It is work of the utmost importance that each of us become aware of, and then find ways of working with, our self-loathing.
Does that seem too strong a way to say it?
This is not an easy subject to write about or speak about. You may find that the merest suggestion that you experience self-loathing stirs up strong feelings that would have you stop reading right away. Anger, ridicule, judgement at what’s being proposed here – all of these have been my stirred within me as I’ve studied this subject, and my own relationship to it, in the past.
But many of us do walk around with an almost perpetual background of quite intense self-dislike. You might be familiar with its more accessible surface manifestation, self-judgement, or the inner-critic which I’ve written about here previously. If you’re prepared to examine further you might well discover that behind the critic lurks a much bigger and deeper phenomenon, a continual assessment that you’re out of place in the world, not welcome, and that it’s all deserved.
In my case it occurs most readily as a continual gnawing sense that I’ve done something wrong already that I don’t know about, but which everyone else does. It can lead readily to shame (even in the most innocuous of situations) and holding myself back, or sometimes an angry, resentful self-righteousness. I’m absolutely sure I’m not alone in this. I’ll wager, moreover, that most people live under the shadow of this for much of their adult lives.
Babies, when newborn, don’t have any kind of self-loathing as far as I can tell, and nor do very young children. Just watch as they express themselves freely without inhibition, far removed from any sense that they may be judged by others or that it is proper and fitting to judge themselves. But if you watch children you know and love acquire language and then start to make their first halting attempts to fit into the social world with its niceties and manners and particular-way-things-are-done you might spot its beginnings.
By the time we’re young adults we’ve mostly fully taken on, and applied to ourselves, the widely shared narrative of our culture, not often spoken about, that people are essentially faulty and need some kind of constant correction. Even if we can’t see it in ourselves we can maybe see it in our interactions with others. It’s present every time we find ourselves judging them for, in some essential way, falling short of our high expectations. We can be sure that the unreachable expectations we’re projecting on other people are really just a version of what some part of us is demanding of ourselves.
And while it may be unavoidable that we get some measure of self-loathing by growing up in the particular culture of these times, I think its continuation into adulthood is in a sense quite egotistical. We may not even know that we’re doing it, but our private insistence that we are in some way uniquely broken, uniquely in need of repair, uniquely suffering puts us in the centre of the world in a way that doesn’t at all match how things are. It has us feeling different, special, alone, separated from each other, in some kind of special privileged place of difficulty. And then it has us engage in all kinds of tactics to deal with how all of it feels – getting really busy, pushing ourselves and others very hard, trying to stay in control, becoming cynical, overextending ourselves to gain the love of other people, jumping from one project to another, martyring ourselves to causes (a corporation, tidiness, social recognition, a religion, fame) that we never chose for ourselves.
Our culture has been deeply influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud, who many have understood to say that at heart human beings really are broken, a roiling cauldron of barely repressible urges, and the most we can hope for is to find a way to get along with all that in play. This kind of interpretation of human beings would give self-loathing a home, telling us that we must first face it and then learn to live with it. Perhaps it’s the fear that this is all that’s available to us that has us deny its existence at all. We’d rather pretend we don’t feel this way than find out we’re stuck with it.
But I think there’s a different orientation available to us, one that’s hard to talk about without reverting to the imagery and symbolism of spiritual traditions. In Judaism, for example, there’s a strong commitment that human beings are made ‘in the image of the divine’, which is really the claim that at heart we’re not something broken at all but something sacred. In Tibetan Buddhism, there’s the notion of ‘basic goodness’ – the soft, tender centre of each of us that can respond with love and care to the suffering of others, and from which all right action flows.
Both traditions have a strong sense that it’s our responsibility is to find and cultivate our basic goodness, learn to trust it, and thereby bring something of value to the world. By abandoning such poetic and appreciative terms for human beings in our hyper-rational contemporary culture, we’ve made it very hard for ourselves to find ways to work with our self-loathing at all, which is why we’d rather pretend it’s not there, even while we’re suffering from its harshness and projecting it onto others.
But work on it we must, because it’s only when we’ve found a way of uprooting our constant comparisons and judgements of ourselves – and replacing them with love – that we have a chance of really addressing our own suffering. And a chance to make the full, true, and wholeheartedly generous contribution to life and other people that is so much needed from each of us.