Self-loathing involves criticizing, demeaning, and insulting oneself, often through an internal narrative. People who engage in this behavior tend to have low self-esteem and believe they aren’t “good enough;” this can manifest in a variety of negative behaviors including rumination, catastrophizing, forms of self-punishment (such as self-harm or substance use), and isolation.
What Is Self-Loathing?
Self-loathing is a pattern of extreme self-criticism and self-judgment that stems from (and contributes to) feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and incompetence. People who are self-loathing tend to have a strong, negative internal narrative, also known as an inner critic, and have often experienced some sort of invalidation or trauma.
Those most likely to self-loathe include people who:
- Were modeled self-hatred or self-criticism by caregivers
- Were bullied in childhood
- Experienced trauma
- Grew up in invalidating environments
- Are experiencing depression
- Believe that self-punishment is an effective form of behavior change
Signs of Self-Loathing
While self-loathing can take many forms, it typically involves neglecting oneself, having a lack of self-compassion, sabotaging personal success, and trusting others more than trusting oneself. Many people who experience self-loathing refuse to accept compliments and praise, or simply dismiss them when received. Those with self-hatred also tend to experience low self-esteem, believing they have deficits that others may not notice.
Signs of self-loathing may include:
- Low self-esteem
- Thinking you’re not good enough
- Lack of self-compassion
- Critical self-talk
- Neglecting yourself and your needs (e.g., not eating enough or eating too much, not getting enough sleep)
- Sabotaging success
- Seeking reassurance
- Refusing to accept or ignoring compliments or praise
- Focusing on the negative
- Trusting others more than trusting yourself
- Engaging in unhealthy habits such as substance use, self-harm, or risky sex
- Refusing to get help
What Causes Self-Loathing?
While there isn’t just one way someone develops a pattern of self-loathing, there are several possible causes that contribute to it. In general, self-hating tendencies typically stem from childhood, as this is the time period in which people begin to develop a relationship with and understanding of themselves. It’s certainly possible to begin self-loathing later in life. However, more persistent patterns tend to reflect early experiences such as bullying, invalidation by caregivers, or a history of watching trusted adults engage in self-loathing themselves.
Self-loathing may result as a consequence of these conditions, experiences, and feelings:
An invalidating environment is one in which caregivers or other important figures in one’s life suggest that their thoughts and feelings shouldn’t be trusted or aren’t justified.1 Those who have been invalidated often internalize the messages they’ve received, which may lead to a sense of worthlessness and self-loathing.
Perfectionists have high standards and expectations of themselves and struggle when they inevitably fail to meet them. They often have exaggerated negative reactions to their own mistakes, which may develop into a pattern of self-loathing.
Being a People Pleaser
People pleasers go above and beyond to put others first, often before meeting their own needs. This behavior typically stems from insecurity and is used as a way of deriving value from others’ responses to their helpfulness and thoughtfulness. In the absence of this feedback, people pleasers may develop an even lower self-worth, sometimes leading to self-loathing.
Trauma, abuse, and bullying (particularly in children) may result in a variety of negative effects, including feelings of shame, worthlessness, and the belief that one is deserving of such emotions. These experiences can have lasting effects on someone’s relationship with themselves, sometimes developing into patterns of self-criticism, self-invalidation, and self-loathing.
Self-loathing tends to be the more tangible experience of underlying shame.2 Whereas shame requires a certain amount of insight and awareness, self-loathing often arises when one bypasses the emotion shame, focusing instead on expressing language about more observable and concrete qualities (e.g., weight or academic scores).3 In these cases, self-hatred tends to be the product of emotional avoidance.
Because children adopt behaviors they observe, if important figures model self-loathing —for example, regularly making comments such as “I can’t believe I did that! I’m so dumb,” or “I’m disgusting,”— they may learn that these kinds of statements and sentiments are normal, appropriate, and even helpful. Because of this, one may adopt similar negative self-perceptions.
Self-loathing may develop as a result of being in an environment where standards and expectations seem unrealistic. If you constantly compare yourself to others who you perceive to be thinner, wealthier, or smarter than you, you may learn to criticize yourself for not being “good enough.” This mindset can develop into a pattern of self-hatred and occur in a variety of environments —at home, school, work, or within an entire population.
