When You Don't Like Yourself

Photo: erix!

Some people have the misfortune to have been born to abusive parents who belittled them and prevented them from developing a healthy self-esteem.  Others are born predisposed to view themselves in a negative light because of their physical appearance, a disability, or for no reason anyone, including themselves, knows.  Research has consistently supported the notion that it’s difficult to be happy without liking oneself.  But how can one learn to like oneself when one doesn’t?

WHAT PART OF OURSELVES DO WE DISLIKE?

People filled with self-loathing typically imagine they dislike every part of themselves, but this is rarely, if ever, true.  More commonly, if asked what specific parts of themselves they dislike, they’re able to provide specific answers:  their physical appearance, their inability to excel academically or at a job, or maybe their inability to accomplish their dreams.  Yet when presented, for example, a scenario in which they come upon a child trapped under a car at the scene of an accident, that they recoil in horror and would want urgently to do something to help rarely causes them to credit themselves for the humanity such a reaction indicates.

Why do self-loathers so readily overlook the good parts of themselves?  The answer in most cases turns out to relate not to the fact that they have negative qualities but to the disproportionate weight they lend them.  People who dislike themselves may acknowledge they have positive attributes but any emotional impact they have simply gets blotted out.

THE SOURCE OF SELF-LOATHING

Which makes learning to like oneself no easy task.  Many people, in fact, spend a lifetime in therapy in pursuit of self-love, struggling as if learning a new language as an adult rather than as a child.

Before such a change will occur, however, the essential cause of one’s self-loathing needs to be apprehended.  By this I don’t mean the historical cause.  The circumstances that initially lead people to dislike themselves do so by triggering a thought process of self-loathing that continues long after the circumstances that set it in motion have resolved, a thought process that continues to gain momentum the longer it remains unchallenged, much like a boulder picks up speed rolling down a mountain as long as nothing gets in its way.  For example, your parents may have failed to praise you or support your accomplishments in school when you were young—perhaps even largely ignored you—which led you to conclude they didn’t care about you, which then led you to conclude you’re not worth caring about.  It’s this last idea, not the memory of your parents ignoring you, that gathers the power within your life to make you loathe yourself if not checked by adult reasoning early on.  Once a narrative of worthlessness embeds itself in one’s mind, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to disbelieve it, especially when one can find evidence that it represents a true account.

But a narrative is just that:  a story we tell ourselves.  It may very well contain elements of truth—that we are unattractive, that we do fail a lot of the time, or that our parents didn’t find us all that lovable—but to proceed from facts such as these to the conclusion that we’re deserving only of our own derision constitutes a significant thought error.

THE TRUE SOURCE OF SELF-ESTEEM

The problem is that we common mortals can hardly avoid deriving our self-esteem from the wrong source—even those of us whose self-esteem is healthy.  We look to what in Nichiren Buddhism is termed the “smaller self,” the parts of ourselves that seem better than those of others and to which we become overly attached.  In other words, we ground our self-esteem in things about ourselves we perceive as unique: typically our looks, our skills, or our accomplishments.

But we only need to experience the loss of any one of these supportive elements to recognize the danger of relying on them to create our self-esteem.  Looks, as we all know, fade.  Unwanted weight is often gained.  Illness sometimes strikes, preventing us from running as fast, concentrating as hard, or thinking as clearly as we once did.  Past accomplishments lose their ability to sustain us the farther into the past we have to look for them.

I’m not arguing that basing our self-esteem on our positive qualities is wrong.  But we should aim to base it on positive qualities that require no comparison to the qualities of others for us to value them.  We must awaken to the essential goodness—to what in Nichiren Buddhism is termed our “larger self”—that lies within us all.  If we want to fall in love with our lives—and by this I don’t mean the “we”of our small-minded egos—we must work diligently to manifest our larger selves in our daily lives.  We must generate the wisdom and compassion to care for others until we’ve turned ourselves, piece by piece, into the people we most want to be.

In other words, if we want to like ourselves we have to earn our own respect.  Luckily, doing this doesn’t require that we become people of extraordinary physical attractiveness or accomplishment.  It only requires we become people of extraordinary character—something anyone can do.

A simple thought experiment supports this notion:  think right now of your favorite person and ask yourself, what is it about them that attracts you the most?  Odds are it isn’t their physical appearance or their accomplishments but rather their magnanimous spirit; the way they treat others.  This is the key quality that makes people likable, even to themselves.

