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Be aware of this great obstacle to happiness … and how to overcome it

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Kawin Harasai / unsplash

Zoe Romanowsky - published on 01/26/23

The late Fr. Henri Nouwen said this is the greatest trap in life.

The late Fr. Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest, psychologist, writer, and theologian, said that he realized after many years of working with people that the greatest trap in life is not “success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection.” It is an obstacle to true happiness.

While you might not buy that at first glance, consider these questions for a minute: How do you speak to yourself in your head? What do you tell yourself? What do you believe about yourself?

Many of us, often without realizing it, speak to ourselves in a way that we would never speak to another person. (Well, maybe on social media, but that’s another story.) This usually has its roots in childhood — the voices we heard in our home, the quality of our attachment to our parents, our earliest experiences — all of it affects our understanding of ourselves over time. We may form a habit of  speaking negative and critical things to ourselves on a daily basis, and this leads to the kind of self-rejection Fr. Nouwen was talking about. 

Let’s be clear that what we’re talking about is different than acknowledging our sinfulness or even our weaknesses. Telling yourself regularly that you are stupid, a failure, unworthy, etc. is not the same as acknowledging that you, like every other member of the human race, are a sinner and in need of a savior. The truth is, we can more readily and accurately admit to our sins when we do it from a place of self-acceptance and proper self-love. This comes from knowing — really knowing — that we are loved unconditionally by God. 

Nouwen said that

Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence. 

The very core of who we are is this reality. We are created in the image of God and there is nothing we can do to lose His love. 

What does it do to us if we ultimately reject and deny this? 

For one, it places a great obstacle in our relationship with the Lord. It prevents us from living the life He means for us.

It also keeps us from being able to have authentic, intimate relationships with others. If we reject ourselves, we can’t give ourselves with joy and peace to others.

If you are used to talking smack to yourself on a regular basis, to thinking poorly of yourself — perhaps without even realizing it — how about making a decision to work on that habit? It’s not easy, but it can be done. 

Start by becoming more aware of how you talk to yourself, and then begin to correct it, not with phony positive talk, but with simple words that are true: I am made in God’s image. I am a child of God, I am loved. I am worthy of love and respect.

And if this is hard, begin with God’s own Word

I am fearfully and wonderfully made. (Psalm 139:14)

Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you. (Isaiah 54:10)

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! (1 John 3:1)

But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. (Psalm 86:15)

Can a woman forget her nursing child or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these might forget, yet I will not forget you.
(Isaiah 49:15)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

When you truly believe that you are indeed the beloved of God, you will better see yourself as you really are — warts and all — and accept yourself, leading to a life of greater love.

Mental HealthPsychologySpiritual Life
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