Because those with depression struggle to find the motivation or interest to participate fully in their lives, internalized self-critical thoughts and feelings of worthlessness may increase. These ideologies have the potential to develop into a more general sense of self-loathing.
Lack of Understanding
Many mistakenly believe that punishment is the most effective form of behavior change, believing that if they shame or criticize themselves they will learn to be “better.” In reality, reinforcing beneficial behaviors (for example, walking to get the mail) is more effective than punishing oneself (for example, “I’m so lazy for not exercising today”). Further, many also adopt self-loathing due to a misunderstanding of what self-compassion is and assuming it will make them self-centered or selfish.4
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Impacts of Self-Loathing
Even though the intended function of self-loathing is often to change oneself for the better, it can ironically contribute to a variety of unwanted outcomes. In terms of physical health, self-loathing may lead to isolation, resulting in less physical exercise and activities. Those who struggle with their body image may restrict food intake, leading to vitamin deficiencies or the development of an eating disorder. Further, self-hatred may also contribute to the development of depression, among other mental disorders like anxiety.
Self-loathing can have social implications as well. Those who experience self-loathing will sometimes engage in reassurance seeking behaviors, such as asking others to confirm that they look okay or insisting friends “like” their posts on social media. Despite these cries for reassurance, no amount of praise is enough to change their perception of themselves, which can be frustrating for loved ones. People who are self-loathing may find that friends or partners don’t want to be around them or criticize their self-hating patterns, which may inadvertently lead to more self-loathing.
Finally, self-loathing has implications in professional and academic settings as well. Those who engage in self-loathing behaviors tend to lack confidence, avoid new opportunities, and have a fear of failure that impedes them from excelling. Self-loathing may also lead someone to undervalue themselves, which may interfere with advocating for their personal needs, such as not asking for a raise or negotiating when it is appropriate or deserved.
How to Deal With Self-Loathing
There are several strategies to consider to help you get out of a pattern of self-loathing. Mindfulness techniques including grounding, meditation, and deep breathing have been proved successful in some participants. These exercises can involve one actively redirecting thoughts back to the present moment and away from self-loathing obsessions. Or, they can help someone identify self-loathing thoughts. Other strategies include practicing self-care, making a self-loathing timeline, practicing accepting compliments, and reframing judgmental thoughts as factual ones.
Here are 14 tips for how to cope with self-loathing:
1. Learn to Identify Self-Loathing
Dealing with self-loathing first requires knowing what self-loathing looks and feels like. Practice noticing how your body feels and where you are when self-loathing shows up. Try to do this nonjudgmentally by simply acknowledging the thoughts for what they are. Recognizing self-loathing thoughts is the first step towards healing your perceptions.
2. Acknowledge Your Feelings
Self-loathing tends to be an ineffective distraction from what’s really bothering you emotionally. When you catch yourself in a self-hating moment, ask yourself “What’s the cause of this?” and identify an emotion name (such as sadness or shame). Acknowledge the emotion without clinging to it or pushing it away. Try saying something to yourself like, “Sadness has shown up” and notice what it feels like in your body. Experiencing both negative and positive emotions is a part of being human and shouldn’t be a source of self-loathing.
3. Practice Self-Soothing
Consider how it feels to receive a hug or gentle touch on the shoulder by a trusted loved one. Soothing touch sends safe and nurturing signals to the brain, setting off the release of oxytocin thus decreasing the experience of pain and stress.5 To combat self-loathing with self-soothing, try lying under a soft blanket, hugging a pillow, closing your eyes, and listening to calm music; or rest a hand on your heart.
4. Practice Self-Care
Because self-loathing motivates you to neglect or punish yourself, acting opposite to negative urges can help you learn healthy ways to adapt to these urges. For example, instead of asking yourself, “Why bother brushing my teeth, since I never go anywhere?”, tell yourself, “Since I brushed my teeth today, I should treat myself to lunch.” This is a great way to reward yourself for embracing self-care and combating self-hating conceptions.
5. Reframe Judgments as Facts
Self-loathing often shows up in the form of judgments, for example, “I’m an awful friend for talking behind her back.” When you notice these judgments arise, try reframing them as facts: “I was worried about my friend, so I consulted with another one to get advice on how to support her.” Stripping negativity out of statements like these helps you focus on identifying whether your behaviors are in line with your values, not indicative of your self-worth.