Treating others well, it turns out, is the fastest path to a healthy self-esteem.  If you dislike yourself, stop focusing on your negative qualities.  We all have negative qualities.  There’s nothing special about your negativity, I promise you.  Focus instead on caring for others.  Because the more you care about others, I guarantee the more in turn you’ll be able to care about yourself.

Next weekPronouncing Someone Dead

26 comments to When You Don’t Like Yourself

  • Kate

    Enjoyed reading this today. Thank you!

  • Wise words, Alex! I run a support group for folks w/mood disorders. Our small group leaders do a marvelous job. Some have expressed to me self-loathing except when they run their group or are actively helping others. Slowly, they gain self-esteem and with it, the courage to change their lives in many beneficial ways.

  • Nick

    Good post. I think it is important to treat others nicely. Sometimes I tend to forget the importance of treating others nicely, and focus too much on appearance, academics, and athletics. But I think the reason we focus so much on the latter is because society makes it difficult for us to not value these things. I have to remind myself that life is not limited to just appearance, academics, and athletics. Character is important.

  • Meredyth

    What a beautiful and profound piece you have written; I have never heard it explained quite that way before.

    Thank you so much!

    Meredyth: So glad you enjoyed it.

    Alex

  • Christie

    I have never understood someone who didn’t like themselves. Maybe some days are better than others, or one gained a few pounds more. Even if one’s upbringing hadn’t been ideal, it’s not right to blame the situation once one becomes an adult. That’s why I don’t understand the “abused being an abuser” theory. We are all in control of our destiny.

    The experiment you mentioned is like the theory of mentor and disciple. What would President Ikeda do in this situation, etc. In a recent KRG meeting, one person said that when he was young, he was angry with the practice and wrote to President Ikeda, who through various people replied to him. All he said was, “Continue to chant.” I have noticed that when I am in a bind, I instantly worry and I forget to chant. That’s why this person’s experience resonates with me deeply. I will remind myself that in any tough situation, just chant.

    There are few persons who are devoid of negativity. It’s something we all have to work on.

  • Alex—from beginning to end, this is a powerful essay. In my opinion, it couldn’t be more spot on as to the causes of self-hate and the remedy. I wish it could be published in a place where thousands could read it.

    Toni: Thanks so much. Please share it as widely as possible!

    Alex

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by AgingFamilies, Kcyy. Kcyy said: When You Don’t Like Yourself http://t.co/Phgx0SI via @AddThis [...]

  • rdp

    I love the concept of the “smaller self,” Alex. What a powerful tool for moving the mind from what matters least to what matters most!

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Marie Dudek, Alex Lickerman. Alex Lickerman said: So difficult when we don't even like ourselves: http://www.happinessinthisworld.com/2010/08/15/when-you-dont-like-yourself/ [...]

  • Anne

    I enjoyed this post. Afterward, I went back and read your “Good Guy Contract” post—which was an interesting and valuable counterpoint.

    Anne: Thanks for pointing that out. Though I believe self-esteem can best be built by our compassionate care for others, that compassionate care mustn’t occur at the cost of our own needs.

    Alex

  • michael

    Alex,
    Over the past three months or so I’ve been receiving these thought-provoking essays, and they have been a wonderful source of conversation with friends and especially my girlfriend. Just yesterday I blurted out a hurtful statement aimed at her which was terribly damaging. I’m lucky enough that she would bring this to my attention quickly. We spent a few hours processing the root of my error and sure enough—MY SELF ESTEEM was again the culprit! Everything happens for a reason and your essay was certainly a reminder of my fallibility and the damaging results I have inflicted on myself and those I claim to love. Mindfulness will certainly help me in the quest to care more about other’s feelings and how I treat them with love and respect….and the resulting “boomerang” effect it will have on my life. Thank you…

  • Nomi

    That’s it? Caring for others? I began reading this article with deep interest, hoping for insights on a par with many other fine postings on your site. But I would like to see more. Caring for others (which I do, and work to improve), and even seeing the world as a beautiful place (which I do, and strive for heightened appreciation) does not stop me from feeling I am a blight on this beautiful world and an incompetent, pathetic hypocrite in the caring department. More on this topic, please! One can volunteer, treat people kindly, reach out until one is bleeding out the ears (figuratively) and it doesn’t stop the inner voices saying “Yeah, right, they all see you for what you are, you can pretend to be a caring person but even the dying patients in the hospital would rather it be someone else helping them than you.” Help.

    Nomi: Here’s the only real answer I have. If you’re so engulfed by the strong conviction that you’re “a blight on this beautiful world” that the compassionate action you take toward others isn’t enough to counterbalance your self-perceived worthlessness, you must find a practice that awakens you to the truth about your own life. Self-reflection and introspection won’t do it. For some, it requires therapy. For me, it means practicing Nichiren Buddhism. The purpose of the practice is to awaken wisdom in your life—not to introduce you to interesting and helpful concepts but to get those concepts (e.g., that you are a valuable person) functioning in your life. Wisdom is never contained in words and intellectual understanding but in belief and action. You need to embrace a practice or a process that has real power to bring out the wisdom lying dormant in your life.

    Alex

  • Liz

    Love out develops love in…very basic and very true. I don’t ever feel as good when I buy myself something as when I contribute to a cause or a charity.

    Thank you, Alex, for another excellent essay.

    Liz

    P.S.—can you recommend a resource to read up on Nichiren Buddhism?

    Liz: Indeed, I can. Try The Buddha in Your Mirror.

    Alex

  • Good reading. Very insightful.

    I have met many who put themselves down frequently and blame mom or dad for not helping them to like themselves. Interestingly, these people are often quite successful and are the envy of others; however, they are always trying to prove something to someone else, always striving for approval and hating themselves when they fail to reach the high mark they have set for themselves. They are full of self-loathing. Many are in the “helping” profession; MDs, nurses, therapists. Some are high-powered executives.

    I couldn’t help but wonder what made them so driven, until I became a hospice nurse and met some of the parents. I have seen parents of quite successful adult children just diminish them with a few words or a simple look. Amazing. To have grown up that way must have been awful. Now, I am much more tolerant of people who can’t seem to like themselves. The parents don’t do it to be mean; quite the contrary. They do it out of some misguided attempt to push their child to be “better.” I see it in young parents today. Push, push, push. Such a mistake.

    My parents were “slackers.” They never pushed much. They appreciated everything I did and told me that if I did my best, then they were proud and even if I didn’t, they loved me anyway. I never realized how lucky I was.

    As for those adults who cannot seem to love themselves, helping others is fine. But like Nomi stated, many do and still don’t feel better. It is a shame.

    Some people cannot see beyond themselves. They are helping others, but for the wrong reasons. They are helping others, but still have that tape playing in their head, the one that says “I am not good enough.” They need to re-wind the tape and shut it off, if only for a few moments and really tune in and see outside of themselves. See the impact they have on others when they truly help or are kind. See the smile, see the dog’s tail wag. See the look that someone has on their face when someone does something kind. And then embrace that. Say, wow, I can really have an impact on how others feel. That is powerful. A moment is powerful.

    The funny thing about people who don’t love or even like themselves is that everyone feels that way at times. We are all in this together. We are all damaged in some way. By reaching out to one another, instead of pulling in and constantly licking our wounds, that is the only way out.

    I think that was the essence of your message. Reaching out to others to find ourselves. A good message. Too bad so many are too afraid to try.

    Janice: Yep.

    Alex

  • You nailed it Alex. :)

    Once there is an awareness to the trigger point, there is a possibility and a new room for change. But what works more than anything is opening our hearts to others. It’s such a miracle to see how our hearts begin to fill up with the goodness that heals ourselves. You can’t be all that bad if you can be kind.

    It’s been a while since I visited your blog. I’ve missed your shining way of tackling a topic.

    Dana: Glad to have you back!

    Alex

  • Maria

    I appreciate the wisdom in your words; but self-loathing is an extraordinarily difficult and complicated problem to solve. I’ve believed for a long time that the luckiest people in the world are those who are certain that they want to live, especially those who blissfully can’t imagine what it means to hate oneself. They have no idea what a hell-on-earth life is for those who suffer endlessly debilitating despair following one futile attempt after another to heal and change.

    Finally, by my 50s, I developed self-esteem. It required ruthless self-examination, honesty, integrity, responsibility, feminism, generosity, open-heartedness, vulnerability, hard work, accomplishments, courage, successes, therapies, exercises, thought-changes, mentors, spiritual searching, joyful experiences, many dear friends, and most-most-most of all, a loving partner and precious daughter who have stuck by me through the years. A sense of worthiness cannot develop in adulthood without true, deep love; and even then there’s no guarantee. Now I’m a lucky woman.

