One of the strangest things about chronic self-loathing is how comfortable it can feel.
Self-loathing often comes up in discussions about depression and low self-worth, and people want advice on how to fight it. However, as horrible as it is, it can also feel strangely easy and comfortable, which helps it retain a firm grip on the psyche. The following are five potential reasons:
Even if something is deeply unpleasant, it can feel comfortable just because it’s familiar. If you’ve been living with self-loathing for a long time, it can seem like a part of you.
You may even associate self-loathing with love, or your experience of love. If you learned the language of self-loathing as a young child, its familiarity is rooted in the types of caregiving you grew up with. If you learned it in an adult relationship with a deeply critical or hostile partner, it can be tangled up with your conception of intimacy. As painful as it is, it’s what you know.
Who are you without self-loathing? That question can provoke a great amount of anxiety. When you attempt a major change, including a psychological change, you need to deal with uncertainty and some degree of pain and discomfort. If your self-loathing is weaker or absent, your life may ultimately become much better. But the transition to that new way of life – new attitudes, new ways of relating to yourself and others – isn’t easy.
Self-loathing may give you some protection against taking risks. Let’s say you’re anxious about going to a party. Your self-loathing thoughts pipe up and encourage you to stay at home. In these thoughts, you dwell on how supposedly unlikeable you are or how you aren’t capable of having fun and meeting people.
Another example is starting a creative project. You have an idea, but your self-loathing thoughts shoot it down. You begin to tell yourself that you have no talent and skill and that no one will like your work. So why bother?
As short-term protection, self-loathing can spare you from the possibility of rejections or mistakes. In the long-run, you may wind up missing out on a range of experiences.
The Ease of Negativity
Human beings generally have a “negativity bias,” a tendency to focus on and remember negative experiences more strongly than positive ones. To a certain extent, this tendency is useful, because it can help us identify and avoid dangers. However, it can also become exaggerated, a force of distortion and pain.
Self-loathing may be an exaggerated form of this bias, which already comes easily to us. With self-loathing, we focus almost exclusively on everything that we dislike about ourselves and our lives. There’s little or no room in our thoughts for things we do well or for small, lovely moments during the day. We think only about the insults against us, the mistakes or poor choices we’ve made, and the problems we face (including things that are not under our control, but that we may blame ourselves for anyway).
If self-loathing pushes us to put ourselves down, how can it possibly make us feel powerful?
In the throes of self-loathing, we may think of ourselves as uniquely horrible. No one is as awful as we are! No one messes up as much or has such a terrible effect on everything around them. In a strange way, these exaggerations may make you feel more influential, a bit larger-than-life in your supposed awfulness. You make yourself an award-winner for Worst Ever, a kind of dark self-importance.
When people self-harm (by cutting or hitting themselves, for example), they may experience a temporary relief from intense and painful emotions. The pain they inflict on themselves is a form of emotional release, or at least a distraction from what they’re feeling. It’s also a damaging behavior in the long-run and can become compulsive, which is why people who self-harm need to find other ways to handle their emotions.
Expressions of self-loathing may be similar to self-harm as a response to deep pain or spiraling thoughts. Whether you’re talking to yourself out loud or in your mind, you say how much you hate yourself, and the poisoned words numb or distract you – for a little while. The underlying problems remain.
Self-loathing talk can become compulsive. For example, you start to say horrible things to yourself every time you feel a surge of anxiety. After a while, the words become habitual. You may even feel soothed by the idea that you’re punishing yourself by saying these things, as if you’re a judge condemning your own “wrongness” and restoring some order.
Why Recognize the Comfortableness of Self-Loathing?
It’s counterintuitive to think of self-loathing as comfortable, or to think about how something can have harmful and soothing qualities mixed together. By understanding this aspect of self-loathing, we can better counteract it. That doesn’t mean that chronic self-loathing is experienced the same way by each individual or for the same reasons – understanding the underlying reasons is important too.