“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a tired old cliché we continue to repeat in instances of self-doubt, self hate, or low self-esteem. We fail to realize that if we were to believe this statement to be true, then it would erase our incessant self-loathing. For if beauty is in the eye of the beholder why do we continue to rely on others in order to increase our physical self esteem? We too hold the power of sight, and could easily turn this statement and our sentiments about our bodies on its head.
Acting interdependently within society is an inherent human need, but more often than not we mistake this for dependence, and find ourselves relying on others when we are in fact fully capable of self-sustainment and reliance. It is true that in our day to day lives we rely on others to provide us with food (via farmers and restaurants), and that we rely on others to provide us with monetary gain in exchange for our labour. But it is also true that we rely on ourselves for our physical, emotional and mental well-being.
Consider our need for sleep, and the myriad of reasons for which we need sleep. We are responsible for maintaining sleep patterns that allow us to remain functional. The same can be said for food, we satiate our hunger need, as well as our need for procreation and sex, affection, and happiness – we have complete control over these needs and our ability to satiate them. It is easier to shift the onus onto others, it makes it easier for us to cope and come to terms with our shortcomings. This does not work in the long-term.
When we shift the blame onto others we are actually perpetuating this idea of absolute dependence, we are relinquishing our power. And when we shift the blame for our self-hate onto others, we expect them to change, and we expect them to alter our conception and perception of ourselves. This is not possible. There will always be different “in-groups” and “out-groups”, and we will always be individuals within these. We cannot expect all others to accept us as beautiful or creative or intelligent, and expecting this from others, demanding this from people will only result in perpetuating our negative self-view. So instead of blaming others, which we are so wont to do, we should choose to work within ourselves, to not judge, to accept and understand ourselves in all of our seemingly loathsome attributes.
In fact, this is what Maslow was referencing when he spoke of our need for esteem. We cannot rely on others for our esteem, for when others stop stroking our egos we will find ourselves empty, our reserves of efficacy and pride: depleted. So we must find it within ourselves.
In order to understand esteem, we first must understand self-hate, and its fashionable persistence within our society and ourselves. We will discuss how self-hate manifests, and what self-hate does to the person and their relationships.
To look in the mirror and magnify “negative” aspects of our visual appearance or to concentrate on minor flaws is almost considered “normal” in that nearly everyone treats their bodies with such reproach. This attitude of fashionable self-hate is not normal, and can be quite debilitating. We take it as being significant to us, and our understanding not only of our selves but also of our culture and our relation to society. While it is true that the media may influence us from time to time, and it may have a stronger hold on some than others; assuredly it manifests its strength subconsciously, so that many will argue that we have no control over it. This is not true – if it is manifested subconsciously, then what we must do is bring this supposed control into consciousness. We already do this daily when we blame the media for “negative portrayals” of both men and women. This indicates that we recognize the negative influence these images have on our bodies, and our perceptions of ourselves. Instead of trying to influence the cessation of these images, we could be directing our energy towards altering our own negative self-perceptions. In fact, if these images hold their strength in the subconscious, would they not still be echoed in the recesses of our psyche, even after the images were wiped away from media outlets?
So this means blame shifting is not the answer. In fact, it leaves us just as isolated and hopeless as before, because instead of changing our attitudes we blame those who supposedly made us feel that way to begin with. This creates an “Us VS Them” dichotomy, which we perpetuate through our blame and self-hate. It does not deal with the root of this self-hate.
Our self-hate does not limit itself to our bodies alone, although this is typically where it begins. Our idea of our “self” is very much rooted in our bodies; we perceive an aspect of our physical appearance as unattractive, and this extends into psychical aspects of our self. Since our bodies are so often seen as the totality of our selves, what is perceived to be wrong with the outside is undoubtedly wrong with us internally. This is partially influenced by the shame and guilt we feel as we strive to attain the supposed beauty standards our society has provided us with. Shame, because we realize to a degree how superficial it is to mark our lives as successful based on appearances alone, and guilt because we have what others do not have. Guilt because we altered our appearance in some way so as to change our selves entirely from how we were born. Not only do we feel guilt and shame for attaining these standards, we feel guilt and shame for not attaining these standards. It is a double-edged sword, and in reality, one might say, “we cannot win.” This is true, if we continue to place the blame outside of ourselves.
Through all of our comparisons with others, we lose our selves, and begin the process of life-long self-hate sustained by other blaming.
Guilt is a strong motivating force in our self-hate. We feel guilty for not attaining what others were naturally born with (or had unnaturally altered), and we feel guilty still for accepting our bodies as they are. It is similar to the Christian guilt culture, components of which have become engrained in our culture regardless of our attempts to delineate from it. Paul Hiebert says of guilt: “Guilt is a feeling that arises when we violate the absolute standards of morality within us, when we violate our conscience” (Hiebert, 1985). We violate our conscience by concerning ourselves with our worth as a person steeped in vanity and superficiality. This then infects our psychical perception of ourselves through our guilt and shame. We are made to feel guilty for concerning ourselves with such superficial aspects of humanity (that is, aesthetics), and we feel shamed for doing so as well. He continues by saying, “Guilt cultures emphasize punishment and forgiveness as ways of restoring the moral order,” (Hiebert, 1985), and Freud claims this need for punishment as an “unconscious sense of guilt” (Freud, pg. 136). We punish ourselves through our self-hate, which permeates every aspect of our waking life, and too, of our dream life.
There is no escape from our self-hate. As I mentioned earlier, we must practice self-hate. It is an integral part of our understanding of our selves (this is because we do not know ourselves, we know what ourselves should not be; we know the judged and scrutinized aspects of ourselves). Our routinized self-hate dictates our waking life, without it, we would feel too free, we would feel guilty for not feeling guilty about our bodies. This too, makes it so we cannot develop and sustain esteem, and cannot discover our selves, truly, as much more than bodies. Self-hate is proof of our inability to advance in our self-development.
In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud exclaims that “it is almost as though the creation of a great human community would be most successful if there were no need for concern with individual happiness,” (Freud, pg.99). Individual happiness, which can be found in our own self-acceptance and development. If we avoid self-happiness, we cannot foster our self-worth, and potential. We as individuals are the backbone of our societies, and our individual happiness arguably impacts the greater whole of society. In our self-hate we remind ourselves that we are not important on an individual level and continue to compare ourselves to those around us, feeling guilty in any attempt we make for individual contentedness.
Our self-hate doesn’t only affect us. It inevitably takes a negative toll on the people around us – friends, family, and strangers alike. Through the comparisons we make on a day to day basis, which only confirm our utter disdain for ourselves, we end up projecting these negative feelings onto those around us. While dealing with close relatives and loved ones, it manifests itself as negative affect, for no apparent reason. It may result in unneeded conflict and arguments, and we may seek out their validation; vying for their positive attention, in the hopes that these positive remarks will eradicate any longstanding negative feelings we have of ourselves. We know this not to be true, for if they acknowledge that, for instance, no they do not notice the flaw you are mentioning – it confirms that the flaw may still be present they simply do not notice it. Or worse, regardless of what they say, it will never be enough. We are our own worst enemies. These behaviours and attitudes create conflict and generate and foster hostility, putting strain and stress on a relationship where there was none before.
Similarly this occurs in public with strangers. We react to strangers with our self-hate too, but in a much different way. We get to a point where our negative self-talk no longer does justice to how we are feeling, and we begin to displace our feelings onto other, innocent strangers. These feelings and reactions, too, generate self-hate. We convince ourselves that each individual who we see is in fact ugly, gross, or poorly dressed; thoughts we are actually having about ourselves. In this instance, we may not be knowingly doing this. We may truly believe we feel that way about the person in question which indicates that our self-hate is in fact, rooted very much in our unconscious, and has yet to come to the forefront of our minds. It may seem that this form of self-hate is much less insidious, or dangerous, when in fact, it appears to be much worse, for the sole fact that we are unable to address it.
These reactions create negative feelings within us that last throughout the course of a day, even after the activating stimulus is no longer in sight. We may ruminate on their appearance, assuming negative things about their body and person. This rumination fosters negative feelings in us and when questioned by others we may find ourselves lashing out, creating conflict, again, where no conflict is needed or warranted.
I mention subconscious self-hate, that is, self-hate presented when displacing our feelings onto strangers. I detail this as the most insidious form of self-hate, but that is not to say that the self-hate felt consciously on a daily basis is not as debilitating or harmful. The two are both incredibly damaging to our psyche, our development, and our relationships. In fact, I believe there is some possibility that many, if not all forms of self-hate present themselves in both ways simultaneously. For even when we believe we are dealing with our conscious self-hate, we may find new issues, new flaws developing, coming to the forefront of our minds that we may now ruminate on.
