Truly, we beat ourselves up for things that others would never even think about, let alone berate us for, and we often hold ourselves up to damned near impossible standards.
That’s all pretty normal.
What can be a cause for concern is when several contributing factors all team up to make us truly despise ourselves…
…which can have some pretty devastating consequences if not sorted out sooner rather than later.
It can leak out into daily life and wreak havoc on our relationships, work, and overall well-being.
Later, we’ll explore some of the key symptoms of a self-loathing mindset, but before we do so, let’s ask where it comes from.
The Roots Of Self-Loathing
Let’s be clear: there is no singular cause of self-loathing. The human mind is too complex to distill into one catchall reason.
But we can try to identify some of the things that may contribute to a less than rosy picture of oneself.
Some people may learn to loathe themselves after years of neglect as a child. They may be “taught” to have a low opinion of themselves due to the way they are treated and spoken to.
Their caregivers may have driven home the message that they are worthless and useless and undeserving of love, and the child grows up believing this.
Similarly, emotional and psychological abuse as an adult can dismantle an otherwise healthy self-image and lead to a distortion of one’s beliefs and thoughts.
Trauma at any stage of life can cause large shifts in the way we view ourselves and our self-esteem. Singular events can cause ripples that spread out into our future and erode the foundations of our self-concept.
Often experienced as part of a wider depression, self-loathing can also have a chemical cause. The brains of sufferers might not function they way they should and this can lead to an imbalance of certain chemical processes.
This wiring and the resultant chemical changes may be linked to a person’s experiences and they can also have a genetic factor.
Self-Loathing Is Often Self-Reinforcing
Have you ever heard of confirmation bias?
It’s the tendency of the human mind to search for evidence that supports its beliefs. Or interpret evidence that might contradict its beliefs as false.
So if you believe in a particular idea – that climate change is not due to the actions of mankind, for example – you not only seek out evidence that confirms your view, but you discredit anything that may contradict it (while simultaneously ignoring flaws in the supporting evidence).
What does this have to do with self-loathing?
Well, people don’t hate themselves for no reason. They may have a long list of things about themselves that they don’t like.
Flaws they believe they have.
Aspects of their bodies or minds or even their spirits that they think are “wrong” in one way or another.
And they look for ways to confirm these thoughts and beliefs while refuting anything that might suggest otherwise.
And the “evidence” they find to confirm their self-loathing is often tenuous at best and sometimes a pure fabrication of their own minds.
Failures of any kind are seen entirely as negatives and not as the learning experiences that they truly are.
They are simply an excuse for them to beat themselves up even more. To belittle their abilities and deem themselves incapable and incompetent.
When they interact with other people, they watch for any response that may confirm their beliefs. And if these are not forthcoming, they may bait people into them or simply make them up in their minds.
They “see” things in other people’s behavior as somehow a reflection of their own self-worth.
They lap up criticism while ignoring praise.
They hone in on the tiniest of details while ignoring the overall context and sentiment.
They want to believe that their self-loathing is entirely justified.
They don’t want to believe that it may not be justified.
The Symptoms Of Self-Loathing
When someone despises themselves, it influences the way they think and behave.
These thoughts and actions can be considered symptoms of the overarching belief that the person is not “good” or deserving in any way.
There are many, but here are 11 of the most common.
1. Under- or Over-Eating
Many people who struggle with self-loathing punish themselves with food: either by not eating enough of it, or binging.
Those who deny themselves food often feel like they don’t deserve the nourishment, or they’ll deny themselves everything except foods they dislike as a sort of punishment for even existing.
Those who overeat do so in order to feel shame later: it’s a solid excuse for despising themselves.
2. Physical Neglect
People may stop bathing regularly, stop brushing their hair or teeth, wear the same clothes to sleep in that they wore during the day, etc.
They stop caring about their physical appearance, and neglect even the basics of personal hygiene…
…not necessarily because they truly don’t care, but because they may feel like they don’t deserve to look or feel “good.”
They punish themselves with neglect, and then feel validated in hating themselves more and more.
“Why bother trying, I’m just going to suck at it anyway.”
“I’m going to fail at this.”
“This isn’t going to work.”
Negative self-talk like that sets a person up for failure, which reinforces their sense of self-loathing and shame.
It also prevents them from taking part in anything that might bring them joy or fulfillment, since they’ve convinced themselves ahead of time that they’ll suck at anything they try.
Either in an attempt to punish themselves for various reasons, or in a feeble attempt to gain worth in other people’s eyes, people who suffer with self-loathing will often sacrifice themselves in any number of different ways.
Since they can’t drum up any feelings of pride for themselves, they try to appear noble in action so others will take pity on them and value them for their martyrdom.
