Depressed, ugly, unlovable, coward, idiot, defective—the list is endless. When people have a long history of punishing and berating themselves, they can become fused with the concepts these thoughts construct and take on the belief that their true self is faulty. Clients (and if we are honest, most of us) therefore walk around with notions of who or what they really are, and more often than not hate or shame themselves for it.
But, whatever particular set of epithets our personal history has led us to fuse with, one thing most of us share is that we intensely dislike and often criticize ourselves for whatever self-concept we hold.
Most of these labels arose from painful moments in our history. The pain, and often shame, that these events elicited became attached to the memories of the events and the labels our behavior, experiences, or entire self received on those occasions. In turn, our very notion of self becomes aversive—something to move away from.
This can lead to self-hatred and self-shame and take many forms, including suicidal ideation, self-harming behavior, self-chastising or self-aggrandizing talk, putting on a mask and pretending, ruminating, self-shaming, and dissociating.
Fusion of our sense of self with content or labels of experience is often prompted and reinforced by caregivers or peers, through statements like “Little Joe is such a shy boy,” “You asked for it!” “You’re such an idiot for not seeing this,” “You’ll never amount to anything,” and so on. Soon enough, that other-initiated talk can turn inward and become self-sustained disparaging self-talk.
Is it any wonder that deep-set self-hatred is so prevalent? Because of this dynamic, it is clinically crucial to promote a more flexible sense of self that can help clients disentangle themselves from rigid self-concepts and the limitations they impose on behavior.
As mentioned, our self-concepts are largely the products of our learning histories, especially in relation to our caregivers and attachment figures.
Early on, children have no more language for their inner experience than they do for the experience of their senses. And whereas learning to orient to sensory experience is necessary for physical survival, the world of inner experience only acquires significance because it is important to other humans in our lives. It is through social interaction that we learn modes of interacting with our inner experience. This is why it is so common for people to recognize their caregivers’ voices in their self-talk.
When caregivers are stressed, absent, overworked, avoidant or overcome by emotion, chances are they will not respond in ways most conducive to children learning how to recognize and name their inner experience and accept it as normal. Under these conditions, children might be told that they are angry when they are in fact hungry, that they are hungry as the clock strikes noon, that they are not (or should not) be sad when they are feeling sad, that they want ice cream when in fact their caregiver wants ice cream, and so on.
Repeated such experiences during early development may lead to children having difficulties in learning to name what they feel or want with any precision. Their inner experience might have received so little attention that they have no words to describe it. In many cases, they will have learned to fear, deny, or judge their inner experience rather than notice and accept it as one may notice and accept the changing weather. The world of inner experience can thus become an unfamiliar, unstable, treacherous territory, full of darkness, threats, and defects. And that, in turn, will further feed self-hatred, shame, fear, and a sense of unrelenting inner conflict.
In clinical settings, clients who are unable to understand, tolerate, or effectively communicate their inner experience may say that they do not know how they feel or think. They might be unable to describe inner sensations or name their emotions, perhaps only locating feelings in their heads; or they may react aversively to any attempts at helping them contact inner experience, such as through eyes-closed mindfulness exercises.
Because we learn our relationship with our inner experience and concepts of self largely from our attachment figures, the way caregivers respond to our bids for connection as children can have a profound impact on our later behavior in relationships with both our selves and others. A history of consistent reinforcement for connection bids could result in a secure attachment style, whereas a history in which such bids were consistently ignored may lead to an avoidant attachment style. A history in which those bids were consistently punished could produce an attachment style that’s fearful.
These styles could in turn be reflected in individual styles of relating to inner experience: secure and accepting, avoidant and dismissive, fearful and critical, or disorganized and unaware. Of these, only the first style would naturally incline the individual toward self-compassion. The others would naturally fuel different forms of self-hatred, self-shame, and inner conflict.
It takes a specific learning history and a deliberate context and community to build an accepting and kind relationship to one’s own experience—a relationship that consistently reinforces compassion for one’s own aversive experiences and those of other people. When that history is missing, a healing relationship, such as the therapeutic relationship, might provide a privileged context for building a new learning history that fosters self-compassion skills.
In this way, the therapeutic relationship offers a setting in which a different approach to the self and one’s own experience becomes possible. This can range from helping clients learn to receive their negative self-concepts with strength, wisdom, and kindness to helping them transform a sense of self that is unstable or disorganized. Within this context, clients can also adopt a more flexible sense of self.