How to Move the Needle on Hating Myself and Wanting to Punish Myself
October 1, 2020 6:16 AM   Subscribe

I don't know how to change my feelings so I will be kinder to myself. Details inside. CW: peer abuse and blatant description of self-hatred.

I was physically peer-abused as a boy and teenager, and over the course of multiple attempts in teenage and adult years was shown that people didn't value my friendship or love. (I was not ill-behaved or stalker-ish. Just tossed aside as not worth it.) Getting tossed aside so many times hurts so I haven't tried much since my early thirties.

In the last few weeks of therapy I have begun to realize that I experience very similar to what I believe some battered spouses may feel, in that I have focused the blame on myself and internalized the abusive voices. I find that I hate myself and think of myself as worthless. While I intellectually can name self-care things to do, I somehow feel I don't deserve them, and that something within me is horrible. I sometimes punish myself by withholding stupid things; for example, I've been sleeping poorly because I won't let myself have a topsheet. (Ironically, I mask my self-hatred well.)

Intellectually, I can name things on how to treat myself right. But the problem is that I don't feel I deserve to treat myself right and "every human deserves it" arguments don't seem to pass muster.

I also know that part of me is deeply furious with me for ... something. For not being strong enough as a child to protect myself or my family. For not being perfect enough to withstand the constant storm.

My therapist encourages me to try to grow the 2% part of me that is when I think a good thought about my actions or my appearance (grotesque).

My question is not so much how to self-care, but, because I know people have made this journey, what things you can do to help in the journey to help start believing you are worthy enough. How to move the needle on the emotions, rather than "here's a way you can take care of yourself."

Two closing notes: For those so inclined, I acknowledge a Christian path might work for some, but would not for me. And while I feel I hate myself, I am not a danger for self-harm or suicide; I fear oblivion too much.

I hope the above does not prove too long.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Your question uses "myself" 13 times. Have you tried self-distancing? "...when people recall negative emotional experiences, they tend to do so from a self-immersed perspective ... . But it is also possible for people to adopt a self-distanced perspective as they reflect on their feelings, in which a person views themselves in their experience from afar...." So imagine you see someone who is refusing himself a topsheet. What would you advise that person do? In short: Try to mentally get outside of yourself.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:33 AM on October 1, 2020 [9 favorites]

It's a small thing, but: My therapist believes that almost everyone has that nasty little voice inside that tells us that we're worthless. It's just a matter of how much power it has in your life and how quickly you can shut it down when it starts muttering nasty stuff at you, and maybe the nasty stuff varies a lot, I don't know.

So, while you have a hard time buying that every human is worthy, maybe start by understanding that everyone has that same little bit of nastiness inside telling us that we don't, and that we all struggle with that to one degree or another.

The hard work is in understanding that this voice of nastiness lies, but that it's seductive to listen to it because if we're worthless, what's the fucking point, right? Why do anything? Why engage?

Anyway, as for specific things to do, the idea is that you listen for the voice inside telling you that you're crap and you tell it to shut up. One thing you can do is just get up and do something else, rather than ruminating--like, go outside, get a glass of water, do something small. Another thing is just saying out loud, "no, that's bullshit," or something like that, whatever works for you. The hardest part for me is the awareness, right, because sometimes it takes a while to actually notice that the nasty little voice is saying things. So that's how you move the needle on the feeling. It's tiny and incremental but it does help.
posted by hought20 at 6:49 AM on October 1, 2020 [4 favorites]

I think there's some value in "fake it till you make it," so you might see if practicing self care as an action starts to change how you feel about yourself. Your actions to yourself in some way show you what you deserve. It may not be perfect, but actions are a lot easier to change than feelings, and I've found some profound changes that way.
posted by slidell at 7:26 AM on October 1, 2020 [6 favorites]

i could have written this post a few years ago. i still hate myself, but it isn't all consuming and i barely think of it at all anymore unless i'm in a depression/anxiety spiral. what really helped, even more than therapy, was getting on the RIGHT meds. they didn't change my beliefs about myself, but allowed me to distance myself from them and get to the point where i wasn't just ruminating all the time.

