Recently, I had a conversation with someone in which they asked me about self-loathing and how to overcome it. It seems that this person lived within a polarized self-image either liking themselves at one moment or hating themselves the next; and, this split view-always black and white–was based upon a biased internalization of their perceived performance in any given situation. Were they attractive enough? Did they receive enough positive feedback from co-workers, friends, and family to override their own on-going, negative internal self-assessments?
I have been asked about self-loathing and the Inner Critic before, and I’ve never known what to say. I used to struggle fiercely with a viciously mean Inner Critic which led to intractable self-loathing. I don’t say that to be dramatic. It simply is a factual statement. I had a traumatic childhood and adolescence as many people do, and I know that being randomly abducted by a human trafficker the summer before I started university added to that trauma burden. I don’t really struggle with self-loathing now, and I don’t really know how I healed from it. It was definitely process-based to be sure. An idea, however, came to mind as I was listening to my friend share about her current struggles with self-loathing and her desire to be free of it. A thought experiment if you will…
I think it’s fair to say that most of us have socialized within a group of people and heard someone say something like, “Oh, I just hate that person. If you’re ever unlucky enough to find yourself in their company, do everything you can to get away from them! They are the most detestable human being!”
Gosh! Well, they sound terrible. I’m of a curious nature, however, and, in the past, I have been one to ask questions when someone expresses such a strong, negative opinion: “Tell me, why is this person so awful?” Generally, when someone dislikes another person so strongly, they are more than willing to share their reasons.
“Oh, don’t get me started! Right off, I’ll tell you that they smell. I don’t think they bathe at all. Don’t stand downwind of this person. Personal hygiene is not a priority for them, and they pick their teeth at the table. I was disgusted. And, they interrupted me every time I tried to talk. I couldn’t get a word in edgeways! Between their teeth-picking and interrupting, I was appalled. And, you know, I really didn’t care for their haircut either or their profession. The world simply doesn’t need another shaggy-haired debt collector. Period. I think they come from a bad family. I’ve heard things about their siblings. You know, come to think of it, I think they were drunk, too, and it was only 2 o’clock in the afternoon! Oh! And their political views offended me. I have absolutely nothing in common with this person from table manners to politics. You know, you’re far too nice a person to associate with such a socially inept person. I think they might be just plain stupid or a sociopath. Avoid them!”
So, I don’t know if this is funny or terrible. And yet people say things based in hyperbole like this about others more often than we’d like to admit. Trash talking other people in subtle or overt ways is part of the whole cancel culture phenomenon that is now part of the zeitgeist, but that isn’t what I’m writing about. Gossip in the name of “doing someone a favor” is a normalized part of social interactions, and toxic talk can be as well. What I would like to ask is this: In theory, would you want to meet this person if someone in your social circle said this? Obviously, I wrote something over the top to make a point, but we engage in this kind of exchange, or something on this spectrum, not infrequently. We rely on the social currency or credibility of others when deciding on whom to meet and whom to avoid. If a trusted friend advises you to avoid a certain person because they have found them to be “bad”, then you’d likely follow their suggestion, right? If a trusted business contact set up a meeting for you claiming that this new contact had integrity and would potentially benefit your career and future, you would likely believe them, right?
Why? Why do we believe the things that certain people tell us about others? Trust. We must trust other people in order to successfully navigate the world. Also, there are people who have earned our trust over the course of time, and those are the people we are likely to trust. It follows then that we would believe what they tell us particularly in the realm of social interactions and connections. Allow me to present another scenario.
What if this theoretical rude, tooth-picking, smelly, socially inept person turned out to be a great person who just happened to have a bad day? What if my theoretical friend from my trusted Inner Circle had exaggerated for their own undisclosed, personal reasons? What if I happened to meet this person by accident and discovered them to be absolutely delightful, clean, well-mannered, and intellectually gifted? What if my friend got it completely wrong? Or, worse, what if my theoretical friend had ulterior motives? What if they had just been romantically rejected by this person and felt spurned, and, in order to overcompensate for a bruised ego, felt the need to socially punish this person by not only robbing them of the chance to expand their social connections but also ruin their reputation? That’s pretty bad and not necessarily uncommon. We are not wrong to trust people, but, in my experience, people can and do surprise us in both good and bad ways.
