Self-Loathing: A curious phenomena

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In as much as hypocrisy may be the homage vice pays to virtue (attributed to François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, Prince de Marcillac: 15 September 1613–17 March 1680) in the perennial wrestling between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, perhaps too self-loathing may be the tribute suffering pays to love.

Etymologically, to loathe one’s self may also be understood as finding one’s self displeasing, or to be disgusted with one’s self, or to hate one’s self. In short, it is to wish that one’s ‘self’ is some other ‘self’ instead of what it is’ at that moment, i.e. not only has you have judged the present is-ness your ‘self’ to have fallen short of what “it should be”, you are also insistent on pubishing yourself. This distinction is very crucial because it is possible to judge oneself unfavourably without succumbing to self-loathing. This hinges on the ability to acknowledge, accept and course correct.

Note that the above description logically requires two selves to be present, where self #1 is the judge + punisher, and self #2 is the one being judged and punished. This is the realisation that Eckhart Tolle came to when the insight dawned on him (paraphrased), “wait, there is a ‘me’, who is proclaiming that there is an ‘Iwho is thinking a thought … so there must be two selves here!”

In other words, if there is an “I” who is directing the loathing at a “me”, and we’ve ‘simply’ jumbled the two into a singular “self”, what would happen if we separate these two selves ? As a thought experiment, let’s imagine that “I” (aka the judge) is the cognitive-self, and “me” (aka the one being judged) as the emotive-self, and we’ll assign self #1 to “I” and self #2 to “me”.

Let’s use a scenario where a copious amount of chocolate’s been consumed. This was because rattled nerves needed to be soothed after a stressful event. Self #1 (the cognitive self) knew that a walk in the park had equally been an option that was not exercised. And so began to blame and shame self #2 (the emotive-self) for the ‘wrong’ decision, who in return blamed and shamed self #1 for falling asleep at the wheel instead of doing its job of steering towards the ‘right’ decision. To which self #1 blamed and shamed self #2 for failing to flag the trigger, and in return, self #2 blamed and shamed self #1 for sleeping at the control centre and failing to notice the trigger warning that was sent. As you may imagine, this tit-for-tat oftentimes continue ad-infinitum.

This separation (as a thought experiment) then makes possible the to give the two selves different roles and thus changing the nature of the relationship between them by uncoupling judging and punishing. But before we explore what this may look like, it’s helpful to wonder how the conversation came to be this way to begin with.

How it all began: A genesis theory

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It’s been theorised that this pattern of internal dialogue began in childhood when primary caretakers blame and shame a child’s behaviour, either subtly or blatantly, by expressing disapproval, displeasure, anger, impatience, annoyance etc. In other words, a child is being made to feel bad that their “is-ness” doesn’t measure up to how they “should” be acting.

And because a child is (naturally) the center of their own world, and everything revolves around them, and everything is “about me”, it totally makes sense that it’s their fault. Which is to say that unless taught, a child is inclined to believe that they are at fault, and it is they (not the adults) who’ve done something “bad” / “wrong”. A child suffers this pain because they love their primary caregivers, and perhaps as a way to minimise future transgressions, a child gradually learns to internalise the adult voice. Hence the observation:

Self-loathing may be the tribute suffering pays to love.

For me as a parent, it is an indescribable tragedy to contemplate the possibility that there may be some truth in this theory. As much as I am convinced as a social scientist that the study of human nature can never be an exact science, it has also been my lived experience that adults often project their own fears and insecurities onto a child.

In taking for granted a child’s love, we unwittingly do violence unto their budding consciousness.

Feedback Loops: How internalisation takes root

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We humans have the curious ability to think about our thinking, and therefore to generate self-sustaining feedback loops, for better or for worse. And it may be that the “thought” that we think the most about are the ones with the strongest “emotional charge”, and these often arise in relation to needs that are (perceived to be) consistently unmet.

To be clear, the needs referred to here are fundamental human needs, and not desires or wants. A helpful analogy is how we eat, i.e. we only think about food when we are hungry (biological need), or stressed (psychological need), or bored (habituated ‘need’). When hunger arises (for whatever reason), it;s difficult to ignore the sensation until it is being satisfied with the ingestion of food. And we naturally stop eating during a meal when we feel satiated, i.e. the need for sustenance is being fulfilled.

In other words, this self-loathing internal dialogue will keep looping until the underlying needs are addressed. And the longer it loops, the more entrenched it becomes, the more familiar it feels, the more natural it seems, the more it feels like our identity. And if somethings is part of our identity, it’s easy to believe that it’s necessary to our survival, i.e. we’ve become addicted to the self-loathing. Eventhough the self-loathing feedback loop is a biography (we wrote the script), we’ve come to believe that it is our identity.

So where does this leave us?

In brief, if you are a primary care-giver to a child, role model (not teach) how to 1) mourn a behaviour that has created suffering for others; 2) restore that which has been broken; and 3) celebrate the restoration.

Yes, you’re right in thinking that you have to first learn how to do that yourself, and it begins with compassion for all the selves that makes up “you”. Which also means that even if you’re not a primary caregiver to a child, you are a primary care-giver to yourself, i.e. you are parenting the child who is within you. Try these resources out as first steps:

  1. One thing you can immediately start doing: The first step in activating compassion, is the Breath
  2. If you listen to podcasts, check out Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s teachings on Nonviolent Communication
  3. For something a bit cheeky, read Mark Mansons’ <The Subtle Art of not giving a F*ck>
  4. The ancient Tibetan practice of Lojong (བློ་སྦྱོང), a practical guide being <Training in Compassion> by Norman Fischer, and a more in-depth understanding being <Practice of Lojong> by Traleg Kyabgon.

Parting Thoughts: Hope

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Hope because the degree of loathing is only ever a reflection of the depth of love and caring. Sure it’ll take time to peel away all those layers of self-loathing, and perhaps where you are now, there may be a sense of quite despair that you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel … what I may offer is the assurance that though you may think that this journey is linear with an “end goal”, you’ll be delighted to discover that it’s more like a journey towards the center of the earth, for you’ll find yourself right back where you started, but the landscape will have profoundly changed. For a sense of what this may feel like, read Paulo Coelho’s <The Prophet>, and listen to his On-Being interview, aptly titled <The Alchemy of Pilgrimage>.

PS. If you are curious about how I came to compassion, click here 🌹

Executive Doctoral Candidate * 6x Entrepreneur * Nonviolent Communication Mediator * Healing & Reconciliation Facilitator * Compassion Coach *

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