Recently, we've called attention to the question of whether narcissism is an epidemic in our nation. Yet, I would argue that it is narcissism's evil step-sister that is causing the most trouble in people's lives. Self-hatred is something we may not often say out loud. We prefer softer-sounding terms, like "low self-esteem" or "poor self-image." The reality is, much of the time we are downright hateful toward ourselves. Throughout a given day, we experience a barrage of sadistic thoughts so smoothly and so frequently that we hardly notice we're under attack. Narcissism may be a compensation for insecurity, but deep down, we are our own worst enemy.
When it comes to self-hatred among younger generations, statistics say a lot. A study of more than 3,000 adolescent girls showed that seven out of 10 believe that they are not good enough. They feel they aren't measuring up in terms of their appearance, academic performance and personal relationships. The same study showed that 75 percent of girls with low self-esteem have engaged in "negative activities such as disordered eating, cutting, bullying, smoking, or drinking when feeling badly about themselves." Yet, contrary to what often gets reported, it isn't just young women wrestling with serious self-esteem issues. In 2011, the American Psychological Association published a study posing that, while self-esteem increases during adolescence then slows in young adulthood, "there is no significant difference between men's and women's self-esteem during either of those life phases."
In truth, we don't need studies to tell us that a self-esteem deficit clearly exists in our society. Just talk to any teenager, or small child for that matter, and ask them if there is something that they feel critical of in themselves. The answers are sure to shock you. I've yet to meet a kid who doesn't have a laundry list of cruel self-criticisms they can immediately fire off. "I'm fat." "I'm annoying." "Other kids don't like me." "My parents are disappointed in me."
These disturbing core beliefs don't disappear as we get older. In fact, what my father Dr. Robert Firestone and I have found in our 30 years of research is that these thoughts go on to affect us in every area of our lives, making up what we refer to as our "critical inner voice." We can even pass these "voices" down to future generations.
Where Self-Hating Thoughts Come From
There are two important influences on how we form our self-perception. The first is how our parents or other early influential caretakers saw and treated us. The second is the way these same influential figures saw themselves. Parents are people; they aren't perfect. They both love and hate themselves, and they extend these reactions to their products (their children).
Our identity is heavily informed by how we were viewed in our early family environment. The healthy and supportive attitudes we were exposed to in our childhoods helped build the positive side of our self-image - our "real self." This is the part of us that feels a sense of self-worth, compassion and confidence. However, the harmful attitudes directed toward us formed the negative side of our self-perception - our "anti-self." If for example, we had a parent who thought of us as lazy or slow, we may have picked up on these attitudes from ways they acted: looks of annoyance or sighs of disappointment. Perhaps, they criticized us directly: "What's the matter with you? Hurry up. You're always making me late. Can't you think for once?"
As children, we are further affected by ways parents speak or feel about themselves. In the study of young women mentioned above, over half the girls tested said they had a mother who criticized herself. When parents look in the mirror in disgust, when they vocalize what a failure they are or simply don't feel good about how they're living their own lives, they are serving as models for their child's developing sense of self.
How Self-Hatred Impacts Our Lives
As we get older, we tend to internalize the subtle and not-so-subtle attitudes and actions of our parents. Without realizing it, we take these notions on as our own point of view toward ourselves. They become the foundation for our critical inner voice and translate into a running commentary in our heads. When we go on a date, it feeds us little thoughts like, "You sound so stupid. He is not interested." When we land a job interview, it reminds us, "You'll make a fool of yourself. Who would hire a nervous wreck like you?"
This "voice" creeps in at moments we may not expect it, right when we are achieving success or getting what we want. It can even sound soothing, telling us to take care of or protect ourselves. "Don't worry about meeting someone. You'll be just fine alone. Stay home, relax." Yet, the critical inner voice is two-faced in the sense that it will also be there to punish us when we listen to its directives: "You loser! You don't have any real friends. You're never going to be happy."
For each person, there are certain areas of life in which this inner critic is louder and more obnoxious. Sometimes, we can get a hold of and quiet this voice in one area, and it pops up in another. If unrecognized, its influence can be strong. It can sabotage our relationships, ruin our careers, impact our parenting style and undermine our personal goals. If we don't deal with this inner critic in ourselves, it is also very likely to impact our children and lead to a cycle of self-hatred that passes through generations.
What to Do About Self-Hating Thoughts
The first thing to realize is that we are not our critical inner voice, and we are definitely not the person our critical inner voice tells us that we are. Just because we ourselves experience these self-hating thoughts does not mean that they make up our real and honest point of view. Remember, every one of us is divided in our feelings toward ourselves. The critical inner voice should be seen as an alien point of view, an unwelcome overlay on our self-perceptions. It is truly an "anti-self," constructed out of our darkest developmental experiences. This voice is not our friend. It is paranoid, hostile, suspicious and manipulative. It gives bad advice and never wants what's really best for us.
Of course, we are all flawed in certain ways, but when we listen to our critical inner voice, we tend to exaggerate and berate ourselves for these flaws. We lose perspective and fail to exercise the self-compassion that is essential to pursuing our goals and living our lives to the fullest. Voice Therapy is a method developed by Dr. Robert Firestone that helps individuals identify their critical inner voice, understand where it comes from, separate from its point of view and respond to it from a more realistic and compassionate perspective. Challenging self-hatred is a key step to stopping self-limiting or sabotaging behaviors. It opens doors in our lives we didn't know we'd shut and makes it possible to live a more unique and personally fulfilling existence.
Learn more in Dr. Lisa Firestone's upcoming Webinar "Stop Hating Yourself: A Method to Overcome Your Inner Critic." Where this inner critic comes from, why it exists and what we can do about it are the subjects of our book Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice and of my March 24 Webinar "Stop Hating Yourself: A Method to Overcome Your Inner Critic." Here, I will briefly outline the cause and effects of these self-hating thoughts and introduce a method for how to overcome them.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.