In my last post I started a discussion of Self-Love, a topic that most of us are in need of better information and skills. I reviewed there that while we are all born to be naturally self-loving we, too often, learn to instead practice terrible self-hating behaviors, all in the mistaken belief that it makes us better people.

It doesn’t. In fact it is really, really hard to be a healthy, happy, well-adjusted, in-the-present-moment human being if we are busily engaged in practicing self-hating behaviors. But what the heck does it actually mean to be self-hating?

I would argue that most of us would never describe ourselves as practicing self-hate. Even the phrase may come off as ridiculous or over the top, conjuring pictures of some poor soul whipping themselves with a cat-o-nine tails, or maybe wrapped up in a straight-jacket and howling in a padded room someplace…

But self-hate is much more subtle than these pictures conjure. Self-hate isn’t always (or even often) a screaming monster, coming at us with claws and fangs. Self-hate is death by a thousand cuts, the slow bleed that leaves us tired, defeated, hurt and wondering what the hell is wrong with us…

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Worst of all, self-hate is very fertile soil for chronic anxiety thinking and living.

It’s equally important to understand that the vast majority of this self-hating behavior is running automatically – out of our conscious thinking or awareness. This work is very much about getting conscious in the first place that we are involved in self-hating, self-downing practices, then doing something about those practices.

With that in mind let’s get clear on the range, nature and specifics of self-hate –

There are a Couple of Flavors of Self-Hate

Self-hate has really obvious ways of coming at us – what T.I. Rubin in his brilliant book “Compassion and Self-Hate” calls Direct Self-hate. Rubin defines self-hate in a general sense as “attacks on self, whatever form they take.”

He goes on to identify two broad categories of self-hating behavior – direct and indirect. Let’s start with direct, obvious self-hate. (And in fact that’s all we’ll get to today – there’s a lot to review just in direct self-hating habits.) Examples of direct self-hate include but are not limited to:

Self-Vindictive Criticism
On-going Depression
Being “accident prone”
Psychosomatic Illness
Destructive self-medication practices (i.e., alcoholism, drug abuse, over-eating, etc.)
Constant reviewing lists of personal failures/mistakes
Creation of destructive relationships
Excessive self-guilt
Self-hating because we are self-hating!

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If you’re anything like me and you’re reading the list I just created here then you’re probably both feeling your skin crawl (who wants to think that they’re doing any of this stuff?) and identifying where in the past you’ve gotten your self-hate on with one or more of these behaviors.

Maybe the most insidious, dangerous thing about self-hating habits is how COMMON it is, how ordinary and even OK it seems to many of us. We think of it as normal or even useful when all it’s actually doing is tearing us down, sapping our energy and hope and wreaking havoc on how we think, act and move through the world.

Take self-derision (the tendency to identify out loud or to ourselves qualities like stupidity, uselessness, inherent selfishness, etc.) We don’t even hear ourselves when we say “I’m such an idiot” or “I can’t get anything right” in talking about ourselves.

We wouldn’t talk this way (for the most part!) about someone we loved with language like this – and if we did we’d be skirting the edges of abuse with that person. Of course that doesn’t mean we didn’t grow up hearing things like this, both from people in our lives talking about themselves and/or directed towards us…

Humans make mistakes. Humans are on some occasions not as crafty, informed, educated or experienced as the situation might demand. That doesn’t equate to stupidity, uselessness or selfishness. But if we persist in such self-attacks we begin to create a belief that we ARE stupid, useless, etc. And that’s classic self-hating behavior.

Worse, it becomes part of the background roar of our thinking – semi-unconscious or unconscious assumptions of truth about who we are and what we’re capable of doing. And so the drumbeat of self-hatred beats on in our souls, but we don’t hear it, any more than we hear the fridge clicking on or the air conditioner running in the background…

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Self-Vindictive Criticism

Akin to self-derision is self-vindictive criticism. This is the voice of endless not measuring up to our own impossible, perfect standards, with the supposed goal of making us better or helping us perform to those standards. This is more about the specific thing we failed at than discussing something as an inherent quality we possess –

So, for instance, we have dinner for friends and we forget that someone at dinner doesn’t like peas. When they mention this by way of apology for not eating our carefully prepared peas we freak out on ourselves. “How could I have forgotten this?” we shout at ourselves in the kitchen (or even at the dinner table.) “How could I have made such a terrible mistake? I’ve really screwed this up! I’ve ruined dinner for all of us!”