and, also, when i am in a spiral about how i'm a worthless piece of shit and don't matter at all to anyone, i order cat food and litter from chewy to be sent directly to the local pet food pantry. this small act of generosity to a cause i care about a lot shows me that i'm NOT a piece of shit because i care about the kitties and want their humans to be able to feed them. so if there is something like that you could do, i highly endorse this practice.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 8:15 AM on October 1, 2020 [11 favorites]

Hello! Many things in your question seem recognizable to me:
- physical and emotional abuse by "friends"; rejected as "not worth it"
- intellectualizing the blame onto yourself (trying to analyze what you did wrong?)
- can intellectually name self-care things but don't feel like they're worth doing for yourself
- being furious at yourself for not being perfect enough or being able to protect yourself
- seeing the therapy arguments/mind-games as illogical or incomprehensible; recognizing the impossibility of trying to change your feelings
- masking the self-hatred well :)
- physical appearance not matching your internal sense of how you look (?)
- feeling that something within you is horrible [a year or two ago I actually entertained the possibility that I was a changeling]
- recognizing that paths where you have to force yourself to believe something that you don't actually believe are not going to work for you
- very rationally fearing oblivion

I discovered (within the past 5-8 months, aged 44-45) that I am autistic. Though I'm definitely not there yet, I think that this knowledge will be the key for me for unpacking everything (and saving myself from terminal burnout self-inflicted due to never being worthy enough).

This checklist was the thing that tipped me over from "huh maybe?" to "probably yes" (and then I read a whole bunch more stuff and started corresponding with a group of late-diagnosed autistic women). The checklist is aimed at women, but apparently applies to some autistic men who "present" in a different way than the stereotype and hence are not noticed.

If this strikes a chord and you want to talk, feel free to memail me.

If this fits, "fake it till you make it" is not going to help because you've been faking it (masking) all your life already. Neither will intellectually trying to change your thoughts or "get outside of yourself" (what does that even mean?), because you already know what's true and it's impossible to force yourself to believe a lie. Also apparently there's a meta-analysis of studies that indicates that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy doesn't work with autistic people.
posted by heatherlogan at 8:18 AM on October 1, 2020 [10 favorites]

What moves the needle is embracing your creativity. Your post uncovered that your creative response to being tossed aside by others was to grab the reigns of the situation and made a practice of finding new and innovative ways of tossing aside yourself. That's a wholly original approach to self empowerment won't be found in any stack of self help books.
When you toss yourself aside, don't rush, take a moment to turn to yourself and warmly smile and applaud yourself. If that would be awkward, just do it mentally.
posted by otherchaz at 8:20 AM on October 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

Can you think of it instrumentally?

Like - Why do I get my car's oil changed? So that my car runs better for longer. Why do I take steps to get enough sleep and decent nutrition? Because I can't accomplish the goals that I want to accomplish if I'm sick and tired. Even on days when I don't think I deserve anything good, I can generally think, look, I'm going to go to work whether or not I feel awful, and I'm going to try not to get fired whether or not I feel awful, and I want to show up for the students and my coworkers with some amount of kindness and good cheer because they deserve it even if I don't. And therefore I need to give myself the tools I need to get that done. Otherwise it's like expecting myself to cook dinner without letting myself go to the grocery store to buy ingredients. It's like driving my car without ever changing the oil. Who cares whether the car deserves it? It's what it needs to function!

I'm going to be living with this brain and this body for a long time, hopefully, and I'm going to be relying on this brain and this body, so - I want to do enough to take care of them for the people I care about and for the things I want to do now and in the future.
posted by Jeanne at 8:57 AM on October 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

You know those thoughts that are like this...

