The Coping Mechanism of Self-Hatred
If you’ve ever hated yourself, you need to read this.
I taught myself to hate myself at ten years old. I felt sad, I felt rejected, and there was no way in hell I was going to talk about it with anyone. I needed to make sense of these feelings, and I was determined to do it on my own without help.
Not surprisingly, my emotional immaturity picked self-hatred as a coping mechanism. If I was regularly being yelled at and picked on, there must have been something wrong with me, right? If I wasn’t getting the same social invites as my peers and spent a lot of time at home alone, that’s because I wasn’t wanted – right?
So I must be the problem. I began to hate and resent myself for it. And you know what? It felt good. Anger and self-hatred felt better than sadness and rejection, every time. So I ran with it. I didn’t give it a second thought; I didn’t give it a first thought. I had no self-awareness. I was just doing.
I wish I knew back then how badly I was poisoning myself. I never truly hated myself, and deep down I knew that. Later in life I realized that the proper way of dealing with unpleasant emotions was to accept the feelings and express them in a healthful manner. I could’ve moved beyond them in short order. That’s what I do now and my life is much better for it.
But it didn’t happen that way. My coping mechanism and lack of trust in others took what could’ve been a powerful learning experience and turned it into a 15-year emotional rut, rife with frustrations and wasted opportunities.
I’m writing this article in hopes that it prevents others from taking the destructive route of self-hatred.
How it Began
First, know that I didn’t consciously choose to hate myself. I didn’t say, “you know what? I think I’ll hate myself today!” It was unconscious – under the radar. It just happened. It didn’t feel like a choice at the time, it just felt like an answer. I see now, though, that I had options.
My choosing of self-hatred as a coping mechanism had its roots in my personality and my environment. I was a highly sensitive kid. My skin was as thin as wallpaper. I was always guarding myself from threats, most of which were imaginary. That fact alone, combined with the typical emotional immaturity of a kid, made for some interesting challenges in my young life.
Take into account the environment and culture I grew up in, and it was a recipe for self-loathing. Suburban Long Island was often competitive and sometimes cutthroat. I wouldn’t describe it as a refuge for the weak. Those who lacked confidence and couldn’t fake it, even at a young age, became targets for ridicule. Some people thrive on that; I did not. I was crushed under it.
I also grew up in an Italian Catholic family. While I loved the passionate side of that culture, and it’s a part of me today, I lived with the burden of constantly trying and failing to impress an all-knowing, all-mysterious deity. Not only would my behaviors upset God, but they would upset my parents too, who were not shy about discipline and criticism.
I became cognizant as human being around ages 6-9, and I found myself on the defensive quite often. I had few friends and regular run-ins with bullies. I’d see my siblings get invited to social events and wonder why I had to stay at home. I couldn’t count how many times, in misguided attempts at discipline, I was yelled at or outright insulted and demeaned by authority figures of all kinds – parents, coaches, and so on.
More and more, I didn’t like how I was feeling. Being so sensitive, these episodes of rejection were getting harder and harder for me to brush off and move on from. The accumulation of so many episodes began to have an emotional weight; like water up against a dam.
I didn’t have any outlet for this weight (so I thought/chose). I didn’t dare talk to anyone about it, as I assumed doing so would be a sign of weakness which would invite more ridicule and unpleasantness. The weight was growing and growing.
On one night in June 1992, the dam broke. As the sometimes bratty kid I could be, I tossed an empty paper cup at my sister during a car ride home from her 6th grade graduation. I thought I was funny (I was annoying, I get it). My sister and dad didn’t think so. He sharply rebuked me, and this time it just felt god-awful.
Something about the words he said, and the venom with which he said them, broke through some kind of emotional barrier for me. I was silent for the rest of the car ride, and ran straight up to my room when we got home. I stayed there for the rest of the night, sulking and telling myself how stupid I was and how much I hated myself.
I had never done that before. But I did that night… and it felt good. In a way I was agreeing with what I assumed everyone else thought – I was a defective, bad human being. I didn’t feel sadness and rejection anymore, I felt in control, albeit angry. I still felt an emotional heaviness, but now I had a foolish outlet for it – myself.
And that’s how it started. The behavior began to reinforce itself. I’d berate myself alone for an hour or two or three, and after a while I’d start to feel better. I had found my coping mechanism.