    Maria: Thanks for sharing such a powerful statement…

    Alex

  • Saint Jude

    Hi—I just wanted to share a short documentary that I made about Buddhist artist who survived a suicide attempt. Suicide is the ultimate act in self-loathing I suppose.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8KMX7YL9J4

  • Maria

    My heart goes out to Nomi, who left her comment above on Aug 16. No matter how helpless or hopeless you feel, please don’t give up. I swear to you, miracles happen sometimes, if you never stop trying. And even if it takes many many years, life can become very good.

  • Catherine

    I’ve been thinking a lot about Nomi’s and Janice’s responses—particularly the line in Janice’s response “reaching out to others to find ourselves.” One can go through the motions of connecting with others, doing good deeds, as Nomi talks about, but I think that in order to really connect one has to find a way to do so by sharing oneself.

    I struggle with shame but I want to connect—which means letting people know who I am, despite my shame. It’s often physically uncomfortable, and I think that’s the key, because if I can get out of my head (and the internal negative loop) and into my body then I have a better chance of connecting, rather than going through the motions.

    For me it always comes down to acknowledging my discomfort with feeling “exposed” and paying attention to my heart and letting it expand outward (rather than giving in to the shame and contracting)—because that’s where it wants to go if I’m conscious that I want to connect. I hope that makes sense; it’s an actual physical sensation.

    There’s a poem I’d like to put here by a Maine poet named Stuart Kestenbaum, from his book House of Thanksgiving. It’s called “I Am Fishing For God” and for me it’s about seeking that connection between oneself and the world and it does it in such a beautiful, visceral way.

    I Am Fishing For God

    using my heart as bait.
    It is just before dawn,
    the slightest hint of

    pink bleeds into the
    night sky. I use my
    pen knife to cut the

    hole in my chest,
    reaching behind the
    pocket of my shirt.

    what a tough muscle
    to pull the hook through.
    The heart is astonished

    to be in this other world
    and trembles and shivers like
    a moth discovered in daylight.

    I try to calm it by stroking it
    by telling it that it will all be
    ok, but what do I know.

    The breeze picks up and chills the cavern
    in my chest. It feels good to
    be empty at last. I cast my heart

    across the water. I cast it again
    and again. Sometimes it floats on
    the surface, other times it sinks

    below. Something will strike at it
    that I can’t see. I pray
    I am using the right bait.

    The tough outer layers
    soften in the water. The heart grows
    smaller, more pliant.

    It has become a beautiful
    blue jewel. I begin
    not to recognize it.

    Was this me?
    It waits. I wait.
    The boat rocks

    slightly in the breeze
    lifted and lowered
    by the tide.

    Catherine:: Thank you for your comments and the lovely poem.

    Alex

  • M.C

    Thanks for this enlightening post, Alex. I’m not sure how much people realize everything starts with us, and peace with our selves first. How we treat others is a reflection of our own life-condition. I’ve seen a lot of hate and racism on the Internet lately, with people starting groups against certain religions and races, etc. It seems it’s getting worse. It’s sad because of this deep seeded hatred, sadness, fear and ignorance they have for themselves; they project it onto the world continuing to separate human beings and breeding more hate and fear.

    Buddhism really has started to help me see the connection we all have with each other. It boils down to that when I slander or hurt someone else in the grand scheme of things I’m hurting myself too, and for me this connection starts with self love and a high life-condition by chanting.

  • Diana

    I’ve been offline for a week until yesterday—I had to get a new computer. This blog hits home! And I appreciate all the comments. When I was diagnosed with a chronic illness in 2002, I couldn’t leave my apartment much, and focused on reading Nichiren Buddhist material. One of my goals was to fill in the hole in my chest; I’m almost there. The negative thoughts have been with me all my life. What also struck me was your reasons for why someone might not like oneself—the reason that stood out was “for no reason anyone knows.” The youngest of 3 girls, I felt early on that I wasn’t wanted, though I realized in my teens that my dad told each of us the same thing—”the other two were better than I was.” I think I was probably born with this condition and 16 years ago after taking medication that helped, decided “thank heavens I didn’t have children.” One of my sisters was here this past weekend and told me a sweet story about when I was 2, and why my dad decided to get another dog—because I was looking for the last one that had died. When I told my sister the next day that I appreciated that story, she screamed at me—”I’ve told you many times.” She never did. I couldn’t express my feelings for many years—I think because my two older sisters began talking when they were in the womb—my humorous way of saying they always talked and still do talk a lot. I will study this post and the comments.

