November 24–30

How to triumph in a traffic jam, the importance of introductions, and why being in a negative mood may have positive side effects.

Are the Self-Loathing Also Self-Centered?

We must think about how our expressions of inadequacy affect our partners.

Are the self-loathing—people who feel an overwhelming sense of inadequacy and utter lack of worth—actually self-centered?

This question was posed to me some time ago by a friend, and my first impulse was to proclaim “no, of course not!” When I think of a self-centered person I think of a narcissist, the epitome of self-love and the opposite of self-loathing. What’s more, many of the behaviors typical of a self-loathing person, especially within a relationship, seem on the surface to be self-demeaning, aimed at lowering oneself and elevating one’s partner. If anything, the self-loathing want to turn the focus away from them and toward other people whenever possible.

This may very well be how the self-loathing consider their own personality and behavior. But what about other people? We need to think for a moment, step outside ourselves, and consider how other people see it. For instance, take two common behaviors of the self-loathing in relationships (though neither is necessarily alien to relationships in general):

1. Apologizing for small “mistakes.” The self-loathing often think that everything they do is wrong and therefore feel the need to apologize for everything, regardless of importance (or even if it’s a mistake at all). As I’ve written before, they also feel that they’re “one mistake away” from ruining their relationships, and that anxiety often makes them apologize more (which can bring about the outcome they’re trying to prevent).

But imagine how this feels for your partner, who is likely wondering, “Did I do or say something to make my partner feel he/she has to apologize for everything?” or “Am I really this demanding?” Self-loathing people may feel that by apologizing they are making their partners feel better, perhaps by relieving them of any responsibility. But the effect may be the opposite, making your partner think he or she has hurt you, and focusing attention on exactly the person you’re trying to get it away from—namely, you.

2. Saying you’re not good enough for your partner. Many people, at some point in their relationships, feel they’re not good enough for their partners. When we fall in love, we naturally put our beloved on a pedestal, exalting their virtues and charms and feeling insignificant in comparison. Most people get over this, but not the self-loathing, with their predisposition to feel inadequate (as I wrote previously). And this is very hard to keep inside as the guilt over being with this wonderful person grows, so the self-loathing express it (or continue to sublimate it, which rarely ends well).

But how does the partner of the self-loathing person hear this? He or she may wonder, “What I have done or said to make my partner feel he/she is not good enough?” or “Am I sending him/her some signals to this effect that I’m not aware of?” Similar to the first case, the self-loathing think they are honoring their partners, but ironically it may be focusing attention on themselves instead—as well as making their partners wonder if they’re at fault.*

As you probably noticed, both of these behaviors—and other similar ones—have a lot in common. While they may be intended as sincere expressions of self-doubt, they can easily be interpreted as cries for attention and reassurances. Hearing your partner say “it’s no problem,” “you didn’t do anything wrong,” or “of course you’re good enough for me” is always nice, but for many self-loathing people it is a short-term balm at best, since our problem lies in believing those things ourselves. Our partners may even appreciate this, but the most they can do is reassure us how they feel, so they do what they can while realizing it’s not enough—which can make them feel bad as well.

In the worst case scenario, such behaviors can be seen by your partner as passive-aggressive, if behind the self-demeaning comments they hear the insinuation that your partner did or said something to make you feel this way. You might think that your partner knows you better than that, but in the middle of a heated disagreement or argument, things can sound different, and people can say—or seem to say—things that surprise us. Think about a typical argument: you’re each trying to get the other to see your point of view, voices are raised, emotions are running hot. Everything you both say seems like an attack—and then you abruptly mention that you don’t feel good enough for your partner. In that context, such a statement, which may have been intended merely as an expression of your underlying anxieties, may be interpreted to be just as hostile as anything else you might have said. And if that makes sense, it’s also possible that even in the context of ordinary, day-to-day conversation, such a comment may be taken as passive-aggressive too.

What about the question that started the post? To some extent, I would say yes, there is a necessarily self-centered aspect to self-loathing. After all, it is about how we feel about ourselves—often in relation to other people, true, but deep down it’s still about us. We just need to make sure that this aspect of our self-loathing doesn’t overwhelm the intent of what we say to others, especially in our relationships. I wrote previously that the self-loathing tend to be oversensitive, which carries with it both positive and negative implications for our partners. But for us it’s an opportunity and a responsibility: it’s not enough to express our feelings of inadequacy to our partners when we feel them, but we must also anticipate and take into account how those expressions sound to our partners and how that may affect them.

We like to say it’s not all about us—now let’s act like it.

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* Also, if you tell your partner often enough that you’re not good enough, he or she may come to believe you—and trust me, the validation is not worth it.

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

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