Advice for the Journey Away from Self-Loathing and Feeling Deeply Wrong
July 5, 2019 10:59 PM   Subscribe

Since I was a child, I feel there is something deeply wrong with me, where people push me away instinctively as if I am something sick and twisted. I know others have felt this feeling, and so I wanted to ask for advice as to how people have addressed it when feeling it themselves.

I feel as if there is something intrinsically wrong with me, in a way everyone instinctively picks up. Because children's reactions are unfiltered, when I was young, it manifested in others by having them bully and sometimes beat me. (I do not believe I was sexually abused.) As people acquired the civilized filters of adults, it feels like it is still there but now is the adult "polite" distancing, where they keep you at a pleasant distance. I feel as if a close friendship or romance could develop, it is like when dogs sniff at other dogs, detect that they're sick, and snarl at them - without knowing why -- to keep the disease out of the pack.

I must come off as "wrong" in some way. I know I was supposedly "gifted" as a child; I think I am likely whatever the "highly sensitive person" thing is; and I know I make (correct) connections all over the place (but usually seem out of nowhere to lots of people), am a very accurate emotional observer.

I can put on protective coloration very well - and not a plastic normalcy, but a genuine normalcy - but who I am, intrinsically, must be awful to people in some way for them to treat me as they do. I think on the rare occasions when I "relax" and act without pretense, people either see me as easy prey for abuse, or just as "not normal." The funny thing is that most of the I don't see how, and I've wondered for a long, long time.

Just as an FYI, please do not fear that I'm at risk of suicide ... I fear oblivion, don't want to scar my family, and know that suicide forever walls off change; plus, there's always small things to help you feel better.

I want for someone to love the intrinsic me and for me to love them back. I want to date, marry, have children whom I can hold and teach and find joy in. My family is there and are good people, but just aren't equipped to handle this level of trauma. The times I feel worst are when I hear myself tell myself that it will never happen, and I just need to harden the fuck up and face that.

I am in trauma therapy, so you have no responsibility to solve my entire life. I just am wondering if others have made this journey and have wisdom to share for it.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
I understand this dynamic and spent a lot of my life feeling this way. In my case this was because I grew up with parents who routinely expressed their displeasure over nearly every aspect of how I was turning out as a person - I was physically awkward and hideous, my weight and appearance was unacceptable, it was my own fault I had no friends because of my own awful habits and mannerisms, I was unclean and disgusting, it was no surprise and my own fault that no one was romantically attracted to me when I was a teenager because of all of the above, plus they were pretty certain that no one would ever find me attractive or lovable, etc.

Not surprisingly, growing up in this frequently-reinforced soup of my own grossness did a real number on my self esteem, and I've spent a lot of my life feeling inherently tainted and wrong, like I was subtly but qualitatively different from other people in ways that they could pick up on and despise me for immediately. Even as a mostly-healed, high-functioning adult with friends, a happy long-term relationship and a rewarding career, I still have to remind myself that I basically come across as normal now, and that people I meet can't somehow peer into my soul and see and be repulsed by the gross awkward non-neurotypical fat kid that I used to be. I don't actively feel like that very much at all now, but that schema that someone else planted for me still feels like a fundamental part of my blueprint deep down.

Here is what I did about it. I went to trauma therapy (good news that you're already doing this, it's the hardest bit and the bit that actually makes a difference in the long term). The key thing that made therapy work for me was getting to the point where I was comfortable enough with the therapist that I could talk about the really deep buried shameful stuff, the stuff that made me feel so gross about myself that it was too painful to really poke at for a number of years in therapy. Finally poking at it a lot, and taking it out into the light and examining it separately from the huge tides of shame it made rise up in me, did a lot to denature those feelings. I've talked a lot about this process on this site already.

As an example, my dad said some pretty terrible, dehumanising things to me about my appearance growing up, things like, "if you keep eating like that, I'll have to push you around in a wheelbarrow", and "only a chubby chaser could love you". In retrospect, those statements were more about him and his own issues and his need to control me than they were about me; for some reason it served his interests to persuade me that my body and appetite were monstrous, even though in reality I was only slightly overweight as a child and teen, not really far outside of the realm of normal.

But I internalised those statements massively, as though they were some fundamental truth about me that he had seen that I had to take on board and take corrective action to prevent against. It was only when I was able to engage with things like that that he'd said to me growing up in therapy without feeling like the shame would drown me that I began to make progress. It opened up interesting and self-changing conversations about what terrible things those statements were to say to a teenager and how much more they reflected his reality than my reality. Now when I think about those moments, I don't get stuck in a hot shame flashback; I feel sorry for my dad for fucking up his relationship with his child so badly, and for all the trauma work he wasn't able to do himself that led him to parenting in that way. I feel zero shame about my body and self in those memories now, though.