What is the point of my little thought experiment? I’m going to connect this to self-loathing.
When my friend asked me how to overcome self-loathing and silence her Inner Critic, I was initially stumped. I could not remember what I did to release myself from self-loathing, and that was surprising to me because I was once plagued by it to the point of cognitive and emotional paralysis. When I was in my late 20s, I honestly hated myself. It then occurred to me that, for many of us who have struggled and continue to struggle with perfectionism and shades of self-loathing, to love someone we must know them. When you are traumatized particularly in your developmental years, you experience a phenomenon much like my thought experiment in which you are introduced to a highly devalued version of yourself through the words and physical demonstrations of your caregivers. You come to know yourself as “other”–as whatever your caregivers, family, and community say you are be it bad, incapable, inherently flawed, or whatever labels are applied to you which are usually whatever negative internalizations your caregivers took with them from their own childhoods. It’s bad enough listening to people use toxic language when speaking about someone else, but it’s particularly harmful to hear repetitive toxic talk spewed forth to you–about you. How can you survive it? Well, a very common way is to side with the abuser and internalize their highly negative view of you. It’s like forced teaming except you choose in favor of the abuser against yourself.
Thus, hatred of the self is born. In other words, we are told about ourselves through the words and actions of people who do not seem to like us or may even hate us, and we believe them because we either trust them or need them to survive–or both. Consequently, we leave our families of origin or adolescent environments never having gotten a chance to know and value ourselves because self-actualization was never the goal. Survival was the goal.
So, I told my friend that to overcome self-loathing and silence her Inner Critic she may want to get to know herself for real for the first time free of her family and traumatic environments. She knew herself only in the context of what they had said and done to her, and, as it turns out, a lot of what they said and did was wrong and inaccurate. They introduced her to a fictitious stranger that wasn’t even her. Much like that tooth-picking, rude person, they created an exaggerated and even demonized version of her to justify their bad choices, and she internalized it and believed it. Their constant criticisms had become the voice of her Inner Critic, and her self-image was based upon that distorted image of her they had created–the distorted image that she hated. She hated that distortion and the context from which it sprang. She didn’t really hate herself. How could she? She didn’t even know herself! She was never given the opportunity. Consequently, every compliment she was ever given or ounce of praise was rejected because it felt untrue. The incongruency was so stark that it created an internal dissonance that was too large to reconcile. She could not have been both good and evil at the same time. Surely, her family must be right then. Strangely enough, the praise and compliments she received throughout her life actually cemented her self-loathing because they increased her internal dissonance forcing her to choose between her understanding of her own identity–was she good…or bad? Praiseworthy or worth nothing?
This is, of course, my own inquiry into the idea of self-loathing. When I look at my own past traumas and childhood and adolescent development, I see how my family environment created distortions that contributed to my own sense of self-loathing. I also see how the toxic language used by both my parents created distorted images that I was supposed to live up to (or down to). It is far easier to see this in retrospect than it ever could have been in the moment. What I see as beneficial now is the idea that we can and absolutely should question the beliefs that we internalized then and continue to internalize now particularly as it pertains to our identity. If we experience any kind of hatred or even disdain of the self, then what aspects do we dislike or hate? Did we agree with something that was applied to us that never belonged to us? Did we do it to survive? Are we still surviving? Are we still living in a situation that requires a survival mode? What does our Inner Critic say to us? Do we confuse our Inner Critic for our conscience? Do we believe them to be the same?
They are not. Your Inner Critic is the ultimate voice of sabotage. Your conscience is your advocate and on your side.
I don’t know if my thought experiment was helpful. I have been thinking on it for a few days, and it gave me an opportunity to externalize a very complex, internal experience. One of the most powerful tools for healing from self-loathing is cultivating self-compassion. Here is an excellent resource: