“Your problem is you’re too busy holding onto your unworthiness.”
– Ram Dass
If you had asked me a decade ago whether I loved myself the question would have baffled me.
Self-love? What does that even mean? Does anyone really love themselves? And if they do, isn’t that the bedrock of egoism and navel gazing?
It wouldn’t have taken me long to give you an answer; that is, if I was feeling like being honest with you that day. My honest answer would have been, “No way!” But the answer I may have given on social media, or in an unfamiliar group setting, would have more likely been, “Hell yes!” It’s all about appearing confident, right?
But despite the fact that at that point I wasn’t really familiar with the concept of self-love, I knew somehow that a lack of love for myself was tied to a lack of joy in my life. I just didn’t want to look that closely.
A few years ago I heard a story about how the Dalai Lama was once asked at a Western spiritual conference how people might deal with the issue of self-love’s shadow sister: self-hatred. He was even more baffled by the question than I would have been ten years ago, but for an entirely different reason: he had never even heard of the concept of self-hatred. Bewildered, he turned to his co-facilitator and asked, “What is this ‘self-hatred’ you speak of?” I’m guessing this happened early in his speaking career and he is now far more familiar with the concept, but what this highlighted for me is that self-hatred, or at least the lack of connection to self, is very much a Western problem.
There are many different theories about where this problematic relationship to Self first surfaced. The ancient teachings of some religions offer one explanation with the belief that the Self is less than worthy and needs to meet some idea of sinless perfection. These misunderstood interpretations of religion have lead not only to a mass resentment of religion, but also a disconnection from a belief in the higher self or anything greater than the eye can see. But that’s a whole other post…
Up Close with Self-Hatred
You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love & affection. ~Buddha
So where do we begin? Well, the hardest part is looking in the mirror and accepting that self-hatred is even an issue.
Let’s just look at those words, “self-hatred,”—pretty strong, huh? Perhaps you’re reading this and thinking I’m being a little over the top. Perhaps you would admit to sometimes being a little hard on yourself, but wouldn’t put yourself in the “hate” camp. Hate is, after all, a pretty contentious word. But let’s not split hairs here—maybe there are days when it’s hate, days when it’s more of a dislike, and days when it’s a quiet resentment. Heck there are likely also plenty of days when you probably think you are a-m-a-z-i-n-g! But here are some signs that your thoughts towards yourself aren’t, on the whole, kind:
- You look for approval and validation from others
- When people critique (or even criticize) you, you take it personally and mull over it for days
- You compare yourself to others often and may have issues with jealousy
- You don’t like the way you look and avoid the mirror as often as possible
- You judge and blame others (a direct reflection of the judgement and blame you lay on yourself)
- You fear being vulnerable (which may lead to revealing your true self—faults and all)
- People in your life don’t tend to treat you with respect
- You find yourself pushing people away when you really would like to be close
- You’ve given up on your dreams (you fear you aren’t good enough to achieve them)
- You have a lot of negativity towards the world at large and don’t see it as a friendly place (a direct reflection of your inner world)
- Your inner critic usually has the last word
If any of these scenarios sound familiar, you are likely lacking in the self-love department. Some days it may look like self-hatred and other days like you’re just a little low on self esteem. Whichever it is, these are signs your relationship with yourself needs work. And here’s the hardest part to digest about self-hatred: we can’t fully love others or be loved by them unless we first love ourselves.
The Impact of Self-Hatred on Relationships
That’s BS, I hear you say. I can be lacking in love for myself and have plenty of love for others. Perhaps. But the way you love those people and your capacity for love is often compromised.
If you don’t love yourself, the tendency is to hide in a relationship. This may look like avoiding intimacy, difficulty connecting, denying your needs, hiding your fears and insecurities….all for fear that you may not be loved if you show up 100%. This is most apparent in romantic relationships, which demand the highest levels of emotional and physical intimacy. If there is one place your self-hatred is going to show up it’s in the arena of romantic love.
Even if you can admit to struggling with self-love, it can be very challenging to admit that it could affect your love for others. We want to believe that our love for others is whole and wide as the ocean, especially when it comes to our kids. But while you may think that you are doing a great job at keeping the lid on all that self-hatred, it seeps into our relationships like water into cracks. In time we can’t hide all the negativity, blame, critical self-talk and judgement. The way we treat ourselves is the way we treat others. We can’t help it; it’s all we know how to do. And when we see it show up in our relationships, it becomes a vicious cycle of self-hatred that leads to more withdrawal and shutting down.
Looking Back Right at You: the Mirror Analogy
The way we see the world is a direct reflection of the way we see ourselves. If you judge yourself harshly, so too will you judge others harshly. If you have no self-compassion and forgiveness for yourself, you will find it challenging to have compassion and forgiveness for others. And if you believe you aren’t enough, you will see others as not being enough.
We can’t see our inner world in one way and see the outer world in an opposite way. The two are synonymous.
This is why doctors are now recognizing that the mind and body are not separate entities. If there is a problem on the inside (mind and emotions), that problem eventually manifests as aches, pains, and illness on the outside (the physical body.) A great book that explains this is When the body Says No by Gabor Mate.
Self-love and Intimacy
In order to have a healthy and connected relationship we need a healthy level of self-intimacy; it’s that simple. Jon Carlson defines self intimacy as “an individual’s conscious awareness of his or her own emotions, desires, and thoughts.” He adds that, “awareness of emotions and attention to them are the key to self care, and sharing them is the most powerful conduit to closeness with a partner.” If we have never exercised the muscle of attending to our own emotional needs, it becomes very difficult to do with a partner.
Attending to our own emotional needs and longings is the key to loving ourselves. It is about respecting the self enough to attend to the weeds and flowers growing in the garden of our soul.
Connecting to Self
If you are reading this and aware that your relationship to self needs work, that’s an excellent start. The majority of issues I see as a counsellor are rooted in that relationship. You can begin by becoming more mindful of your emotions and needs and allowing them to be there. Why do you think they are present in your life? It’s also helpful to tune into your inner critic and notice the chattering voice that tells you you aren’t good enough, or have failed yet again. Whose voice is it? Why is it there?
Most of us have been raised in a culture that denies emotions and favours education, productivity and competition. Yet interpersonal intelligence has just as much value in society because it provides a basis for all our interactions in the world. What use is education and productivity if we don’t know how to be in relationship?
The work of connecting to self can be long and hard, especially if it something we have always avoided. A counsellor can certainly help you in this work, but you can also take some small steps alone by reading authors such as Kristin Neff and Brene Brown. Another helpful tool is an app called Insight Timer, which I use almost daily. Here you’ll find hundreds of meditations rooted in self-compassion with a focus on a wide range of topics.
Please feel free to reach out, whether you want to learn more about counselling or where to begin in changing your relationship with self. I’d love to chat!