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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37 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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C W

100% feel the same way. I am terrified of being a father incase I turn it just like my own. I don’t believe he should have ever had a family.
I now project that frustration outwards towards all the people having children without thinking or consideration. – It angers me, but I know that’s my own issue.

And yeah, this article doesn’t help one bit.

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kc

Thank you sharing this, I often feel like angel having to explain why I rationally choose to not have kids with a very very very well thought answer, over years of reflection, observations of other parents and listening to kids. Yet most will say ill change my mind and when asked why they choose to have children literally have not one solid answer as to why they did. They don’t even know or just did it like they just ordered a pizza.

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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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---

This piece could have been strengthened by acknowledging the comfort of self-loathing. Self-loathing allows us to rationalize our missteps, it makes our inability to achieve seem acceptable, it frees us from the weight of responsibility, because we were never capable of shouldering it in the first place. Self-loathing let’s us say “that’s okay, because it could have never been that way” and that is a very alluring conclusion. Humans constantly seek validation, regardless of whether they are striving for the perceived “good” or not. In times where the bridge between expectation and reality is collapsed, the validation offered by self-loathing seems just as comforting as that which would have been offered through our intended success.

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Kayjay

Agreed
It is a safe place to retreat to when you f… up yet again. I also would love to land on some strategies to help move past this reliance…

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Stacy

This was insightful for me. The article definitely gave me some things to really think about.

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Terry

I want practical applications, not theoretical abstractions. I want to understand myself (my thoughts-feelings-actions, and how to correct them), not to understand generalized psychology or personality development.
I suspect the tools do do that can be communicated without a lot of “therapy”, if the psychologist truly understands psychological processes and communicates them clearly.

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Eirik B.

This post describes perfectly my own observations. I was surprised and relieved to learn that my brain is not that weird.
To understand your mind, talk to it. Meditate, write a diary. After only a few weeks this article will start to make sense to you.
Your shrink cannot effectively help all patients. You must first map out your interior, and then you can present all of this to a suitable therapist in order to receive affirmation. But you can fix yourself.
TIP: if you are getting no clear answers to difficult questions, maybe you are asking the wrong questions.

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Kbaylis

Please help yes I have this self loathing I need help I’m going to be seeing a trauma counselor I’m hoping that she can help me

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Dee

Maybe there’s some truth to my self loathing, though. For example, I’ve been alone for years, not by choice. Ive been attracted to guys during that time but it isn’t returned. I tell myself it’s bc I’m not attractive. As a woman, I know a man will always be interested in beauty. So my deductive reasoning kicks in. It doesn’t feel good, but sometimes the truth may hurt… Not sure…

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Jamie

I have started a therapy form called psychosynthesis. Its very different form from others since it it very practical. You do talk, but then you d0 exercises and kind of “live out” the thing you talked about for ex. you talk to your younger self etc etc. it sounds silly and weird, I know, but it really works if you let it.

I think it can help many. Traditional therapy where you -as a patient- talk and there is just listening isn’t fruitful. It leads nowhere. We need to apply practical things into so that it can change habits and behaviours. I will talk about this issue next time with my therapist, about the self-loathing. And how deep it goes. My father has always looked down at himself and told everyone that he is a “shit” and “worthless”, so I’ve heard that all my life. Now here I am. Logically, I know it is not true, neither one of us is worthless, but it’s harder to live out.

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Ulviyya

Thank you for the information. I have very severe self-loathing and high anxiety which interferes with my work and daily life. As if there is an obstacle in my mind which makes me feel terrible whenever I try to work. I can hardly ever normally overcome it. I have been to a therapist but I guess I did not find the one who could help me. I was wondering if this psychosynthesis can be effective in my case as well. I surely have traumas from childhood and even recent ones.

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Jim Harper

Self loathing is something I had to deal with when I was younger and it seems to have abated somewhat as I approach my so called golden years but it has been an issue for me my whole life. Like most American teens I was given goals that I was not able to reach

Back in High School I had to take Algebra 1 a total of 5 times before I finally passed with a C grade. Geometry went a little
better but not that much better. It was always a bugaboo to me and I hated myself for this math failing having come from a family of well educated people. I still deal with this, and to this day I cannot solve for „X“. I never took another math class again
after high school.

I picked up quite a guilt trip from parents and teachers that translated into self loathing, but still was never able to succeed in math. This translated into severe self loathing that I – now 70 – still have to deal with. Well, there is life after high school math and at this point I don’t give a damn. So I think I have learned to live with this – sorta……… :-). „Mental block? Beats the hell out of me, but it did profoundly affected my career expectations. Any body else have this kind of story?

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Stephen G Keating

Yes. I was raised by one parent who contract TB while I was in utero and became absorbed by her own shame and self-loathing (in the ’50s it was the disease of prostitutes and drug users, kind of the AIDS of its days) and she resolved that by projecting shame and guilt. Add to that we were Catholics, who invented guilt, and a father whose commitment to his work and career made him either absent or violently corrective, and in intense competition within the siblings for what attention and care that there was, and I came by all the self-loathing there is to have. But, fortunately for all of us, our own internal constructions (the nature vs. nuture) can help save us, and we can find some respite somewhere. Mine in daydreams and art and solo camping. My own parents lack of care brought to me a freedom that most kids, even 60 years ago, never dreamed of having. I am still beset by anxieties and have trouble thinking and concentrating in long bursts, as my mind will always find something about myself to regret or be ashamed of doing. There is no cure. That is why the article is so helpful and hopeful and vague at the same time. It is not Jung’s “legitimate suffering”, but it is still suffering. It projects harm into the future, kicking the pebbles down the path in front of me. Projection is damaging to others, and I damaged my own kids in consequence. What saved me was the ability to own up to my weaknesses, to frankly state to others what my fears always are. To talk through my shames, or listen to others talk through theirs. I am two people, maybe three or 4 people, each comes alive in DIFFERENT CIRCUMSTANCES. That was my big insight. It is driven a lot by environment. The biggest thing I can do is be purposeful about my surroundings. And be honest. And not try to present myself as infallible, or anything like that. Finally, the best advice I ever got from a therapist is to be strong. BE STRONG. It is had to be strong. It takes constant work, and exercise, and you can always be stronger yet, but the expectation that you will be strong can relieve the excuses we give ourselves to be weak. To get that inner voice takes some work. It can be transposed from a respected elder, a Saint of your personal pantheon, a god, or God, or wife or friend. That voice will guide. Be strong.

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