Self loathing is vicious, seductive, persistent, and something I fight. When I’m struggling, “I hate myself” is what I hear in my head. This voice may speak once or twice. It may loop over and over again for days. The intensity of the rage and loathing I feel for myself is difficult to communicate or comprehend. It permeates me and threatens to tear me apart.
About four years ago I made the call that the single biggest internal factor that was holding me back and crippling my life was self-loathing. So I set out to understand it better, to fight it, and to starve it. These days it’s not with me all the time. I have whole weeks where I can just live and enjoy my life and it doesn’t bite at all. But I still have the bad days here and there where it wells up strong and I have to work really hard just to stay still. These are days I fight self harming compulsions. They are days I can’t look in the mirror, can’t eat, can’t bear to be touched. Human contact is intolerable, indifference leaves me drowning, criticism cuts into me, and praise only makes it more intense. I have learned when to fight it and when to endure it.
Self loathing is difficult to wrap your brain around if you don’t experience it to this extent. It runs so counter to our self-protective instincts and the usual human preference to think of ourselves as decent people. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I have been able to untangle some of the things that drive self loathing in me. One of them, and it’s a big one, is siding with someone else’s perspective about you. If you’ve been degraded by someone who treated you as pathetic, inhuman, revolting, contemptible, useless, or unlovable, then in the dark times when your reserves are low, you may wonder if they were right. I was bullied a lot at school, so in my case self-loathing was just taking the side of the majority opinion that I’m a freak and deserve everything that happened to me. We don’t like to back the losing horse, and when abusive people are in the majority or more powerful than us, it’s not uncommon to lose our own perspective and take on theirs instead.
Another thing that feeds self-loathing is the deep desire to not be vulnerable to harm again. In the aftermath of trauma or abuse, we may assess ourselves as inadequate and use self-loathing as a tool for self-improvement, thinking that we will make ourselves stronger, more resilient, and more impervious to harm in the future. It’s a seductive idea, but the reality is that we carry on the work of abusers long after they have gone, and cut ourselves away from the very things we need to be able to grow strong – compassion, truth, love. We become brittle and damaged by a campaign of relentless self modification that leaves us disconnected from our sense of self or self-worth.
This inclination towards self modification can also come from a sense of worthlessness. Self-loathing can be the rage that results when we perceive ourselves as fundamentally inadequate in some way. We often judge ourselves harshly when the outcomes of our efforts have been poor. Despite everything we tried, we could not stop them, or we could not keep them, or we could not make them love us, or make it better, or make the dreams come true. Facing our powerlessness is so devastating we turn on ourselves instead, with all the viciousness of someone with a deeply broken heart. And we resolve that next time, we will make ourselves into someone who would be loved, who would get the happy ending and would deserve it.
Self loathing can be used a powerful motivational tool. We gear towards punishment and talk harshly to ourselves to drive us through all the things we don’t want to do, to overcome the depressive reluctance to engage with our lives. We make ourselves keep getting up in the morning, keep working, studying, breathing, fighting for a better life. We do what works, and self loathing does work, for a while. When the alternative is curling up to sleep in a house on fire, we generate change and cling to life with whatever we have. But at some point we have to stop using such a savage implement on ourselves because it will warp and destroy us.
Self loathing often has a very close relationship to shame. Many of us carry secrets about which we are deeply ashamed, an internal list of how hideous and unlovable we are. These may be things we regret, our failings as parents, partners, children, or friends, things done to us about which we take on shame, and about which our culture shames us. We hold these things very tightly to us, and in the dark they fester, they grow in magnitude. We may be unable to forgive ourselves for our own powerlessness, for times we’ve been selfish, cruel, indifferent, lazy. We may be trapped by a need to hold an abuser to account, and find that our thinking twists so that we cannot accept our own fallibility without somehow saying their actions were not that important. We may fear exposure of things that other people would shame us about, sexuality, abuse, gender issues, mental illness… We cannot be reconciled to who we are in some way, and so we suffer, and we hate ourselves for our suffering.
