Self-Loathing

Self-loathing is that underlying feeling that we are just not good: not good enough, not good at this, not good at that, not good at – or for –much of anything.  It can be subtle, we may habitually compare ourselves to others, for instance, constantly finding fault with ourselves and putting ourselves down, with no real awareness that there is anything amiss. Or, we may listen intently to our critical inner voice while it scolds and berates us, telling us how embarrassing, stupid, or insensitive we are; refusing to challenge it even while we suffer from it.

We may try to suppress this feeling of inadequacy by behaving as though we are superior to others; more intelligent, clever, intuitive, or attractive. It’s as though we have to prove that we are the absolute best in order to avoid the torrent of internal abuse waiting to pounce the moment we show any fallibility.

However it is manifested, the self-loathing process is indicative of a divide that exists within all people between our healthy and realistic point of view toward ourselves and the internal enemy, or inner coach, that fights tooth and nail to assert its inimical ways of looking at ourselves and the lives we are living.

The Causes of Self-Loathing

According to Dr. Lisa Firestone and Joyce Catlett in the book Conquer your Critical Inner Voice, the causes of self-loathing lie in the past, when, as children, we were trying to cope with our lives in the best way possible. They explain:

The nature and degree of this division within ourselves depends on the parenting we received and the early environment we experienced. Parents, like all of us, have mixed feelings toward themselves; they have things they like about themselves and they have self-critical thoughts and feelings. The same negative feelings that parents have toward themselves are unfortunately often directed toward their children as well… In addition… if a parent has unresolved feelings from either trauma or loss in his or her past, this will impact his or her reactions to his or her children.

…Because of their acute sensitivity to pain and negative circumstances, children of all ages pay particular attention to, and are more affected by, even small incidences of parental anger. They may experience a parent’s anger, whether acted out or not, as being life-threatening. (Under extreme circumstances, they may be accurate in their perceptions.) In any case, children in stressful situations often feel threatened to the core of their being and frightened for their lives.

During times of stress, when children are afraid, they stop identifying with themselves as the helpless child and instead identify with the verbally or physically punishing parent. The parent is assimilated or taken in as he or she is at that moment, when he or she is at his or her worst, not as he or she is every day. The child tends to take on the anger, fear, self-hatred, in fact, the whole complex of emotions the parent is experiencing at that time.

And so, due to very human – hence very fallible – upbringings, we have all been subjected to situations and times in which we were made to feel like we were somehow bad, inadequate, or desperately needing to prove otherwise. Robert Firestone’s most recent work, Overcoming the Destructive Inner Voice – True Stories of Therapy and Transformation, is a book of short stories in which he relates various therapeutic experiences from his career. Self-loathing seems to be an underlying theme among many of these very personal narratives.  Particularly the chapter entitled The Uninvited, in which Dr. Firestone is a student in psychology at Denver University when an old friend drops in, almost catatonic, seeking help. In fiercely funny and sharply intelligent prose Dr. Firestone describes this young man’s struggle, set against the rich backdrop of his own personal circumstances.

The Self-Loathing Thought Process is Not your Conscience

Often the process that underlies self-loathing, the critical inner voice or internal coach, seems as though it might just be your conscience.  For instance, it may tell you about things you are doing that are not in your interest, just like your conscience does. But this process is diametrically opposed to your self-interest.  Whereas your conscience will tell you not to have that one drink too many, this process first lures you into taking that drink and then attacks you viciously for having taken it. Your conscience may nag at you to revisit a conversation in which you may have not been kind for instance, and from there you can think about it and decide what you would like to do. The internal enemy either justifies your having been rude by attacking the other person, He deserved it, he is such a jerk! or berates you furiously for your part, You are always so touchy and mean. No wonder no one likes you!

How to Overcome Self-Loathing

No matter what circumstances you find yourself in, a nasty point of view toward yourself is never warranted.  It is never in your self-interest.  The proper viewpoint toward yourself should be one of friendship.  Think about yourself and treat yourself as you would a close friend; respectfully and with affection. With understanding and empathy. And maybe most importantly, with a sense of easiness and humor.

You are powerful in your own right, free to choose any point of view or course of action available to you. Any inner voice that defines you, either tearing you down, You are such an idiot!  or building you up, You’re the smartest one in this school! is attempting to take away your power and freedom. You must be your own advocate, taking your own side in your life.

There are many avenues through which to address the issue of self-loathing.  First, just by becoming aware that a division exists within us allows for a more rational, reasonable assessment of events in our daily lives. Once we have identified this process as being different from honest self-reflection, we are then able to think more objectively about ourselves and the various situations we encounter. Further, there are a variety of therapy techniques geared toward helping people to address the negative ways of viewing themselves that lead to self-loathing.

Challenging the tendency toward self-loathing is one of the most valuable uses of our time and energy.  As we extricate ourselves from this inimical process, we become freer to experience ourselves and the lives we are living from a kindly and empowered perspective.

