Hello Self-loathing, my old friend…

Self-loathing as a belief system

Today I did a session on beliefs with a community team and one of the subjects that came up was self-loathing. 
It can be painful to witness somebody caught in cycles of self-loathing, it’s easy to feel powerless and frustrated and it’s only natural to want to bring relief. 

But if you think of self-loathing as a belief system it might become clearer why reassurance, pep-talks and affirmations either only brings short relief or at times might create more intense self-loathing. 

We hold beliefs because they help us make sense of things and organise our experiences. Beliefs can simplify the world for us or maybe they can give us a sense of direction. Beliefs can give us an excuse for doing things a certain way or for not doing something. All beliefs serve a function but it may not be immediately obvious what that function is. And it may be even harder to see how a distressing belief can be protective.

I believe that all people are born equal and hardwired for connection and it gives me hope for the world – whether it’s true or not I’ll never know. I also believe that most people are dishonest about their intentions – quite often because they are not aware of them and are living in default mode – which helps me be cautious and discerning about who I give my love and energy to. If I get too attached to this belief I start becoming distrusting and suspicious but if I can hold it lightly it helps me look after myself.

We might think of self-loathing as an emotion but I see it more as a state of being; a part of me that has its own perceptions and its own beliefs.

Quite a lot of my life I have believed that I was a disgusting, evil and horrible human being. I have believed that I needed to contain myself so that I wouldn’t pollute people around me with all the horrible stuff inside me. I have believed that I had nothing to offer to the world, that I was a problem to be gotten rid of and that I didn’t deserve love and friendships. I have believed that other people found me disgusting too and that they were just tolerating me in order to make fun about me behind me back. I have believed that I was cursed and that there was something innately wrong with me. I have felt incredible amounts of shame about my thoughts, my feelings, my body, my behaviour, my dreams and my personality. 

And at times I still feel these things. At times I go into states where my self-loathing beliefs feel like the only reality there is.

Letting self-loathing do its job

The experience of hearing voices has taught me a lot about holding reality lightly and accepting not knowing what the truth is. It has helped see how the world is full of realities, full of different perceptions and different ways of understanding these perceptions. Hearing multiple voices, each with their own take on the world, has made me more able to sit with the uncertainty of multiple realities.

So today when my self-loathing states visit me, I try to remember that they are temporary and wait them out. But I also try to acknowledge that they don’t come along out of the blue. I feel self-loathing for a reason.

Self-loathing does a lot of different jobs for me. Some of them may seem to contradict each other but it seems to me that it’s just an expression of different needs at different times.

Self-loathing gives me reasons why I at times feel disconnected from other people. It tells me why people don’t take an interest in me or why I experience being dismissed. 

Now the temptation might be to say: “But self-loathing has got it wrong. It’s not because you are disgusting that people don’t take an interest – they are just too busy, stressed and wrapped up in their own needs and feelings.” And yes that is a much nicer and more rational explanation but why are we so reluctant to admit that there may be some people who find me disgusting? It is extremely likely that there are people who I – for whatever reason – rub up the wrong way and they may find me horrible and evil. Self-loathing reminds me that I cannot please everybody and that there might not be any point in trying to.

Self-loathing keeps me in touch with my ugly sides. There is no hiding from self-loathing; it will remind me of all the horrible thoughts or impulses I have at times. There is no suppression with self-loathing.

Here the temptation might be to go full throttle on positive affirmations: “We are all unique and beautiful beings, blessed by life or a higher power and all of us worthy of love. You are not evil, I experience you as a caring and gentle person.” And I may express gratitude and acknowledge the attempt to reassure me but in a state of self-loathing I will also be thinking: “Well you don’t know me the way I do – how would you feel if I told you about my desires to hurt or be hurt or my thoughts of ridding the whole world of humans?” Most of us have thoughts or fantasies that we feel ashamed about and think we are alone with. When someone tries to reassure me, it can make me think that they are not willing to look at the horribleness of humans with me.

