- While pictures that people post on social media would have you think otherwise, many people suffer from self-loathing.
- Grammy Award-winning artist Shawn Colvin talks about her experience with depression and the ensuing self-loathing.
- There are steps we can take to stop hating ourselves, starting with challenging the idea that everyone else loves themselves completely, always.
We are perpetually bombarded with the notion that everyone else in the world loves themselves. When we look at our social media sites, we are inundated with people smiling, enjoying their lives, doing amazing things in amazing places with amazing people. Even others sharing their relatively common life experiences—walking in a park, having a meal, enjoying their favorite song—all seem to convey to us that everyone else has figured out how to love themselves. They appear to be happy, fulfilled, and generally feeling good about themselves and their lives.
For those of us who love ourselves and our lives without question or pause, those images are wonderful. But often, this ongoing impression that self-love is an easily acquired attribute backfires. Because somewhere along the way, in the midst of all of the self-love that surrounds us and that we may even have for ourselves, an uncomfortable thought emerges in our head:
“I hate myself.”
What does it feel like to hate ourselves? This experience can be as diffuse as it is disturbing. Often it is just a gut reaction. We don’t necessarily know exactly why we hate ourselves—we just know it to be true. It feels as real to us as when we hate another person. But for others, self-hatred is associated with more clearly defined thoughts. We feel like we have no redeeming value. We are worthless and useless.
In the most extreme cases, we want to disconnect from the self-hatred and end our relationship with ourselves. We may passively contemplate death or even actively contemplate suicide. And once we have experienced the depths of our self-hatred, our self-loathing always exists just below the surface, lying in wait, ready to rear its ugly head when we are at our most vulnerable.
How did we start hating ourselves to begin with?
There is no one clear road to self-hatred. But generally speaking, there is often a final common pathway. We generally hate ourselves because we feel helpless about our life in some way. We feel as though we want things to be different, but for whatever reason, we don’t think we can change. Perhaps it is a series of interactions we had with family members that left us feeling bad about ourselves. Or maybe we experienced a traumatic event for which we blame ourselves.
Sometimes, self-hatred is strongly tied to mental illness, particularly depression. While many people theorize that it is self-hatred that leads to depression, my experience working with people who struggle with depression is that self-hatred is a reaction to the inability to control their mood. They feel helpless in the presence of their recurrent and unpredictable negative mood.
Often when we feel the helplessness that leads to self-hatred, we not only experience a great deal of emotional pain and suffering, but we also are convinced that we will no longer be able to achieve our goals or our purpose in life. And thus, we are helpless to have the life that we want. Further, our internal dialogue changes. We stop having a “conversation” with ourselves and start beating ourselves up.
We no longer even question our self-hatred. We just experience the feelings and repeat the thoughts over and over again. This cycle of painful emotions, inability to make changes in our life, and beating ourselves up emotionally creates a toxic spiral from which we struggle to recover.
So how do we stop hating ourselves?
I have been thinking a lot about this question since talking with Grammy Award-winning musician Shawn Colvin on The Hardcore Humanism Podcast. During our conversation, Colvin explained how she struggled with depression and alcoholism and how she experienced self-loathing during the pandemic. And the wisdom she shared from how she coped with depression helped inform my thoughts on how we can cope with self-hatred. In essence, in order to soothe our self-hatred, we need to make friends with, rather than reject, our self-hatred.
The first step towards making friends with our self-hatred is challenging the notion that everyone else in the world loves themselves wholly and completely all of the time. It’s simply not true. Much of what we see on social media is an aspirational snapshot rather than a comprehensive representation of their lives. But if we recognize that many people out there struggle with self-hatred, we will feel less alone and isolated.
Second, one of the most important and critical mistakes that we make when we engage in self-hatred is we assume that this is the final judgment we have on ourselves and on our lives. By doing so, we close off any new information from coming in that may challenge our self-hatred. We need to move from a judgment frame to a learning frame. Colvin referred to this stance on life as one of humility. This is where we try to stay open-minded to new conversations coming in that might challenge our self-hating viewpoint.
Next, as we open our minds to challenging our self-hatred, we can look for ways to combat the helplessness we feel by looking to take action of some kind. As an example, when we are feeling depressed, we may feel so incapacitated that we are unable to go to work or even get out of bed. It would be natural for us to feel helpless in those moments. But we can look around for any act—no matter how seemingly small—that we can do. For example, even turning on the television and watching is an action. Eventually getting out of bed and moving to the couch is an action. We do what we can when we can as a way of building momentum and challenging the paralyzing feeling of helplessness.
In addition, in order to combat self-hatred, we must restart the conversation with ourselves rather than engage in the repetitive emotional beatdowns we endure from ourselves. This is the process by which we really become friends with our self-hatred. We must listen to and validate the helplessness we feel and recognize that self-hatred is an expression of that anger arising from helplessness. This dialogue, in combination with humility and action, begins a more virtuous cycle—one in which we accept and understand ourselves and try to be compassionate. This process of self-compassion eventually becomes a new voice to exist side-by-side with and perhaps even eventually replace the self-hatred.
Finally, when we experience self-loathing, we often distance ourselves from others. It is crucial that we seek out people—therapists, support groups, friends, and family—who understand that we struggle with self-hatred and support us as we learn to engage in a more compassionate approach to ourselves. It is important that these people understand and empathize with, rather than attempt to suppress, our self-hatred.
And by making friends with our self-hatred, we can begin the path to a new conversation with ourselves.
You can hear Dr. Mike's conversation with Shawn Colvin on the Hardcore Humanism Podcast at HardcoreHumanism.com or on your favorite podcast app.