Something else that really helped, especially around body stuff, was looking with an impartial eye at pictures of myself at an age when I felt gross and ashamed of my body. I had those feelings as young as 4/5/6, and found a picture of myself in a leotard for a school play at around the age of six and took it to therapy. My therapist (and me with my impartial eyes on) were horrified by how ashamed and self-conscious I looked, but even more so by the fact that there was nothing wrong with my body. It looked like a normal six-year-old's body, not the insatiable monstrosity that my parents made out I was at that age. That really helped me reframe a lot of this stuff as distinctly their problem, a problem they had with me that wasn't really real, rather than a problem I needed to have or pay attention to. I feel sad now about all the years I lost thinking I was unlovable and hideous, but at least I get to not feel like that for the rest of my life now.

Basically, I went through all of the areas where I felt bad or lacking in some way in therapy (and there was a lot of social/interpersonal stuff in there, even though the examples I've given are more body-based because that was some of the worst shame for me), and processed them until the sting went out of them, and I could see that they didn't really apply to adult me living now, and most of them didn't really apply to child me either, they were borne out of the weirdness and intolerance of the kids and adults I grew up around (I also took a lot of shit at school for being gifted/non-neurotypical, which neither the kids nor the other adults who were meant to be in charge in the highly normative suburban environment I grew up in were able to handle constructively without doing damage to me in the process).

Another important part of the journey was reframing how good/amazing/deserving/well-liked I have to be overall. I had some thinking-in-extremes going on previously, like, "if everyone used to hate me because I'm weird and gross, now I need to be so good and interesting and likeable and obliging that everyone will like me instead". It is unrealistic to expect everyone I meet to react positively to me, and I still have some weirdness/idiosyncracy/non-neurotypicality going on as an adult that means sometimes people bounce right off me (or it takes them some time to warm up to me; I've learned as an adult that sometimes people need a bit of time to warm up to me, which is not a problem and useful for me to understand). And that is fine! Fine, in fact, is my new yardstick. I don't have to be the best person, I just have to be fine. Adequate. Good enough. If I would assume that the average stranger walking down the street is at minimum a fine, adequate person, then I should give myself the same benefit of the doubt.

There Is Nothing Wrong With You by Cheri Huber is often recommended in scenarios like the one you describe. I have to admit that I haven't read it, but it was on my next-to-read list when I was working on this stuff had I not managed to figure this stuff out during therapy.

Another thing I had to do along the way was fake it until I made it - I made friends and dated as though I was normal, even though I had this strong feeling deep down that I wasn't. Then after I'd done the work to turn those feelings around, the friends and partners who'd been telling me all along that actually I was fine, I was a pretty good person, were still there and I was finally able to believe them.

Finally, and this is a total wildcard, I also changed my gender presentation & identity. I am much more comfortable in my non-binary body than I ever was pretending to be a girl. I feel nearly no loathing for my physical form, and much more confident out in the world. Pretending to be a girl was like another layer of impossible effort on top when I was already trying to pass as roughly neurotypical, and taking myself out of that entire paradigm has been massively healthy and healing for me. This isn't advice or speculation on your gender identity, just something surprising that happened to work much better than I expected for me.

I have to say, it is so nice living over here on the other side of the self loathing fence. I have random moments when I'm walking or driving around and I realise, I'm fine. I'm fine! I'm a completely okay person. There's nothing deeply and terribly wrong with me. I'm adequate, and that's all I have to be. I really hope you get there; it feels like shedding the burden of a lifetime, and I value my newfound lightness and fine-ness immensely.
posted by terretu at 12:02 AM on July 6, 2019 [70 favorites]

I don't know if you've tried this exercise, but if you imagine going back in time to see yourself as a child being bullied by other kids, I bet what you'd see is an ordinary kid deserving of kindness. Any awkwardness or odd behaviors would seem charming. Any mistreatment would seem incomprehensible and wrong. Have you seen the film Wings of Desire? What I have in mind is ~20 seconds of the angel's POV. I think it's how people who work with kids see them: all quirky, all valuable. It's a meaningful perspective on adults too. They tend to keep a polite distance, but it's mostly because they're preoccupied with unguessable commitments and anxieties. Anyhow, I have no idea if that's helpful, but I sympathize.
posted by Wobbuffet at 12:26 AM on July 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

it is like when dogs sniff at other dogs, detect that they're sick, and snarl at them - without knowing why -- to keep the disease out of the pack.
am a very accurate emotional observer.
stood out to me. And you mention "self loathing".