Sound excessive or a little dramatic? It is both – and all in the service of self-punishment for making a perfectly normal, human mistake. Remember our discussion in the last blog post that we learn these behaviors in the service of learning to get along with other people? This internalized, savage self-critic didn’t start out abusing us because it was fun to do. It started because we learned (from other people) that this was necessary in order to get us to perform to crazy high standards of behavior –

So we could be acceptable, good enough in the eyes of those other people. Except that self-review with an eye to self-improvement is worlds away from savage self-criticism and self-derision.

Self-abuse like this tears us down, makes us doubt ourselves, saps vital energy in the fight to break anxiety’s hold in our thinking.

On-going Depression

It may seem weird, at first glance, to see on-going or long-term depression in a list of direct self-hating behaviors. I know it seemed that way to me. Rubin explains this in the following manner:

Depression is, in some respects, an effort to numb ourselves from ongoing pain and fear. That numbness is meant to protect us. But numbness is also a signal that we are running from long-term anxious thinking that is scaring us over and over again.

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And numbness also signals that we are NOT taking care of ourselves long-term. Short term numbness may be exactly what we need when we’re dealing with recent loss – the death of a loved one or the end of relationship. Nothing strange or dysfunctional about that.

But continuing to run from our world and the issues in it – that signals that we are in fact not taking care of ourselves. Of course depression is an extreme state – we really don’t FEEL like taking care of ourselves.

Yet that doesn’t take away from the truth that whether or not we FEEL like doing self-care, self-care is an act of self-love, and self-preservation. Which raises another issue: the notion that our feelings are somehow the arbiters of whether or not we should take action in taking care of ourselves! More about that later.

Depression isn’t just about not feeling like doing anything. Depression also always seems to be accompanied by terrible self-regard, almost a self-loathing. We’re not just bad, we’re terrible, we’re useless, there’s no point in us even walking the Earth anymore. We’re not just lonely – we deserve to be lonely, why would anyone love us anyway, etc.

If this kind of self-loathing, self-abuse isn’t self-hate, well, I don’t know what else it could be called.

OK. Enough with the list for now…

So how is this Horrible List of Self-Hating Behavior Supposed to help Me?

I’m glad you asked. 🙂 This list and detailed discussion of just SOME of the ways we practice self-hatred/self-abuse is all about helping us SEE what we’re doing to ourselves.

As I mentioned earlier a lot of us have come to believe that these self-hating behaviors are normal, even useful in keeping us “in the straight and narrow.” We’re wrong. It doesn’t help. It hurts, it does a lot of damage, and it is an enormous energy drain in the face of the already-impressive energy suck of ongoing anxiety. It’s getting in the way and actively slowing us down, even crippling us.

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We need to understand that we’re aggressively involved in our own self-hurt when we are caught up in any of the behavior listed in this blog post. That DOESN’T mean we should start a litany of how awful or stupid we are because we are doing these things. We didn’t set out to treat ourselves this way, and we won’t just stop on a dime.

Here’s what we can start doing (and we’ll discuss this more next blog post):

1) Start catching ourselves when we do verbal self-abuse – externally or internally. Even just becoming aware of this habit is a great first step.

2) STOP doing it when we catch ourselves doing it. This is harder than it sounds. Habits tend to be stubborn and persistent unless we practice new behaviors over time. We need to make an effort – really call into question the automatic tendency to harshly criticize ourselves, or even just default to depression’s logic when we understand that even baby steps towards self-care can make a difference.

3) GET HELP. So much of what self-hate and self-abuse are about is making sure we “get it right” or “measure up.” One of the most effective ways to disrupt that pattern of thinking and reacting is to, in a very real sense, come out of the closet – start acknowledging in a real and personal way your own humanity, your own less-than-perfectness. Scary, I know…

What kind of help? A therapist is a good place to start. Oh, yeah, and while you’re there, get really honest about some of this behavior. They can’t help what they don’t know about.

Next post – more about the nature of self-hate – and what we can do about it.

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