Experiences of Depression: Self-Attack

Man yelling in megaphone at himselfThis article is part of a series that explores the ways that specific “clusters” of depression symptoms manifest to create different experiences of depression. The previous article in this series discussed the low-ambition experience.

Self-attack is my term for thinking mean, diminishing, insulting, and shaming thoughts about oneself. People often think of this as low self-esteem, but I think self-attack better describes what is actually going on. People who experience depression often think like this, but it is also possible to engage in self-attack and not meet the full criteria to be diagnosed with depression. Whether or not your self-attack is part of depression, this is a very painful, disabling, quality-of-life-reducing, and even life-threatening way to exist.

In fact, I believe self-attack is possibly the most common type of misery and symptom of depression. So many people frequently say things to themselves—whether they even notice or not—that diminish or shame them: “I’m a failure,” “I’m stupid,” “I’m lazy” “I’m unlovable,” (which may sound like “I’m fat and ugly”, or take other forms), “I’m a terrible parent, employee, friend, spouse…,” “I can’t do anything right,” I’ll never be good enough,” “I’m not worth what I have,” and so on.

It may surprise you that people attack themselves for good reasons. Many do it because it’s how they understand love—it’s how their parents “loved” them. Others think that shame is the only thing that motivates them. Once people learn to handle themselves this way, they practice it over and over and over, and learning to do something different is very difficult.

I often ask people who are plagued by self-attack, “What if someone were following you around all day saying these things to you?” Most people would yell at them, argue with them, stop them, fight back, or at least get away from them. But when it’s their own voice, they listen and believe it—and it’s devastating.

This can change. There are ways to change this on our own, and ways that psychotherapy can help. In either case, the key is to develop an internal parent who parents us the way good parents do.

How the Parenting We Experience Affects Our Brains
This is the most important thing to know about how to become a happy, well-functioning adult. Generally, when children are parented by caretakers who understand their feelings and needs and respond to them compassionately and protectively, children learn to respond similarly to themselves. Over time, children build skills in parenting from imitating their parents. This is how we know how to take care of ourselves as adults.

We now know from neurological research that we are hard-wired through special neurons to imitate our parents. Our brains learn how to act in the world by incorporating the things that we see our caretakers do when we’re children. It’s a great system when we have parents who act in nurturing, protective, and wise ways. It doesn’t work so well when our parents are abusive, neglectful, unhappy, or dysfunctional people themselves.

We also see that our brains are able to re-wire throughout our lives, so if this doesn’t go well when we’re children, we can usually still change what goes on in our brains when we’re adults. This is what psychotherapy and EMDR do, but there are also ways to work on this outside of therapy.

We also know that when we close our eyes and imagine something, the same pattern of functioning occurs in our brains as when we look at something. So if you see your best friend, then close your eyes and imagine your best friend, your brain will be doing the same thing. This makes guided imagery very powerful. Anything we do that involves imagining being parented, or parenting ourselves in a nurturing, compassionate, protective, wise, functional way, can actually help build the brain structure we need to be the adults we would have been if we’d had better parents.

The Experience of Parenting Yourself
There are many ways to do this, but let’s take a couple moments to try out one. Think of a problem that is upsetting you right now—nothing too upsetting. Now imagine you have a niece or nephew, four to ten years old, who comes to you for help because they are struggling with a similar problem. With the most nurturing, protective, compassionate part of yourself in charge, what would you say to them? Write this down.

What would you do for them? What do you think you could give them that would help them feel a little better? Try expressing your understanding of their feelings and needs. Normalize what they’re experiencing. Show them compassion. Offer forgiveness if they need it. Offer solutions or ways to get solutions. Offer to stay with them through the process. Comfort them any way you can imagine.

Of course, this exercise is just a beginning. But once you learn to do this, and can do it with yourself, you have access to one of the most powerful tools we as human beings have to be happy and functional.

Psychotherapy can help with this process in many ways. For example, my clients usual begin to heal when I treat them with respect, am very genuinely interested in them and amazed by who they are, reflect what I see as I come to understand what they’ve had to overcome and how, and encourage them without shaming them. Being consistent and compassionate, listening carefully and responding with insight,  is what parents are supposed to do with children so that they can develop into happy adults. Many parents don’t or can’t do it well—usually because their parents couldn’t do it with them.

By being treated this way, people learn to treat themselves and others that way. They learn to expect healthy relationships where they are treated with a similar respect. It helps people express the feelings they haven’t felt safe to express and to feel more capable of coping with painful feelings. It builds self-esteem and confidence. In this environment, depression usually recedes.

Self-attack is very destructive, but can be overcome by developing a compassionate, nurturing, protective parent inside.

© Copyright 2011 by Cynthia W. Lubow, MS, MFT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Doc LC

    April 11th, 2011 at 3:14 PM

    Self attack is a hateful way to live but we all do it. But I do think that those who are depressed are far guiltier of acting out in this way than anyone else. It is the nature of the beast. When you are depressed you beat yourself up about who you are and the things that you are going through, and can find nothing positive in life. It is easy to see how this type of thought process could translate into how you think about yourself too.

