Why Am I So Hard on Myself?

by Sue Carlson, MA, LMHC

After I had done the ‘Vagina Monologues’ I was feeling pretty good about my vagina. I thought I was kind of home free, and then I looked down one day and discovered my not-so-flat post-40 stomach and I realized that self-hatred had moved up.” –Eve Ensler

The topic of self-hatred isn’t easy or nice. But, it’s real and can be deadly. If you suffer from crippling self-loathing, I don’t need to tell you how bad it can get in your head. While each person’s story is unique, there are also common characteristics.

I recently heard a colleague remark, “We are all born premature. Without the care of the grown-ups in our lives, we would die.” So true; babies can’t physically survive by themselves. What is also true, and sometimes a scarier thought, is that babies depend on their caregivers for emotional and psychological development. Our basic sense of worth — of who and what we are, of what we can expect from others in relation to us — is formed out of our earliest attachments.

If you are someone who gets crippled by self-loathing, often feels emotionally numb or empty, struggles with perfectionism, and tends towards caretaking of others while neglecting yourself, you most likely suffer with what is known as an “insecure attachment” style. Parental inconsistencies of care or childhood experiences of neglect, violence, physical and sexual abuse, can wreak havoc on your emotional well-being, and impair your ability to trust and form a secure attachment with a caregiver.

If you have an insecure attachment style, you’re more likely to turn on yourself, and attempt to control or deny your needs and feelings, by relating to yourself in a harsh and punishing way. You’re also more likely to cling to false hope in the form of perfectionism to cope with deep feelings of insecurity and inadequacy.

If you grew up with inconsistent care, where sometimes your needs were met while at other times they were ignored, you’re more likely to struggle with feeling victimized by difficult situations and circumstances. You’re also more likely to blame yourself when things go wrong and hate yourself for not being able to “make it better.”

If you grew up with parental neglect, you likely hold the belief that deep down you are unlovable. You may compensate by being incredibly proficient and self-sufficient in all that you do. You are also likely to take on the role of caregiver to everyone else to the point where your needs go unseen and unmet. You may deny your needs with self-neglect and then hate yourself for being “selfish” and “indulgent” when you give in to the demand of the unmet need.

If you grew up with violence and abuse, you may dissociate (i.e., become numb and unaware of painful feelings) in response to intense feelings. You may have deep mistrust of others because the ones who you needed to keep you safe were the ones who hurt you. Children often believe that they are bad in order to preserve the belief that the parent who they need is good. Even when a person grows up and knows it wasn’t her fault, she may still feel it was/is and struggle with self-loathing and shame.

So, is there help? The answer is yes. Healing towards a deep sense of self-worth and healthy relating is possible.

First of all, it is important to start paying attention to your self-hatred. Often, one’s internal critical dialogue is relentless and unquestioned — it just IS. Your unquestioned assumptions and beliefs about yourself and your place in this world get felt as the truth.

If you can get in touch with the nature of your self-attack, then you can begin to find your way to what the attack is defending against. You may be attacking yourself as a way of not feeling your hurt, sadness, loneliness, and helplessness. It can feel terrifying to acknowledge and be with what is overwhelming and terribly painful. This is where therapy — specifically, the therapeutic relationship — can help. Perfectionism, harsh inner negative thinking, and self-attacking thoughts and behaviors, thrive in isolation. It is next to impossible to be drowning in self-hatred and feel open to your vulnerable feelings. Therapy allows the possibility for you to develop a safe and trusting relationship with someone who can help you begin to feel safe with your feelings, begin to feel self-worth, and to understand your patterns in relationships so that change is possible.

The above article expresses the opinions of the author and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of other members of the Women’s Therapy Referral Service.