[I expand upon the themes expressed below in two later posts, one about shyness and self-hatred as defenses against vulnerability, and another concerning the role of unconscious anger and refusal in self-loathing.]
Browse the self-help aisle at the bookstore, or comb through the online material about self-esteem, and you’ll mostly find advice on how to take “conscious control of your self-talk,” to stop negative self-statements and replace them with affirmations, to love yourself, to conquer this or that experience, etc. In an earlier post, I discussed why such verbal techniques don’t work, but even for those people who do find them valuable, I’d like to suggest a different way of approaching this issue.
These other techniques tend to view “negative self-statements” as if they were something almost alien to the person: internalized parental criticism we must identify and reject; perfectionistic standards imposed upon us by advertising, our peer group, society at large; mental tape loops that reflexively repeat horrible things about us, almost like a critic-virus implanted in our brains. Instead, you may find it more useful to “own” the critic and take a look at what it is that you (and not somebody else) actually expect.
Let me give a personal example. I play the piano, and sometimes when I’m confronting a new technical challenge and get frustrated, I can come down hard on myself. If I listen closely, I’ll be saying things like, “You’re a lousy player. What’s wrong with you? You should have mastered this piece already! You’ll never be any good.” Those thoughts aren’t merely critical. They reflect attitudes and expectations I’ve struggled with my entire life: 1. I should be able to master things quickly and easily. 2. Learning should not involve frustration. 3. I want to be the best at what I do; anything less is without value.
I am not the victim of these perfectionistic expectations; a part of me demands that my life conform to the way I expect it to be. When those demands aren’t met, it usually stirs up anger that I “can’t have my way”: on some level, it makes me furious that life and my experience don’t unfold exactly the way I want them to, and in this particular example, that I’m not the brilliant musician (a true genius!) that I long to be.
Self-criticism and self-hatred thereby transform into anger — my anger, and not a “negative self-statement” I’ve internalized from the outside. Knowing myself well, having been over this ground many times, I think: “Oh that again. Now be quiet and breathe.” I turn myself back to the long patient work of practicing and accept that, as much as I might hate the fact, I will never play Carnegie Hall.
Finding Your Own Way:
What are your usual complaints about yourself? Weight? Lack of self-discipline? Chronic lateness? That grade on your paper? Go through the process I outlined above. Chances are, you’ll find an angry and demanding person behind your “negative self-statements.” Here are some of the things he or she might be saying:
Why can’t I eat whatever I want, whenever I want it? It’s not fair that I have to exercise to lose weight!
I don’t want to have to choose between checking Facebook and sitting down to do homework!
Even though I know it takes 20 minutes to get to work from home, I refuse to leave right now. I’m going to answer this e-mail first!
Of course, coming into contact with your angry and demanding self poses other challenges … but that’s a post for another day.