In their suffering, they gain a measure of self-worth, even if the actions they take are destroying them and everyone around them.
The person who despises themselves and their life circumstances may just “lie back and take it” instead of doing anything about it.
They may complain bitterly about the hand they’ve been dealt, but if given the chance to actually improve their circumstances, they choose to be passive and just keep taking it instead.
This kind of behavior is comparable to gripping a burning coal tightly in one’s fist, crying about how badly it burns, but refusing to open one’s fingers to let it go.
As soon as that happened, they would begin to heal… but instead, they cling.
6. Hostility Towards Perceived “Threats”
They might decide to dislike a peer at work because they think the other person is valued more highly than they are, or more likely to receive the promotion they want.
They may lash out at a romantic partner for talking to another person because they think the other is “better,” more attractive, or more successful than they are, and that their partner will leave them for the other.
Everything is a threat to the small piece of comfort they may have dug for themselves, and they’ll freak out if anything threatens that, even in theory.
7. Unnecessary Spending
When one hates oneself for a number of different reasons, happiness and fulfillment are often gained via material possessions.
A person might have a collection that they add to whenever they have cash to play with, or they’ll go on shopping sprees in the hope that maybe, just maybe, this new stuff will be the magical key to making them feel fulfilled instead of hollow and full of shame and self-hatred.
Some people even choose to spend great gobs of money on other people to try to prove that they’re worth being liked.
This can alienate the very people they’re trying to get close to, as there aren’t many who feel comfortable being barraged with “stuff,” especially if it’s expensive.
…so instead of feeling like a stranger, alienated and alone even in a group, they’ll hide away alone instead.
If invited out, they’ll consider it to be pity, and may convince themselves that nobody else understands them, and they’ll just spend time alone, at home, wishing things were different, but not doing anything to make that a reality.
9. Drug and/or Alcohol Abuse
Intoxicants can work wonders to numb uncomfortable or unwanted emotions, and they have the added benefit of making the user feel absolutely horrible the next day.
When people suffer from self-loathing, they tend to feel that they deserve the hangovers and fallout from their drug abuse.
They feed off their own shame, and end up getting drunk or high all over again to escape the shameful, hurting feelings.
It’s a vicious cycle that’s difficult to break free from, especially if a person has been stuck in that rut for many years. There’s a certain comfort to be found in self-cruelty, alas.
10. Relationship Sabotage
Since a lot of self-loathing people feel that they don’t deserve love, or beauty, or kindness, or anything other than a kick to the stomach when they’re already down, many of them will sabotage their relationships in order to keep others from getting too close to them.
They might neglect or be physically abusive toward their partners, or cheat on them, or just mistreat them in general…
…and then when the partner leaves, they feel justified in their behavior because hell, they left, didn’t they?
Some self-loathers will even go so far as to abandon and ghost their partners, even if they really love them and want to be with them.
The rationale being that they’d rather take charge and hurt on their own terms, than risk being surprised and hurt when their loved ones eventually left them.
Some even consider that kind of abandonment to be a noble gesture: they feel that since they will inevitably end up hurting those they love, it’s somehow better for them to set their loved ones “free.”
Free from the hurt they might, possibly inflict.
11. Refusal To Get Help
Sadly, one of the greatest hallmarks of self-loathing is the refusal to get any kind of help.
A person who is mired in this kind of mindset has a tendency to brush off any suggestion of the sort, because they “know” that it won’t help.
That nothing will help.
That any attempt they make will fail, and all therapists and counselors will just put them on meds (which they feel won’t help) or pretend to listen to their problems, so there’s just no point.
It may almost seem like they enjoy their misery on some level: they find a type of comfort in self-pity and self-hatred, and wouldn’t know who they would be without all of that negativity.
They might even be afraid that if they free themselves from it, it would just be a temporary fix and would then come back again with a vengeance…
…so it’s better to just keep plodding on while it’s at a level they consider to be manageable, regardless of how devastating it is.
This refusal to get help is one of the very reasons why those close to the self-loather end up frustrated, and eventually defeated by their behavior.
You can’t help a person who isn’t willing to help themselves, and no amount of reassurance or unconditional love will force a person to get the help they need.
How To Tackle Feelings Of Self-Loathing
When a person does want to get out of the mindset they are in, how do they go about it?
Firstly, it’s worth saying that it IS possible to transform the way you think about yourself. And your life can be better for it.
You have to show a willingness to work on yourself. Any change of this magnitude will take time and effort.
There is no magic cure.
Change is a process and the path is not always a straight one. There will be setbacks. You may not always be able to see what’s coming around the next bend.