"If I had a boyfriend, I'd take him to Paris for a week"
"If I were having a party, I'd buy this super-nice cheese"
"If I were giving a TED talk, I'd buy myself these shoes"
"If I had the right friends, I'd spend a day at the beach"
"If I had a dog I'd go for a walk at the park in the morning and at night" that. Be your own best partner. So it's not about your worth, I mean, if you had a dog you wouldn't walk it only if it were worthy, and if you had a boyfriend you wouldn't take him to Paris only if he had said the right thing that one time or hadn't been dumped by his last partner, if you were at the beach with friends you wouldn't only invite them to the beach if they had transacted exactly right the last 4 interactions they had with people...

So focus on being a person who is the one partner you can never dump in life, which is yourself.

I know that sounds dumb but in my experience it works.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:08 AM on October 1, 2020 [4 favorites]

When trauma goes that deep and causes so much identification with self blame and hatred, I think there are two roads: the long trickle or the big bang. The long trickle is a loving relationship (often with a therapist) that can slowly repair the attachment wounds. The big bang is some psychedelic therapy, followed by the latter - but after the psychedelic therapy, the latter, while still long, is greatly accelerated and often feels more productive. Is psychedelic therapy an option? MDMA therapy is likely a gentler and possibly equally productive alternative.
posted by namesarehard at 9:18 AM on October 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

Are the difficult emotions with you all the time? Are they consistent? You may find - especially if you observe your feelings over time - that you're more likely to have intense, difficult feelings after/during certain events - perhaps being hungry, lonely or exhausted; talking with people who don't value you. And there are probably also things that pretty consistently lift your mood, or at least help insulate you from downward spirals - could be a creative hobby, self-expression, going for walks, etc - it's a little different for everyone. Noticing what things lift you up and what things kick off a spiral can help. This may sound annoying obvious but in my experience it's one of those obvious things that's still true and helpful and still astonishingly easy to forget.

You can establish a baseline of self-care that might look like regular meals and bed times, going for walks, taking vitamins, etc. It's boring but being fatigued and hungry generally do nothing to improve one's frame of mind.

If you have bandwidth, learn new shit - new skills, new info. It feels good. It helps.

Some of your question reminded me of the book "How To Be An Adult" which includes some inner-child work. That might be something to discuss with your therapist.

Notice when you get into rumination and learn to break out of it - getting into your body is often helpful for this. Go for a walk, lie down on the floor and breathe, do some yoga - you'll find the things that work for you.

Look for where love shows up in your life and lean into it. Whether that's a relative, a pet, creative passion, music, nature ... lean into it and be grateful for it. Even if it's a customer service rep being kinder than they have to be.

Look for your people. This takes time - especially during covid. Be as patient as you can with yourself and everyone else. If you're like me you might find yourself becoming friends with people just because they are available and open to friendship, and then find that the friendship isn't satisfying, healthy or connecting. It's okay to take a step back when this happens. Look for people who show you that you being you is a good thing, and that they like and respect you. Ask if you feel the same way. Accept that friendships will naturally ebb and flow, and that's okay.

Sometimes when it's all too much I just sit and bear with myself, as if I were sitting with a loved one in pain. I breathe and remember that I'm just another human and I'm not uniquely amazing or uniquely terrible, and that's okay. I don't have to be anything else. Sometimes I literally hug myself or rub my shoulder as a friend might. Sounds goofy but it helps.

You are lovable
You are good
You are deserving

It's okay if you don't believe that yet. Just hang in there. Good for you taking the big steps of going to therapy and writing this honest, vulnerable question - that's self-care, you're being brave for yourself. You've got this.
posted by bunderful at 10:06 AM on October 1, 2020 [4 favorites]

Give ACT a shot. You can do it in a self-directed fashion if you don't want to find an ACT-practicing therapist. I started with this workbook, and it was helpful enough that I wound up finding an ACT therapist to do more/deeper work. Pre-pandemic, I would even take this workbook with me on work trips. I found it very compelling, and it's thoroughly evidence-based. If you're able and willing to stick with a practice like this, regardless of what practice you choose, you're very likely to see some desirable shift in your experience with this issue.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:41 AM on October 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

I've struggled with this and do better. The first step for me was just being neutral to myself. A truce so to speak. I didn't have to be extra nice, but just treat myself with respect and not do things to actively make my life worse.

