Is My Self-Hatred Getting in the Way of Love?

How your negative self-image puts you at odds with your lover.

When we first fall in love, we have a positive response to feeling understood and valued by someone who matters to us. But eventually we can find ourselves faced with two opposing views of who we are: the familiar, albeit negative, view of ourselves that we have maintained most of our lives, and our loved one’s new positive, objective view of us.

On an unconscious level, we are torn between these two views and don’t know which one to believe. Even though our original self-image may have caused us a good deal of suffering, it is an identity we are used to and feel safe with, so we are reluctant to change it. A positive, more accurate self-image conflicts with our long-held concepts about ourselves and about reality and leaves us temporarily without a stable sense of who we are. As a result, we may try to avoid the dreaded loss of our identity and our security by rejecting our loved ones’ affection for us and their acknowledgment of our positive qualities.

Our old identity is often negative. This identity comes from our early family life and from any negative ways in which we were viewed, negative behavior we imitated, and negative ways in which we were treated.

Starting in infancy, children naturally assimilate the ways in which their parents see them. After all, our first image of ourselves comes from how we saw ourselves reflected in our parents’ eyes. Unfortunately, however, parents don’t always perceive their children accurately or completely. In fact, parents often attribute fixed identities to their offspring—“the good one,” “the bad one,” “the smart one,” “the wild one,” and so on. Even when an identity is created with kindly intent, for example being sympathetically viewed as “shy,” “uncoordinated,” or “a slow learner,” the underlying message to the child is still negative.

Imitation is a powerful form of learning. Therefore, from the time they are very young, children model their parents’ behavior, including their parents’ negative habits and characteristics. The parents’ positive habits and traits contribute to a child’s developing feelings of self-worth and confidence, whereas the parents’ negative habits and traits contribute to the child’s negative identity.

Our negative identity is also a consequence of our primitive need to maintain a positive view of our parents. To sustain the illusion of unbroken and unbreakable attachment to their parents, children must obscure their parents’ inadequacies; if these cannot be denied, then they represent a threat to the union between parent and child. For example, if a parent is unable to respond to their child’s needs and wants, instead of seeing the parent as lacking, the child views him/herself as greedy and demanding.

Once our negative identity is formed, we go on to elaborate on it and behave accordingly, thereby constantly reinforcing it. We tend to consider our negative identity as absolute and are generally unaware that it is only a label that was imposed on us, or an identity we took on, in childhood. Because we accept that our negative view of ourselves is simply the status quo, we rarely think of challenging it. In fact, if someone suggests a different reality, we often stubbornly defend it. And when we do make a positive change in our self-image, we become anxious because the change marks a separation from our childhood self and the familial environment in which our self-image was formed.

The critical inner voice and its disparaging views reinforce a negative identity. The voice continues to support the negative ways in which you were seen as a child. For example, if you were labeled the “irresponsible” one, your critical inner voice may say, You won’t amount to anything. You mess up every opportunity that comes your way. If you were the “chubby” one, your critical inner voice may say, No matter what, you’ll never be thin enough. And you’ll never be attractive. If you were the one who was seen as “not all that smart,” your critical inner voice may say, Just keep your opinions to yourself. Once you open your mouth, everyone will know how stupid you are.

In your intimate relationship, you can recover and maintain your real identity by taking actions will help you align yourself with the positive view that your partner has of you instead of continuing to adhere to your familiar internalized view of yourself. You can plan actions to take that will represent your true identity. You can also identify actions to stop because they represent your negative identity. It will probably feel unfamiliar and even peculiar at first to act in ways that express your real identity. For instance, if your old identity is that you aren’t demonstrative, you can ignore the critical inner voice telling you that you are a cold person, and you can be affectionate with your partner. Your critical inner voice will accuse you of being inauthentic. But if you ignore that voice and stay the course, you will become more comfortable with your real identity, and the attacks by your critical inner voice will subside.

Another way to challenge your negative identity and see yourself realistically is to see your parents and your family system more accurately. Now that you’re an adult, it is valuable for you to create a realistic narrative of your past and develop an understanding of your parents as real people, just like you. Creating this narrative and developing this understanding will dispel the idealized image of your parents that is left over from your childhood, and this will help you relinquish your negative identity.

It is a sad fact that we react against love because it contradicts our negative beliefs about ourselves. We see ourselves as bad or terribly flawed, not as the basically decent human beings we are. Giving up our familiar self-image, however negative it may be, brings emotional upheaval because we feel threatened by the loss of our familiar, stable identity. We don’t understand that our negative self-image is a primary source of the alienation we feel in our romantic relationship. But as we recover and express our real identity and free ourselves from the misperceptions of the past, we are no longer at odds with someone who loves us.

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Theresa Watson

When I started my last relationship this came up for me big time!!! It’s sad that love was something I had to push away. I learned about this dynamic and I worked on it. It was painful but it helped me grow up. About four years ago, I did the online e-course on writing a cohesive narrative of my life. It’s actually called making sense of your life. With Lisa Firestone and Dan Siegel? I love you Dan, hope I got your last name right! All this work has transformed me. I am much happier, more accepting of myself and taking that course was one of the best things I have done for myself. I recommend it to anyone who feels sad about their childhood and just can’t seem to feel good about themselves. Good luck to us all!

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