My suggestion would be to find ways to spend less time on mulling about others reactions to you, what they may (or may not) think. A bit of reflection on how others react to us is a good thing. But after a certain point it can become something that weakens us. Especially if it turns into harsh self criticism.
So my advice would be to try to notice when you're mulling on self criticism, re-playing social situations in your head. And then try to let go of that in a mild way. Shift your attention.

There are people who always see themselves as horribly overweight and starve themselves to death. Self criticism can be similarly overly harsh and distorted. I think Wobbuffets exercise of seeing yourself as a child may help in becoming more mild and kind to yourself.
posted by jouke at 4:49 AM on July 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

As terretu so eloquently described, the antidote to shame is sharing, and therapy is such a perfect place for that, if you trust your therapist. The process of opening up about those shame-filled parts of ourselves to another human being, and of having the experience of acceptance rather than judgment, is healing.
posted by lazuli at 7:59 AM on July 6, 2019 [5 favorites]

I'm at the beginning of this journey, so no advice, but like terretu's note about gender playing a surprisingly big role, I've found that, too, as well as my orientation (I can think of distinct moments of feeling othered as a kid for what I now know is being bi even when nothing orientation-related was happening) and being autistic and "gifted" (book smart, life stupid). Anything where I was different, I think, I could sense even when I and other people had no words or conception of what was going on, and I kind of filled in the blanks of judgement myself despite not being bullied, just ostracized. I masked myself super hard and unsuccessfully trying to make myself normal so I'd be "worthy."

Now, I'm trying to deliberately seek out people who are different in the ways that I am and especially people who like themselves for being those things. Seeing how you can be wholly yourself, no holding back, and be appreciated and have richer relationships for being vulnerable is motivating. For me, what I want out of relationships is similar to access intimacy (which I also relate to). That idea of being simply accepted and met where you are is important to me. I don't want any more relationships where I'm tiptoeing to keep them around because I feel not good enough as I am, real or imagined (and I think it's both, in my life).

And then actually putting it into practice - changing my gender presentation and being open-ish about my identity, not hiding my autistic traits, not being embarrassed about my weird interests or lifestyle - doing things that make me happy without pre-emptively shaming myself for them. So a mix of becoming more resilient and less mind-read-y about other people's feelings about me and seeking out places that will be nice to me.
posted by gaybobbie at 9:32 AM on July 6, 2019 [7 favorites]

Oh gosh... Terretu put it so brilliantly.

Self-loathing. I had it, and I'm still working on it.

I was in the same situation and I've come out (mostly) on the other side. I was great at putting on what looked like that normal image. But inside, I hated myself and thought that everyone else was just being polite.

I was physically, emotionally and sexually abused as a kid and teen. I was bullied from the moment I entered school.
That caused me to look at things and myself the way that I did. I don't say influenced like I used to. What those monsters did to me was fucking beyond awful. It changed who I was. I was depressed as all get out. I was suicidal at age four. People didn't believe that young kids could be suicidal because the didn't understand the permanence of death. But I did. I hated myself and I wanted to die. Thank God that kind of thinking is changing.

I had body image problems all my life, and even some today. I was fat as a kid. And I was huge as an adult. Bariatric surgery pretty much saved my life. I still sometimes find my falling back into the fat statements I used to make. Or making decisions based on what my weight used to be. I went to a concert last weekend and I chose my seat on the aisle because I didn't want my huge shoulders to be in the way of other people.

I definitely wasn't neurotypical. I too was in the "gifted" classes. In first grade, they put me in a second grade classroom for reading. I couldn't spell. Still can't. But it caused me so much stress. I clearly remember crying in the coat of my first grade teacher on the playground. Fast forward to third grade. Mom was not happy I was invited to the "gifted" program (a one day a week pullout). She made arrangements to have my IQ tested. I guess I scored high enough to meet their criteria since I was put into the class partway through the year. I never seemed to fit in. I didn't fit in in my regular classroom and I definitely didn't fit in in the "gifted" classroom. All that did was make third through sixth grade terrible and anxiety causing. "Luckily" for me, the district disbanded the program the year I was supposed to enter middle school. But then came 8th grade and being put in Algebra a year early, which put me on the AP track for math. And I registered (not by choice) for all the other AP classes. I didn't do poorly in them, but boy can I remember the anxiety. Add that to the depression, it made for a hellish four years.