So go buy that topsheet. You don't have to go out of your way, or buy it right now, or the most expensive one, but just get what you need in a non special boring way. That really helped recalerbrate me to be able to focus on other stuff later. And also notice the beliefs behind those behaviors, when not doing things for myself helps me avoid feelings about attention, or how it amplified my past when I didn't get what I needed, and then I could sort that in my brain but not with this huge self love thing that seemed rediculously out of reach.

This may not be helpful for you but it was a frame of reference that moved me forward before I could really start unpacking being lovey to myself.
posted by AlexiaSky at 11:06 AM on October 1, 2020 [3 favorites]

Trauma therapy, specifically EMDR, was useful for me in a similar situation. Also, I see that someone mentioned creativity; making art is helpful! (It does not have to be "good," whatever that even is. Just putting blobs of color on paper or gluing things together is fine.) Finally, my therapist sometimes encourages me to imagine that I am 5 years old and feeling what I'm feeling. What would my response as an adult be to that five year old? Sometimes that helps me snap out of being directly unkind and denying myself things like a top sheet or a good meal. If I would do it to take care of a child, I can also do it for myself.

Take care.
posted by k8lin at 11:31 AM on October 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

I often quietly say or pray “I forgive myself.” I forgive myself for being weak. I forgive myself for acting stupidly. I forgive myself for making bad choices. I forgive myself for bad choices I made in the past. I know I have a lot of compassion for other people and I learned or decided to start having some compassion for myself. Best wishes to you.
posted by gt2 at 12:55 PM on October 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

I tend to not promote myself, to live simply, to be supportive to others but not demanding, and also to not follow the herd. When I had a nice job, made decent money, etc., I had a nice group of friends. When life has not been going well, depressed, crappy job, family difficulties, I get bullied, hard, and friend-dumped, though there are some friends who stick (silent thank you). People get bullied because they are perceived as weak, lower status, vulnerable. The only way forward I know is to be smart, well-read, interested and to listen. And, to hide weakness and vulnerability.

I have had some similar experience. I was the 5th child of 6 in a family with several types of dysfunction, and I think I learned very early that my status in my family was very low, for several reasons. The upside is that I have genuinely impressive coping skills. I really don't have an interest in being cool or high-status, dislike one-upping, etc. make a list of good things about yourself, read as needed. Do interesting things, live a life that works for you. don't accept meanness and bullying, and I know it's easier said than done.
posted by theora55 at 2:11 PM on October 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

Honestly, the needle moves very slowly for a long time.

The Dalai Lama has said that in order to build an airplane, you need a great number of tools and materials, not only just steel or a just a hammer. I think it also takes time. What you have now is a vehicle that served you well enough for a long time; it was built with the tools that you had at the time, but it’s no airplane. I truly believe that in the beginning, self-hatred is adaptive, protective, preemptive, motivating, and entirely logical given a certain set of circumstances like the ones you experienced.

Then, there comes a point when self-hatred grows, instead, into something that is maladaptive, needlessly hurtful, unnecessary, and demoralizing.

You didn’t learn these habits on your own, and you can’t unlearn them on your own either. Start by taking a look at the current relationships in your life. If there are any that bring you to that place of self-hatred, cut them out or at least step way back and minimize contact. Try to think back to positive relationships: mentors, people you liked and wanted to get to know better, people you only knew online (like here on MetaFilter), a pet, or even an inspirational person that you once felt some connection to (an artist, musician, even fictional character). Dive into these connections and the other things you love, not as a distraction or remedy, but as a way to practice the feeling of love. The point is to increase the love, respect, and affection you feel overall (not beginning with yourself)—which inevitably leaves less space for all of the negative self-directed loops.

For me, the work only truly began after I cut out the negative relationships in my life and really nurtured the positive ones. It took many years of positive, loving relationships to undo slowly over time all of those deeply held negative beliefs I had about myself. The needle moved slowly over the course of YEARS of therapy, self-help, self-care, meditation on selflessness, several big moves and job changes, a few losses, and countless spinouts where I simply faltered and burrowed even deeper into my self-hatred. And then, a pin dropped and something clicked.

