Have Compassion for Yourself

How one author breaks the cycles of self-loathing

If you're familiar with that ubiquitous Marianne Williamson quotation ("Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure …"), you might also have come across its slightly more reserved cousin: "If someone talked to you the way you talk to yourself, you would have kicked them out of your life a long time ago."

The irony of those feel-good sayings, which can be found on many a Facebook wall, Twitter bio, and Pinterest board, is that people who believe that they deserve validation are likely already on the right track. (Much quieter are people whose insides shrivel at the thought of laying any claim to Williamson's "power beyond measure," or even basic kindness—not necessarily out of cynicism, but due to a single-minded conviction in their own worthlessness.)

As journalist Anneli Rufus sees it, the self-hating person inhabits a world of muted despair that prevents him or her from ever feeling at ease in the world. In Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself, Rufus mines the intractable, negative perceptions that she and others have held about themselves, and analyzes the emergence of self-esteem as a goal that feels unattainable for many people. I spoke with Rufus about what it's like to live with low self-esteem in an esteem-driven world, and how people who experience self-loathing can establish healthier relationships with themselves and others in their lives.

After reading your stories and those of some of the people you interview, it seems to me like admitting to other people that you experience self-loathing can be just as fraught as experiencing it. So what made you decide to write this book?

Watching how much my mother suffered. She died in 2011 without "recovering" from her low self-esteem. I gave her a memorial service that 75 people attended, and people kept coming up to me and saying, "Your mother was wonderful." They were sobbing and I thought, my god, if Mom was here she would still argue, "Well, they don't know the real me." That experience, plus my own life, made me realize how much so many people suffer with this.

In the book you talk about the historical trajectory of self-esteem, which wasn't always such an oft-discussed thing. What was life like for you in those pre-self-affirmation days?

I was in elementary school in Los Angeles around 1966. The world was waking up and there were hippies and such, but for kids it was still the old days. It was a time of discipline, obedience, and respect for grown-ups. Kids' "selves" were not a topic. Self-esteem was just a word; it was alien, abstract. Los Angeles in the seventies was a very looks-centric time, just as this is a very looks-centric time, and I felt like an ugly outsider—but in those days it was pretty common for girls to say things like, "Oh, I'm the most hideous person at the beach!" Everyone did that.

It wasn't until college when I met the person that I'm now married to that I started to feel like an extreme case. He was very complimentary and absolutely did not understand when I argued with him. He'd tell me, "Your problem is not that you are ugly or a bad person. Your problem is that you think that." But like a typical person with low self-esteem, I refused to accept it until very recently.

What is reality for someone who is self-loathing? Because in a sense, the self-loathing person believes that he or she is the realist.

It depends on the person and what their fixation is. Some people think they're really stupid; some people think they're weak; some people think they're ugly. Whatever it is, it colors their daily life. You dress as fast as possible to hide your body without looking at yourself in the mirror because you can't stand it—and then you've put on an outfit that maybe isn't the most flattering. You become fake because you're covering up your own self-loathing, and you can't really pay attention to your spouse, or your boss, or the friend that you're going out with, since part of you is absorbed in, how do I look? How do I sound? Terrible?

That reminds me of an anecdote in the book about the man whose partner moved across the country to be with him, but he still felt insecure about their relationship. He sent text messages and left Post-It notes all over the house and in his boyfriend's car asking, "Do you love me?" over and over again. How does self-loathing affect people's relationships, whether familial, or romantic, or professional?

The way I see it, we make ourselves hard to love. There's a certain negative narcissism aspect to having low self-esteem. People who totally adore themselves are hard to love because they only see themselves and it's hard for them to care about you. But people who hate themselves are also hard to love because they, too, are so self-absorbed that their own needs and miseries obstruct their view of another person. You can't see into someone else's heart if you are so wrapped up in yourself. If you're sitting there, sobbing on the bed and there's someone beside you saying, "But I love you," and you reply, "No! I'm so worthless!" you're basically saying 'screw you' to that person. If we can have compassion for ourselves, then we are inviting ourselves to have compassion for others, which makes relationships fairer and more equal.

I've seen how difficult it is for people that are in relationships with a person who hates [himself]. They feel that they are not being listened to, and that their care and concern for the self-loathing person is being rejected. And sometimes they say, "I've been reassuring you for 20 years. I've got no more for you." So we're at risk of doing that and, thus, at risk of being alone—which is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If someone lives a very long life feeling this way about herself as your mother did, do you think that some people might not see low self-esteem in adults as debilitating?

In a sense, this is a matter of life and death—if not physical death then emotional death. I had a friend, an extremely talented, extremely accomplished person, who ended her own life at 53, and she also was a victim of self-loathing. After she died my mother said, "Well, you knew this was going to happen. She's in a better place and she got what she wanted." My mother was sort of envious of her.

I think there's a lot of courage in staying alive in a state of self-loathing because every day is a struggle and things are hard that the average person, the self-accepting person, wouldn't even imagine could be hard. How could it be hard to put on an outfit and go out the door? How could it be hard to go to a party that you were invited to? How could it be hard just to be with your family and have a normal job? But it is. For people who struggle with low self-esteem, basic things are difficult because you’re walking around thinking: I don't deserve friendship. I don't deserve compliments. I don't deserve this job. I don't deserve this husband. I don't deserve to live. Is it better or worse to walk around with that for 84 years? It takes a lot of courage.

From the outside in, what sorts of things are helpful if you are the friend of someone who is self-loathing? And if you are the self-loathing person, how can you help yourself?

If you are the friend, understand that they are living in a state of delusion, at least for now, and that arguing with them is just going to make them more firmly entrenched in their incorrect beliefs. Complimenting people with low self-esteem often doesn't work because it's very difficult for them to accept simple praise. Humor often makes a difference because people with low self-esteem are so down on themselves and so depressed that if you make them laugh, you're bringing them out of themselves.

The way to save ourselves is, among other things, to break those habits that keep us rooted in our self-loathing and in the way that people see us—which make others feed back to us our wrong beliefs about ourselves. If you are always apologizing, some people will feel sorry for you and some people will stomp on you, but in either case that's probably not the real you. Do you really feel that sorry about everything you do? Do you really feel like you need to beg everyone for permission? Probably not. Look at the things you do as if they were on a movie screen and take away the I did it because I'm an idiot. The more you become aware of that thinking and those habits, the easier it becomes to shift them.

Your book references many different religions and philosophies. Why was it important to you to understand how the "self" is conceived of in other cultures, and which were most helpful to you?

I think that in American culture we tend to forget that there are other ways of looking at things. If low self-esteem is something that makes so many people suffer, then let's see how other cultures view the self. You might not convert to another religion, but you might gain a new way of thinking. I found basic meditation pretty helpful and I was a skeptic for years. I had read that people with low self-esteem and people with depression find it hard to meditate because it goes against their normal pattern, which is to cycle over negative thoughts. But meditation is a release from thought, and you can start at just one minute.

Affirmations were not very useful, and studies have shown that affirmations generally do not work for people with a certain degree of low self-esteem. They work for people with medium and high self-esteem because those people are saying something that they already know. But for a person with low self-esteem or no self-esteem, it's like watering ground that doesn't have any seeds in it. You're telling them to say I love myself, and they're going to say No. I don't—and then feel angry and humiliated to have made these grandiose statements about themselves.

Something else that has worked for me is therapy. I went back to therapy a couple of years ago [because] finding the right therapist is crucial and is always a matter of chemistry. I am a solitary type of person but I do think it's important to know that you're not alone. Self-loathing is one of the most isolating things because there are these dark secrets about yourself that you don't want to say. But if you can find out in forums, or online, or reading a book, that this is a state of mind—you are not genuinely a bad person—then that is helpful and encouraging.

If you consider self-loathing to be a form of "negative narcissism," how does someone get to a point where they stop focusing on himself or herself as much, and where would you say you are right now in your own process?

If this were a spectrum, at one end would be total, abject, beat-yourself-over-the-head self-loathing, and at the other end complete, dictatorial narcissism. I think the ideal place to aim for is the middle. I've found that it's things outside myself that are interesting and get my fascination that have taken me out of that state. Fix a car. Go on a vacation. Join a club. I've studied foreign languages and been so wrapped up in that, that it takes my mind off of other things. And after a while, I've got a new skill.

For me, I'm in a state of acceptance, and that is a huge, huge difference. In my 20s, I had a friend who literally would, in earnest, look in the mirror and say, "I look fabulous"—and she meant it. I was always like, 'Whoa, that is so weird.' I'm not saying let's all be like her, but we can get to the middle and just be. It's funny: I'm not looking in the mirror, or complimenting myself, or thinking about myself very much. I'll walk through the day just thinking, "Oh, there's a crow," and I'm so grateful for that.