I was awkward and still am. One phrase my mother often used was "After x years of dance lessons, you still can't $do something physical". I joke about it today. I say it today. I've said it in front of my co-workers and they say it. But it still stings. I really should stop saying it. It's little things like that that I still realize. Little things that put me right back into the place I used to be.

I too thought normal would never happen. That I was doomed to be alone. Fast forward to the current day at age 43. I'm a normal (I started to type "close to a normal") weight. I did years of therapy, but working with a therapist who specialized in childhood trauma made the difference. Doing a little bit of inner child work on my own helped too. My depression, PTSD, panic disorder and social anxiety are being treated effectively. I actually no longer meet criteria for those. And I'm tapering off meds. That's going to take a very long time, but I'm okay with it.
I'm going to meet-up groups and actually showing who I am. I still have no interest in dating/relationships/marrying/starting a family. And now I'm okay with that. I've accepted that I'm asexual and that I'm okay the way I am. I don't need to do what society says I should do.

I'm sending kind and gentle thoughts your way. Hugs, if you want them. You're doing the hard work and it's going to pay off. Best of luck... You can do it!
posted by kathrynm at 9:42 AM on July 6, 2019 [9 favorites]

First thing to realize, and there's no nice way to put it: Kids are little shits. And even if they weren't, precisely zero of them have the experience to judge another human being. So any part of your story that relies on them as witnesses is crap you can safely ignore.

Second, you have two problems: First, you feel something is wrong with you. Second, you have a lifetime of habits and attitudes built on top of that idea. Even if you were to change your mind about yourself tomorrow you would still have a lot of work to do untwisting all of that.

For me the (largely successful, but continuing) journey out of self-loathing has involved a lot of work on the second part. My brain is big on "You're worthwhile? Then why do you do _____ ?" where _____ is a habit I picked up because I didn't feel worthwhile. Sometimes I change the habit, but more often I truly recognize that there's nothing particularly unseemly about it. Either way it's a lot of work.

A last note: don't ever apologize for being highly sensitive. The fact that we see in vivid color where others see in black and white can be inconvenient, but you can correct for it without giving up the gift.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:05 AM on July 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

I get you. I am also a gifted, highly-sensitive neuroatypical type who, until maybe just 10 years ago, was rejected as either disgusting or unwanted by virtually everyone in my life since I entered school, including family. I can literally watch people's demeanor toward me shift on their faces when I tell them my area of expertise (data science), or show them my creations, or speak of literally anything else that brings me joy or my accomplishments. Something about me also makes people extremely aggressive and a bully, even if they initially expressed admiration, care and love for me (this included romantic partners as well as friends). I've never been able to figure out what that is, but it deeply affected my self-esteem for years to a great detriment and I am just beginning to recover. It essentially sent me the internalized message that I am not wanted and needed to be destroyed.

Even in my 30s it still happens regularly, so I've just sort of considered it my fate, and have the personal mantra's honestly not about me. As others have said, whatever I'm triggering in people is 100% about something going on with them psychologically and emotionally rather than anything about me. So something about you, similarly, makes people feel uneasy or insecure about themselves, which in turns causes them to project and lash out at you. This is the root of all abuse/bullying/interpersonal violence of this sort. It seems to be worse for individuals on the gifted spectrum. It's not fair, but it is unfortunately deeply human.

Now I simply observe people and ignore them unless they become verbally or physically aggressive. I am kind but firm with my tolerance level and I tend to keep people at arm's length until they can prove they are not going to engage in that type of nonsense. When they do, I ask them why they're projecting and that typically is all that is needed for them to stop acting abusive. You can go through life realizing that, yes, you are different, and this is somehow causing people to react to you poorly, but by understanding them you can also mitigate it for your benefit. It simply takes time and observing the situation not through the lens of "What is wrong with me" in relation to others, as though THEY are the "correct" or "normal" parties, but rather "Humans are complicated and act strangely. What about this person is causing them to act poorly toward me? Why am I triggering them? How can I work around or with it?"
posted by Young Kullervo at 1:56 PM on July 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

I have also struggled with this feeling for most of my life, and it's something I have mostly worked through, although that thought will still pop up in my darker moments. I was also abused at a young age, was gifted and am definitely a highly-sensitive person. I can't offer you advice that hasn't already been given (quite brilliantly), but there was one thing in particular that resonated with me:

it is like when dogs sniff at other dogs, detect that they're sick, and snarl at them - without knowing why -- to keep the disease out of the pack.

