Self-Loathing: The Ultimate Prejudice

Low self-esteem is a learned behavior.

Posted Jul 25, 2013

We aren't born with low self-esteem.

It is not possible. The newborn brain lacks this capacity. Self-loathing is something that, as the song from South Pacific says, "you have to be carefully taught." Granted, that song is about racism and prejudice, but what is self-loathing if not the coldest prejudice of all, the prejudice against the self?

I have spent much of this summer thus far viewing the thousands of photographs my father took between the days of his engagement to my mother and their last vacation, forty years later, before his sudden death.

I do not want to tell her story anymore. Hers is the only story I have ever told. In telling what I thought was my own story, I was always telling hers, because I loved her in her suffering and sought always to please her, and because she taught me fear and self-recrimination, taught me dedicatedly year upon year although she meant no harm, just as medieval coopers and barbers taught their apprentices: Do as I do and do it well and you are set for life. And thus children who might have become anything became coopers and barbers not for a year but forever, not because they wanted to but because when they were too young to choose, adults took charge.

My father's photographs depict deserts and airplane wings and our backyard. Mom wears whimsical sleeveless shifts and huge square sunglasses. She smiles that stretched-out smile. These images may or may not suggest that she may or may not have had Borderline Personality Disorder. In baby pictures I look astoundingly happy, curious, delighted. I embrace lambs at petting zoos and, at beaches, shovel sand. At age four, something changes. My eyes become false and dull, my postures mannered, awkward, as if I have just discovered that that my arms are legs and my legs arms and that my skin is made of melting wax. I look this way in every photograph henceforth, and here is why:

It was at four or five that I really learned language, not just words but what they meant and not just what they meant on paper but what they meant to the people saying them. I was a good learner. Words were easy for me. By five I knew the words "bad" and "ugly" and "fat" and "slob" and that my mother said them to herself about herself. I realized that because I was a part of her, because I was a small version of her, because in order to protect me from the world she had to tell me the same things she told herself, so I would know, so I would never be caught unawares or put on airs. She had to make me understand that we were not acceptable or beautiful or lovable. Okay, sure, we could love each other. And Dad loved us when we were not being lazy slobs. But everyone else mocked us or was mad at us. Of course. They had no choice.

By five, I also knew the words "dead," "death," "cancer" and "accident," and knew how prevalent these things were in the world, as immanent as God Himself who wielded them. Lo: Jimmy Wickford was crushed by a car while bicycling around our block and Sherry Holt was terminally ill at only three, and any instant now all that you know and see and love could end.

I learned, I learned, I learned these words and more. Just as you feed raw metal into smelters which produce steel bars, I became a machine into which whatever was fed turned into blinding fear. By five I knew already that the scariest thing in this scary world was me, because what is self-loathing if not fear? Heck yes: the greatest fear of all, fear of the one thing you cannot escape: yourself. At five I knew already that I had no power but the dumb involuntary power to be ugly, stupid, fat, disgusting, ludicrous, rejected, wrong. I had no power but the unwitting reflexive power to get hurt or sick, to be abducted, to be murdered, to die in some way, oh any way, and make my parents mourn. I had the power to make a pig of myself, to come in last, to lose. I had the power to have ugly hair, ugly feet, ugly freckles, ugly hands. I had the terrifying power to choose friends and thus the power to choose those who would betray me or might die, because whatever power I had was the power to lose everything I ever loved.

The power of one who is taught to hate herself is the power to fail. Not purposely, because I tried to be good and well and attractive and alive. But see, as I knew at age five, my mind and body were both my worst enemies because they were both waiting, pulsing, to humiliate and hurt and kill me. Think you're safe in that cute checkered shirt with its red tulip appliqué, safe from worry and dread, safe from the itchy shiver of self-loathing as the camera clicks? You're not.

Fear and self-loathing displace all other emotions and quench all desires except the desire to be someone else, anyone else. To not be me: That is what I woke nearly every morning of nearly the last fifty years wishing for. Wishing, not praying, because that bearded, big-fisted God who killed Sherry and Jimmy was another thing that I was taught to fear.

And this was my apprenticeship. I could have spent my youth learning, hour upon hour, to compose skaldic poetry or repair roofs: But by what some would call an accident of birth I was selected instead to become a virtuoso of self-loathing, exquisitely trained for a career in paralytic fear.

I see these photographs and think: This is their story. Her story. Not mine. I am in it, but only thanks to some oozy zygotic cataclysm one dark millisecond many years ago. And so ha ha: The accident I spent my life dreading had already occurred by the time I learned the word "accident": that accident of birth, by which I am in these pictures at all.

I do not want to tell her story anymore. It is a prison cell, a Habitrail sealed at both ends. I have told it too many times, in far too many ways, believing that repeating it would free me from it, just as characters in fairy tales must repeat magic words or suffer ordeals seven times or seven thousand times in order to shatter the spells that confined them to locked towers or to the bottoms of wells. I do not want to tell her story anymore, not because I no longer love her but because, is this too much to ask, I want my own story at last: not necessarily to tell it, because it would be private and mine, but just to have one, finally to feel that it exists, that I exist, not necessarily as a proud loud proclaimer flailing fancy sleeves at center stage but simply as someone no longer spellbound by self-loathing, someone whose apprenticeship has been un-learned: not someone interesting necessarily but someone who no longer winces into mirrors or spends years feeling suspended, empty, artificial, uninhabitable, fake. My story with its sunny afternoons and folded laundry might be as boring as grilled-cheese sandwiches, a story too boring even to tell, but it is all I ask.

Read more about these ideas in my new book, The Big Book of Low Self-Esteem, due out early next year from Tarcher Penguin.