It is a constant, tiring battle we must face. But there are ways that we can combat our feelings, and there are reasons why we should do so. I have already alluded to some of the many reasons why we should combat our feelings of self-hate, but to provide an overview they are as follows: to foster healthier interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships, to clear the path to self-actualization, to experience more positive life-fulfilling emotions, and to free up time to be more productive and creative.
Our self-hate not only debilitates us emotionally and psychically, it tends to consume a great amount of our time, time we could be using for many more important things in our lives (spending time with family, finishing a project or two, to suck the proverbial marrow out of life). We will find, when we eliminate our self-hate rituals, all areas of life will improve (personal contentedness, relationships, success in hobbies and work).
How then do we combat these relentless feelings? I am not proposing a cure all, especially because we have to admit and realize that we are all too human, and should we quiet a single ocean on our map of self-hate, another is bound to stir. We must admit too, that each of us is far different from the other and what may work for some, will not work for all. Therefore, I propose a number of different activities one can practice in order to quiet, and hopefully eliminate the negative voice inside.
The best way to combat these thoughts is to challenge them, and to change the negative into positive. This can be done through journaling – keeping a journal of every negative thought or statement you make about your appearance (or inner aspects of yourself as well). For those who are more visual it may help to add images throughout the journal (for instance, should the statement be about the size of your eyes, or the shape of your nose, illustrate the body part to accompany the statement made). This should be practiced throughout each and every day, for every statement or thought made. After each statement has been documented in the journal you should take 5 minutes to change the statement into a more positive or neutral statement. This statement now acts as a personal mantra, to be recited in front of a mirror whenever the negative thoughts begin to resurface.
An alternative to this is to give yourself a pep talk in front of the mirror every morning, anytime where these negative feelings seem to be resurfacing. You should allow your speech to act as a running dialogue between yourself – that is your negative perception of yourself, and your true self. Do not worry about what is being said, this is a time to air all of your grievances about your body, and to question their validity.
Writing and visual art may also prove helpful while dealing with our self-hate. Poetry, short fiction, or creative narrative can help to create a dialogue with yourself, and can help you to illustrate the extent of your self-hate, and how you see it as damaging and debilitating to yourself and others. Visual art acts as a great visual aid that may accompany your writing, or act as a stand-alone cathartic outlet. These methods act more as catharsis than addressing specific thoughts or attitudes you have about yourself. Although these may create a dialogue, you should not feel the need to make something more come out of the creative process than the finished product, and a relief of stress. If the natural progression is for you to analyze your finished piece, then so be it, but you should not be forcing it. These methods are good ways to supplement what you have already been doing to combat your negative thoughts, and help you to de-stress, and “unload” your thoughts and feelings.
The last method I have to offer is more time-consuming than the others, and involves a great amount of patience and attention. It again acts as a visualizing of your self-hate and a physical realization of its eradication. In some way create what represents your self-hate the best (this could be a diorama, a painting, a poem, a clay mold of a word or phrase) – and allow yourself some time to focus on it. Allow yourself to talk about it, what it makes you feel, how it steals time and energy from you, how you will no longer let it have a hold on you – then destroy it. Physically destroy whatever it is you have created, in any way you think works best. As you create the dialogue with yourself, and physically and mentally combat that which has been holding you back for so long you are psychically changing the way you see and think about yourself.
Remind yourself that you are stronger than these thoughts, you are stronger than that which has held you back, and will only continue to hold you back if you allow it.
We are slaves to our self-hate, and we feel so debilitated and drained when we find it near impossible to recognize our own role in that. We should not blame others for the way we feel about our bodies, or for the way we allow those thoughts to infiltrate every aspect of our lives. We need to hold ourselves accountable for the way we attack ourselves, and devalue ourselves willingly. Change the narrative and change the perceptions we have about ourselves. Self-hate can be very damaging, and only we have the power to change it and change our lives. We will always find issues with ourselves to ruminate on when we compare and devalue our bodies and measure our worth on our physical appearance.
Freud reminds us that “[…] in spite of all our pride in our cultural attainments, it is not easy for us to feel comfortable,” (Freud, pg. 137), this too, can be said of our bodies, and our perceived place in society. This does not mean that we have society or culture to blame rather, we can go against what we believe society is telling us, and we can change the pride we have for our culture into pride in ourselves.
Freud, Sigmund. (1961). Civilization and Its Discontents. (Eds. and Trans. James Strachey). New York: Norton and Company. Originally published in 1930.
Hiebert, Paul G., (1985). Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.