Many people struggle to accept themselves, some people even hate themselves.
In their eyes they don’t have a problem, they are the problem.
In my work with these people I work with three aspects of self-hate.
- Inner critics
- Unhelpful identity beliefs
- Internal identity conflicts
The aim of this work is to
- retrain or retire inner critics
- dissolve unhelpful identity beliefs
- to resolve the internal conflicts between our different identities
Retraining or Retiring The Inner Critic
Most people are familiar with an inner critic, a voice in our mind that comments, blames, criticises what we think, say and do. Sometimes this criticism can be just a background irritation, sometimes it can be a crippling diatribe against you.
If you listen carefully to what they say, these inner critics generally speak / curse / shout at you in the third person:
- How could you be so stupid!
- You’re pathetic!
- What is wrong with you!
The inner critic is an internalisation of an outer critic. Part of us has taken on the role of the critical other and now runs the “critic program” in our head, even if the original author of that criticism is long gone, or even long dead.
Having an inner critic is not fun, what they say is often unhelpful and how they say it is often very stressful and debilitating for us. It’s easy to understand why people would want to get rid of their inner critics, but getting rid of an inner critic may be a mistake.
The inner critic is often trying to do something beneficial for us, perhaps it is trying to help us succeed, look after ourselves or be safe. It’s just that the way that it tries to do that stinks.
For this reason I think of working with inner critics as retraining to do their job without the bullying manner, or retiring them gracefully if the critic has nothing useful to contribute to our lives.
Working from this perspective it is possible to change a harsh inner critic into a supportive coach, quite a change. It is such a change that after this work it usually takes people a few days to adjust to their quieter and friendlier inner world.
Dissolving Unhelpful Identities
There’s more to you than meets the I.
We think and talk about ourselves as if we were just one person, a single unified being travelling through life. But, if you think about it, that doesn’t really match our everyday experience.
We often find ourselves saying things like “I don’t know why I did that”, “I don’t know what came over me”, “I don’t trust myself”.
If we were just one “I” then these sentences would make no sense. How can the same I not know why it did that?
These kinds of sentences only make sense if we think of having different “parts of ourselves” taking on the label “I” in different circumstances.
Have you ever had the experience of at certain times feeling like a much younger version of yourself?
Perhaps you had the sense of being a frightened child or a whiny teenager. You might even have noticed that it wasn’t how you wanted to feel or behave but have been powerless to change it. (In some situations I used to feeling like I was a whining pre-teen complaining that “It’s not fair!”. Even though I didn’t want the way of being it could be difficult to shake it off)
At those times one of your different identities had been called up to take charge of you and what you did in that situation.
It’s as if we have a collection of identities that take centre stage at different times. In some psychological systems these identities are sometimes called sub-personalities, or ego states: parts of our beings that manifest themselves in certain circumstances.
Important I’m talking here about the every day experience of being a slightly different person in different situations, rather than the extreme end of this continuum known as Dissociative Identity Disorder or Multiple Personalities.
Identities are powerful
Your current identity, who you are in each situation, has a powerful effect on your life. Identities and identity beliefs exert a lot of influence on how you think, feel and act.
Compare the sentences “I feel depressed” with “I am depressed”. I feel depressed is just that, a description of a feeling, something you are aware of now. All feelings have a limited shelf life, they come and go. If you feel tired, then a good nights rest and you will feel refreshed in the morning. Each feeling morphs into another over time.
However if say “I am depressed” that is quite different, this like saying “I am a depressed person everywhere and all the time”. This experience feels like it is 24/7 and won’t go away. It is the all-encompassing stickiness of these unhelpful identities that can cause us problems.
Some examples of not so helpful identity beliefs.
- I am stupid
- I am defective
- I am useless
- I am pathetic
- I am hopeless
Imagine having these statements describing your way of being in the world. That’s not a very useful way to be in the world, is it?
How did you learn who to be?
Nobody is born with the identity “I am stupid”. These beliefs and identities are learned (usually) in our early lives. We pick up these ideas from our own experience and other people, parents, siblings, teachers, classmates and the wider community.
We may have significant traumatic experiences where we take on the idea that we are bad, stupid, pathetic, etc. Experiences of high stress where we come to those conclusions ourselves or those ideas are fed to us by someone else and we accept them.
Unfortunately as children we don’t have much experience of the world and our conclusions can be quite wrong. Unfortunately, from the outside these experiences may not look traumatic at all and be completely overlooked.
The other way of creating these identity beliefs is to distil a lot of different experiences into the conclusion I am bad, stupid, pathetic, etc. In these cases it’s not just one thing, it’s a series of experiences over time that create the identity belief.
Once this identity is formed, it tends to get stuck, it’s as if that self stops growing, isolates itself from the flow of your life and is left with the beliefs, resources, thoughts and behaviours it had at that time to handle those kinds of situations.
However they are formed, when faced with specific trigger experiences these identities with all their young feelings, thoughts, beliefs and resources come to the fore and try to do the best they can for us in that situation. This is the feeling of the younger self that you may experience in difficult situations.
However expecting our younger selves to handle stressful encounters with authority figures, money problems, romantic disputes probably isn’t a recipe for success.
You can upgrade your identity beliefs?
The good news is that you can update these early identity beliefs and their sub-personalities into a more resourceful, integrated adult state.
This younger identity can be identified, relaxed, give emotional resources and re-integrated into the greater whole so that you can become a more integrated person operating in the world from a more resourceful adult perspective.
Inner conflict resolution
I, myself and me
There are more parts to us than just “I” we also have parts of us with the labels myself and me.
Usually we think about I, myself and me as referring to the same single entity.
But what about sentences like this:
- I hate myself
- I don’t know what’s wrong with me
- There is something wrong with me, I need to get myself under control.
If we take these literally in
- I hate myself: there is a part of our experience (called “I” in this sentence) who hates another part of our experience (called “myself” in this sentence). Because we are talking about ourselves we think of this as just a statement of fact rather than a description of an internal interaction between different sub-personalities. If we think “John hate’s Janet” it’s easy to see that there are two different personalities at work. In the case of “I hate myself” there is a similar dynamic between two sub-personalities.
- I don’t know what’s wrong with me: Likewise in this sentence a part of us (called “I”) doesn’t know what’s wrong with another part of our experience (called “me”).
- There is something wrong with me, I need to get myself under control: In this sentence there is something wrong (in someone’s opinion) with a part of our experience (called “me”) and another part of our experience (called “I”) needs to get yet another part of our experience (called “myself”) under control to manage the problem.
Just as we may have many more than one “I” we may also have many more than “myself” or “me”
The intra-personal conflicts or inner civil war can take up a lot of time and energy and hold us in place as opposing inner forces slug it out. By relaxing and resourcing these sub-personalities, then resolving their conflicts, they can be re-integrated into the whole without the struggle.
Resolving the conflicts between these parts of our psyche means that we can spend more time being in the world than expending energy into unresolvable conflict between parts of ourselves.
Each of these parts of our experience have their own “ages”, feelings, believes and behaviours.
The aim of this work is to help people be the best fallible human being they can be and not to waste time or energy punishing themselves for being who they are.