The Purposes of Self-Loathing

By Paul Dunion | April 7, 2017

The psyche exercises an intense regard for its own protection. At times, it will indulge in what appear to be self-inflicted harm, if it believes such treatment will contribute to other fundamental needs such as survival.  Self-loathing or the loss of self-love is often one of those strategies employed in support of some other basic need.  In order to move back into an experience of authentic self-love, we will need to identify the purpose of our self-loathing and begin to separate the purpose from self-rejection. We can then explore other possible ways to reach the purpose in lieu of self-loathing, and put an end to the inner violence. Let’s look at some of the common purposes of self-loathing, followed by some suggestions regarding how healing might begin.


The Purposes

*Loyalty to the Past – Since there are no perfect parents, we all experience some level of abuse or neglect.  We decided as children that we were not worthy of better treatment in order to remain connected to our parents.  We treat ourselves the way we felt treated by them.  Psychologically, we take in how we created early bonding and may continue the mistreatment indefinitely.

*Self-sacrificial offering of Love – First cousin to loyalty to the past is sacrificing ourselves in order to support our families. Children become aware of the stress and pain of their families. They can easily decide that they will not add to the discomfort experienced by family members.  They will not add their own needs to the troubles at hand.  In order to make sure that their needs do not somehow find their way to the surface, they repress them in the name of them being illegitimate.  They get further reassurance that their needs remain unacceptable by deciding that they themselves are damaged goods, not worthy of having needs that deserve being met by the family.

*Remaining Risk Adverse – The more we build a case in support of why we are damaged goods, the more testimony we have for the appropriateness of remaining risk avoidant.  We can easily take up sanctuary in the belief that we should be exempt from taking risks, since we don’t have what we need in order to make risking a reasonable undertaking.

*Indulging in Being Someone Especially Damaged With the Purpose of Being Special – The ego is keenly tuned into ways to get its needs met. It is willing to bask in feeling either positively or negatively special.  The ego abhors being ordinary and will easily settle for being negatively special.

*Attempting to Prevent Mistakes – If our parents attempted to shame us into behavioral changes, the odds go up that we attempt to do the same to ourselves.  We attack ourselves for making mistakes, not meeting our expectations or the expectations of others.  We falsely believe that our self-admonishment will generate change or improvement.

*Entitled To Being Taken Care Of – The thinking is that someone so damaged should be entitled to some kindness and mercy. With a little luck, maybe even be the recipient of someone’s heroic attempts at rescuing or saving us. When this wretched state is fully operational, there may even be the expectations that others will love us in lieu of loving ourselves.

*Loveable and Safe – Ironically, self-abuse can allegedly support safety and being lovable. The story supporting this purpose is “If I attack any part of me that others might find unlovable, i.e. needy, vulnerable, unknowing, insensitive, then that part might not show up as much and I can prevent being rejected. It’s a lot like trying to hide a family member of whom we’re ashamed.

*Avoid Feeling Helpless – This purpose of self-abuse often arises when it experiencing a defeat or some failure we feel helpless to do anything about. Rather than feeling powerless, we grab a hold of self-contempt, which allows us to feel in control of something.

*Keeping a Legacy Intact – This can be truly a purpose that runs just below consciousness.  We can have some faint knowing that we are willing to perpetuate something that is generations old.  The psyche can easily fall prey to an unconscious loyalty to a legacy. It can also feel like a legacy of self-contempt is pulling us along.


The Healing

Before examining each particular purpose, some general remarks may be helpful.  First, the uses of affirmations, positive statements about us, do not appear to be very helpful for addressing self-contempt.  They address the Pre-Frontal Cerebral Cortex, not including how the nervous system has been impacted by self-loathing or able to interrupt the relationship between self-rejection and its alleged purpose.

 Just becoming aware of the alleged purpose of our low self-esteem can go a long way toward pointing us in the direction of positive self-regard.  Secondly, close our eyes and create images of our self-loathing and the purpose it was supposed to bring about.  Make the images as concrete as possible with color and shape is helpful. Then, to see the images connected, symbolic of their quasi-causal relationship.  Next, begin to separate them, creating enough space in order to indicate that they don’t belong together and that their uncoupling is appropriate.  Lastly, in order to attain some genuine integration, involving our bodies in the process will be important.  We embody the process by tracking emotions and internal sensations. We can ferret out the latter by attending to such things as shallowness of breath, tightness in the chest or pulsation in the neck.  Let’s look at what might also bring healing to each of the purposes.