Self-loathing keeps me humble. Self-loathing gets intensely angry with me if I start thinking I am better than, special or a chosen one. Somehow it keeps me balancing on that edge of being unique and yet equal to everyone else. When I feel superior, self-loathing bombards me with my inferiority.

And I can hear someone argue: “Well surely there are other ways of keeping your megalomania in check? Staying humble could be achieved by other, gentler means.” And yes there might be other ways and that may work for other people, but I wonder why I should choose another way? Harshness and violence is a natural part of life, denying that it is part of me and not giving it a role seems problematic to me. I have no interest in eradicating self-loathing and keeping me humble feels like a good use of its natural talents.

Self-loathing keeps me safe. It allows me to give up and let go. If I am unworthy and unlovable what’s the point of chasing after love, of proving myself to the world or of trying to live up to others expectations.Things cannot get any worse so I can just stop trying and withdraw into my cocoon. Self-loathing and self-pity are familiar companions and I know where I stand with them; with them I am allowed to die and disappear.

Self-loathing tells me that I might have spent too much energy comparing myself to others. Self-loathing seems to get stronger when I – unawares – have been looking at other peoples achievements or the recognition other people get. 

Self-loathing encourages me to get clean; physically, energetically and mentally. It has very high standards – impossible actually – when it comes to ethics. But it seems to me that we need a lot more sustainable and ethically ways of living so I don’t mind that self-loathing helps keep me in check.

Exploring Self-loathing with others

Self-loathing can be a lonely place because the nature of it is full of tabboos and shame. Even though I have just made an argument for why self-loathing is an important part of my life, I also know how difficult it is when self-loathing takes over and controls your life. When it goes from being a state of mind or a part of you to being the only reality, your disgusting worthlessness the only truth.

I totally understand why people want to relieve the pain of self-loathing, why it makes us panic and go into fixing and reassuring mode. I myself am not that great at responding to expressed self-loathing. In the moment it can feel so uncomfortable, as if you’re getting drawn into this heavy, gooey, foggy swamp. It triggers off our caring instincts as well as our desire to stay hopeful and optimistic. How can we show empathy without making it worse? If we just accept and empathise are we not just colluding? Don’t we need to stand up to this kind of self-abuse?

I want to finish this blog with a couple of things that I have found helpful in terms of finding a place for self-loathing in my life. 

First of all there is the Voice Dialogue model which has helped me see self-loathing as a part of me that comes out at certain times. This helps me explore and be less angry with it or scared of it. One time when it got really intense I asked my partner to dialogue with this part of me. I had felt caught in cycles of anxiety, shame and overwhelm for a while and I could feel self-loathing working in the background. Having my partner talk to self-loathing helped honour it’s energy and bring it into the light which made it easier to deal with. 

Another thing I find helpful is when other people share their horribleness with me. When friends feel safe enough to tell me about tabboo thoughts or feelings they may have. It seems to me that self-loathing feeds off secret keeping and shame. Self-loathing seems to grow out of proportions when we cannot find spaces to talk about all those ugly things that live in us. 

I love the death-cafes movement. I would love for there to be similar initiatives around self-loathing and the darker sides to being human. 

Gallery

Who needs a father anyway?

Who needs a father when there are so many good men in the world doing their best to relate to women (and men) in kind and meaningful ways…?

It was father’s day here in the UK very recently and as always it makes me feel slightly torn. I enjoy the posts I see on Facebook where friends share their love and appreciation for their fathers, stepfathers, grandfathers and any other kind of father one could think of. I loved the look on my partners face when he came to tell me his sons had brought him chocolate because of father’s day. I just generally feel joyful when people show each other that they care.

But another part of me gets annoyed with father’s day and I catch myself having inner dialogues about “how superficial and commercial it all is”.

When I take a closer look at my annoyance I find that it is just self-protective palaver designed to keep certain feelings at bay. Feelings of sadness and confusion – a deep grief that never really eases or shifts.