This would become my ritual for the next 10-15 years. I can remember having particularly tough days at school where I couldn’t wait to get home so I could lock myself in my room and commence the sulking for hours on end. And by sulking, I mean saying things out loud to myself such as, “you are a complete asshole and nobody likes you,” over and over and over again.
Thoughts of suicide? All the time. Par for the course. I knew I’d never do it, but I liked to try and convince myself I would. I even kept a kitchen knife in my room for a year or two, just in case. Some part of me knew, though, that I would never use it. I guess I just liked to scare myself.
In time, self-hatred became the tried and true solution to all emotional walls or difficulties. It was easy to avoid any pain by turning it inwards. It was an escape – a drug. And I was addicted.
Why Self-Hatred is a Poor Coping Mechanism
I wish to high heaven I knew how inappropriate and self-destructive this behavior would prove to be. I didn’t think about it, I just did it. I had little to no awareness as a child, and I had no intention of reaching out to anyone for help – lest I become more of a burden than I already felt I was.
If I had only a few bad episodes where I went off to berate myself and then forgot about it, and moved on, the long-term affects would’ve likely been minimal. But I did this, in my worst periods, several times a week for hours on end each time. Repetition, repetition, repetition.
Repetition is how things become ingrained in your brain. It’s how you learn anything, good or bad. Our brains are equally malleable to learning bad habits as they are to learning good ones. Self-hatred was becoming a bad habit, and each time I had one of these episodes, I was further and further ingraining these ideas into my core, pushing out any other positive ideas I might have had.
Ingraining these ideas into your consciousness kills any chances you have at a fulfilling and meaningful life experience. I taught myself that the real, true, deep me was to be despised, hidden, and compensated for. It took many years to learn that the real, true, deep me was the gateway to a satisfying and fulfilling life.
There are two reasons our authentic selves are so important in this way. The first reason has to do with social relationships. Friendships where you express yourself open and honestly, and are accepting of other people in the same way, are highly valuable and highly satisfying. They are part of the things that make life worth living.
If you hate your authentic self and hide that person away, you will not have satisfying friendships. Whatever social relationships you do have will be with your “mask” self, the person you pretend to be in order to get by. It becomes a labor, not a joy. That’s exactly what my teenage and early adulthood years were like.
I had acquaintances and “good” acquaintances, but few to no friends. The best connections I made were when I was drunk and high because I ceased hiding who I really was, and it turned out people really did like me.
But after the parties ended and I became sober, I’d often be embarrassed at my behavior. Even if I didn’t do anything wrong, I recall feeling so vulnerable and open (something I never was while sober) that I’d usually end up distancing myself from those who I got drunk and high with. I never stuck with any one group of friends for too long, because I wouldn’t allow anyone to get that close.
The second reason that self-hatred handicaps your chances of having a fulfilling life is because you’re cutting yourself off from your most important asset – your unique viewpoint. Every human on earth is unique. The combination of our genes, upbringing, and attitudes make for a different take on any given situation. This has value.
We’re meant to share that uniqueness with the world on a small scale, a large scale, or both. We’re meant to give it away. We’re meant to express ourselves. Our expressions have value when they are genuine and authentic, because then we are bringing to the world something that nobody else can. Our unique perspective on things is the biggest and best thing we have going for us.
When we hide this uniqueness and seek to imitate others instead, we dull ourselves. We take our own shine off. We’re not bringing anything different to the people and places we encounter every day. That’s a great way to fall into the background time and time again.
As a previous background-dweller, I can assure you this feels awful. Going through social and job situations feeling as prominent as an office chair is a recipe for low self-esteem and indifference towards life.
When you understand what makes you different, and appreciate it, and decide you’re really going to share it with people – everything changes.
Self-hatred is a poor coping mechanism because it will only exacerbate the underlying issue. It will only bring on more situations that reflect what brought you to the belief of self-hatred in the first place – feelings of rejection, sadness, and indifference.
Self-hatred is a temporary fix, and a bad one at that. Life is long. You will hit a point, sooner or later, where self-hatred ceases to solve your problems and you must either escalate your self-destruction or turn around and start walking into the light of understanding.
FYI, nobody is going to save you. It is your decision and yours alone to turn around and make something better out of your life. You can have support, you can have friends, and that’s fine. But nobody can make your life better on a permanent basis. Only you can do that, and it is your decision, and wholly your responsibility.
How it All Changed
I realized in my early 20s that something was missing and I didn’t feel like myself anymore. That was really when I began to turn around and walk the other way. But it was always three steps forward, two steps back. And maybe another step back, then forward again.
