Self-loathing is simultaneously harmful and useless.
All downside and zero upside.
So, why then, do so many of us fall into patterns of self-loathing?
For some of us, we are more or less content but we have these little areas of our life that make us hate ourselves just a tad. For others, self-loathing is a deep, repetitive, and all-consuming force that keeps them stuck in negative mental states to the point they have a hard time moving forward in life at all.
I’m not a Ph.D. psychologist, but I don’t need to be because, as a human being, I’m an expert in self-loathing. So are you. The keys to fixing the problem are already inside you. Let’s use this piece to unearth them so you can fix self-loathing once and for all.
You have a basic idea of where self-loathing comes from. We all have a sense of unease and anxiety that comes from the underlying idea that we’re not quite good enough.
Self-loathing eats at you because you know it’s something you can fix, yet you continue to fall into the same patterns over and over and over again. In everything I write, I make sure to highlight how much of an uphill battle you’re in when it comes to the mental work of change.
Ten Easy Steps to Success ™ ain’t gonna cut it, my friend. Working on yourself is a life-long pursuit with tons of pitfalls, obstacles, and setbacks. You’ll never perfect yourself fully. Impossible. It’s more like a battle to be a little bit less self-conscious and a little bit more confident each day.
We’re going to attack the origins of self-loathing from two angles — internal and external. Let’s start with talking about the internal factors that cause you to find refuge in self-pity.
It’s January 1st.
For the sixth consecutive year, you tell yourself you’re finally going to get in shape. You deeply understand how your fitness is affecting your life.
You look in the mirror naked and you don’t like what you see. Simple tasks like walking up the stairs make you feel tired to the point of feeling pathetic that you’d even get that tired. Then there are all the health factors that lead to the conclusion that you’ll die earlier than you need to.
Seems like enough motivation to get the job done, right?
You make a promise to yourself to get in shape and then you…break it. A few weeks into your resolution, you’re back where you started — on the couch watching Netflix and eating ice cream.
Self-loathing comes from breaking promises to yourself. Going deeper, self-loathing comes from breaking promises to yourself about matters that are very important to you like your health.
You have one job — to take care of yourself — and you repeatedly fail. This creates an identity as someone incapable of taking care of themselves. It’s really hard to shake, which leads to the next cause of self-loathing.
Your mind instantly adds context to anything you do. The most important layer of context you use is the idea that your actions aren’t just actions, but they are forces that dictate who you are.
You don’t just exhibit lazy behaviors. You’re a lazy person. You don’t just enter and exit a series of failed relationships. You’re unlovable and your failed relationships are proof.
Every behavior speaks as proof of who you are. You aren’t what you intend to do. You are what you do. Since what you do makes you who you are, you further lock yourself into a certain identity each time you do something that confirms it.
This is why people’s habits spiral out of control. You don’t just skip the workout. Since you see yourself as someone who isn’t healthy, you go the extra mile to prove it by binge eating after you decide to skip.
You do this because it’s hard to bear the fact that you could have a better life if you changed your actions but you’re just choosing not to. Turning your actions into unchangeable character traits lets you off the hook, so you’ll sabotage yourself to the point of real harm just to be let off that hook.
You use self-loathing to protect your ego. Self-loathing is egotistical. It’s egotistical because it causes you to place yourself in the center of the universe as if everyone is watching you when no one actually cares.
I’ll touch on this later, but to cure self-loathing you have to understand how much you love it. You might think that getting rid of self-loathing is a top priority for you when in reality, it’s the last thing you want to do.
You enter a mental space that’s scarier than self-pity when you decide to let go of it. In this mental space, there is just you and the feedback you get from the world with zero excuses or rationalization.
If you hate yourself, you get to tell yourself a story about how you would be successful if you didn’t hate yourself. This insight from The Last Psychiatrist explains it all.
is better than
<feeling terrible about yourself>
is better than
<the mental work of change>
You’d rather hate yourself than try because giving it your all and failing leaves you with nowhere to hide — mentally naked, alone, and with nowhere else to turn.
Sarah Jessica Parker is beautiful. In particular, I like her nose. I’ve always been attracted to unusual facial features. I could create an excel spreadsheet of women I’ve had a crush on who had ‘funny looking’ noses.
I can’t read her mind, but it seems like she owns it. She carries herself with a certain confidence and swagger. She’s stylish — at least Carrie Bradshaw is.
She’s rich, so she could’ve easily gotten a nose job but she didn’t. Some would perceive this feature as a flaw, but it may appear totally different in the eye of the beholder.
Contrast this with the way someone else might perceive having an unusual facial feature. Instead of making them unique, they perceive their features as flaws. Instead of stopping at ‘I have some flaws but I’m still worthy and lovable’ their flaws become ‘No one will be attracted to me because of my flaws.’
