Maybe It's Just Me, But...

Musings of a mildly mad multi-disciplinarian

The Tragic Romantic Irony of the Self-Loather

The self-loathing can be wonderful partners—if they let themselves!

Fans of Downton Abbey thrill to the English WWI-era drama for many reasons, one of which is the romantic tension granted by the noble restraint of several of its main characters. For instance, we have Mr. John Bates, valet to the Earl of Grantham, who resists his feelings for Anna Smith, a housemaid, because he is convinced he isn't good enough for her due to his mysterious past. We also have Captain Matthew Crawley, heir to the Earl's title and wealth, who rejects his fiancée Lavinia Swire after he's injured in the war because he feels he can no longer be a good husband to her, and who then tells his true love Mary Grantham that he would leave Downton if she broke her engagement to a newspaper magnate to be with him instead.

Both of these characters exhibit some degree of self-loathing or feelings of inadequacy based on either past behavior or present infirmity. While we don't envy their tragic predicaments, the romantics among us delight to the sacrifices these characters are willing to make out of concern for their loved ones. While love openly expressed is wonderful to behold, it is even better after a tantalizing period of restraint. (Just consider the standard "will they or won't they" romantic tension built up in so many movies and TV shows.)

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Of course, we rarely witness this type of restraint in the real world—not because it doesn't happen, but simply because we don't know when it does! But if you think about it, you probably know a friend, relative, or coworker with a secret crush, an unrequited love that he or she is hesitant to act upon, perhaps due to feelings of inadequacy. The people we know in this position don't have a screenwriter or director crafting their actions to maximize the drama, of course, but it may be even more dramatic simply by virtue of being real.

Since their love is often unexpressed, the self-loathing represent tragic romantic heroes, putting aside their own desires out of concern for the objects of their passion. To the observer, the tragedy is magnified by the knowledge that these peoples' self-loathing is based on imagined faults, at the same time that they dismiss their very real virtues. In Downton Abbey, for instance, Bates and Crawley see only their own faults, but their lovers (as well as their loyal viewers) regard their protective impulses as more important—and more attractive. Hence the irony: the same reticence that leads the self-loathing to withdraw makes them all the more appealing!

Of course, the self-loathing are not always easy to be with, but they can also be very giving, sensitive, and caring romantic partners—if they allow themselves to be. The tragic irony is that many of them don't, choosing loneliness over the guilt of burdening someone with their perceived faults. And to the extent that their inadequacy is a distortion of their self-worth (rather than a cultivated attitude), this leads them to deny other people their positive qualities for fear of imposing their illusory negative ones.*

Such situations may make for terrific drama and romance on the screen, but only lead to frustration in the real world. Even in fiction, we may find principled reserve to be very noble, but unless it eventually breaks down in the face of true love, it leaves us unsatisfied. In the real world, we may admire people who resist us for a higher purpose, but on the other hand we want to think that we're irresistible to the ones we love!

In the end, it's not very satisfying to know that someone loves you if that same love keeps that person away. As I've said many times before, the self-loathing must trust the sincerity of other people's judgments of them. If a person wants to be with you, you have to believe that he or she has made that choice for good reason and in full knowledge of the bad qualities you see in yourself—and the good qualities he or she sees in you. If you do, then you might have a chance at a romance that rivals what we see on Downton Abbey—and even the Dowager Countess might appreciate that!

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* One of my favorite fictional characters, the butler Stevens from the book The Remains of the Day (and portrayed in the film by Sir Anthony Hopkins), resisted his feelings for housekeeper Miss Kenton (played by Emma Thompson) out of what I always interpreted as a cultivated sense of humility, which bears similarities to self-loathing. (See also Richard Father Ralph de Bricassart from The Thorn Birds, played by Richard Chamberlain in the TV miniseries, once the epitome of frustrated-until-resolved romance.)

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

I invite you to follow me on Twitter and visit me 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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