Emotional Health: Transforming Self-Hate

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Transforming Self-Hate

Rabbi Dov Heller, LMFT

The one gift I would love to give to everyone is the gift of self-love. Self-hate drains a person of his emotional energy. He is constantly at war with himself and others. Transforming self-hate into self-love is like taking a 100-pound weight off one’s shoulders. One’s entire being feels lighter.

Self-loving people tend to be joyous, optimistic, confident, resilient, creative, productive, loving and generous. The rabbis tell us that it is forbidden to see oneself as a bad person. Although all of us have bad days and don’t like certain parts of ourselves from time to time, those who are self-hating judge themselves constantly as not being good enough, not thin enough, not rich enough, not smart enough, not creative enough, not tough enough, not spiritual enough, not productive enough, not successful enough, etc. Those who are self-hating tend to feel depressed, anxious, and to be self-absorbed.

Make a list of things in which you feel you’re never quite good enough. Even if you identify only one thing in which you consistently feel you are not good enough, it is quite possible that you are self-hating. In general, there are four areas that people tend to hate themselves for:

  1. their bodies,
  2. their bad feelings, moods, and thoughts,
  3. their limitations and weaknesses,
  4. their mistakes and bad decisions, past and present.

Counterfeit self-love takes the form of grandiosity: trying to look good, to impress others, or to overcome feelings of inadequacy by being successful monetarily and even spiritually. However, if one’s drive for success is motivated by self-loathing, it will fail to build self-love. The person who hates herself will never love herself no matter how successful she becomes.

The first and hardest step towards transforming self-hate into something healthier is to fully acknowledge everything you feel you are deficient in and hate about yourself. This requires having the courage to be totally honest with yourself. The more one denies and fights the truth, the more entrenched one gets in his self-hate. What we resist persists. It is painful to face the truth, but it is even more painful to hide from it.

Dave, a graduate student, remembers when he first began to study Talmud in a yeshiva. It was very hard for him, and he did not grasp it easily or quickly, unlike some other guys who seemed to catch on easily. Comparing himself to others, he started feeling dumb. Dave felt bad about himself, suffering for months, refusing to acknowledge how much shame he was feeling.

Finally, he decided to reach-out to one of the rabbis. He began to face his self-hate and struggle with learning Talmud. At the same time, he began to wonder why it took him so long to face the truth about his self-hate. And then it hit him: the pain of facing the truth was greater than the pain of holding onto his self-hate!

We must embrace our darkness if our light is to shine.

I think it’s a mistake to ever look for hope outside of one’s self…I tried to die near the end of the war. The same dream returned each night until I dared not to sleep and grew quite ill. I dreamed I had a child and even in the dream I saw it was my life, and it was hideous, and I ran away. But it always crept onto my lap again and clutched at my clothes. Until I thought, if I could kiss it, whatever in it was my own, perhaps I could sleep. And I bent to its broken face, and it was horrible…but I kissed it. I think one must finally take one’s life in one’s arms.

–Arthur Miller, After the Fall

Once we embrace the unwanted and disowned parts of ourselves, we can then take the second step towards transforming self-hate. We must clarify what limitations and deficits we cannot change and accept them, and what limitations we can change and make a plan for self-improvement.

G-d grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

–Reinhold Niebuhr, The Serenity Prayer

Once Dave was able to own his shame and the truth about his intelligence, he was able to see
clearly what he needed to do. Once he accepted the fact that his mind didn’t work as quickly as
others, he was able to make a plan for learning Talmud that worked for him. Within days, his self-esteem increased, and his self-hate lessened. The day he faced the truth about himself is the day the sun came out.

Perhaps the ultimate consequence of self-hate is that it renders one unable to identify and access
one’s unique creative gifts, so he can make his unique contribution to the world. Think about this. There will never be another person like you.

The ultimate obligation to ourselves and to the world is to make our unique contribution in order to improve the world. Life is short. As Hillel said, “If not now when?”

Unfortunately, I can’t give you the gift of self-love. But you can. Transforming self-hate into self-love may be one of the most important challenges that a human being can face, for the simple reason that the self-hating person is not fully alive. And in the end, living a life of joy, meaning, and vitality is what life is about.