How to Deal with Self-Loathing

A reader asks:

I’ve struggled with self-loathing for about as long as I can remember. I’ve tried lots of techniques from various therapists and self-help books over the years like disputing my irrational thoughts or repeating positive mantras. Sometimes these work a little. But they never seem to help for very long. I know it’s a big topic, but I’d appreciate any thoughts you can share.

I have three suggestions for you. Maybe they all apply, maybe only one or two do. But in my experience helping folks through self-loathing, these were the ones that were most helpful most often:

1. Look for patterns in your self-loathing.

While it can feel pervasive and unrelenting, self-loathing tends to ebb and flow over the course of days or weeks. Some days—or times of day—you’ll experience a lot of it, while you might have surprisingly long stretches without it. If you’re observant, these patterns can leave clues to the source of your self-loathing.

For example:

  • Do you tend to have more self-loathing in the evenings than the mornings? If so, maybe something about work tends to trigger or exacerbate it?
  • Does the self-loathing get worse around the holidays? Maybe it has something to do with family dynamics?

I had a client once who, after months of working on self-loathing, hit a major breakthrough when he realized his self-loathing was strongly correlated with alcohol and marijuana use; specifically, while he got a brief relief from it immediately after using, in the days following he was much more likely to experience self-loathing. So he experimented with giving up all drinking and smoking and within a few weeks, the self-loathing was virtually non-existent.

2. Practice detaching from self-loathing thoughts.

Technically self-loathing is a mental behavior and form of negative self-talk.

You don’t have a virus in your that’s producing self-loathing molecules. Instead, you loathe yourself when you engage in negative self-talk. But rather than trying  to dispute or disprove these self-loathing thoughts, try detaching from them instead.

Briefly acknowledge and validate your self-loathing thoughts—e.g. “I’m having a self-loathing thought right now. I don’t like it, but it’s okay and I don’t have to do anything about it.”—then shift your focus onto something else.

The better you get at A) acknowledging your self-loathing thoughts quickly, and B) detaching from them, the less affected by them you’ll become.

Mindfulness training is especially helpful for getting better at detaching from thoughts like this.

3. Spend more time around people who genuinely love you and themselves.

Something I noticed over the years working with people who struggled with either self-esteem issues or self-loathing: They spent a lot of time around people who had a lot of self-loathing themselves or were very critical of other people.

I think this speaks to the importance of modeling…

One of the best ways to change any behavior is to surround yourself with people who exemplify the behavior you wish you had.

So my advice would be to think very carefully about the people you spend the most time around and how they might be affecting you. And if at all possible, make it a priority to spend more time around people who demonstrate the opposite of self-loathing—people who consistently act with self-compassion and kindness.