When new people come into my life – or when I do training and talk about my life – at one point people will ask about my family and my parents. And I will often just talk about my mother and my siblings. Some people will continue to talk about my parents in plural or they will ask about my father and this is when I say “I don’t have a father”. And I really, really mean that; I grew up without a father – or even a stepfather – and I still don’t have a father. Because the man who contributed to the creation of me has never taken an interest in me.

My mother decided to raise me on her own and she also decided not to get into a relationship again, which meant that there were no male role models close to me as a grew up.

Even though my mother’s feelings towards my father must have been complex, she never said a bad word about him to me; when I was young she would tell me very simple stories about him when I asked. Stories about how he looked and how he worked on ships.

My mother also seemed very aware of her own limitations raising me as a single mother. She made sure I spent time with my great aunt and uncle as well as families of friends so that I could experience different kinds of family lives and learn social skills that she couldn’t teach me.

As I got older life got more complicated for me and I began to wish that I had a father – someone who would love and support my mother but also someone who could help with the conflicts between my mother and I. I started to wonder why my mother was on her own and why my father wasn’t interested in me and in my powerlessness to change the situation I started believing that I was cursed. That there was something evil about me and that this evil had put a curse on my mother and I so that neither of us would ever be loved.

This belief was in some ways easier to cope with than the anger I felt towards my mother – the anger just caused me more pain and shame while the belief that I was cursed gave me something to work with.

If I could just be “a good girl” and keep the evil under control, then things could change.

The irony is that knowing my mother as I know her now, I am pretty sure she never wanted me to be “a good girl”. My mother has always supported my self-expression, autonomy and uniqueness and I know she noticed it when I began to struggle as a kid.

She did what she could to support me but I imagine it was difficult as I began to withdraw emotionally and refused to talk about what was going on. Looking back, I also think it was near impossible for me to express all the thoughts and feelings I had as I was only 8-9 years old and didn’t have a language for it.

I have a very clear memory of deciding not to talk about the things I was struggling with because I didn’t think anybody would understand (I barely understood myself) but also I was worried about contaminating others with all the horrible things I felt inside.

Keeping the belief that I was unlovable alive, wasn’t difficult – it’s pretty easy to make sure you love people who can’t or won’t love you back and there it is: proof that you are unlovable. I’ve done that a lot. Also I used to avoid building friendships that I wanted to last because I couldn’t cope with the pain of separating from people.

But I didn’t get to control everything in my life – luckily! So somehow people started coming into my life who just seemed to like me and care about me without me doing anything to deserve it…

As the years passed I slowly got more comfortable around men who were nice to me – though I still get pangs of paranoia and think to myself that they are only kind to me because they want something from me. But I kept finding the courage to trust and little by little my experience of having meaningful friendships with men helped me create a new belief system within me. Belief in my own worth and my own strength; that I could trust my own judgement about what I needed, about my boundaries, that I had the skills to look after myself in a gentle way and that I had something valuable to bring to the world.

Most importantly I began to receive the love that was offered to me.

I don’t know what my life would have been like had I had a father – somethings might have been easier and somethings might have been harder.

I do know that I deeply treasure my relationship with my mother and had I had a father it would not have been what it is today – simply because the dynamics between us would have been different.

I also know that I really like how I am (well, most of the time anyway); I like the values I have, my outlook on life and the way I experience the world. And I would be a different person had anything in the past 35 years turned out differently than it did.

Part of being who I am, is living with this grief in the pit of my stomach; it is not quite loss, not quite longing, not quite abandonment or rejection. It is more like an emptiness or nothingness, a not knowing but at the same time it has density and a certain heaviness to it and its dark, dark blue…

This blog is written to celebrate all those men in my life – past and present – who have related to me in ways that made me feel loved and valuable.

Men who were able to meet my needs for safety, joy, choice, nurturing, respect, mutuality, acceptance, consistency, integrity, openness and growth.

Thank you!

The black-blue pain may never dissolve but your presence in my life has made it easier to carry.

The list of men who have helped me on my journey is actually surprisingly long. I have begun to write it out in more details and with stories but it suddenly felt too personal and exposing so maybe that list is for another post on a later occasion…