Healing Loyalty to the PastThe key here is to see the loyalty as a child’s attempt at securing some bonding to the caregivers. Following the separation exercise, we can offer ourselves new ways to bond such as affirming strengths possessed by the caregivers, expressing appreciation for what they offered us, or offering empathy for how they may have been wounded.

Healing Self-sacrificial Offerings of Love – After uncoupling or separating being self-sacrificial from being loving, we can create a new coupling of being loving while we affirm the legitimacy of our own needs.  We can also simply appreciate a child’s way of loving that no longer serves us.

Healing Self-contempt and Its Purpose To Remain Risk Adverse – This coupling has a level of complexity.  It is implicitly a protest of life being unpredictable and mysterious.  On the surface it looks like the coupling is mostly about taking risks. However, the issue is more about refusing to forgive ourselves when risks generate unfavorable consequences.  The self- contempt we issue in order to avoid taking risks is much less agonizing then the wrath we would bring down upon us when a risk doesn’t work out well. The new couplings might be: Bringing acceptance of self and acceptance of life together, and bring a willingness to take risks together with a commitment to forgive ourselves when a risk has unfavorable results.

Healing An Attachment to Defining Ourselves as Especially Negative – This self-abuse can be coupled with a number of purposes.  The most obvious is that the person avoids being ordinary.  Self-contempt is coupled with being special.  This special level of self-loathing is typically coupled with deserving attention, special care and support as well as extra encouragement.  Uncoupling special from self-disdain can be very challenging when the coupling is a way to address an attachment wound.  When that is the case, we are convinced that the special condition of our self-contempt is the only way to create connections to others.  Hence, to call it off will feel like abandonment and possibly death.  Good psychotherapy with emphasis upon attunement is needed in order to support uncoupling from the purpose of being negatively special.

Entitled To Being Taken-Care-Of – This purpose is the first cousin of being negatively special.  The belief is that if we define ourselves as sufficiently broken, then someone is bound to come along and care for us. Unfortunately, there are enough folks interested in rescuing and saving others that this purpose can get easily reinforced.  The new coupling brings the entitlement to receive love and care with being an ordinary human beings deserving of such treatment.

Attempting to Prevent Making Mistakes – I often refer to this purpose as Bad Self-Parenting.  The purpose is held in place by the false belief that enough self-chastisement will help us not to make a mistake in the future.  If your parents felt out of control when parenting you, there is some likelihood that they resorted to shaming you as a way to correct your behavior.  So, we parent ourselves the way we were parented. After we separate self-attack from the alleged purpose of avoiding making mistakes, we can create a new coupling.  The likelihood of making the same mistake may be reduced by coupling it with the understanding of how we came to make the mistake accompanied by self-forgiveness and compassion.

Avoiding Feeling Helpless – “I can attack myself rather than simply feeling helpless” is critical to uncouple. The uncoupling is based upon a paradox. Often when we feel helpless, we are unaware of possible resources, which may add to our empowerment.  Secondly, because shame often accompanies feeling helpless, we may need to learn to make peace with the defeat and failure that leave us feeling helpless.  The goal is to move beyond seeing a defeat as simply unfortunate. It may require good psychotherapy in order to understand what a defeat is asking of us.  Hence, we can either learn that we are not as helpless as we thought or couple defeat with a deeper opportunity to understand ourselves.  It may also lead to comprehending and accepting life in a new way.

Keeping A Legacy Intact – Interrupting a legacy calls for some understanding of where we come from. Once we have some understanding of how our ancestors may have felt about themselves, we can commit to calling off our self-castigating ways. We can couple self-compassion as what we pass to our children and their children, that they too will be able to extend compassion to themselves. I also appreciate coupling our self-love as a gift to the ancestors, a way of offering redemption to our lineage.


At this Post-Modern time, there may be an urgency to address inner violence. It is only too easy to relegate acts of hostility to the inner cities where there is more crime, or to the brutality of ISIS. It is time to get more honest about the lack of compassion and forgiveness we do not hold for ourselves. As we slide into denial about how cruel we are to ourselves, we enact as series of compensations aimed at offering a temporary reprieve from the grip of self-loathing. We work more hours, we strive for a promotion, we give more to our children, we go to church more, we visit an aging parent more or we donate clothing to “Good Will”.  All aimed at mitigating inner violence, which we euphemistically refer to as “low self-esteem. However, until we get to work and become more mindful of the purposes of our mistreatment, find new ways to attain these purposes or simply let them go, there will be no psychological armistice.

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