Recently I remember sitting in session with a client who was talking about all the ways he had failed his kids as a father.
I suggested that he might be in a self-hate cycle and he responded, “I don’t hate myself.” Hmmmm, call it what you will, but the way he was talking about himself was at the least unkind and at the most abusive.
One of the most pervasive issues that I see in my therapy practice is people beating themselves up. The pattern comes in all forms:
• an executive listing all his failings in his head, when he is reminded of one mistake
• a student thinking she should have done better on a test
• a man recalling a date and ruminating on what he should have done that he didn’t do
• a mother blaming herself for not having been more capable at a task
The list of self-hate tactics can go on and on. While it’s important to acknowledge mistakes and try and learn from them, it’s also good to know when striving for perfection becomes unhealthy.
The Self-Hate Cycle
You could consider that a self-hate cycle is actually an unhealthy overcontrolled coping technique. A cue comes in that reminds us of a failing. The cue could be something small like forgetting to return a phone call or something more emotional like a seeing a photo of an ex-spouse who you still wish you were with.
Then some sort of unwanted private experience occurs like a sudden headache, sadness, fogginess, anger, nausea, shame or many others. Next starts our social signaling. Maybe you get quiet, leave the room, distract yourself, work harder or start putting yourself down out loud.
So what makes this cycle set up shop in our brains? For most people self-hate is reinforced because suddenly they have a quick solution to screwing up: self-blame. If people are trying to solve the unachievable goal of being perfect and then they blame the selves for not being perfect, they can stop looking for other ways to handle mistakes, failures and accidents. The self is an easy and ever-present scapegoat.
This might even masquerade as noble, by telling ourselves we are “owning our sh*t,” but the most successful people learn from mistakes, they don’t tend to wallow in them.
How to Stop Self-Hate
Stopping the self-hate cycle is totally doable. Here are a few thoughts on how to break off its wheels.
1 Be aware of self-hate. Start looking at times when you self-blame and self-hate. When and where do you do it most often? What cues up your cycle? What private emotions and sensations do you experience when you self-hate?
2 Surf the desire to ruminate in a self-hate cycle. Once you identify that you are in one, you can break it, by recognizing the desire to beat yourself up internally is transitory. It will come and go like a wave. Focus on letting the desire to self-hate pass by, by breathing in and out and scanning the body for other non-self-hate sensations like the air on your skin or sounds around you.
3 Remember that new learning requires mistake-making. You would have never learned to tie your shoe or write the alphabet if you didn’t mess up at first. You can totally make mistakes and not fall apart. You’ve done it before.
4 Solve the problem if you can. If you just learned that yelling at your kiddos about their homework doesn’t work, then celebrate the learning and resolve to try something new next time. Or if you accidentally spilled a glass of wine on your boyfriend’s cousin (happened to me) buy her a new pair of pants and move on. If you can’t fix the problem that a wrong move or accident created, recognize that no one ever said that all problems are solvable.
5 Learn to love perfectionistic tendencies. Wanting to do well isn’t a crime. But working too hard and trying to be perfect can burn you out quickly. Also, you can’t talk yourself out of hate. You have to soften around it.
You can say a little loving-kindness mantra to help. May my perfectionism be at peace, may my perfectionism be content, may my perfectionism be safe and secure.