This is the pin that dropped: I thought my self-hatred was self-contained. But the way you treat yourself is the way you might sometimes, when not really thinking about it, inadvertently treat others. Looking back, I can see that there were plenty of times when I treated others with the same degree of annihilating blame and disdain that I treated myself, yet it didn’t register that I was being cruel. Or that this was how I talked to and thought about myself, and that most other people don’t do that to themselves. But then one day, enough of the positivity had crowded out the bad that I could see—truly see—how hurtful my mean words and thoughts had been to a person I cared about. The degree of the other person’s shock & pain confused me, because this was simply how I talked to a nonstop way. But it wasn’t OK and it wasn’t kind and I ended up causing a lot of pain. I was able to bear witness to the impact of my hatred, and not even the full force of it. And for the first time, I saw how deeply that hurt. As a result, I felt so incredibly sad for myself as someone who’d become semi-desensitized to the pain of relentless insults and judgments. And so angry at all of the many reasons that went into my building out the defensive position of self-hatred in the first place.

Your anger is valid, but right now it’s pointing in the wrong direction. You’re doing the right things by seeing your therapist and asking this question. What you’re trying to do is very worthy, and you will get there. But it is a process. Stick with it.
posted by inkytea at 8:03 PM on October 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

I want to second ACT and EMDR. I started with ACT and it was very valuable to work out what I held as core values, with no judgement*, just acknowledging them. From there it is surprisingly easy to forgive myself for things I did wrong, and to refocus onto continuing to act in line with those values. If I know I acted in line with those values, and that a relationship didn't work, or something shitty happens, it is less caught up in a judgement and blame cycle. It also gave me space - I'm able to acknowledge thoughts and spirals of despair as just that, rather than some esoteric truth or proof. From there I've been able to identify triggers for those which has helped me to have a much more sustainable inner and outer life - X thought spiral is usually a facet of exhaustion or migraine prodrome or a situation where I have not communicated my needs, and so I can manage that, not the thought spiral.

Also very important was being able to identify 'dirty distress' as my therapist called it. Things happen that hurt, and we feel a way. That's clean distress. When that gets added to the katamari damacy ball of self-loathing or judgement or anxiety, that is dirty distress. And a lot of us have almost...gouged a neural pathways towards that. And the only way I found to deal was the long process of identifying when I was stuck in that rut and very very deliberately shifting to another path. It takes time. Nowadays it's almost as engrained as the dirty distress: event - spiral - hey I'm spiralling - active engagement. That can be the CBT style positive self talk kind of thing, a more meditative process of noticing the thought and bring my focus back to my breath/dealing with the issue, making a rude noise in my head, distraction, or sometimes journalling. I don't do the latter a whole lot because I find it can just feed into the spiral, and I can argue with CBT positive voice forever, so it's usually meditation, distraction, or rude noise. Sometimes it's got an added "yes that happened and it sucked and these are the feelings I had but I don't need to have them again". Mostly I just notice that has happened, and focus my thoughts onto something else.

EMDR helped me resituate memories of trauma. It almost literally felt like picking up and shifting the way the memory lives in my brain. And recognising the difference between the nightmare architecture of a trauma memory, and the reality of the experiential one. The two main memories I worked on have had a snowball effect of releasing some of the pain from other traumas (related or not).

It meant a lot changed about my life, doing this work. I've done a lot of things, but I have a LOT less loathing going on, or anger, even about the bad stuff. They happened, I am still here, doing what I think is good and kind and right, and I don't need to argue it all over again. I took what I could learn from it and the memories are something I try associate with that, and gratitude I know better now.

*That said I knew someone who tried the same approach but most of her values were entirely external validation and performance, which are much much harder to work with and she did not get much out of the process.
posted by geek anachronism at 9:47 PM on October 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

Some vague ideas about things to try:

Whenever the negative self-talk gets going in your head, rewind and replay it in the voice of Donald Trump, or anyone you really really hate and don't respect their opinion on anything at all. See what you have to say to that person after they said that to you.

