Why Does Self-Loathing Feel Comfortable?

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:

Familiarity

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.

Continue reading “Why Does Self-Loathing Feel Comfortable?”

One of the Biggest Effects of Our Pandemic Response

What’s being referred to as “learning loss” – the effects of distance learning and interruptions to education. The Guardian recently reported some worldwide data on children’s setbacks in literacy and math skills. This doesn’t cover the psychological effects; here’s some U.S. data shared by Pew.

When Is a Disorder a Disorder?

In this Reddit post, a man describes himself as a “happy loner” whose adulthood has been peaceful and enjoyable. But recently he learned about schizoid personality disorder and began to wonder if he has it and what it means for his life.

Let’s leave aside the question of whether or not he actually has this disorder. Had he never come across information about it, would he have continued being content with his life? Generally, distress is a major indicator of a psychological issue – distress and disruption to one’s life and ability to function. Would he have just kept enjoying his life?

Or would he have become discontented at some point, maybe wondering if he’s missing out on something? It’s hard to answer this question. People can live an unusual or off-the-beaten-track life with satisfaction and without harm to themselves or others.

Looking further down in the thread, I see that he mentions wanting to have a long-term relationship… so maybe that’s his area of discontent? He may not really desire relationships but he still wants to see if he can be in one successfully?

Maybe he has an underlying discontent that he was only vaguely aware of, but the information on schizoid personality disorder brought it to the forefront of his mind. He may be reacting to what he’s learned and maybe also to a perceived stagnation. A lot of times, people feel the need to try something new and see if it works for them better than their current way of life – not necessarily because they’re suffering, but because they want to explore other possibilities.

The responses on that thread include people telling him that he already has a good life and wondering what exactly he thinks he needs to change if he’s satisfied. Also, even if at some point he does wish to change his life, would he need a formal diagnosis and a psychologist?

Emma (2009) vs. Emma (2020)

It’s interesting how the same novel can give rise to multiple screen adaptations that are strikingly different in tone and their approach to the characters. Neither of them is really like the novel either, because you’re not going to capture the experience of reading Austen in a screen adaptation.

Overall, I prefer the 2009 Emma, but there were things I liked about the 2020 one too. I haven’t watched either of them recently, so I’m working from memory here.

In both versions, Emma is conscious of her social rank and needs to become more mature, considerate, and perceptive. The 2009 version brings out something a little vulnerable and lost in her, connected to the fact that she’s led a sheltered life and seen little of the world; also, the acting is more informal in that one, so her mannerisms come across as younger and even childish sometimes. In the 2020 one, she’s steelier and more sophisticated (even though her readings of social situations can be wildly inaccurate, which is part of the humor).

The 2009 version has beautiful pastoral imagery, and the interiors are both grand and soft; they have an earthy palette, lovely furnishings, and a lived-in feel. The 2020 version takes grandeur to another level. The interiors look pristine and lavish. Emma and the other characters are like dolls in a bejeweled dollhouse. This also fits the sense of Emma living in a bubble; nothing exists in the world outside of the dollhouse. (There are similar differences in the outfits – the 2009 adaptation gives Emma some lovely gowns, but the 2020 one takes the fashion to a whole other level.)

The 2020 one plays up the social comedy more, especially with the introduction of the quiet, long-suffering servants who try to iron out every inconvenience in the lives of the wealthy people having fits of drama around them. (The servants’ facial expressions subtly reveal what they dare not say.) 

As for Knightley… overall, I prefer the 2009 one (Jonny Lee Miller), but Johnny Flynn was also good in the 2020 adaptation. I think each Knightley is a good Knightley for the adaptation he’s in.

The 2009 Emma is a mini-series, which makes it feel more expansive and gives the scenes more breathing room. The 2020 one is a regular movie, more constrained in time with a faster pace, and so the humor also has a more staccato feel.

Watching different Austen adaptations is an interesting way to study filmmakers’ choices. What do they try to emphasize from the books? How do they try to communicate a different social world to a modern audience, or bring out a novel’s humor (which in some scenes comes down to a turn of phrase or an ironic tone)? If you’ve watched either of these, share your own opinions on what worked for you.

Do You Tell Your Kids What They Should Feel?