This is just one of many examples and most of us don’t run around in a constant state of self-loathing because of our perceived flaws. But they nag at us and hold us back from being our boldest and most confident selves.
Maybe it would be easier if we all had to fight the battle of self-loathing on a single front. But we also have to deal with external factors that cause self-loathing.
The internal and external causes create this chicken and egg scenario. They both feed into each other and you’re not quite sure which direction your self-perception is coming from.
Remember the key I mentioned earlier: treat this as an uphill battle and give it the type of sincere effort that it would take to win a war because make no mistake about it, you’re at war with your own mind and the environment you live in.
There are tons of environmental factors designed to exploit your insecurities, make you hate yourself, and do everything to fix the void instead of the things you should actually do to deal with it.
Capitalism is one of the most magical forces in the world. It’s also one of the primary sources of self-hatred in society. The capitalist machine needs good soldiers to keep it functioning.
How do you get people to sacrifice the majority of their working hours building out someone else’s dream? You incentivize them to do things they really do want to do for money. You get them to chase the money by playing on their insecurities.
If you don’t spend a third of your salary on an engagement ring, do you really love your wife? You’re not man enough to hunt and kill for that coin and make your woman happy?
Sure, you make six figures a year, but if you don’t have the biggest house on the block with the nicest yard, are you really all that successful?
Strip the logo from Nikes and they’re worthless to you because then, no one knows you own Nikes, which means no one knows you’re fashionable, which means no one knows your cool, which means you’re not cool.
A quote from Kanye West’s hit song All Falls Down Explains It All:
It seem we livin’ the American Dream
But the people highest up got the lowest self-esteem
The prettiest people do the ugliest things
For the road to riches and diamond rings
I remember reading this book about Tyra Banks that my mom bought.
In one section of the book, she shows a side-by-side comparison of her face with no makeup and a finished photo from a fashion shoot. She marked and highlighted all the ‘flaws’ on her face removed by photoshop — acne, moles, birthmarks, etc.
How many women compare themselves to fashion models and Instagram influencers who, when photoshopped, are literally not real? Having to wear makeup, edit your photos, and add filters to them before posting to Instagram can’t be a recipe for a healthy self-image.
From the male perspective, advertisers tend to play on insecurities that are tied to your masculinity — can you fight, fuck, and make money? If not, you’re not a man.
I could keep going, but you get the point. Advertisements and social media create a two-punch combo that makes you hate yourself for not living up to improbable, and sometimes literally impossible, standards.
All parents inadvertently screw up their children somehow. Parents are flawed human beings and they project those flaws onto their children even if they don’t mean to.
Think of how much your self-perception is shaped by your experiences with your parents, or a lack of experience because they ditched you all together?
When you’re a little kid, the way your parents see you means everything. They’re your superheroes and you want to live up to their expectations. It hurts when you let them down.
Drawing from TLP again, one of the worst things you can do isn’t to yell at your kids, but to sigh:
Frustration is released on the kid as contempt: the speaking with disgust, the sneering. “Jesus Christ, what is the matter with you? Are you retarded? Is this what you do in school, too? No wonder you can’t read.” You don’t see you do it, because you think it’s a brief interaction out of your day. But the kid feels the full force of it, and it represents a significant minority of the interactions he has with you.
There are so many little moments like this where our self-perception and need for validation get shaped by our interactions with our parents. We’ll touch deeper on this later, but if you want to undo the roots of your self-loathing caused by your parents, forgive them.
Understanding that your parents are fallible and deciding that they don’t have to dictate the way you feel about yourself means everything.
Negative experiences with your parents fall into a larger bucket called trauma. Trauma doesn’t just mean something serious and grave like physical abuse. Trauma is pretty much any situation that creates a little chink in your mental armor.
I used to get made fun of for being too dark-skinned. Other kids also made fun of me because I have large protruding eyes. They’d say I looked like a bug. We all have these little schoolyard experiences that shape us. Often, the schoolyard can be one of the cruelest places in the world.
A lot of trauma comes from your interactions with other people — parents, family, friends, peers, lovers, co-workers, etc. We have a subconscious need to value the opinions of others over our own.
In cases of deep trauma like abuse, we have the tendency to blame ourselves for what happened to us instead of realizing the abuse had nothing to do with who we are.
Dealing with all trauma is above my paygrade to talk about. In some cases, you might need to talk to someone. For me, personally, I tend to focus on separating what happens to me from who I am.
Now you have a deeper understanding of where self-loathing comes from, but how do you fix it? First, understand that having a deeper understanding of the source does help.