As a couple others have said, imagine that you're caring for a child. It doesn't have to be your own child, say a distant relative left you their child in their will or something and now you're the guardian, like it or not. What would you provide for a child in your care? Regular nutritious meals, a safe and comfy place to sleep, clothes that fit and are appropriate for the weather, time to play and time outside, and encouraging words when they're feeling sad or frustrated at a bare minimum, right? That's just basic human decency. Then practice giving yourself whatever you would give that child. No more, no less. "Do *I* deserve to have this?" does not even figure into that decision process, don't ask that question at all, it isn't part of the equation. This is just a thing you're trying out, to try something, deserving or not deserving doesn't enter into it. You're not doing it for you, you're doing it for that kid. Try practicing that for a while and see where it gets you.

Do you live somewhere/do you have the resources available that you could get a pet?

Try volunteering somewhere, anywhere. Human or animal charity. If you understand that every human in the world deserves things like adequate food, warm clothes, and safe shelter, then...give it to them. There's certainly more need for it than ever nowadays.
posted by octothorp at 8:27 AM on October 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

I have a few random thoughts; take what's useful to you and leave the rest.

>what things you can do to help in the journey to help start believing you are worthy enough.

Look in the mirror each morning and say, "You are worthy. I believe in you. You are [whatever positive words you want to say about yourself]" Do this everyday for 30 days and see what happens in 30 days. It might sound dumb, pointless, useless, but JUST DO IT. Don't think about the whys, wherefores and hows, just do it, even if you don't believe it right now. It's like brushing your teeth. You just do it. So just do this. For some inspiration, check out 3-year old Ayaan. Maybe you'll be cynical and think, he's only 3. Nothing bad has happened to him yet. Well, he's a little black boy and I think you know how difficult it is to be a black boy and a black man in the US. These daily affirmations are shoring him up for when he has to deal with the inevitable racist bullshit that he'll face. He'll have himself to fall back on.

Another thing is, sometimes you don't have to feel something before you do something. I feel like this is a little of what's happening to you: you feel like you have to deserve the top sheet before you get it. Again, don't think about it. Put on your shoes and jacket, go to the store, get a top sheet. Or order it online. Put your topsheet on (well wash it first :D ), have a better sleep, and then see how you feel in the morning.

Somewhat opposite to this process: talk to the voice that's telling you you don't deserve something. Ask "why" like a two-year old. Like: "I don't deserve a topsheet." "Why?" "Because ___" "Why?" etc. See what kind of conversation comes out. You can also journal this. The only way out is through. I hope you have a therapist that is trained in treating trauma, because that's what you're dealing with here.

Also, sometimes the whole self-care thing gets so overwhelming. "Get 8 hrs of sleep! Drink 2L of water a day! Eat healthy! Exercise 3x/week!" You feel like you have to be perfect to do the self-care thing well. So instead of trying to apply external suggestions of self-care to yourself, ask yourself what you need, then give it to yourself. Maybe the answer is "love," in which, case, say "I love you" to yourself and give yourself a big hug. I know, it sounds hokey and cheesy. Do it anyway!

By feeling you don't deserve something you need, you're now taking on the work of bullies. They're gone, but you're still here, so please don't continue what they did to yourself. Do the opposite of what they did to you. They hurled insults? Give yourself praise.

I also want to validate for you that what happened to you was NOT YOUR FAULT. It was the fault of the bullies. They CHOSE to harm you, so but the blame on THEM, not you. What kind of people deliberately hurts other people? Assholes, and/or people who are hurt themselves. You are not bad, or weak or shameful for not being to stop the abuse. What happened to you was shitty, no question. You did NOT deserve that. Turn your anger away from yourself, and turn it onto them. THEY deserve THAT. YOU do NOT. You deserve your own self-love.

Also, maybe you'll find some good suggestions in this thread. You're definitely not alone in these experiences.
posted by foxjacket at 9:45 AM on October 3, 2020

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