Spirituality & Health Magazine

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Wed, November 09 2016

Self-Hatred Is an Affliction, Not an Identity

Anneli Rufus

Several years ago, I wrote a book about low self-esteem. This accomplishment raised my self-esteem as it made me a self-hatred celebrity, a negativity nabob.

It also did the opposite, making me want to hide in closets and/or die of shame, because (as spoken in my inner critic's wheels-on-gravel growl) who the heck did I think I was to don the velvet mantle of authority and preach about a problem I had failed to solve?

Grateful to be a published author, I disliked being a connoisseur of something so tragic, a scholar of this silly ugly thing that made me starve myself for years and more than once attempt to stab myself with a mercifully dull pair of kitchen scissors in the gut.  

My book advised on managing the symptoms of self-loathing, such as hypervigilance, perfectionism, compulsive apologizing and—surprise, surprise—wanting to die of shame. But mainly it shared real-life anecdotes, which told the reader: You are not alone.

Because I am not a professional, thus licensed to dispense nothing but friendly-neighbor-over-the-back-fence advice, I could offer only awareness and solidarity—and because I myself still struggled with self-hatred, I felt like a charlatan, a blabbermouth, a thief.

But can awareness and solidarity heal? Do we help each other by saying: I know how you feel? Might our self-hatred wither in the dazzling glow of knowing what has happened to us and that we are not alone: not you, not me, not that slack-shouldered stranger whom we recognize as one of us, thus toward whom we shall show the same compassion we should grant ourselves?

Can awareness and solidarity strengthen us—both as individuals and as a clan, each of us brought here to this gloomy territory by catastrophes as disparate as humankind but united in our remarkably similar sufferings? You were bullied at school and I was berated at home; he was assaulted and she was neglected; yet we all have hazy boundaries and can't say no.

Knowing how similarly we behave, despite how otherwise different we are, gives us a clear new lens through which to gaze at our behaviors—seeing them at long last not as our own innate flaws but rather as the effects of a shared affliction with which we were not born but which was foisted on us by others at some tender, maybe unremembered age.

But now what?

At this point in history, afflictions become hashtags. In this process, they become identities. Banishing stigmas around mental illnesses is revolutionary and long overdue—but self-hatred is neither an established mental illness nor a diagnosis. It's merely a state of mind, a side effect of PTSD and other disorders. As such, dare we perceive it as temporary?

How invested should we be in being "people with low self-esteem"? Yes, clinging to this clan brings sweet relief: It's not us; it's just what was done to us. It brings context: My self-hatred is just a zany story from the past that was created in traumatic circumstances. It solves mysteries: Aha, so this is why I avoid mirrors, deflect praise, and overcompensate.

But at what point does #lowselfesteem imprison us?

Let's say we have mustered the patience, bravery and dedication to identify the sources, meanings and manifestations of our sufferings: this set of stories, villains, habits and ideas. Let's say we have amassed an armory of strategies: Relax. Be kind. Be curious. Look outward, not always within. Remember that healing takes time. Keep seeking practices—wherever we can find them—that soften our self-hatred day by day, bit by teeny-tiny bit?  

Self-hatred might afflict us. But need we make it define us? This creature you see before you who dreads then regrets every encounter, bursts into terrified sobbing at the sound of raised voices and blames herself for being unable to sleep is not me. It looks like me. For decades I mistook it for me. But hey: Let's make a pact to outlive at least some of our self-loathing, so that our self-loathing selves are not the last selves we will ever see.

Anneli Rufus’ latest work, Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself, was released by Tarcher Penguin in May 2014 and continues this path, addressing self-esteem.


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