Parents often want their kids to feel differently about something. Their kids dislike a family member they’re supposed to love. They don’t enjoy an activity their parents want them to enjoy. They have an aversion to certain foods, a hatred of certain school subjects, and various fears that make day-to-day life more difficult.

A common response from parents is: “You shouldn’t feel that way.”

Often, parents will present their kids with a different option: “You should feel happy. You should love your uncle (or grandma, or whoever it is the child dislikes). You shouldn’t be afraid.” Parents may also make unhelpful comparisons. “I never felt like that when I was your age! Your brother likes playing sports, so why don’t you?”

Telling kids how they should feel usually isn’t helpful. The emotion doesn’t simply vanish because you want it to. At best, kids may temporarily suppress it. Over time, they may also learn that it’s pointless to share their feelings with you, because what you’re interested in are the right emotions felt at the right time – not the inconvenient or upsetting emotions your kids actually experience.

What’s a more helpful response to children’s unwanted feelings?

Figuring out why they feel a certain way

Sometimes, the reason is silly or not deeply meaningful. It could be that they’re tired at the end of the day or grumpy because they haven’t eaten. Other times, they have a legitimate reason for not liking someone or not wanting to go somewhere; it may even be a matter of personal safety.

Children’s emotions are also shaped by their social circle. How other people treat them and what their friends say about them will have an impact on their own feelings, including insecurities and self-loathing.

Working with them on how to express emotions

Instead of wishing the emotion away or attempting to suppress it, children need to know how they can deal with it. For instance, what are good ways to express anger without destroying a relationship or inflicting harm on other people or on yourself?

Focusing on behavior

Appropriate behaviors are more important than appropriate emotions. Kids need to know when and how to ask for help, especially in dangerous situations. Many times, they need to achieve a workable compromise, such as treating someone they dislike with politeness, but without a fake show of friendship or love.

In other situations, they may simply want to stop doing something – and it’s not the end of the world. For example, even if you have your heart set on your kid playing football or basketball, they may have zero interest in either sport. Instead of repeatedly dragging them to games and shaming them for their lack of enthusiasm, help them explore other interests.

Remembering that emotions aren’t permanent

Keeping a sense of perspective about emotions is also important. Feelings and attitudes can change – sometimes within hours, and sometimes after several years. Kids may feel quite differently about something at different points in their childhood and adolescence. Emotions are important signals, worth paying attention to, but they aren’t necessarily a reflection of an unchanging truth.

Berating kids about what they feel usually causes them to bottle things up or lie about their emotions. It also makes you less trustworthy to them, because they can’t open up to you. The focus instead should be more practical – which circumstances evoke certain emotions, how do we deal with emotions in non-destructive ways, and what are reasonable behaviors for different situations?

In Fiction You Don’t Have to Show Everything

Years ago, I watched Laura, a film noir that came out in the 1940s. At the start of the movie, you learn that a young woman has been found murdered in an apartment. The police assume that she’s the apartment’s tenant, Laura Hunt. It’s a reasonable assumption, based on the information they have.

This information doesn’t include facial recognition. Why? Because the murderer fired a shotgun at her face.

It’s a chilling detail. Even though the murder happens entirely offscreen, we don’t need to be told explicitly why a shotgun blast to the face would render someone unrecognizable. We understand why, and we understand how gruesome the scene must have been.

When contemporary novels, movies, and T.V. shows depict graphic violence or sex, explicit portrayals are common. These days, it’s much more likely that the murder or at least its aftermath would be shown onscreen. We’d see the bits of brain and bone and the splashes of blood, maybe a closeup of the ruined head. Would that make the story better in some way?  

What are your preferences when it comes to graphic portrayals? My own, especially for movies and shows, is to not show everything. I have more tolerance for graphic descriptions in text, but even then, I think there can be immense power in hinting at things or at least being more careful about what to depict and what to conceal. There’s power in letting people strain with their imagination towards the shadowed corners, the dark rooms where a horror is unseen but still very much present.

I’m reminded of a scene from Ivanhoe, a novel published in 1819 and set in the days of Robin Hood and Richard I. One of the main characters, Rebecca of York, gets captured by a rapacious knight and brought to a castle. There, Rebecca meets an older captive, Ulrica, a Saxon princess who has been enslaved for years. None of the horrific crimes against Ulrica are described explicitly, but what she tells Rebecca is still dreadful:

Thou wilt have owls for thy neighbours, fair one; and their screams will be heard as far, and as much regarded, as thine own.