6. Talk to Yourself as You Would a Friend
Because people often treat themselves more harshly or critically than they would a loved one in similar circumstances, it can be helpful in moments of self-loathing to imagine what you would say to them and direct it toward yourself.4 You are just as worthy of love and acceptance as anyone else.
7. Practice Accepting Compliments
Many people who struggle with self-loathing also find it difficult to accept compliments and positive feedback. To them, it seems misaligned with how they view themselves to believe the praises of others. One way to deal with self-hatred is to practice accepting these sentiments when they come your way. If a boss says, “You did great today,” try simply saying, “Thank you” rather than thinking, “I could’ve done better.” Accepting compliments can help you internalize your worthiness.
8. Talk Back to Yourself
Self-loathing oftentimes takes form within negative thoughts directed at oneself. To cope with self-loathing, try combating internalized dissatisfaction with positivity and support. Don’t tell yourself, “No one wants to be around you. You’re pathetic.” Instead say, “I’m alone right now because I choose to be and find solace in my solitude.” This helps bring other perspectives into the mix, even if you don’t 100% believe what you’re telling yourself just yet.
9. Mock Self-Loathing Thoughts
Thoughts are just that—thoughts. They aren’t always fact or accurate representations of reality. One way to cope with self-loathing thoughts is to mock them. Try singing them to the tune of a song, repeating them until they lose meaning, or saying them in a cartoon character’s voice. The more you play around with them, the more your brain recognizes they aren’t as powerful as they initially seemed.
10. Practice Mindfulness or Meditation
Mindfulness exercises and meditation are two helpful strategies that encourage you to be unmindful of self-loathing thoughts and judgments. When self-loathing arises, consider practicing grounding techniques, deep breathing, or participating mindfully in a favorite activity. Distract yourself from self-hating thoughts and do something you enjoy.
11. Make a Timeline of Self-Loathing to Explore its Roots
Sometimes understanding the causes of your behavior can help you validate your experiences and make changes. Write out your earliest memory of self-loathing, your most recent, and anything significant in between. If helpful, include moments when you saw others participate in self-hating behaviors to help contextualize similar patterns within you.
12. Find Opportunities to Reinforce and Praise Yourself
Finding opportunities to praise yourself when you’re not self-loathing is important. If you took a shower today, now is the perfect opportunity to give yourself credit for prioritizing your hygiene. Try getting yourself a reward for utilizing self-coping methods when negativity surfaces. Reinforcement and praise are effective methods of increasing desired behaviors, so that they replace undesired ones.
13. Ask Yourself, “What Is the Function of Self-Loathing?”
Have you considered what you get out of this pattern of self-loathing? Thinking about the possible functions of this behavior is another way to deal with it. Does hating yourself keep expectations of yourself low? When you’re in a self-hating spiral, does it help you avoid your to-do list? Understanding what you get out of this pattern can help you make sense of and address it.
14. Identify the Moments You’re Most Self-Loathing and Plan Ahead for Them
One way to deal with self-loathing is to prepare for it. In a moment free of self-loathing, consider when it’s most likely to pop back up. Imagine yourself coping effectively in the moment—what will you say to yourself? What skills will you use? Focusing on how you would utilize coping methods in difficult moments increases the odds that you can use those skills effectively.
When to Get Professional Help
There is no one definitive indicator that it’s time to see a therapist. However, there are many signs that may indicate when help is needed. If you’re struggling to quiet the self-loathing thoughts or find yourself withdrawing and isolating, you should consider seeing a mental health professional.
Therapy can help you gain insight into your own self-loathing patterns, identify coping skills to manage symptoms, and help you build self-compassion and self-worth. Mindful self-compassion, cognitive behavioral therapy, and dialectical behavioral therapy are all treatments that can help you manage self-loathing thoughts. You can start your search for a mental health specialist by asking a trusted loved one, consulting your primary care provider or using an online therapist directory.
Overcoming self-loathing may seem daunting and difficult at first, but there are ways to increase self-compassion so that the self-loathing thoughts fade away and your relationship with yourself improves.