Whatever I write here, it’s going to fail epically because my words can’t capture the feeling of self-loathing. I’ll just end up looking like some pompous dork who thinks she knows shit, so she posts, “Hey, everybody!! I know ALL ABOUT self-loathing! Yeah, um, it’s like, when you hate yourself!” All you guys reading are going to wince in response, saying, “Whoa–” and hurry to click your way outta here. OMG – I’m so embarrassed. Cause here it is, me again, tainting everything with that gross, defective me-ness and fucking it all up. Why? Because there’s just something fundamentally wrong with me! Cause I just plain SUCK!
Okay, that was a simulation. Really I’m okay. 🙂 But if you didn’t recognize that mental path as familiar turf, you should probably skip this post. Chances are, if you’re an alcoholic, you know it well. Self-loathing is that voice that volunteers ruthlessly condemning “insight” when you’re tired or sick or PMSing – or sometimes even when things are fine.
Self-loathing is particularly pronounced in alcoholics/addicts as the flipside of self-aggrandizement. We develop an oversized ego that attempts to compensate for our weak sense of self-worth. You can envision it as a big, technicolor-shelled snail waving antennae of “I’m so totally awesome!” that, when you flip it over, reveals the oozy slime of “I so totally suck!” Scientifically speaking, relief derives from becoming a humble, right-sized little snail like Spongebob’s. That’s why we need the 12 Steps.
Before I came to AA, I believed the voice of self-loathing was unique to me. As described in my addiction memoir, I first experienced it in preschool, a feeling that other kids could all consult a script I lacked. In my teen years through recovery at 34, I thought of that voice as “brutal honesty” or “facing facts.” When it was on, any sense of my own basic okayness struck me as self-satisfied idiocy. It seemed to declare truths I’d always known deep down.
The only person I’d ever heard speak self-loathing was my alcoholic father. “As soon as I wake up,” he’d confess, “I say to myself, P—,” (our last name) “get your lazy butt out of bed! You’re gonna louse something up today, you no-good schlemiel!” Sadly, Dad never got sober, and gradually his self-loathing developed an immunity to the alcohol that had once curbed it.
By contrast, when my sweet son was only 6, he cried to me one night before bed: “I just feel sorry for anyone who has to be around me, because I’m such a horrible person! I don’t feel sorry for me, I feel sorry for them. I just wish I could be anybody else! I hate me!”
Hugging him didn’t help. Telling him he was wonderful didn’t help. What helped was explaining to him what I’m about to tell you.
Self-loathing is a thing. It’s a voice, an entity unto itself, a part of our mind that tells us the same stuff over and over. My sponsor taught me to call it “the worm.” My son and I named it “the mean voice.”
Having a name for self-loathing, recognizing its voice when it speaks, takes away half of its power. In meetings, when I first heard others describe their self-loathing, I was floored. How could John possibly experience self-loathing? He’s such a wonderful guy! Karen is so funny and smart – how could she possibly think she’s shit?
In my experience, most non-recovered alcoholics (and some Al-Anons) vacillate between thinking they’re the shit, and thinking they’re a piece of shit. Normies must experience this phenomenon too, but A) I doubt their swings are as extreme, and B) people outside the program rarely admit to things that make no sense, even to themselves. We in recovery, however, admit to everything and thus discover we’re not alone, which opens the way to healing.
Getting rid of self-loathing entirely is not, at least in my experience, possible. What we can do through the steps is label its voice and take away its megaphone to render it fairly harmless.
Steps 4 and 5 showed me my fundamental human foibles. Steps 6 and 7 narrowed them to flaws I could, with god’s help, stop practicing – self-pity, self- importance, and harsh judgement of others – all platforms on which self-loathing stands. Steps 8 and 9 allowed me to set straight past wrongs to arrive at a clean, guilt-free slate. Today steps 10, 11, and 12 keep me current, connected, and useful.
How does this weaken our sidekick, self-loathing? Working those steps and many years of living a spiritually-based life have drawn from my core a certainty that god loves me. Despite many human shortcomings, I am fundamentally good – because god guides me toward goodness. Ultimately, that’s the sunlight the vampire of self-loathing can’t endure.
And yet – even after 21 years of sobriety – self-loathing still won’t die. It hurls insults at random intervals. “You’re alone cause you’re boring and no one wants to be with you!” “You’re wrong and shameful!” “You’re full of inherent, bumbling dumbness!”
It helps to make friends with that voice. Like someone suffering coprolalia – the Tourrette’s symptom of uttering profanity – it just can’t keep quiet! It’s trying to beat the world to the punch, blurt out the worst so no one else can surprise us with it. Stripped of its accusations, self-loathing amounts to nothing but another guise of fear.
The quickest strategy I’ve ever heard for dealing with self-loathing is my friend Brenda’s. She named her self-loathing voice Carl. Why Carl? No particular reason. Now, whenever it crops up and tells her she’s a failure, no one likes her, etc., she just rolls her eyes and says simply, “Shut up, Carl.”
Did John F. Kennedy ever think incredibly dumb things or occasionally fart with a quizzical inflection? Of course he did! But he alone knew it. Because we know ourselves more intimately than does anyone else alive, we must love ourselves – screw-ups and all – with equal fervor and humility.
Take that, self-loathing!