It reminded me of a dynamic that I used to find myself in where I would on some subconscious level push people away because I did not feel worthy of love. I used to think that this was because I was inherently unlovable but therapy helped me to recognise that that belief was not necessarily true, that I could love myself and that there are plenty of people who love me. But because I had that belief, I was sending signals to people that would put them off - for example I found eye contact painful which they probably interpreted as lack of interest or worse. For the longest time I saw person after person 'reject me' but it was often me doing the rejecting! I don't know if that is what is going on with you so this could be completely off, but it might be possible that plenty of people want to have deeper relationships with you and you will be able to enjoy that when you're ready.

One thing I've noticed as a highly sensitive person is that because I pick up so much information about people, I can often feel the undercurrents of sadness, anxiety and pain that people try to hide and, if I'm in a bad headspace, I can mistakenly think that it's caused by me. I believe you when you say that you make correct connections - but is there ever a chance that you read the right thing the wrong way? I mean, maybe they are pushing you away but it's nothing to do with you and everything to do with them? Again, this might not be the case for you but I'm floating it out there as a possibility.

I do know that many people struggle with this feeling so you are not alone, and I believe that all the things you want are possible for you. I spent a very long time feeling that I deserved nothing because in some way I was more fucked up than any other living human being on the planet, and now I live a life that I never thought would ever be possible for me, surrounded with people who love me and all my 'flaws'. Most importantly, I love myself. So I'm sure you can do it. Therapy is the most amazing thing - the road that you're on is challenging but 199% worth it.
posted by PepperPot at 9:36 PM on July 6, 2019 [6 favorites]

Your question reminded me of myself. This will be a short answer because I'm around other people and don't want to explore my thoughts too deeply right now.

It got better.

One thing that is often overlooked that WILL give people that like dogs sniff thing you described is if your physical mannerisms such as gestures, walking, facial expressions, nervous habits, etc don't match with what others do, something will seem off about you to others. Those people won't really understand on a concious level why they feel that way, so they can't really explain it to you, but it's a thing. You can learn different physical mannerisms, it's very possible, if you think this might be part of the dynamic at all you try some classes that are focused on movement to become more aware of your body patterns, dancing, acting, comedy.

Not saying that is it an issue for you, and not saying its the only issue, just that it's something people tend to overlook when focusing on conversational skills.
posted by yohko at 10:01 PM on July 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

I had this feeling a lot as a kid and young adult. The number one thing that helped me, which I cannot recommend enough for situations like this, is group therapy (specifically for social anxiety, which this sounds like a subset of). Nothing else I've tried (and I've tried a lot) has made a more dramatic and rapid difference in my self-image than spending time in a group of other people with these same problems, because it was like... wait. They're normal. It's so weird that they feel like this, I mean I know why I feel like this but... oh. Hey. Maybe... am I normal?
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:41 AM on July 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I just read Brene Brown's The Gifts of Imperfection, and I'd recommend you read it because it is all about "feeling wrong" (shame) and the desire "for someone to love the intrinsic me and for me to love them back" (authenticity, love, and belonging). I have not completed the journey, but reading it may give you a lot to reflect on through journaling or therapy (it has for me). Brown is a researcher, professor, and got sorta famous from a TED talk. You can watch some of her talks online (and a Netflix special). She is self-helpy and has a "real talk" persona, which I like personally and buy (YMMV), and the content seems to be based on rigorous research. She started out as a shame researcher, and she's written a book on overcoming shame that I haven't read, so I can't make specific recommendations. It's called "I Thought it was Just Me."

To find love and belonging you'll have to love yourself too, which I don't think you can do fully if you see yourself as "deeply wrong". If you feel people pick you out of the pack because they've detected something wrong with you, they are likely picking up on the fact that you see yourself this way. Feeling uncomfortable in your own skin has a way of manifesting even if you are good at conversation. If you're intelligent/gifted, you probably rationalize a lot and find "evidence" to support the thesis that you are "wrong." This is your mind playing tricks on you, and that's why therapy and talking about it is so important.
posted by kochenta at 1:07 PM on July 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

You poor thing, I want to hug you. I'm sure you have had feelings of safety in your life. Are you in a safe place emotionally? I'm there now. Isn't that funny? You can get here too, by golly. As a fellow human being you've never met, I want you here with me. Please join me, just for this comment. What you're describing is internalized bullying, or being traumatized, and to me the closer a person is to that horrible state, the more likely I'd describe them as being in a psychological crisis. Just awful. It's really important to let people in and get close to you, they're the best remedy, even if nothing seems more scary to you right now. I promise, I do.
posted by karmachameleon at 2:10 AM on July 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

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