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Five Ways Self-Dislike Runs Destructively in the Background

A brief discussion on the challenging subject of self-loathing.

While many people are naturally resilient and enjoy the benefits of an enriched, loving experience growing up, others emerge into adulthood with an impaired sense of self. Rather than learning how to love themselves and view themselves as essentially lovable and deserving, many carry within a sense of not being good enough. According to psychoanalysis, this may have origins very early in life.

Basic Fault

Michael Balint, one of the great psychoanalysts of the last century, called it the “The Basic Fault.” Similar to being cast out of the proverbial Garden of Eden, the child’s formative experience of being rejected by the primary caregiver leaves her or him with a sense of being deeply inadequate and reprehensible, to the core. While it may be the primary caregiver's projected self-hatred, for the child it is the kernel of self-identity, formed over years of interaction and neglect.

This causes problems across the board, as the hatred of and/or by the primary caregiver becomes internalized as self-hatred and unease with others, played out over and over again in personal and professional arenas, becoming crystallized into tough patterns of self-defeat.

We are accustomed to think of every dynamic force operating in the mind as having the form either of a biological drive or of a conflict. Although highly dynamic, the force originating from the basic fault has the form neither of an instinct nor of a conflict. It is a fault, something wrong in the mind, a kind of deficiency which must be put right. It is not something dammed up for which a better outlet must be found, but something missing either now, or perhaps for almost the whole of the patient's life. An instinctual need can be satisfied, a conflict can be solved, a basic fault can perhaps be merely healed provided the deficient ingredients can be found; and even then it may amount only to a healing with defect, like a simple, painless scar.—Michael Balint

Because self-hatred is such a harsh concept, and so painful, people can spend a lot of energy keeping themselves unaware of how they feel or encountering this self-loathing in momentary flashes of recognition often followed by self-defeating coping mechanisms, worsening the vicious cycle.

By learning to sit with feelings rather than impulsively acting to get rid of them, people can begin to change. Learning to recognize the symptoms of self-hatred without turning to avoidance empowers people to unlock the basic fault, diverting to basic decency.

Do We Use Others to Enact Self-Hatred?

Here are a few common patterns which suggest looking more deeply into whether the root cause of recurring, thorny problems may be connected with unrealized impairment in self-regard:

Personal Relationships

1. Bad romance: Do you keep dating the same person with a different face? One of the major reasons people have serial relationship difficulty is because of how we feel about ourselves. This leads to what psychoanalysts call “bad object choices.” The rule is that people who have difficulty with how they feel about themselves pick others who unconsciously reinforce those negative feelings, and who themselves feel badly about themselves.

This often presents as one person taking on the role of Performer, and the other the Audience—for example, one person is the rescuer, seemingly healthier, and the person sick and in need of help, as co-authors and I spell out as Irrelationship.

Going beyond co-dependency, irrelationship is a shared defense against the fear of intimacy. After all, intimacy means opening up, which also means exposing frightening feelings about oneself not just to the other person, but also unavoidably to oneself.

When we speak our truth aloud to another, it becomes realized in new ways. This is one reason why therapy can be useful, as a safe-enough laboratory to take emotional risks before trying them out in the real world.

2. Friendship problems: When we don’t like ourselves, it’s very hard to be likable to others. There are two big possibilities. First, that prospective friends feel OK about themselves, and naturally will want to spend time with others who share those feelings. They may be empathic, even like a lot of things about the other person, but persistent bitterness, sarcasm, and related “negativity” means not hanging out.

The second big possibility is that people who don’t like themselves tend to gravitate toward each other. This can be good in terms of sympathy and support, but often leads to letdowns and broken trust, confusion, and loss—whether cataclysmic or a slow burndown.

3. Family drama: Individual self-loathing is not about the individual but is a pattern of family relationship dysfunction which becomes internalized unwittingly as part of the individual psyche, though there are surely genetic and epigenetic factors as well.

These patterns are often trauma-related, and passed from generation to generation if unaddressed. Issues like this remain hidden, only to come up during family get-togethers.

The story is familiar: “I thought I dealt with my issues, but as soon as I’m back with my family, I feel like I’m back in high school.” It also comes up when we have families of our own, often in surprising and distressing ways.

Professional Issues

4. Impaired leadership: When we secretly hate ourselves, when we find ourselves in positions of power, we project our feelings onto others. It’s a compulsion, because the relief is temporary. We lash out at people who seem “weak,” who remind us of our own flaws, of whom we are jealous, and temporarily feel perfect, in a way.

But the effect wears off, leading to a pattern of bullying, hostility, and isolation. The flip side is a leader who is a compulsive caregiver, trying to prove to the world that he or she is kind and caring, but who ends up violating boundaries and failing to provide the secure containment that business success demands.

5. Self-defeating work habits: Freud said that people with certain narcissistic issues are “wrecked by success.” People with an inner sense of shame about who they are may swing back and forth between grandiosity and despair, feeling both inflated and crushed. Successes are seen as fraudulent, exposing one to the danger of discovery and exposure. The safest course is to undermine victories before they come undone, sabotaging promotion and future opportunity.

When help is offered, it is viewed with suspicion, resonating with inner doubts, mirroring early parental relationships. It becomes impossible to practice good followership, just as it is impossible to lead well, resulting in trouble fitting into any true workgroups as much as it is challenging to take one's place in a healthy family dynamic.

So much the more surprising, and indeed bewildering, must it appear when as a doctor one makes the discovery that people occasionally fall ill precisely when a deeply-rooted and long-cherished wish has come to fulfillment. It seems then as though they were not able to tolerate their happiness; for there can be no question that there is a causal connection between their success and their falling ill.—Sigmund Freud

Beyond these five personal and professional hallmarks of un- or partly recognized self-hatred, it follows that at the root, self-relationship is deeply problematic. As an organizing principle, self-compassion is absent or distorted, and self-care is likewise limited or expressed in self-defeating ways, for example exercising to the point of repeated injury rather than in healthy moderation.

Other signs include self-criticism and general negative self-talk, difficulty enjoying being alone and chronic loneliness even when with others, sudden painful pangs of regret over past behaviors, frank intrusive self-loathing thoughts and images, guilt over normal desires, inability to grieve, difficulty working through traumas and overcoming unhealthy dependency, envy of others rather than admiration and gratitude and feelings of being not fully alive.

Boot-Strapping Out From Basic Fault

The key is to learn healthy self-relationship, which is like learning a language. Self-regard, including self-compassion and good habits with oneself, different automatic reactions, and so on, requires persistence, curiosity, patience, and practice. Like learning language, it’s easier to do at a younger age when it happens automatically and unconsciously.

Because basic fault is wired so deep, back in the mother-infant dyad according to psychoanalysts, it is before language, and before the conflict between child and both parents. In many cases, the work of learning to love oneself is slow and painstaking, taking place in the incubator of a long, gradual therapeutic process, whether through formal therapy and/or through other life experiences.

The ability to engage patiently in this work is inhibited by the basic fault itself, requiring a leap of faith in the presence of fragile trust and safety, developing the capacity to think about hard truths. The outcome is generally worth the effort, but may not live up to idealized fantasies.

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Balint, M. (1979). The Basic Fault: Therapeutic Aspects of Regression. London/New York: Tavistock Publications.

Freud, S. (1916). [SEN309a1]Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916): On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works, 309-333.