Do the Self-Loathing See the Same "Self" that Others Do?
Is the way you see yourself necessarily the "right" way?
Posted June 30, 2013 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
In my earlier posts about self-loathing and relationships, I’ve written that self-loathers often endanger their relationships—or avoid them altogether—because they don’t feel they’re good enough to be with other people. I’ve recommended that self-loathers learn to trust in other people’s judgment and decisions, especially regarding whom they chose to be with.
Self-loathers think that they know themselves better than other people do and they can see the negative qualities that "for some reason" others don't pick up on (at least, not yet). But just how well do they know themselves anyway? In this post, we’ll turn this point around and focus not solely on how others see the self-loather but also on how the self-loather sees himself or herself—and the limitations thereof.
A self-loathing person, by definition, feels essentially inadequate in some way. I say “essentially” because this is a feeling that is deeply ingrained and therefore resistant to persuasion or evidence. No matter how successful the self-loather is or how much praise he or she receives from other people, something prevents the self-loather from believing he or she has value or worth. If the self-loather wants to overcome this problem, he or she will have to get to the source of the self-loathing—most likely with the help of a therapist—rather than simply try to beat it down with praise. Just as you can’t tell someone suffering from depression to “cheer up,” you can’t tell a self-loather that “you’re great.” Both problems run much deeper than that.
In the meantime, however, there may be a way that the self-loather can look at himself or herself that can help to lessen the feelings of inadequacy. Ironically, it is based on humility, which self-loathers often have lots of. But instead of humility about one’s attributes and abilities, let's think about humility with respect to self-knowledge, or recognizing that we don’t know ourselves nearly as well as we think we do. This goes hand-in-hand with the point I’ve made previously about not seeing ourselves the same way other people do and trusting in other people’s perceptions of us (as well as the decisions they make based on them).
When we say that people see us differently than we see ourselves, we may be assuming that our self-perception is accurate or “correct” and other people’s perceptions being not only different but “wrong.” But there is no right or wrong way to see yourself, no Archimedean point of reference around which others’ perceptions must rotate. Another person’s assessment of you is just as valid as yours—and possibly more so with respect to how you relate to other people, whether these relationships are familial, friendly, or romantic.
In simple terms, people who think of themselves as nice may come off as obnoxious jerks to others, and people who think they have nothing to offer other people may be seen by others as very interesting. The point is that you don’t know as much about yourself as you think, especially with regards to how other people see you and think about you.
But even if self-loathing people can accept that they don’t know everything about themselves, how can they start to believe that they have worth and value that they don’t perceive? First, they can learn to accept the praise of others that may have been dismissed in the past. Once the self-loathing recognize that there are gaps in their self-knowledge, they may be ready to start filling those gaps with evidence of their positive qualities that comes from their own success and the support of other people. Second, with regard to relationships, trusting in others’ impressions and feelings may also come more easily once the self-loathing accept the limitations of their own self-perceptions.
Finally, in the absence of complete self-knowledge, the self-loathing might have to take a leap of faith. There’s no reason those gaps in self-perception have to be filled with more hatred and disdain for oneself. It’s tempting and somewhat natural to assume that what you don’t know about yourself would be in line with what you do “know” (or think you know). But there is no reason to interpolate like a statistician who needs to fill gaps in his or her data set. Your identity and self are not continuous like a trend line in some demographic measure, and (unseen) positive qualities can exist beside (perceived) negative ones. Self-loathers have to learn to admit the possibility that what they don't know about themselves may actually be positive things rather than negative ones.
Self-loathers may always feel inadequate, but they must remember that they’re only seeing part of the picture that other people see. Even though they may never believe that their own view might be biased, they have to accept that the part of themselves that they’re seeing may not be the most important part of themselves to others. A person’s self-perceptions are not complete and they're not necessary any more “right” than anyone else’s perceptions of him or her. Not only do the self-loathing need to have faith in how other people see them, but they also need to have faith in the parts of themselves they’re not aware of.
We can learn a lot from how other people see and react to us, but we have to be willing to listen and accept what we learn, especially when it clashes with how we see ourselves. For the self-loathing, this can be an uncomfortable revelation even—or especially—when it results in positive assessments. But if they can practice a little faith, it may go a long way towards relieving their anxieties about themselves and, given time, may open the door to a new way to consider romantic relationships. I think that's worth a little leap, don't you?
For a select list of my previous Psychology Today posts on self-loathing and relationships, see here.