What would a contemporary adaptation of Ivanhoe look like? Would it show flashbacks of Ulrica’s captivity with explicit portrayals of her abuse, with her body positioned in a way that an audience might find more titillating than terrifying? It would likely be desensitizing and gratuitous. Nothing like the excerpt from the book.

I won’t say that there’s no room ever for explicit descriptions. They can be done well; they can have a place in a story. I just see so much that isn’t thoughtful. Explicit portrayals are often a knee-jerk choice, included because they’re expected, not because they’re the best way to tell the story.

Legislate Away Our Loneliness

What can a Minister of Loneliness do for you?

Last year, a report came out about a new Minister of Loneliness in Japan, who is tasked with figuring out what to do about social isolation, poor mental health, and the country’s low birth rate. That’s a lot on the shoulders of one politician. I wonder, what can the government do, in a country where some elderly women like going to jail so that they won’t feel so terribly lonely and invisible?

The government can exert some influence, such as making certain mental health services more accessible or funding a new community center for seniors. But it can’t single-handedly change various underlying attitudes and incentives. Short of massively and forcibly restructuring society, what can the government do about long work hours, long commutes, nights spent in the company of online avatars, and people’s persistent feeling of invisibility?

Japan isn’t the only country that has created a government position aimed at fighting loneliness and its secondary effects, including awful mental health. In 2018, the U.K. also appointed a Minister of Loneliness to primarily address social isolation among elderly people. The results, discussed in this article, are so far underwhelming. And the article got published in January 2020, right before the pandemic. (Spotting the date of the article made me wince.)

Common Issues in Free Speech Discussions

I usually don’t get into discussions about free speech online, but the topic has come up in offline conversations, often in response to something in the news.

The discussions usually bring up these issues and frustrations:

  • A difficulty defining “harm.” People want to limit or ban “harmful” speech, but their definition of it can be too broad, extending from death threats to emotional upset. (There’s a good discussion of this issue in The Tyranny of Opinion by Russell Blackford.)
  • People sometimes believe that fewer restrictions on speech will mean greater harm to minorities (or, more generally, to people who have less power in society). However, throughout history and around the world now, people who have comparatively little power have been silenced by governments, corporations, religious institutions, and online mobs that use speech regulations to stifle dissent and suppress information deemed unfavorable or threatening.
  • Many times, free speech discussions get limited to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, even though principles of free speech (and issues connected to it) aren’t limited to the U.S. or to the Constitution.
  • A popular line I’ve heard is “speech has consequences.” Meaning, you’re free to say something, but of course there will be consequences for it. Often, this line is delivered with finality, when it really opens up new questions: What are these consequences? Are they proportionate? Who decides what the consequences are and how they get enforced?
  • All-or-nothing thinking can creep into these discussions. For instance, if you support more relaxed speech codes, you get accused of hypocrisy if you’re still against criminal threats and libel. Some people pretend you either have to stand by all speech or agree to fairly tight restrictions.
  • I also notice a lot of confusion of concepts, for example, people seeming to confuse criticism with censorship. (If I’m critiquing a book or an article, I don’t want to censor it. If I find someone too rude or tiresome to talk to, it doesn’t mean I want them censored from all platforms, even though I personally refuse to interact with them.) Another example is the confusion of tact and self-censorship. (Phrasing something politely isn’t the same thing as being afraid to ask a question or express a doubt because you’ll lose your job.)

A French Proverb

When watching a video that the YouTube algorithm introduced me to, I came across this proverb (at five minutes and 35 seconds in):

Quand on a pas de tête, on a des jambes.

“When we have no head, we have legs.” As explained in the video, it’s typically used in cases when people forget something and have to go back to get it (like keys), but it can also be expanded to a general approach about mistakes. Accept that a mistake happened, then go towards the solution.

How Do You Start Caring About Yourself?

A lot of advice about self-improvement rests on the assumption that people care sufficiently about themselves and their life. But some people may not care. They feel hopeless. They think they’ve made too many mistakes. They’ve sunk into apathy (“What does it matter what happens to me?”).

There’s no easy answer for getting more motivated to care about yourself, because people don’t all respond to the same approach at different points in their life. But here are some things to consider:

Do a favor to your future self

At the moment, you may feel hopeless. You may be depressed or stuck in a terrible job. But you don’t know with certainty what your life will look like down the road. Even if you think it will all be bad from here on out, you can’t know that for sure.