But if you stick to it, the path will eventually lead to a new and more positive way of thinking about yourself.
Professionals Really Can Help
As discussed above, a person who is mired in self-loathing might be skeptical about how much a professional therapist or counselor will help.
To combat this, they must suspend their disbelief and remain open-minded to the possibility that this professional knows what they are talking about.
They may not trust themselves, but they must trust in the advice they receive and commit to implement any suggestions made.
Rather than resist the process, they might try to approach it with an attitude of “what have I got to lose?”
They must defy their defeatism. They might not believe it is going to work, but they must not make excuses for not trying.
This, in itself, is a battle, because they will likely believe that they are unworthy of feeling good about themselves.
Reverse The Confirmation Bias
Earlier on, we explained how a person’s confirmation bias can reinforce the self-loathing they feel.
But this same mechanism can be used to combat those very feelings.
For it to work, a person must try to remain conscious of their own thoughts and behaviors. And they must guide those thoughts to a different place to that which they would naturally go.
In a negative feedback loop, you seek out information that confirms your self-loathing beliefs.
In a positive feedback loop, you can seek out information that confirms just how valuable you are as a person.
You purposefully look for instances that show your true worth.
These will often be small things, but they have a cumulative effect.
Perhaps you made a colleague laugh. Maybe you cooked your family a delicious meal that they were quick to compliment.
Did you help a stranger who’d tripped and fallen? Were you asked to play an important role on your friend’s wedding day?
When anything like this happens, simply ask what it means.
Be critical in your thinking and put yourself in the shoes of an observer. What would they think if they saw these things? What impression would they get of that person?
The answer each time should, hopefully, be that they are adding to the world in which they find themselves and the lives they share with others.
They are a net contributor. Society benefits from their presence. They matter to others.
These are the sorts of thoughts and beliefs that need to be confirmed by the bias of seeking out the positive things that you do or are a part of.
The more you look for these things, the more your mind can form a positive bias that it can confirm each time.
But there is another part of the equation.
Each time your mind reverts to its current tendency to seek the negative, you ought to take the thought and be as critical as you can with it.
This means really inspecting whether or not your interpretation of the facts is correct.
So if you believe that someone dislikes you because of what they said or did, ask whether this is truly the case or whether your mind has merely implied this reason based on spurious evidence.
And if you think you’re stupid, try to consider times where your knowledge and expertise has counted. Times when someone has relied on you because you knew something that they didn’t.
Basically, you have to push back against your initial negative response and question its validity.
And the more often you can do this, while priming the positive bias pump at the same time, the more you’ll be able to shift your mindset.
To Self-Acceptance And Beyond!
No, it’s not Buzz Lightyear’s new catchphrase. It’s the journey you are about to undertake.
You see, the feelings you have for yourself sit somewhere along a spectrum from self-loathing to self-love. Self-acceptance sits somewhere in the middle like this:
Right now, you may put yourself at the far left of this line, and your challenge is to slowly move along it toward the center.
Self-acceptance is enough to aim for right now. Self-love is something that almost everybody strives for. But the truth is, most people struggle with it.
If you can keep the positive confirmation bias going and halt the negative confirmation bias in its tracks, you’ll eventually find yourself moving in a positive direction along the line:
You will experience setbacks along the way. There will be some resistance to this change from deep within your unconscious psyche.
It shouldn’t discourage you to know there will be struggles. We all face struggles. Overcoming them can be some of the most empowering moments of your life.
But it is best to be mentally prepared for them.
The key is persistence and consistency.
And you ought not to become complacent when you find yourself moving in the right direction.
Good mental health is a lot like good physical health – it requires you to maintain good habits for life.
Just as dieters can see their weight yo-yo, it is possible to experience a back and forth of your self-esteem.
But what exactly is this self-acceptance you are aiming for?
It’s a mindset that allows you to look at who you are right here and now and accept it – the good and the bad.
It’s not a feeling of powerlessness. It’s not you saying, “I can’t change who I am.”
It’s you saying “This is who I am today and I accept this reality. But I know that I have it within me to change and grow as a person.”
It takes a lot of mental energy to NOT accept who you are in the present moment. It is a form of denial.
And as soon as you release yourself to the reality of what is, that energy can be used for other things.
So keep self-acceptance as you aim.
In this article, we’ve spoken about the roots of self-loathing, we’ve looked at some of the symptoms of it, and we’ve explored ways to overcome this mentality and move toward a more peaceful and content place.
Self-loathing is a prison within the mind. It may feel familiar and secure and you may not want to taste the freedom that exists on the outside, but once you do, you’ll realize how restricted you really were.
Be good to yourself. Know that you are worthy of feeling good.
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais region. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.