At that point, I had spent ten years ingraining into myself that I was fundamentally defective. I had buried myself in layers, and unbeknownst to me at the time, I had a lot of work to do to take those layers off. That may not be the case for everyone, but that’s how it went for me.
During my 20s, I did a ton of reading, writing, and meditating. I documented my entire life in a journal, and read no less than 50 personal development books. My meditating varied in technique, and was more on-again off-again than anything regular.
These activities were my steps forward. As I’d write down my thoughts in journals, I’d see patterns. I’d begin to see more clearly how differently I felt alone versus being out with people. Then I’d wonder why and continue seeking answers from there.
I would meditate to clear my head and in that clear space, answers would come to me. Things like “you feel different because you’re scared.” That’s right, I’d think, I’m scared of something – but what? So I’d pick up a book or go to some of my favorite personal development websites in search of answers. And I’d repeat, and repeat, and repeat. I’m still doing this today.
On a regular basis, I’d come upon an underlying idea in my subconscious that I didn’t know I had. It would usually be a destructive, limiting idea. Each one was an epiphany. A-ha! I found out what the problem is, I’ve realized the missing piece!
For example, when I was frustrated with my inability to get out of a dead-end job in my mid 20s, I one day understood that I didn’t really want a new job. I thought I did, but deep down, I appreciated the comfort and regularity of my dead-end job. I truly did not know this, and it was glorious to understand how I was sabotaging my own efforts at getting a new job.
Reading, writing and meditating over the years helped me to see an increasing number of underlying ideas and patterns in my thoughts and behaviors. I realized things in pieces, and then put the pieces together.
One piece was that I never truly hated myself, I actually really liked myself. Another piece was that I’ve had trouble expressing myself and have been uncomfortable being who I am. After gathering several pieces, I’d see bigger pictures like how self-hatred started at an early age as a way to cope with unpleasant feelings.
Bit by bit over the years, the old ideas and layers of self-hatred were observed, peeled off, and replaced with more positive, productive ideas. It was a process. There was no big-bang where my life changed forever, though certainly the earlier epiphanies felt like big bangs because they were so new.
That’s Wonderful, but how is Life Actually Better Now?
What has changed in my life over the course of this transformation? Everything. Firstly, I just feel better every day. I’m not dragging myself up out of bed, I just get up. It doesn’t feel like I’m walking through water every day and exhausting myself, I’m just walking lightly. It’s a world of difference.
I’ve been in the same relationship since I was 19 (I’m now 33), and it has grown closer and stronger in ways I’ve never expected or understood were possible. The more I liked myself, and the more I let the real me out, the better our relationship got. My wife and I have been married for seven years and together for 14.
I am no longer in a dead-end job. The self-hatred that hid my real talents doesn’t exist, and while I was learning to appreciate and express my real talents, I changed jobs several times and now have one that I love. I’m a valued employee and a regular, positive contributor to the success of our team. Room for growth here is boundless, whereas just 6 years ago there was no room for growth.
I have positive, growing relationships with my young children. I’m eager to show them who I am, and let that influence how they grow up, how they treat other people, and how the treat themselves.
My social relationships – friendships – are still a work in progress. I am more social now than ever, though I’m not sure I’d describe myself as an extrovert. But the idea of social outings doesn’t wrack me with anxiety, and I don’t feel exhausted after a day or night out with friends.
For me, this is huge progress. So many times in the past I did not want to go out because I did not want to expend the energy of being my “mask” self. That’s not an issue anymore, because I’m not afraid of showing who I really am.
Everyone’s journey is different. Everyone has their own path, their own discoveries, their own complex, unique issues. Everyone has their own talents, and everyone was put on this earth to share them by expressing them. That, I believe, is our calling. To give our unique value to others while we are here, as well as learning about ourselves, each other, and the nature of life.
For me, self-hatred was just a bad, bad coping mechanism that I adopted as an emotionally immature child. I had to spend just as much time un-adopting it in order to improve my life. Now I deal with unpleasant emotions in a healthy, productive manner. I use unpleasant experiences as escalators upward to a greater quality of life, instead of having them be roadblocks, burdens, and shackles.
Regardless of your specific situation, there’s always an escalator upward. Always. You can find it. Start looking. It gets better, it always gets better. Keep the faith.
Photo by Cam Evans