  • Josh

    April 11th, 2011 at 7:24 PM

    At least when you do, nobody can accuse you of not feeling anything when you screw up. I don’t seem to show enough emotion and people accuse me of not caring about whatever is going on.

  • Gail

    April 11th, 2011 at 9:35 PM

    Hating yourself can end up resulting in more severe problems like abusing drugs to cope with the depression. There is not caring about what you did wrong, and realizing what you did wrong, and then there’s realizing what you did wrong and taking to extremes your self-loathing.

  • Keith

    April 11th, 2011 at 10:22 PM

    It can also result in self-harming too. A lot of people do it to varying degrees and one thing is for sure: no good comes from it. You can seriously hurt yourself not only by the act of cutting, but by getting infections in the wounds.

  • kim

    April 12th, 2011 at 3:20 AM

    found myself doing this but very rarely…never paid much attention to it and I don’t think there is too much to it unless you constantly find yourself self-attacking…everybody feels like they have not been good at a particular thing once in a while…do the experts agree with me?

  • MichaelE

    April 12th, 2011 at 3:11 PM

    It is hard to quiet those voices of doubt when they are constantly whispering in your ear. But I definitely think that it is a big help to imagine someone else with the problem and giving advice, and maybe learning to take some of that for yourself. Most of us can think a little more clearly and be a little more objective in those cases.

  • Darren

    April 12th, 2011 at 5:04 PM

    I can imagine someone being in an endless loop of hating themselves for hating themselves. It may seem like someone like this would be all “woe is me” but it can spiral out of control and nobody will even care.

  • joan

    April 12th, 2011 at 5:49 PM

    We all need to learn to love ourselves first and foremost, because if we don’t it shows in the way we deal with the world and those around us. Negative self-talk is motivation killer too. Don’t do it!

  • Tony

    April 12th, 2011 at 6:04 PM

    Emo, whiner, bitchy, pathetic… you’ll get called all of those and more if you’re anything like that… as if name calling is going to make it any better. Some people are very whiny and needy. It’s because of them the others with an actual problem that needs more attention get overlooked. Those who shout the loudest get heard.

  • Joel

    April 12th, 2011 at 7:40 PM

    @Keith–Most who harm themselves take great care to hide it as much as possible, including keeping the wounds treated. You’re right, it can end your life and I don’t think all cutters are aware of that. It only takes one mistaken cut on an artery to kill you from blood loss.

  • Valerie

    April 12th, 2011 at 8:19 PM

    You don’t have to metaphorically or literally beat yourself up. Acting like that is not in your best interests. Who’s going to hire a staff member that constantly abuses himself and puts himself down? Commit to banishing that negative self talk and replace it with life-affirming positive thoughts whenever you notice them. It’s just immature imho, akin to a five year old having a tantrum. You’re not five anymore. Take responsibility for your life and how it shapes up from here on in.

  • HG

    April 13th, 2011 at 3:53 AM

    Getting away from all the comments about emo people and stuff, I have seen people who start to think negatively of themselves if they are often treated that way by others. Look, if you keep telling a kid how pathetic he is and how bad he is at something, he will grow to believe that he really is that bad. It’s a fact but it also gives us an opportunity to solve the problem-appreciate others’ efforts and encourage them!

  • Samantha

    April 14th, 2011 at 7:19 PM

    @MichaelE It’s not hard at all. That’s like you singing a song and trying to ignore the fact that it’s off-key. You can pretend, but that doesn’t make you sound any better. You’ll sound better if you take singing lessons. It’s the same thing. What makes it hard is when you have no confidence in your abilities. Gaining that self-confidence and belief in your own worth is key, and for that you need to learn how to change yourself for the better.

  • Christopher

    April 14th, 2011 at 7:41 PM

    It doesn’t even need to be as serious a cut as that, Joel. There’s a reason instruments are thoroughly sterilized before surgery: to reduce the risk of infection. Look up septicemia. It can be caused by using dirty instruments. Cutting is unsanitary.

  • Cynthia Lubow, MFT

    April 15th, 2011 at 1:34 AM

    Yes, everyone does things badly or mistakenly, and everyone causes hurt sometimes. It is normal and useful to feel guilty for hurt we cause, and to feel disappointed or regretful about mistakes we make. None of this is self-attack. With mistakes and hurts, we can do something to heal. We can change our behavior, learn from the experience, make it up to the people we hurt.

    Self-attack is about shame–which is the self-perception of being unforgivably bad, unredeemably unlovable or unworthy. Unlike guilt about something we think we did that was bad, there is nothing we can do to right or heal from this essential badness, from a shame-based perspective. This is why it’s so destructive and unyielding.

  • Danny

    November 17th, 2020 at 11:07 PM

    I disagree with the psychotherapy portion of this article. Without taking away from this, its assuming the person suffering is lacking the compassion, and the acceptance of (lets say) “society”.. I believe there are many different scenarios and specific ways of interpreting any person that’s experiencing these unfortunate mental health problems. Many people that are in those shoes are sometimes the people that are the most accepting, compassionate, and understanding characters out there mainly because of dealing with similar issues.. so for people like that this example leaves them out.. Again not taking away from this, but want to point that out… great read..

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