The Difficult Messy Work of Accountability, Humility, and Confronting Pride

rattlemymilkbonez asked a question:

How does one deal with pride and self-loathing? I’d say my mood is pretty healthy most of the time, but when someone else points out when I do the wrong thing, I start hurting and feeling angry with myself because I hate making mistakes more than anything. Which seems silly, I guess, since we all fall short of the glory of God.

Hey dear friend, I really wrestle with this, too. I’ve learned over and over that no one naturally does well with accountability and self-confrontation. It’s our natural instinct to preserve an idea about ourselves, to scratch for every justification to believe we are right and good. The only other direction besides pride is, as you said, self-loathing, or self-condemnation and despair, and we seem to fluctuate between these two extremes: pride or despair.

In my hospital chaplaincy education, we actually have an assigned group of five people, and we get together several times a week to talk about how we’re doing and to work on “growing edges.” These are very, very tough conversations. We call each other out. We hold each other accountable. We might say, “So last week I noticed you did this thing that really bothered me. Can you say more about that?”

We have a policy to be curious and not judgmental—but there are always at least one or two people in the group that absolutely cannot handle this process. They flip out or melt down, or in one case, give everyone the middle finger and quit. Even the “well-adjusted” chaplains squirm in their seats and try to deflect and rationalize instead of self-examine.

It’s really, really difficult to confront the truth about yourself because we all have some ugliness inside, and it’s unbearably painful to see the selfishness and emptiness which we so desperately cover. It’s hard to give so much trust to another person who can dig into your heart with a scalpel and reveal that there are real problems inside.

But we also need this. We do need to give our trust to at least one or two people to say, “Please tell me graciously and patiently what I need to work on sometimes.” We need to give permission for people to call us out, or we will never grow, and instead isolate ourselves in an ivory tower of self-reflexive lies.

(And no, that doesn’t mean some random online blogger gets to self-elect to do this to you. I believe that God has placed specific people around you, near you, that are trustworthy and have the right blend of tenderness and tough precision. I can almost guarantee that he or she won’t be some troll or gate-keeper or shrill doctrinal parole officer.)

You see, everyone wants this for everyone else but themselves. That’s why when you listen to a sermon or a TED Talk, you think, “If only my mom could hear this” or “I wish my boyfriend was here.” We’re always thinking of the specks in other peoples’ eyes instead of the plank in our own. We lack so much self-awareness that we also lack the awareness of our own lack of self-awareness.

There’s a now infamous psychological technique called the Johari window which splits the self into four parts:

1) Arena: What you know about yourself and what others know

2) Facade: What you know about yourself and what others don’t know

3) Blind spot: What others know about you but you don’t know

4) Unknown: What you and others don’t know about you

I’d like to add a fifth one: the Known Unknown, or in other words, what you know about you but you don’t want to know.

Everyone knows someone like this (and I include myself in there). Everybody has been telling this person they have a problem, and but he or she just won’t believe it. They blow up or leave the room or cry their way out. And yes: you and I have done this, too. And we use other peoples’ lack of self-awareness to say, “At least I’m not as bad as that guy.”

Now let’s try a thought experiment. When you read the Johari window up top, just now, did you think, “Wow, I need to work on this,” or, “Wow, I wish ___ could read this” …? Because the Johari window isn’t meant to be a weapon. Yet so many of us, out of pride and the fear of looking at our own issues, will do exactly that. We’re scared of what’s inside, and almost no one ever taught us how to look.

I think the starting point for hearing criticism, for me, is to know that I am both fully flawed and fully beloved.

I need to hold both of these truths together, within balance, at the same time. It’s not easy. But if I can know I am fully flawed, then when a trusted friend tells me something, I must listen, because some part of it must hold truth that will help me to become more fully me.

As a Christian, I believe God has made known to me that I am woefully more messed up than I could possibly fathom, yet ultimately more loved than I could ever hope for. We see that in a cross, in which he took the place of what I really am, and we see that in a resurrection, in which his love and power are made available.

So when someone points out a flaw in me and that threatens to condemn me into a spiral of worthlessness, I must remember I am pieced together by the divine, that Jesus loves me completely as I am, and I am never beyond his limitless capacity for grace and restoration.

None of this is a perfect process. There will be many days that you’ll swing wildly between pride and despair. I think the main thing is to know how to respond when we are tossed between these waves. I also think we can become more daring in seeking out the truth for ourselves: we are always in danger of becoming prideful, and so prideful in fact that those who read this and say “I don’t wrestle with pride” are already admitting that they have a problem with pride. And I believe there’s no shame in seeking encouragement and those voices who will elevate us to be truly ourselves.

— J.S.

Photo by Images Catalog, CC0 1.0

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