Tiny Revolutions №25: Self-loathing and Self-loving
nurture yourself to a better life
Hi, I’m Sara, and this is Tiny Revolutions, a weekly dispatch of personal writing and links about mental and emotional fitness. Reply anytime, I (probably) won’t write back with anything weird.
"The beatings will continue until morale improves.” A famous quote of dubious origin, it’s always amused me. I'm heartened by how straightforward it is. How in a world where no one seems to agree on anything, we can all laugh at the idea that you can beat people into being happy. It’s delightfully absurd.
It’s also absurd that for the vast majority of my life, I implicitly bought into the idea that I could beat *myself* into being happy. Or at least being “better.”
I kinda feel like the opposite of an egomaniac—where some people run around pumping themselves up, I’m far more likely to be punching myself down. Being your own punching bag is obviously not a great way to go through life, but I couldn’t figure out how to stop. So by the time I was 12 or so, I had a nonstop internal monologue of flaws, inadequacies, and failures that I was constantly revising.
And anyway, I was in good company. People who are self-loathing are usually pretty fucking funny. Not afraid to make a joke at their own expense, at minimum. And in a best case scenario, they’re willing to take accountability for their mistakes.
But there is a line between holding yourself accountable for messing up and continuing to chastise yourself for it for days, months, weeks, years afterward. The line is called mercy, and for some of us, it’s something we have no problem extending to others when they fuck up, but find well nigh impossible to give to ourselves.
I was introduced to self-compassion in 2017 just after losing a job and going through a breakup, and THANK GOD. It came along at a time when I was so very angry at myself for not having it all figured out that I don’t know how I would have moved forward without it.
According to researcher Kristin Neff, who has done a lot of work to define and promote the concept:
Having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others. Think about what the experience of compassion feels like. First, to have compassion for others you must notice that they are suffering. If you ignore that homeless person on the street, you can’t feel compassion for how difficult his or her experience is. Second, compassion involves feeling moved by others’ suffering so that your heart responds to their pain (the word compassion literally means to “suffer with”). When this occurs, you feel warmth, caring, and the desire to help the suffering person in some way. Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. Finally, when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience. “There but for fortune go I.”
Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?”
Put more simply:
“With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.”
I was shocked by how simple it is, really. How the way to stop beating yourself up is to acknowledge that you’re human and that you make mistakes, and that making a mistake doesn’t mean you’re doomed to loserdom and failure for the rest of eternity. How instead of going down a shame spiral every time you find your life circumstances disappointing, you can use it as a chance to remember that what you’re experiencing is just part of the human condition, and that you can actually grow from it.
As with most things that help make us happier, more resilient people, it’s a practice. And it does get easier with time. When I’m in a self-hatred emergency and busy berating myself for all the dumb ways I’ve ruined my life, I often pull up Dr. Neff’s self-compassion exercises and meditations for some good old-fashioned soothing. Because sometimes you have to be your own best friend.
That was heavy, so now for some jokey things involving self-loathing:
Winnebago Man, the reigning world champion of destroying yourself. Always a pick me up!
An epic showdown:
Bobcat Goldthwait’s former fat kid character in the underloved 80s comedy, “One Crazy Summer”:
But maybe you’re thinking that self-compassion sounds a bit too much like letting yourself off the hook? INCORRECT!
Let’s say your teenage daughter Mary comes home from school with a failing math grade. If you say, “You’re so stupid and lame! What a loser! You’re hopeless and will never amount to anything!” is that really going to help motivate Mary? Instead it will probably depress her to the point of wanting to give up math all together. Much more effective would be to take an understanding and supportive approach: “I know you’re disappointed, especially since you need to get good math scores to get into college, and clearly something is not working in your study routine. But I know you can do it, and I’ll help you in any way I can. Maybe you need to spend more time doing homework, or go to a tutor.”
The good Dr. Neff again: “It’s a way of nurturing ourselves so that we can reach our full potential.”
A Tiny Assignment:
Next time you make a mistake, notice your reaction. Do you ignore it? Pretend it didn’t happen? Descend immediately into shame? Or maybe you—gasp—acknowledge it, apologize, make amends, and resolve not to do it again? What can you learn from this? Is there a better way?
p.s. Thank you for reading! Do you have a question or maybe a suggestion for what should I write about next? Let me know in the comments, or just hit reply.
p.p.s. Share this with someone who is their own worst enemy. We are legion.