  • Deidra

    Alex, I have practiced SGI Buddhism for 18 years now and this is one of the many writings that I enjoy having to share with others. I will love nothing more than to share this article with those I work with in the prison system! Too often we look for acceptance from others based on our physical appearance versus our heartfelt compassion for and towards others. Thank you for this article! Peace and Blessings

  • Brendalee

    I have been thinking about this post for a little while now. I drive around a lot during the day so I have a bit of time to think. Some days that’s a good thing, other days, not so much. I was thinking about how helping others has helped my self-esteem. I help others all day long and I love what I do. I don’t think this is the part of me that I don’t like. Actually, it is this part that I do like. I guess I am confused as to how that rolls over to the rest of me? I have struggled with self hate and loathing from as long as I can remember, never quite being good enough, pretty enough, smart enough, thin enough, tall enough, or just enough. So, I become an over-achiever, trying to fill some void with some semblance of “enough.” And, here I am, an adult, not quite sure what I am suppose to be “enough” for, but sure that I’m not there yet. I went to a 12-step fellowship for years. They told me to get out of myself and help the newcomer. It still works to keep me clean but doesn’t seem to work to help me like myself any better.

    Brendalee: Though in the last paragraph of the post I exhort readers to “stop focusing on their negativity” this is, of course, far more easily said than done. If you simply can’t reduce the weight you assign to your negative qualities in order for the care and caring you provide others to raise your self-esteem, you must find a practice that has the power to reduce it for you. Twelve-step programs are excellent for keeping people sober, but variable in their ability to enhance self-esteem. I would offer you the practice of Nichiren Buddhism to explore, a practice I’ve found has the real power to shatter delusions we believe about ourselves in such a way that changes the way we feel about ourselves. At least, it has for me.

    Alex

  • Alex,
    For me, years of self-disrespect and self-loathing were bound to only valuing myself when I believed others valued me. In other words, I was placing (and continue to place) the responsibility for my own self-esteem in the hands of others. My misdirected sense of from where my own value derives continues to be a challenge for me, even in the light of some success replacing the source of my self-esteem. Your essay and the comments from your readers has given me additional “food” to chew on. I’m aware that whatever changes we attempt to make in how we view ourselves don’t come easily, like flipping a light switch, because the sources of our self-loathing become so integrated into our mental wiring, so automatic, it takes constant self-awareness and vigilance to rewrite our personal scripts. Thank you.

    Christian: If you haven’t already read it, The Good Guy Contract may resonate.

    Alex

  • Tonia

    I came upon this page desperately searching for help. I have fallen into this self-loathing category once again. Like Christian, I place the value of myself in the hands of others. And when things start to fall apart, I begin to blame myself. I make bad decisions and it wouldn’t be so awful, but my decisions not only affect me but my four children that I am solely responsible for. I feel that I am failing them terribly. I question my judgment and my ability to do what is beneficial for them and myself. I go to school for psychology, of all subjects, thinking that if I learn enough maybe I can fix all the damage I have done. I feel as if I am selfish, unreliable, irresponsible, rash and emotional. I can not seem to form normal relationships. It’s like when people start to get to close, I run as far as I can. I am scared or ashamed for anyone to know the real me. I want to help others but it seems I can’t even help myself.I don’t even want my daughters to know the real me. Your article seemed to bring me hope as I was reading it…but I soon thought I am no help to anyone.

    Tonia: If I pointed out someone else to you who cared as much for her four children as you do, would you judge her as harshly as you have yourself? Only because you’re intimately familiar with your own personal negativity do you fail to value your positive qualities enough to let them buoy your self-esteem. But an intellectual understanding of this fact has no power to help change how you feel about yourself. If you “place the value of [yourself] in the hands of others” it might be helpful for you to think about some of the ideas in The Good Guy Contract. Self-esteem is a difficult thing to build as an adult, but far from impossible. If you’re not already in therapy, please go. If you can identify the source of your low self-esteem you can remove it. And when you remove it, you can find a way to value yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. If there’s a particular reason you keep making the same kind of mistakes and judge yourself so harshly for failing to learn a particular lesson, undoubtedly there’s a thought process from which you haven’t freed yourself at the bottom of it. That, too, can be identified and changed. You absolutely can build yourself into the kind of person you yourself admire and want your children not only to know, but to learn from. Don’t give up!

    Alex

  • [...] to a good friend suffering in a similar way.  Of course, if we’re full of self-disgust or dislike ourselves intensely, we’ll find the summoning up of compassionate feelings for ourselves even more [...]

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