Trying to Be Kinder to Ourselves
If there is one generalisation we can hazard of those who end up mentally unwell, we could say that they are masters at being very nasty to themselves without noticing they are even being so.
Release from the grip of self-loathing therefore has to start with a growing awareness of what we are doing to ourselves – and what the alternatives might be. For example, we might start to notice that no sooner has something nice happened to us that we set about wondering when something awful will strike in revenge; that every success has to be ruined by a feeling of foreboding and guilt; that every potentially pleasant day ends up marred by panic or a sense of loss; and that we spontaneously imagine that everyone must hate us and that the worst things are being said about us the moment we leave any room.
None of this looks – on the surface – like ‘self-hatred.’ We could just say that we have a ‘worried mind’, or a ‘regretful temperament’. But it is useful to group these ideas under a singular title in order fully to identify the direction in which they point: towards the systematic destruction of any pleasure in being ourselves – which is, when we think about it, a very nasty thing indeed to do to someone. Without realising it, we are committed to throttling all our chances of contentment at the earliest possible opportunity.
We might imagine – as an experiment – trying to be as kind as possible towards our own minds. Rather than dragging in every last deformed and mean idea into the theatre of consciousness, we could dare to be vigilant about only presenting our minds with the very kindest and most reassuring ideas. The moment we left a room, we might be ruthless in preventing thoughts about our unacceptability from manifesting themselves in the usual way; they might be begging to be let in (and claiming all sorts of reasons why they should be so), but – for once – we could give them a firm ‘no’. If they kept trying to make their way into our minds, we might put on a piece of music or do some gardening, anything other than allow destructive concepts to have their normal rule over us.
Where does this unconscious impulse to be unkind to ourselves come from? How is the choice to torture ourselves made? We can hazard another generalization. The way we treat ourselves is an internalisation of the way others once treated us, either directly in the sense of how they spoke to us or indirectly, in the sense of how they behaved around us, which could have included ignoring us or openly displaying a preference for someone else.
To get a measure of where we stand on the spectrum of self-love, we need only ask ourselves a very simple question (that we have nevertheless ignored for far too long): How much do I like myself? If the answer immediately and intuitively comes back that we feel loathsome, there is a history that we urgently need to consider and are – conveniently for our self-torturing minds – choosing to ignore. The contempt we habitually show ourselves is neither way fair nor right; we should spot the oddity and partiality of treating ourselves with a viciousness we wouldn’t accord to our worst enemies.
People who commit suicide aren’t those for whom a few things have gone very wrong; they are people who have encountered some otherwise survivable reversals against a background of fierce self-hatred. It is the self-hatred that will end up killing them, not the apparent subjects of their panic and sorrow.
As ever, salvation comes through self-awareness. There is nothing inevitable about self-hatred. We are treating ourselves unkindly because people were in the past not especially kind to us – and we are being touchingly yet dangerously loyal to their philosophies of derision.
But if we’re to stay alive, we need radically to redraw our moral code and return to kindness the prestige that it should always have had. We have learnt far too much about a lack of mercy, about panic, about self-suspicion and finding oneself pitiful. Now we need to rediscover the virtues of forgiveness, mercy, calm and gentleness. And when we panic and feel intensely anxious about the future, we need to remember that we are in essence worrying about our fundamental legitimacy and loveability. Our survival depends on a swift mastery of the art of self-compassion.