Why Do the Self-Loathing Cycle In and Out of Relationships?

Is self-loathing an issue of self-control?

Posted Jan 08, 2012

Today, I want to bring together two of my previous posts on self-loathing—my investigation of the internal struggle of the single self-loather and my look at the pervasiveness of feelings of inadequacy in different situations—to revisit the question of why such a person gets into a relationship only to withdraw from it later due to his or her inadequacy issues. One way to think about this is that the self-loathing may have an optimistic lack of foresight, thinking that, in terms of relationships, "this time will be different."

Let's draw an analogy to self-control issues. In economic and psychological models of procrastination, for instance, people are often categorized as "naïve" or "sophisticated" in terms of their appreciation of their own tendencies to put tasks off. Naïve procrastinators never perceive a pattern to their procrastination, perhaps attributing it to specific circumstances at a particular time (every time!), while sophisticated procrastinators realize their propensity for delay and can then plan for it, using external "scaffolding" or simple willpower to prevent procrastination before it begins.

We can apply similar logic to the self-loather, arguing that, similar to the naïve procrastinator, he or she feels most inadequate when in a relationship, but less so when single. In that case, such a person would be more confident about his or her next relationship before getting into it, but then becomes less confident (feeling more inadequate) once in the relationship, because he or she then has someone to feel inadequate for.

If this happens, it could explain the cyclical dating behavior of the self-loather: when single, such a person feels good about his or her next relationship, but once in that relationship, he or she doesn't feel good enough to stay. But once single, and the catalyst for the feelings of inadequacy is gone, the cycle starts again with the person starting to feel better and gaining confidence to date again.

To continue the analogy with procrastination, the "sophisticated" self-loather, reflecting on his or her behavior, would see this cycle. There are two ways this could resolve, however. Think of the sophisticated procrastinator, who can either work to counteract his or her tendencies to delay, or simply give in to them—because acting in advance of the temptation to procrastinate is also an act of will, albeit normally an easier one to perform. By the same token, sophisticated self-loathers can throw in the towel and indulge in the thought that they are wrong to ever feel good enough to be with someone. Or, they can reflect, while single, on the fact that they feel better about themselves, and try to find some way to maintain those feelings while in a relationship.

Just as we think the procrastinator will have better judgment before the temptation for delay hits—a long-term view of his or her interests versus a short-term, myopic outlook—we are inclined to think that the self-loather has a clearer impression of him- or herself before entering a relationship which is going to skew that self-regard. But this is a value judgment: there is nothing which obviously makes one viewpoint "better" than the other. One argument in its favor, though, is the presumption that the procrastinator, when in a situation of temptation, would like to be able to maintain a long-term view and avoid procrastinating. And self-loathers would rather be able to maintain the level of self-regard they had before the relationship once they are in it. The fact that these people would prefer the "better" outlook even when in the situation that prompts the "lesser" one gives us a strong justification for privileging the stronger one when evaluating people's choices.

This is similar to philosopher Harry Frankfurt's conception of first-order and second-order desires. First-order desires are our most immediate ones, based on simple impulses or drives, while second-order desires are the result of our "higher reason," our considered judgment about our impulses and drives. My first-order desire may be to chat on Twitter rather than work on a book chapter, but my second-order desire is to work—and to want to work. Frankfurt argues that one conception of free will—a psychological one rather than a metaphysical one—means being able to act according to your second-order desires rather than your first-order ones (if they conflict). He also argues that this capacity (which is similar to Kantian autonomy) is what makes us true persons rather than "wantons" (in his language).*

Now think about the self-loather. Such a person may have a first-order desire (or perhaps more accurately an inclination or propensity) to think little of himself or herself, but also has a second-order desire (or judgment) that he or she has significant self-worth. In this framework, the person would show strength of character or will if he or she maintains the attitude of higher self-regard even when the inclination to feel inadequate was strong, such as when in a relationship. If they can do this, self-loathers will not only be tackling their issues with inadequacy, but also fulfilling their true potential as persons.

Now if they can only put down Angry Birds long enough to start!

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* In my chapter in Family Guy and Philosophy, I used the example of Peter and Brian to illustrate this, arguing that Brian—Peter's dog—is more of a person than Peter is.

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

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