy, I looked my child in the eyes and said, “You have done all of these things over the years because you already felt bad inside. The trauma happened first, then you felt bad inside, then the behaviors started. You were not born bad. You were born good and lovely and amazing. You are still good and lovely and amazing. This is just a feeling. It is not the truth. It is hard to believe the truth when you have believed the lie your entire life.”

We discussed ways that my child can do some of this process on their own the next time the feelings get big. I know this child is not to that point yet, but I said it anyway. Just like we do with toddlers to reinforce things. You do it til you are blue in the face. The change and growth happens, just like it does with small children, but so slowly that many days it is lost on you.

My kids are not ugly. They are not bad. It is a lie. I hate the lie, and I really want to take that hate out on my kids because I can’t remove the lie and drag it into a dark alley. When the lie resurfaces and I’m parenting some regression, I forget the reality of the growth that HAS happened.

The lie is ugly.

My kids are amazing.

Lather, rinse, repeat.