I’ve begun to notice that I have a choice whether or not to beat myself up. Up until this time in my life, coming down hard on myself has been reflexive and involuntary. But it’s no mere reflex– it’s a conditioned behavior that comes with a strange reward, and I think I am addicted to it. When I realize I’m entering a situation where I have the choice to hate myself on top of whatever is happening externally, it’s difficult not to go for it. Even though self-loathing feels awful– indeed, it is the main source of suffering in my life most of the time– in the moment, I am more afraid of not doing it than doing it.
Here’s a concrete example. One morning a few weeks ago, I turned off my alarm and went back to bed for just a few more minutes (that most dangerous game). When I woke up again, I misread my fitbit and thought it was only 8:28 instead of 9:28. I started in on a leisurely morning, and by the time I checked my phone, I realized I was supposed to be at a 10’o’clock appointment across the river in 13 minutes!
This fuckup was a good microcosm of daily shame triggers for me. I label myself as lazy and a flake, neither of which I think are okay. I was lazy and irreponsible to go back to bed without setting an alarm. I often misread numbers like flight times, room numbers, or the time, leading to mistakes in scheduling. It’s an inadequacy I’m ashamed of, and I live in fear of the blunders it causes. On top of that, I have intentionally been cutting way back on the systems I used to combat my flakiness because they’ve become neurotic and possibly don’t help overall.* Hence, when I made a scheduling mistake, I felt like I’d been caught too-big-for-my-britches, thinking I could do without my huge former personal bureaucracy. So although being late to an appointment is not that big of a deal, and I had a sense of proportion about it, it was pricking me in my soft spots.
In the moment I realized I’d be scrambling just to get to my appointment very late, I saw a fork in the road ahead of me. For one of the first times I can recall, I felt like I could choose to go down my usual path of self-loathing and panic OR I could simply do all the same actions to get there quickly without feeling bad about myself. You would think not having to feel bad about yourself is the obvious choice, but the idea of not scourging myself was scary. Every step of the way– texting that I’d be very late, getting ready, getting to the T stop, etc.– I had to be brave and remind myself that I didn’t have to spur myself along with self-hatred. Choosing not to feel abject panic and flat-out run to the T stop, even though I knew it would only save me about 30 seconds, was hard. Not ruminating over the situation on the T was difficult, even though it couldn’t possibly have affected has fast the train went. I felt vulnerable, like the person I was meeting would see that I hadn’t killed myself to get there as fast as possible and hold my insouciance in contempt.
Not pummeling myself made me feel sure that the blows would still come, just from someone else. They’d see how cavalier I was being after failing to be a decent human being and just let loose on me. I feel that I’m supposed to punish myself, that it undoes the damage I do by not being diligent or conscientious. To be a friend to myself when I fucked up felt like getting away with something bad.
Most of all, being kind to myself when I screwed up made me feel like I was settling for a flawed version of myself, making it real, saying it was okay for that to be the real me. Hating myself and punishing myself for my imperfections is a way of convincing myself that I’m better than I actually am, because I don’t just let myself be a normal person– whatever actually happened is an aberration from my “true,” perfect self. Through some barely conscious, superstitious reasoning process, I believed that by abusing myself I was paying the price to expunge my record. If I’m not perfect, at least I persist in holding the stakes impossibly high! I’m still better than others because I don’t let myself off the hook for being human. And that’s the perverse reward I’m addicted to. I believe on some level that hating the real me keeps alive the possibility of the fantasy me. My fear is that, if the fantasy me ever dies, so do my chances of being good enough.
You’ve probably already noticed a simple solution to my situation. I hate myself because I need to be perfect. I need to be perfect so that other people will love and approve of me. I need other people to love and approve of me so that I can love and accept myself. So, my internal logic is that I need to hate myself to love myself ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ So why didn’t I cut out the middleman and just love myself?
Because I feared that I would be a fool to accept myself. What if I wasn’t watching myself critically, and somebody else noticed something first? What if I was a laughingstock and had no idea how wrong and stupid I was to love myself? Basically, I wasn’t sure that the real, actual, current me was good enough. I wanted guarantees before I stuck my neck out for myself. But I now believe that being brave enough to be your own best friend is the thing that makes you see you are good enough.
When self-loathing feels perversely safe and comforting, the cure is the courage to let go of that protective cover and embrace your perfectly imperfect self. There were eras of my life where I clutched that twisted safety blanket so tightly I did not know that I was holding it. It felt like part of me, simply a feature of my mind. The biggest reason I didn’t let self-hatred go is that I didn’t know I could, because I didn’t see how I was choosing– in so many little moments like realizing was going to be late to an appointment across the river– to hold on to it.
I know I’m hardly the first to offer a prescription of self-love. But I’ve rarely heard anyone else talk about the “benefits” of self-loathing. As David Burns, cognitive behavioral therapist and author of Feeling Good, often says, there are payoffs to dysfunctional attitudes that sufferers are sometimes unwilling to give up. Chronic worrying, for example, is a maladaptive coping mechanism that gives a temporary sense of control. People always think they want to stop worrying, but they only want to give it up on their terms. They don’t want to give up worrying when they will still have to deal with stressful situations or the possibility of danger. They want their worrying to end because they’re safe and there’s nothing left to worry about. In order to give up the comfort of compulsive worrying, you need to brave the edginess and discomfort of not always knowing how things will turn out. And, I suspect, to get over self-loathing, you have to be willing to face the fear and discomfort of not knowing whether other people think you’re good enough.
Self-loathing can get comfortable, even addictive, because it feels like doing something about the possibility of being loathed by others, which you can’t actually control. Giving up that defense mechanism makes me feel edgy and exposed. When you stop preemptively hating yourself, though, and you’re on your own side, you realize 1) that making yourself miserable offers almost no net protection from outward miseries** anyway, and 2) the hatred others can give you is a pale shadow of the hatred you can give yourself. You can’t protect yourself from shame and disapproval by beating others to the punch– all you’ll be doing is compulsively punching yourself. So that rather than being prepared you’ll find yourself much more worn down when you actually catch one of life’s punches, and you’ll be sabotaging the most important relationship in your life: your relationship with yourself.
*I was fully compliant with Getting Things Done for, like, two years, and it did compensate for my weaknesses and free up my mind in some ways. It also made it possible for me take on too many things and not be able to do them all, which is why I say it might not have helped my conscientiousness overall. GTD left me with no excuse for not being hyper-accountable. I wrote down every possible task I was supposed to do, so I was always faced with the sheer magnitude of things I was failing to do. In parallel, writing down everything and having a system to tell me exactly what I was supposed to do when kind of put my brain on autopilot. I thought I wanted that, an external brain, but actually I think I prefer to have my internal brain awake and managing some of these things so that my well-being doesn’t depend on checking my phone for instructions all the time.
**Pre-emptive self-loathing may lead you to take fewer risks and therefore offer fewer opportunities for people not to like you. But it also robs you of the joy and self-loathing-fighting sense of acceptance or self-assurance that might have come from taking those risks.