So don’t decide on your future based on your current situation or mental state. Emotions change, mental states change, and so do circumstances. You may not currently care about yourself, but at some point you may see the worth in your life. Act with that possibility in mind, even if you aren’t believing in it at present.

Pick one thing to change

Sometimes, people lose interest in caring for themselves because they perceive so many problems in their lives that they don’t even know how to start changing. They stop caring because to care would mean to feel overwhelmed and crushed.

In this frame of mind, any change can seem impossible. But what if you start with only one thing?

Let’s say you have a drinking problem, eat poorly, and exercise infrequently. Trying to change all of these behaviors at once can be too much. So pick the one that seems most urgent or that you’re most able to tackle at the moment.

If it’s your drinking problem, you work on that. You find reliable ways to cut back on or completely abstain from alcohol. Depending on the nature and severity of the problem, you may need to go to a detox program and attend group meetings.

As you work on this one problem, you may begin to notice positive ripple effects in your life. Because you’re drinking less, maybe you have more energy or motivation to exercise or to work on some projects you’ve neglected. Maybe you start to pay more attention to what you eat and increase the nutritious variety of your diet. The quality of your sleep may improve, and your bonds with other people may become stronger. If you’ve neglected other health issues, you may wind up making appointments with a doctor or therapist.

Changing one habit can make it easier for you to improve your life in other ways.

Let action lead to emotion

You may have no motivation to exercise, and you may not think it matters one way or another. But what if you were to set aside a short amount of time, maybe just 10 minutes, to go for a walk or do some calisthenics? What if you were to repeat the 10-minute exercise the next day, and the one after that?

It’s only 10 minutes, so even if you don’t feel that it’s worthwhile, it won’t take up much of your time. And, as weeks go by, you may find yourself getting into the habit of exercising. You’ll need less effort to push yourself into it. Maybe you’ll want to start extending your exercise time to 15 minutes, maybe 20. You may even come to like exercising, appreciating the feeling it gives you.

Repeatedly performing an action often increases its importance to us. The action comes to mean something and become a part of our day. So even if you’re apathetic about exercise (or about something else, like studying a new skill), maybe give it just 10 minutes out of your whole day, for starters.

Look outside of yourself

I’ve read accounts by people who were close to giving up on life entirely, but they stayed alive for their cat. They sometimes talk about it self-deprecatingly, but there’s no shame in making your pet a reason to live, and then finding other reasons over time. A cat is a living creature, and it needs you. You’re nurturing it and giving it your attention and love. If it helps keep you alive, that’s great.

You may not care much about yourself, but it may be easier for you to care about someone or something else. You don’t want to let your kids down. You want to be there for your spouse. Or maybe you volunteer at a nonprofit, and other people depend on you. Focusing outside of yourself may remind you of reasons to care about your own life, even if you’re feeling hopeless or empty.

Let go of a rigid view of what your life should look like

Life may seem to matter less to you if it doesn’t look the way you want it to. You may not have the job you want, the person you love, or the home you always imagined living in. Maybe you look around and see little of value.

For one reason or another, many people don’t lead the life they’ve always pictured. What we can control is limited. It’s possible to be so focused on an idealized version of your life that you miss out on what you have now. Try not to overlook what’s good in your life, what has potential (even if the potential is currently unrealized). Even small things can bring pleasure, inspiration, and contentment.

Don’t see setbacks as proof of permanent failure

After major failures or one too many failures, you may respond to the pain with apathy, a personal shutdown that enfolds you with protective numbness. 

Failures can be devastating, but try not to see them as unbreachable walls that you can’t get around. Maybe you’ll need to take another path in life and try new things. Failure doesn’t have to extinguish all hopeful possibilities. (And if you can’t see any possibilities now, give yourself time.)

Listen to the impulse to live well

Even when people live in hopelessness or apathy, they may sometimes be visited by thoughts about living well. They think about a job to apply to, an educational program to enroll in, or a friend or relative to reach out to. They remember an activity they used to enjoy. The apathy may roll over and crush these thoughts, but they exist. 

Grab at a thought, examine it, and – if it’s a life-affirming one, if it’s something that may make your life feel less cramped, less gray – maybe follow where it leads.