Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part exploration of the construction of self-hatred through the lens of contextual behavioral science.
Depressed, anxious, shy, ugly, socially inept, unlovable, complicit in abuse, coward, idiot, misfit, defective—the list is endless. When people have a long history of punishing and berating themselves, they can become fused with the concepts these thoughts construct and take on the belief that their true self is faulty. Clients (and if we are honest, most of us) therefore walk around with notions of who or what they really are, and more often than not hate or shame themselves for it.
But whatever particular set of epithets of our personal history have led us to fuse with, one thing most of us share is that we intensely dislike and often criticize ourselves for whatever self-concept we hold.
According to contextual behavioral scientists and authors of The ACT Practitioner’s Guide to the Science of Compassion: Tools for Fostering Psychological Flexibility, Dennis Tirch, PhD, Benjamin Schoendorff, MA, MSc, and Laura Silberstein, PsyD, derived relational responding is the driving force in this dynamic. Most of these labels arose from painful moments in our history. Through the transformation of stimulus functions that lies at the heart of relational framing—a largely involuntary process—the pain, and often shame, that these events elicited became attached to the memories of the events and the labels our behavior, experiences, or entire self received on those occasions. When that content is, in turn, put into a frame of equivalence with the self, then our very notion of self becomes aversive—something to move away from.
This can lead to self-hatred and self-shame and take many forms, including suicidal ideation, self-harming behavior, self-chastising or self-aggrandizing talk, putting on a mask and pretending, ruminating, self-shaming, and dissociating.
Fusion of our sense of self with content or labels of experience is often prompted and reinforced by caregivers or peers, through statements like “Little Joe is such a shy boy,” “You asked for it!” “You’re such an idiot for not seeing this,” “You’ll never amount to anything,” “Look at this big baby crying again,” and so on. Soon enough, that other-initiated talk can turn inward and become self-sustained disparaging self-talk. Is it any wonder that deep-set self-hatred is so prevalent? Because of this dynamic, it is clinically crucial to promote a more flexible sense of self that can help clients disentangle themselves from rigid self-concepts and the limitations they impose on behavior.
As mentioned, our self-concepts are largely the products of our learning histories, especially in relation to our caregivers and attachment figures. The self is a function of verbal behavior and emerges as a product of becoming a verbally competent human (Hayes, 1984; Kohlenberg & Tsai, 1991).
Early on, children have no more language for their inner experience than they do for the experience of their senses. And whereas learning to orient to sensory experience is necessary for physical survival, the world of inner experience, as Skinner (1974) noted, only acquires significance because it is important to other members of our verbal community. In this way and through social interaction, we learn modes of interacting with our inner experience. This is why it is so common for people to recognize their caregivers’ voices in their self-talk.
How does the individual learn to recognize and name that part of the universe that only he can observe? How do we learn to name what we feel when no one can see it? Because our caregivers do not have direct access to the objects or actions involved (bodily states and sensations), a certain amount of guesswork is necessary, often based on what can be observed of the child’s behavior. This means that, even at best, our descriptions of private events can never have the precision of our descriptions of publicly observable objects or events (Skinner, 1974).
A consistent learning environment requires that caregivers devote exquisite attention to subtle cues, and that they flexibly adapt to new information available from further observation. When caregivers are stressed, absent, overworked, avoidant of or overcome by emotion, or themselves the product of an inconsistent learning history, chances are they will not respond in ways most conducive to children learning how to recognize and name their inner experience and accept it as normal. Under these conditions, children might be told that they are angry when they are in fact hungry, that they are hungry as the clock strikes noon, that they are not (or should not) be sad when they are feeling sad, that they want ice cream when in fact their caregiver wants ice cream, and so on.
Repeated such experiences during early development may lead to children having difficulties in learning to name what they feel or want with any precision and under the control of internal stimuli (that is, say what they really feel, think, or want). Instead, they may have to take cues from others to know about their “own” thoughts and feelings. Their inner experience might have received so little attention that they have no words to describe it. In many cases, they will have learned to fear, deny, or judge their inner experience rather than notice and accept it as one may notice and accept the changing weather. In extreme cases, such as when early attempts to name feelings, thoughts, and desires have been consistently or unpredictably punished, they may present with a veritable phobia of having or expressing their inner experience. The world of inner experience can thus become an unfamiliar, unstable, treacherous territory, full of darkness, threats, and defects. And that, in turn, will further feed self-hatred, shame, fear, and a sense of unrelenting inner conflict.
Clinically, clients may say that they do not know how they feel or think. They might be unable to describe inner sensations or name their emotions, perhaps only locating feelings in their heads; or they may react aversively to any attempts at helping them contact inner experience, such as through eyes-closed mindfulness exercises.
Stay tuned for part two of “What Makes Us Hate Ourselves?”
Hayes, S. C. (1984). Making sense of spirituality. Behaviorism 12, 99–110.
Kohlenberg, R. J., & Tsai, M. (1991). Functional analytic psychotherapy. New York: Springer.
Skinner, B. F. (1974). About behaviourism. New York: Random House.