“I’m such an idiot.”
Many of us throw these kinds of insults at ourselves every day. We’re more likely to verbally abuse ourselves than someone else, even those we dislike.
Self-directed hate speech can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression; in extreme cases some people even choose to kill themselves, though they would never think of murdering another person.
Why is our relationship with our self so different from our relationships with everyone else?
The different schools of psychotherapy have ways of describing this inner critic of our thoughts and actions. “Negative self-talk” is the label in the cognitive behavioral (CBT) approach I practice. In the Freudian tradition it was called a “harsh superego.”
Whatever label we give these statements, I often hear them in my work as a therapist. For better and for worse, I’ve never found that the degree of self-loathing matches the true qualities of the person I’m sitting with, or the way the person’s friends and family see the individual.
Mistreating ourselves can take other forms. Sometimes it can be subtle, manifested as pervasive neglect. We might always look for ways to brighten someone else’s day but never consider ways to do the same for ourselves.
I treated a woman who was kind and generous in all her relationships. We were working to find ways for her to be at least a little bit good to herself, and I pointed out how much she always cared for her niece. She replied matter-of-factly, “Yes, but that’s someone I love.”
The unspoken message in her statement hit me right in the gut: “I do not love myself.”
We have a unique relationship with ourselves. Nobody else inhabits our minds and bodies. Who else is with us every minute of every day and knows our every thought and deed?
We can choose to use that relationship for good, treating ourselves with kindness, respecting our fundamental human dignity, figuring out what our needs are, and trying to meet them.
Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) explicitly addresses the relationship we have with our self, with the aim to build self-acceptance and self-care. CFT developer Paul Gilbert defines compassion as “a sensitivity to suffering in self and others, with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it.” Based on this view, compassion can flow not only from one person to another but from “I” to “me.”
There are also meditations through which we can practice sending loving kindness to ourselves (click here for an example). They start with sending wishes for good things to someone we’re really close to who’s easy to love; progressively they move to people we aren’t as close to, or even find frankly hard to love.
Many people seem to find it odd when they reach the part in the meditation that encourages them to send love to themselves — it can actually be easier to send warm wishes to a person they don’t like. I’ve seen people experience actual physical discomfort and get “squirmy” at the idea of sending loving regards to themselves, which underscores how much more accustomed we are to doing the opposite.
It is possible to change. Here are 3 ways to break the habit of self-abusing:
- Notice how we’re treating ourselves. The first step toward greater self-compassion is to be aware: What do we say to ourselves? What tone do we use? Are we kind to ourselves in the way we plan our days? Do we know what we need to thrive?
- Cultivate the relationship with ourselves that we want. Once we’re aware of how we’re treating ourselves, we can ask ourselves: Would we treat a friend, or a child, the same way? If not, what kind of changes might we consider? Plan to start with action — the feelings will tend to follow.
- Extend kindness and compassion to ourselves, perhaps with the help of someone who knows us well like a friend, family member, or therapist. Begin to plan specific things to do each day to show care for yourself.
Self-compassion is not an exercise in selfishness — in fact, it tends to help our relationships with others. At least one study has suggested that relationship quality is more closely related to self-compassion than to self-esteem.
Ready to make a change? This week see what happens when you do unto yourself as you would have others do unto you.