By Jenna Ebener
I have been told that I have a thin empathy barrier, meaning I am very sensitive to how others are feeling. Over the years, I have learned that some situations impact me more than others. One situation that is hardest for me to see, either real or fictional, is when others are facing inner turmoil and are doubting or hating themselves. The impacted persons might engage in self-injurious behaviors, suicide or suicidal thoughts, or feel like they are unlovable. One such example is from the movie “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” It is about a boy whose father died in the 9/11 twin tower attacks. We learn that the boy is holding onto intense guilt because he secretly hid a voicemail his father left when the towers were being bombed. As the movie progresses, the boy’s self-loathing at keeping this secret comes out in a heartbreaking way. Scenes like that do not strike everyone in the same way, but I remember sobbing uncontrollably as I felt the boy’s pain and self-loathing.
Whether the stories are real or not, my reaction does not change. I feel the person’s pain and I cry because I know, in that moment, that person is not feeling God’s love. That person is so caught up in self-loathing that he/she is not seeing him/herself as a beloved child of God, and that breaks my heart. In those moments of pain, I know I am experiencing a fraction of God’s heartbreak when we do not feel the love he has for each of us.
I have often wondered why seeing others doubt themselves is one of my empathy triggers. While I am still discerning, I recently had an epiphany: I often am one of those self-doubters.
It is hard for me to show my true self to others. It is also difficult for me to accept praise from others. Yet, when I am not acknowledged, I often internalize the lack of response as a sign that I am not good enough, not doing enough, or not seen. I know in my heart that is not true. However, I am a reflective person and very aware of many of my flaws. I am constantly trying to improve and know that there is always work to be done. It can be easy to focus on the negative traits more than the positive ones.
One day, when I was spiraling in thoughts about how I was not good enough, God presented me with the image of myself as a child. I realized that if I came across that child, my instinct would be to reassure that child that God loves her exactly as she is.
Understanding washed across me — I need to see myself the way I view others — as a beloved child of God.
While it is good to grow and essential to give glory to God, I have also realized how essential it is to love myself. It is good to be humble, but that does not mean that you cannot be proud of who you are and what you have accomplished with God’s grace.
To do successfully what God instructed us to do and to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31) we first need to have a healthy love of ourselves. I recently attended a MercyMe concert and the lead singer Bart Millard summed up the concept of self-love beautifully: “There is nothing you can do that will make Jesus love you more than He does right now.”
“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well” (Psalm 139:14).
(Jenna Ebener, who has a Master of Social Work from St. Ambrose University in Davenport, is a social worker at a school in Colorado for students with medical needs.)