It keeps you from thinking you have this vague and formless enemy in your mind that’s impossible to defeat. Taking time to be a conscious observer of what causes you to feel the way you feel alleviates some of the pressure.
But you have to take action if you want to fix self-loathing. It’s a strange process, but you have to simultaneously work on yourself without feeling like you need to be fixed. You improve, but you do it from a place of power instead of a place of lack.
You know you’re already inherently valuable, but you work to accentuate the positives and alleviate the negatives to feel that value more often. Let’s take a look at some of my top recommendations for dealing with self-loathing.
I wrote an article called Stop Doing These Things. They’re Making You Hate Yourself.
Here’s a list of some of the items I mentioned:
It focuses on using the process of inversion. Instead of thinking about what will make things better, start by removing what makes things worse. Breaking cycles of self-sabotage and negative behaviors is no easy feat, but breaking vices and counterproductive habits will do more for your self-esteem than almost any other strategy.
Since that process is too long to tackle in a single blog post, I’ll leave you with some helpful resources:
To change your identity, you need proof instead of promises. Every action that confirms a new and better identity moves you closer to changing the way you view yourself.
The key to getting this process to work is simple: stack small wins as quickly as possible.
It’s no coincidence that there are popular books about changing habits that use words to describe small actions — Atomic Habits, The Slight Edge, and Tiny Habits to name a few.
When it comes to the mental work of change, people often fail because they bite off way more than they can chew. They do this out of arrogance. It feels a bit pitiful to lower your bar for success as low as it needs to be for you to make progress, but it’s the most effective way.
Say you struggle with major social anxiety. You might have to start with simply asking a stranger for the time.
Say you struggle with diet and fitness. Instead of intense two-hour-long gym sessions, you might have to start with ten-minute walks on your lunch break.
You get the point. If you’re struggling to adopt habits that’ll make you feel better about yourself, lower the bar as low as it needs to be to make progress fast.
The best definition of confidence I’ve ever heard comes from Mark Manson, author of the Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck:
The only way to be truly confident is to simply become comfortable with what you lack.
You’re not meant to be perfect. If you were perfect, there would be no flavor or color to your life. Often, not having one trait can make you stronger than others — the emotional equivalent of a blind person having a heightened sense of hearing.
Instead of running away from your perceived flaws and peculiarities, integrate them into who you are and even amplify them. Personalities are changeable, but you do have a solid and consistent core.
Highlight the strengths and mitigate the weakness by either ignoring them because they’re totally out of control or working on the ones you have a good shot at changing.
Continuing with the focus of accentuating the positive, try this exercise I learned from a mentor of mine. Take out a pen and paper. Write down 20 things you like about yourself.
Don’t stop until you reach 20 and do whatever mental gymnastics you need to do to finish the list — “I love my eyebrows. They’re really awesome.”
This exercise will help you realize just how many positive qualities you have. It will remind you to stop continually selling yourself short and realize you have a ton to offer the world.
I honestly don’t consider modesty a useful concept because most people don’t do it right. They feign modesty because they’re just insecure. Why shouldn’t you pat yourself on the back when you do well? Why shouldn’t you accept a sincere compliment?
If you want to stop self-loathing, remind yourself that you’re the shit.
Admit it, sometimes you are pretty self-congratulatory. You wouldn’t read self-help content if you didn’t think that the potential was in there somewhere. You know you have positive qualities you can highlight and build from, so keep reminding yourself of those qualities.
You’re the shit and you can do anything you want if you sincerely put your mind to it.
Once you get rid of shameful behaviors and shameful self-perception, you’re left with shamelessness. The more you shamelessly throw yourself into the world, into your work, into building the life you know you want to live, the less self-loathing you’ll feel.
Start small, yes. But, eventually, after you’ve built a foundation, go big.
When you throw yourself into life with vigor and intensity, you block out the space in your mind that feels self-doubt. You’re in too much motion to even worry about the way you feel.
Imagine a life where you wake up and you’re on.
You look in the mirror and remind yourself that you’re the shit. You work on your side project to start the day then go to work and give it your all. After that, you’re in the gym getting after it. Everywhere you go you interact with other people in a positive energetic way.
Instead of just waiting to somehow magically feel better about yourself, you’re in total attack mode seizing the day. Understanding the sources of self-loathing is useful, yes, but you’re better off erasing the traumatic experiences of the past by winning in the present.
You win for yourself. Not to keep up with the Joneses. Not because you’re trying to live up to society’s standards. But because you have a certain set of tasks you’ve always wanted to tackle and you want to spend the rest of your life tackling the goals for joy.
You have everything you need to not only change the way you view yourself, but change the world around you.