Early in my career, when clients would talk about intense forms of self-criticism or self-loathing, I used to make interpretations that focused on the savage and perfectionistic superego. Over time, I’d help them develop the mental ability to withstand this savagery and protect themselves from it. Later, as I described in this earlier post, I began to think more about learning from experience and facing our actual faults: the ways that brutal attacks on the self can represent a refusal to accept who we really are, with all our warts and limitations, which then leads to a cycle of crime and punishment where we repeatedly atone for our “sins” but learn nothing about what drives them. I still believe both of these perspectives have value.
Lately, however, as I’ve begun to focus more on shame and the defenses against it, I’ve come to see that self-hatred is a kind of defense in itself. Especially as I delve deeper into the work of Sylvan Tomkins and Donald Nathanson, I’m coming to understand how both shyness and self-hatred are strategies for coping with the shame that comes from rejection. They’re both examples of what Tompkins calls the “Attack Self” script for managing the painful experience of shame. From a lay perspective, for readers who aren’t familiar with affect theory, this might seem counter-intuitive but bear with me. I need to lay a little groundwork.
Because we’re social animals, we want more than anything else to belong, to feel connected to and accepted by other people in our tribe or pack — to have friends and lovers, to be part of a family, etc. Finding ourselves rejected in the face of such longing, one of the most painful experiences we humans can know, causes us to feel shame; the earliest version of this thwarted longing to connect — failed attachment in the mother-infant relationship during the first two years of life — produces an especially severe sense of inner defect that I refer to as basic or core shame. As described in a post on my blog at Psychology Today, basic shame can thus be seen as the result of unrequited love.
For people afflicted with basic shame, avoiding the experience of vulnerability and rejection becomes the central focus of their lives. To feel rejected anew puts them in contact with the excruciating experience of being defective or “ugly” at their core; to protect themselves from this pain, they develop strategies to prevent rejection from occurring. Shyness and self-hatred are two such strategies, but there are others, as well: developing an idealized false self (narcissism) or projecting the defect into others and loathing it there (contempt).
One particularly powerful way to avoid the experience of shame is total isolation: the loner with virtually no contact makes rejection impossible, and thus will never feel the shame that goes along with it. Shy people, on the other hand, may participate in different social groups but remain more or less “invisible” within them. They keep their true selves hidden in order to avoid rejection: because nothing essential is revealed, no one can reject them. This is the price they pay for “belonging,” although it’s a very limited type of membership. In my experience, there’s “more than meets the eye” with shy people: their mild exterior often conceals intense feelings of competitiveness, arrogance and contempt for others — emotions far too “dangerous” to reveal because they might provoke rejection.
Self-hatred as a defensive strategy works in two ways. First of all, the person “takes control” of the experience by rejecting himself first. One visitor to the site put it this way: “You can’t hurt me anywhere near as much as I can hurt myself.” What the person wants to avoid most of all is sudden, unexpected rejection in the face of a longing to connect; in order to minimize or prevent that experience, the person takes control of it: Your rejection has no effect because I hate and reject myself already. Secondarily, self-hatred reinforces the urge to avoid exposure and vulnerability, discouraging the person from taking risks.
Dylan, a shy and extremely sensitive client in my practice, works in an office dominated by several extroverts. Although Dylan comes across as a bit aloof, he secretly longs to participate but keeps himself from doing so with an abusive internal monologue that constantly insists nobody would be interested in what he has to say. As a young boy, Dylan was bullied and suffered deeply from it. His shyness developed as a self-protective strategy: by remaining invisible, he hoped to avoid drawing attention to himself and thus further rejection and cruelty. In his later teens and early 20s, he took refuge in a “cool” sort of indifference, but he has lately comes to see that it masks a powerful longing to connect.
Several weeks ago, he went to visit a group of friends who still live in the city where he’d attended college, eagerly anticipating a reunion with his best buddy from that era. Dylan’s enthusiasm was met by the pointed indifference of his friend; the sense of rejection he felt in the face of his openness and vulnerability was unbearable, sending him into a week-long bout of debilitating self-hatred. Although it might at first seem that this type of self-hatred is only adding fuel to the fire, it actually exemplifies the two defensive maneuvers I described: (1) he takes control of the experience of rejection by doing it himself; and (2) self-hatred reinforces the message that it’s far too dangerous to risk vulnerability and additional shame.
This newer view of self-hatred is enabling me to help several current clients to cope in more effective ways with their underlying shame, to tolerable vulnerability and risk more easily and thus to initiate more authentic contact with other people, beginning with the psychotherapy relationship. Psychotherapy provides an atmosphere where vulnerability can gradually be risked as trust develops. Over time, clients learn to face the fear of shame and rejection, relinquishing defensive tactics such as extreme shyness or self-hatred. In this way, it provides a kind of healing that makes shame avoidance less dominant and enables them to connect with and reveal themselves to other people who matter to them — the most important need felt by all human beings.
My interview with Deb Scott tomorrow (Monday, December 10) will be featured in the Staff Picks section on the home page of BlogTalkRadio, beginning at noon. We’ll be discussing my new book so have a listen when you get a chance!