About the Author

Jo Barrington Born in Washington D.C., Jo Barrington now lives in Santa Barbara, California.  She has been interested in psychological ideas and theory from early in her life and for the last 26 years she has edited psychological books and videos, with a little creative writing on the side!

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21 Comments

M

“Further, there are a variety of therapy techniques geared toward helping people to address the negative ways of viewing themselves that lead to self-loathing.” I take it these are only available when paying for therapy???

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Anonymous

Al-Anon family groups is where you can get over this. I suggest going to many different meetings because it took me a while to find one that had the solutions to my problems of self. Read the book, Al-Anon Works for family & friends of alcoholics. Many self-loathing people are so because of alcoholism in a parent or caregiver wether they are drinking or not. The symptoms are there.

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B

Alcoholism and self-loathing often have absolutely nothing to do with one another, so recommending that everybody with self-loathing attend AA is ridiculous.

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Fred

I conquer. Alcohol was used in my abuse as a 5, 6 7 yo. So i find that simplistic too. And obviously Religion is often used by abusive parents to make pious their bullshit ie “spare the rod and spoil the child.”

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Julie

I am so sorry to hear that. My thought to that is…then you have not found the right one for you. Please don’t give up. It took me a little over 20 years to find someone and the right books with a healthy balance of my faith to finally start to break down the core of my self-loathing and start to finally live.

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James

I was hoping to read a more pointers on how to overcome it. I mean, I am aware of it, that’s why I came here to read it.

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B

Same. Being aware of one’s irrational self-loathing is obviously not enough on its own to stop it. The article has “how to stop it” in the title but really the sum of its advice on how to stop it is simply the last part of the penultimate paragraph, which can be boiled down to “ask a therapist”.

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Bob Del Prete

You are exactly right. I’m tired of these articles that lead you nowhere besides back in the therapists office so you can hear more generalities. What a crock.

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Karen

I am interested in low self-esteem and the decision not to reproduce. I feel like I would be a terrible parent, and I would not be doing a child any favors by having one.

I wonder if this is common? I know many depressed, lonely people are child-free, but I’ve never heard of any therapist addressing that as one of the things that might change once a better outlook is found. Perhaps depressed people shouldn’t have children so why encourage them? But so many people shouldn’t have children, and at least someone in therapy is trying.

I don’t want children, but I am just now considering this may have more been because of my lack of faith in any of my own abilities than the reasons I told myself. I’m rather confused and can’t find any info on this.

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Zafer

I feel the same about having children. I decided not to make a kid after getting severely depressed.

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Tania

When your parental role-models are viscous
selfish child-abuse victims themselves,
it is easy to understand “generational”
abuse. And when stressed as a parent
with a fussy screaming toddler, the thoughts that immediately come to mind, how your parents
coped with you. When you have nurturing parents
of nurturing parents this works great. I never got
to be a parent. Probably best since i had a
really sick mother and arsehole father. At least you know
that you never passed it down generationally.
My mother has 3 daughters
(all different fathers) and none of us speak to her or each other. That speaks volumes. Just be very kind and gentle with yourself and keep searching.

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Mike

“No matter what circumstances you find yourself in, a nasty point of view toward yourself is never warranted. It is never in your self-interest. “
Meaning….it’s no good for you. This is undeniable.

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Crazy

Seriously?
At first, I read the first couple of paragraphs and thought, good grief another bla bla bla.
So, I relaxed and decided, no, I am going to read through the article first, and then consider the points the author might make.
After slowly reading with some critical thinking, I finished the piece. My conclusion was, I think Id feel better reading the “Tao of Pooh” by Ben Hoff.
Your article, for me anyway, was kind of what every professional would say. But, hey, what do I know, I have been fairly self loathing for years now.

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Evelyn Melvin

Wish I could find a book by a Christian author on self hatred. My adult children want nothing to do with me but won’t tell me why. I’m a widow. I’m a good actress and cover my heartache but it’s exhausting. So tired.

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Raej

“Healing for damaged emotions” is a good one. Also, many therapists Christian or not recommend Boundaries by Henry Cloud. Part of managing emotions (including the suppressed ones such as self hatred) is acknowledging that it’s not us just like this article points out. We are not our emotions. But if we don’t learn how to deal with them they become literal sicknesses.

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Arcueid

A friend just introduced me to ‘self-loathing’ as a suggestion that this is what my husband is suffering from, not depression. This article was the first one I read. He doesn’t have abusive parents, they are amazing people! The whole extended family is pretty close. There is no alcoholism to speak of. Other than that, everything I read is spot-on for what’s happening, including choosing childlessness out of fear of ‘messing them up’.
Is it likely this difference will make therapy more (or less) useful? Does the cause matter when determining techniques (so we’d better figure it out), or does cause not mater at all for improvement to happen? (I’m tired, too. So very tired.)

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