“I’m such a loser.”
“I can’t do anything right.”
Too often, people brutally judge and attack themselves. If everyone treated others as poorly as they treat themselves, the old biblical adage, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” could be a recipe for war.
Incessant negative beliefs about oneself may be called self-judgment, self-attack, or low self-esteem, but it all boils down to one menacing problem: self-hatred. At its most extreme, self-hatred can lead people to retreat into substance use, suicidal and other self-destructive behaviors, or violence toward others.
If you beat up on yourself, are disgusted with yourself, or in any other way experience the effects of self-hatred, there are two important things to know: why the self-hatred exists, and what you can do about it.
Self-hatred almost always stems from childhood. Trauma experienced after childhood also can fuel negative feelings about oneself.
Children believe what they hear from others. If a parent tells a child that she is good for nothing or can’t do anything right, then that becomes the truth in the child’s mind. It takes a very mature and insightful child to say to herself, “Something is wrong with Mom/Dad for telling me this. An adult shouldn’t say such mean things to me. I’m just a child.”
Instead of saying, “Something is wrong with Mom/Dad,” the child usually thinks, “Something is wrong with me.” That simply is how a child’s mind works. Children need safety and stability. It is much less chaotic for a child to think something is wrong with himself than to think he cannot rely on the people upon whom he depends for food, shelter, and survival.
Sometimes, a child never hears harsh judgment from a parent or other caregiver, yet self-hatred manages to fester. This happens when, for whatever reason (genetics, environment, plain bad luck, etc.), a child experiences anxiety, perfectionism, or other traits that conjure feelings of self-blame in the face of fear, imperfection, or other perceived flaws.
Trauma, too, can inspire self-hatred. It can feel safer to attack oneself over what happened than to accept that bad things happen randomly in the world—and can happen again, at any time. As a result, many people who have endured sexual assault, combat, or other trauma blame themselves for what they endured, and self-hatred grows.
Self-hatred and shame are related but not synonymous. Shame can be healthy, the mind’s tool for helping people understand when they have done something that must not be repeated. However, the majority of shame that people experience is not a healthy tool for learning right from wrong. Instead, it is a manifestation of self-hatred, a message that when they do things wrong (or, at least, differently than they wish they had) then they are wrong, a judgment of the person and not the act.
Many people who feel shame cannot assign it to any particular action. Shame is a feeling of essential badness that they simply cannot shed. Often, people experiencing unhealthy shame feel that if others saw their real self, then nobody could possibly love them.
It is helpful to understand how your own self-hatred formed. This can help you to develop compassion for yourself. No matter what you did or did not do as a child, no matter what trauma you endured, the hurt part of you deserves love, compassion, and nurturing. No matter what, you possess a fundamental goodness that is not touched by external events, in the same way the clouds can cover the sun but never really touch it.
The Antidote: Self-Compassion
A seminal work on self-hatred and self-compassion is titled, appropriately enough, Compassion and Self Hate (by Theodore Isaac Rubin). More recently, mental health professionals have published quite a few more books on self-compassion, including The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion (by Christopher Germer), Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind (by Kristin Neff), and The Power of Self-Compassion (by Mary Wellford).
There are websites devoted to self-compassion. There also is an evidence-based psychotherapy that cultivates self-compassion. Called compassion-focused therapy, it extends cognitive behavioral concepts to foster in clients the ability to soothe, accept, and understand oneself.
The common theme underlying all these works is that self-compassion is the antidote to self-hate. So how do you create more compassion for yourself? Over time, I will write about many different ways to grow the seeds of self-compassion. For now, here are a few tips to get you started:
- Talk to yourself the way you talk to someone you care about: In Compassion and Self Hate, Dr. Rubin advises readers to tell themselves, “I treat myself as I treat a child I love.” Cognitive behavioral therapists employ a similar technique, often invoking the question, “What would you say to a good friend who was going through the same thing you are going through?” These are important questions. If you hate yourself, you likely say things to yourself that you would not dare say to another person. What would you say to somebody else who has the exact same traits as you? What could you say to yourself?
- Recognize that beliefs do not equal truths: Often, people believe what they tell themselves. If you think you are a loser, you may believe it is absolute truth. Try this cognitive behavioral technique called “the three C’s”: catch, check, change. Catch yourself thinking something negative about yourself. Check whether your distressing thought is true. Change it, if not. You can talk back to your negative thoughts. Challenge them. Serve as a defense attorney to the prosecutor in your head.
- Embrace the concept of “good enough”: Many people feel they should be perfect—never angry, always generous, never critical, always right, and so on. These expectations deny that imperfection is the human condition. If you are one of these people with too-high expectations for yourself, ask yourself what is good enough?
- Consider turning to spirituality or religion: Many spiritual or religious traditions center on the belief that people are flawed but inherently good, not only lovable but also inherently loved. These beliefs can serve as a huge balm for the hurting soul. The practices of meditation and mindfulness, too, can foster feelings of self-compassion as well as loving kindness toward others.
- If you hate yourself for mistakes you made, make amends: You may be reading this and thinking, “This does not apply to me. I did something so awful that I can never be forgiven.” First, as much as you condemn yourself, ask if you would equally condemn—to their face—someone else who did the same thing. If not, then you are being unfair to yourself. Perhaps you really did do something awful. If you cannot make amends to the person or people you harmed, do something good for somebody else. Beating up on yourself serves nobody. Doing good for others or taking part in a larger movement not only helps others, it helps you—and it can lead to self-forgiveness.
My Questions for You
Do you ever hate yourself? If so, what helps you to deal with this brutal judge who lives inside your head? What tips do you have for others in the same situation?
© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, therapist in Denver, Colorado
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