Maybe It's Just Me, But...

Musings of a mildly mad multi-disciplinarian

The Dark Side of Self-Loathing and Insecurity—and How to Avoid It

Are the self-loathing likely to be abusive in relationships?

At the Huffington Post, Dr. Joseph Nowinski offers a penetrating analysis of the insecure man, writing that while dating such a man may seem appealing, especially following experiences with a narcissist, there are serious drawbacks as well, especially if the insecure man "turns" on his partner and starts criticizing her, abusing her, or trying to restrict her freedom. There are obvious similarities here with my own posts on self-loathing; in one post I focused on the drawbacks with dating a self-loather (man or woman), but they were much more benign, having to do with rejecting help rather than inflicting harm.

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What accounts for the difference in what Dr. Nowinski and I wrote? Certainly, insecurity and self-loathing are not identical, and there is much room for variation within each one. But for the purposes of examining their effects on relationships I think they can be considered very similar: each involves a person feeling inadequate or unsure about some aspects of him- or herself, specifically as it relates to or affects his or her romantic relationship. In this aspect I think they can considered to be the same (or, at least, largely overlapping).

If my vision of self-loathing and Dr. Nowinski's vision of insecurity cash out the same way in terms of relationships, then what explains the difference in how the two of us see these relationships playing out? Mind you, Dr. Nowinski does not predict dire consequences for all relationships with insecure people, being very clear that insecurity "is not an all-or-none thing." But his position is that the success of the relationship depends on the level of insecurity: some people are too insecure to maintain a relationship, while others with milder insecurity may be fine. While I agree that the intensity of the problem certainly plays a role in the likelihood of a happy relationship, I would add that this likelihood also depends on how the insecure person (or self-loather) deals with his or her problem—and this, I think, explains the difference in how Dr. Nowinski and I describe the issues involved.

Let's take Dr. Nowinski's example of Grace and Adam: Adam is described as a classic underachiever, "shy and quiet," but was eager for a relationship with Grace and willing to be faithful to her. But after six months, he began criticizing her clothing choices, abusing her verbally, and trying to stop her from socializing with friends or even being in a different room from him. Several commenters to my posts on self-loathing have described similar behaviors with their own partners, but I have not touched on anything like this in my posts on the topic. Why not?

In terms of the different problems that arise in such relationships, consider two ways the self-loathing or insecure person can deal with his or her particular issues: use your partner to raise you up, or pull your partner down to your level. There are ethical issues with both options, because to some extent you are using the other person to make yourself feel better, while possibly not fully appreciating him or her as a person deserving of care and respect. In other words, both behaviors focus on you and not on the other person, who should be an equal partner in the relationship, regardless of your feelings toward yourself.

However, I think there is still a important difference here: using the other person to raise you up is done in the spirit of self-improvement and admiration for the other person, and is something the other person would likely agree to (especially assuming that he or she does not agree with your low opinion of yourself). But dragging the other person down to your level is neither done in a positive spirit nor something the other person would ever agree to (unless he or she is insecure also). In this case, you are clearly using the other person as a means to making yourself feel better, but "better" in a purely relative sense, not absolute—you only feel better about yourself insofar as you made your partner feel worse.

Is a person with more severe feelings of inadequacy more likely to express them negatively toward his or her partner? Perhaps, if your capacity to maintain concern and respect for others is drawn from the same well as your (limited) capacity to maintain the same attitudes toward yourself; or if you see success in life as a zero-sum game in which you can only rise if another falls; or if you feel your lack of achievement can be blamed on others and therefore others should suffer for it. But if your self-loathing or insecurity stems from a deep-seated feeling that everyone else is "better" than you by nature, then you would be more likely to see others as examples to live up to. And if you have to chance at a relationship with someone you see as having superior qualities, you would want to benefit from them rather than resent or inihibit them. Little of this depends on the intensity of the self-loathing or insecurity, but rather on your attitudes toward other people in light of them.

That still leaves plenty of room for problems in the relationship, as I detailed in the earlier post, but they deal more with the self-loather's internalization of his or her own issues rather than outward (negative) expression of them. I think Dr. Nowinski and I are describing people with similar problems but who are dealing with them in completely opposite ways, which reflect different levels of respect and concern for their partners. In short, people suffering from self-loathing or insecurity have real issues which deserve sympathy and compassion, but which do not justify projecting or imposing them on other people, in particular their romantic partners—ironically, those who are most likely to extend the sympathy and compassion most needed in these situations.

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For a list of my previous Psychology Today posts on self-loathing (and other topics), see here.

You can follow me on Twitter and also at the following blogs: Economics and Ethics, The Comics Professor, and my homepage/blog

Mark D. White is the chair of the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY.

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