Sometimes we hate ourselves because we’re the safest person to hand. We don’t feel safe to be angry with people or about situations in our life so we direct it all inwards. The rage victims feel towards abusers can be frighteningly intense, and many people conclude that the safest, moral choice is to take that rage out on themselves instead of risking acting out revenge fantasies on another person. The cycle of trauma continues and the person is left weakened and desolate by these attacks on themselves, as well as furiously angry about the self loathing on top of the original harm. People will also turn rage inwards when they don’t feel they’re allowed to be angry, for example a woman who gives birth to a child with severe illness may come to the conclusion that she has ‘failed’ to bear a healthy child. In a position where she feels that she cannot express her anger and disappointment without being seen as a bad mother, she may soothe those feelings by savaging herself instead, in ways that seem deeply irrational to those around her.
Self loathing, oddly enough, can feel safe. Where the alternatives, like being angry at someone powerful and well protected, or deciding to accept our own weaknesses, can feel terrifyingly risky. They may even be incredibly risky. Retreating into a dark hole to gnaw on our own flesh and bones seems to us like a victimless crime, the lesser of many possible evils. As a child, one of the things I feared most was not being destroyed by the bullies, but becoming one of them. I craved the power to protect myself but deeply feared that this meant I would hurt someone else instead. When forced to confront this ambivalence, my reaction was suicidal. Self loathing gave me a way to try and improve my life while feeling safer that I was not blithely exchanging roles. Criticism – legitimate or otherwise, feeds it, and praise also leaves me afraid that I have tricked people into thinking I’m an okay person when deep down I’m convinced I’m not. There’s something alarmingly soothing about retreating from the world back to my dark cave of self loathing.
The cost is very, very high. Intense self loathing leaves me with a profound sense of not being safe anywhere, ever, because one of the people I’m most afraid of is myself. Without safety, recovery is nearly impossible. I become the monster that hides under the bed and stalks me from room to room. There is no escape. I undermine my own efforts, sabotage safety, blossoming friendships, destroy good things in my life I’m convinced I don’t deserve or will ‘weaken’ me. It quickly becomes a spiral, as I act out my feelings I have ever more fuel for my rage at myself and ever more evidence of my own intolerable flaws. The difficulty is that refusing to act upon such strong feelings leaves me with an incredible tension – where the difference between how I’m feeling and the outward appearance of my life is so vast it is actually painful. There’s such an intense need to show some of my feelings, and to discharge some of the intensity. I use journals, inks, symbols that I have imbued with personal meaning to stop me resorting to more drastic measures. I fight the impulse to unmake them all, the despise all my protections, to wake the next day and feel humiliated. I nail my colours to the mast and when needing an answer to the question “What does it mean?” in the aftermath of torment, insist on only one answer “That I am human” and turn all the rest aside.
So I starve my self loathing. It can’t grow strong if I don’t feed it on twisted thinking and fears. If I am loving to myself and let others be kind to me, I grow stronger and my thinking grows clearer. I insist on treating myself the way I treat others, and being kind to my vulnerabilities instead of harsh. I am cultivating healthy entitlement, and taking the risk that through care and kindness I will grow, rather than through drivenness and self hate. Initially these choices were very difficult, and felt terribly risky. They get easier. I am committed to good principles of hope, healing, joy, respect, fairness, even if I can’t live them every day.
When the bad days happen I argue with the voice in my head and I say to it “I don’t hate myself, I’m just stressed.” I cancel classes and stay home. I stay away from the mirror. I let myself go without food for a day if I have to. I try not to claw at my skin. I put the knives out of sight. I write. I paint. I try to hang onto memories of being loved. I let the images of mutilation and destruction flow through my brain and turn my face from their allure. I find somewhere to cry I hope the neighbours wont hear. I let the pain and the rage be there and I hold my fingers tight and refuse to act on it. I follow the pain down and face the horror that has incapacitated me. Slowly, the desire to tear all the skin off my body will ease. Slowly, the images of breaking all my own fingers will settle like leaves on water. The urgent need to act will pass and the sense of rawness will curl back under my skin. The fire in my brain will go back to coals, the stars come out, the planet turns, that which consumed me passes on, and I’m free of the demon again. Just a little more breathing room, just a little stronger.
See more like this: