Self-loathing: Why does it develop, and how do we heal?

Loving yourself is an important, and sometimes incredibly difficult, part of life. It often takes constant effort to stay positive and confident about who we are, and sometimes, the doubt and uncertainty win.

Self-loathing is an intense and deeply-rooted feeling that builds over time, and can be caused by negative childhood experiences. Read on to learn about why self-loathing develops and what can be done to heal those tendencies.

What Is Self-Loathing Behavior? Understanding Self-Loathing

Self-loathing is a feeling of hostility, anger, or disgust directed toward oneself. It can occur for a variety of reasons, but it can often originate from, as well as be exacerbated by, insecurities, anxiety, depression, and a host of other factors. Self-loathing can make it hard to maintain healthy relationships, do your job, and generally function, as it’s always there—holding you back and eating away at your energy and confidence.

Self-loathing behaviors are actions taken by a person that are usually not in their best interest. These actions will often be reflective of the fact that the individual believes that they are bad or defective in some way. 

Self-Loathing: Recognizing the Signs and Causes

Causes of self-loathing will often involve experiences from childhood. Negative childhood experiences like critical parenting, inappropriate discipline, and situations that promote and foster feelings of inadequacy can cause maladaptive coping strategies to develop and contribute to a self-hating mindset. 

Common behaviors that exhibit a pattern of self-loathing include:

  • Criticism
  • Destructive or poor communication
  • Unfair comparisons
  • Demeaning statements
  • Denying or avoiding pleasurable activities (“unworthy” of them)
  • Insults
  • Low self-esteem
  • Inability to accept praise
  • Lack of self-compassion

Why Do People Experience Self-Hatred?

People experience self-hatred for many reasons, though most center around a person’s personality traits, mental health conditions, parenting, environment, and traumatic experiences. 

  • Personality traits such as perfectionism, an inability to let go of past mistakes, or high expectations can contribute to feelings of self-hatred, as they can cause someone to consistently expect more from themselves than they are able to give. When they are not meeting their (high) expectations, this can cause them to feel like they are not enough—not productive enough, not thoughtful enough, not exact enough, etc.
  • Mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, frequent and misplaced guilt, low self-esteem, hopelessness, or unworthiness can contribute to feelings of self-hatred, especially if they’re allowed to compile and build on themselves over time. 
  • Parenting styles, or, more specifically, hypercritical parenting styles that provide unreasonably high expectations and unclear standards while modeling self-hatred can contribute to feelings of self-loathing, impacting kids well into adulthood.
  • Environments that reinforce or encourage negative beliefs, negative judgments, substance use, and destructive behaviors can contribute to feelings of self-hatred. 
  • Traumatic experiences, such as violence, sex crimes, racism, or other forms of discrimination, can cause individuals to internalize these acts, thinking of them as justified. The mistaken belief that traumatic experiences are earned or deserved can contribute to feelings of self-hatred.

However someone starts hating themselves, it’s important to get help and treatment to heal from those erosive feelings. It’s very difficult to change these thoughts on one’s own, which is where mental health professionals come in. They help clients unravel the root of their self-loathing, healing and processing memories and feelings as they go. What lies at the center of one’s self-hatred is important—only by addressing and working through the beliefs that are causing it can true healing and growth happen.

People fell self-loathing because of certain personality traits, mental health issues, experiencing certain parenting styles or negative environments, or trauma.

What Is Self-Hate as a Defense Mechanism?

A defense mechanism is an unconscious response people use to avoid anxious or uncomfortable feelings that arise from internal conflict, likely something painful that they don’t want to think about. 

As self-hate is already an uncomfortable or painful emotion, it’s rare that someone would use it as a defense mechanism. Self-hate might come up with a defense mechanism, such as when someone makes self-deprecating jokes. However, though they are using mean comments about themselves to protect themselves, they are actually using humor as the defense to keep from thinking about or expressing how much they dislike themselves and hide how much their self-hate impacts them emotionally.

Broadly speaking, defense mechanisms are relatively normal ways of coping with everyday problems. The overuse of defense mechanisms is a pathological response called “escape mechanisms.” 

People experiencing self-hate can use escape mechanisms, especially if they are internalizing external hatred they experience for something deeply personal about them, such as their race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.

Self-Loathing’s Impact on Mental and Emotional Well-Being

When a person buys into a narrative that they are “bad” or “wrong,” it affects how they think, feel, and behave. 

To be fair, any perception affects our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and all thoughts, feelings, and behaviors affect our perception—it’s cyclical. On the other side of things, when we are aware of our capabilities and things we do well, it tends to improve self-esteem and confidence. 

When we focus on the things we judge to be defective or bad, we are more likely to adopt exaggerated negative thoughts that tend to make us feel worse about them. Apply this to ourselves, and we may start to feel unworthy or uncomfortable being around others. This thought process and behavior can then have a harmful effect on our ability to form and sustain meaningful relationships

Self-hate is a poison that can leak into every area of one’s life, leaching the joy and happiness from it until there is none left. This is why it’s so important to get support to help adjust those thoughts and one’s perspective, instead focusing on fostering healing, forgiveness, and hope to build healthy foundations for the life we want to live.

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What Is Self-Loathing a Symptom of? What Personality Disorder Is Self-Loathing Tied to?

Narcissistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder tend to have the strongest ties to self-loathing. 

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a personality disorder that is marked by an exaggerated perception of abilities, a need for attention, entitlement, an inability to empathize with others, and an intense reaction (or indifference) to criticism or defeat. 

Though this disorder can be developed by an overinflated sense of ego and importance, it can also develop in people who are excessively ridiculed and mistreated. In either situation, NPD often masks an inner fragility and extreme lack of self-worth, causing the person to outwardly tout their greatness and accomplishments to others.

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a personality disorder that is marked by intense and unstable moods, relationships, and self-image. People diagnosed with borderline personality disorder tend to manifest self-defeating behaviors such as self-harming and suicidal actions, which are often accompanied by ongoing feelings of emptiness tied to their unstable self-image and identity.

Is Self-Loathing Tied to Narcissism?

Mental health literature does suggest a tie between self-loathing and narcissism. Despite the classical symptom of grandiose self-importance, someone diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder is likely to have an unstable relationship with their self-esteem, experiencing an alternation between self-love and self-loathing. 

How Do You Treat Self-Disgust?

If you feel disgusted with yourself, the most effective and healthy way to treat it would be going to psychotherapy and talking with a therapist. By participating in psychotherapy, the therapist and client collaborate to create a treatment plan, meaning that you and your provider will come together to create therapeutic goals, such as decreasing feelings of self-disgust or increasing feelings of self-acceptance, self-love, or self-neutrality. 

Strategies for Overcoming Self-Loathing

Helpful strategies to help you overcome feelings of self-loathing can include identifying the signs of self-loathing that present themselves in your life and exploring their possible triggers and causes. What does self-loathing look like for you, and what do you think is behind it?

It’s important to assess whether the thoughts related to your self-loathing are actually true, or if they are cognitive distortions—opinions that distort the truth to fit a certain narrative. By challenging negative and unhelpful beliefs, you can better distinguish opinions from facts. 

Consider showing yourself compassion by modifying unreasonable expectations that you have set for yourself, as well as any negative self-talk you notice. Be aware of the role of outside influences on your self-perception and embrace perspectives that help you be your best self. 

If someone has harmed you, for your sake, consider forgiveness. Identify opportunities to receive positivity, such as accepting compliments, praise, and recognition of your strengths. Self-loathing can be a hard pattern to break, but with the right tools, you’ll see that putting in the work to shift your perspective will be worth it in the happiness and contentment you’ll bring yourself.

Strategies for cultivating self-compassion

It’s important to break from negative thoughts and patterns, but it’s just as important to make an effort to celebrate yourself and show yourself kindness. Self-compassion isn’t just “being nice” to yourself. Self-compassion is also the simple act of not beating yourself up for something that you don’t have or do.  

When trying to heal from self-loathing, it’s the harmful emotional reaction to your perceived failures and inadequacy that needs to be changed in order to protect yourself. Imagine doing something and failing, but beating yourself up isn’t an option—what choices remain? While a critical stance on certain mistakes or shortcomings can have beneficial effects on personal growth, negative and extreme forms of criticism are likely factors for depression.

Here are some helpful strategies and steps for cultivating self-compassion:

  • Encourage yourself 
  • Forgive yourself
  • Do your best to move forward
  • Use self-care practices to boost your mental health
  • Find comfort to soften criticism (try to stay away from avoidance, though)
  • Adjust your perspective—what did you do right?
  • Show yourself and others kindness

Again, self-loathing and hatred are difficult to heal from on your own. If self-loathing is affecting your life and relationships, consider speaking with a mental health professional about what you’re feeling.

Table of contents

What Is Self-Loathing Behavior? Understanding Self-Loathing

Why Do People Experience Self-Hatred?

What Is Self-Hate as a Defense Mechanism?

Self-Loathing’s Impact on Mental and Emotional Well-Being

What Is Self-Loathing a Symptom of? What Personality Disorder Is Self-Loathing Tied to?

How Do You Treat Self-Disgust?

Strategies for Overcoming Self-Loathing

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Laura Harris, LCMHC in Durham, NC

Laura Harris, LCMHC

Laura Harris is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC). She specializes in anger, anxiety, depression, stress management, coping strategies development, and problem-solving skills.

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Hannah DeWitt

Hannah is a Junior Copywriter at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree in English: Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Seattle Pacific University. Previously, Hannah has worked in copywriting positions in the car insurance and trucking sectors doing blog-style and journalistic writing and editing.

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  • Brown, R. P., & Bosson, J. (2001). Narcissus meets Sisyphus: Self-love, self-loathing, and the never-ending pursuit of self-worth. ResearchGate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283993246_Narcissus_meets_Sisyphus_Self-love_self-loathing_and_the_never-ending_pursuit_of_self-worth

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