Editor’s note: This is the second half of a two-part exploration of the construction of self-hatred through the lens of contextual behavioral science. For part one, go here.
When it comes to how we see ourselves in the world, the way caregivers respond to our instinctual bids for connection or ‘affiliation’ as children can have a profound impact on our later behavior in relationships both with our selves and others. Whether those bids have been consistently reinforced, ignored, punished, or responded to inconsistently (at times reinforced, at times punished or ignored) can contribute to the development of the child’s attachment patterns (Mansfield & Cordova, 2007). A history of consistent reinforcement for affiliation bids could result in a secure attachment style whereas a history in which such bids were consistently ignored may lead to an avoidant attachment style. A history in which those bids were consistently punished could produce an attachment style that’s fearful. Because few learning histories are perfectly consistent, different combinations of reinforcement, punishment, and ignoring could lead to a mixed attachment style with either a dominant style or, in cases where inconsistency is the norm, a disorganized attachment style.
Because we learn our relationship with our inner experience and concepts of self largely from our attachment figures, these styles could in turn be reflected in individual styles of relating to inner experience: secure and accepting, avoidant and dismissive, fearful and critical, or disorganized and unaware. Of these, only the first style would naturally incline the individual toward self-compassion. The others would naturally fuel different forms of self-hatred, self-shame, and inner conflict.
It thus takes a specific learning history and a deliberate verbal context and community to build an accepting and kind relationship to one’s own experience and self-concept—a relationship that consistently reinforces compassion for one’s own aversive experiences and those of other people. It makes sense that when that history is missing, a healing relationship, such as the therapeutic relationship, might provide a privileged context for building a new learning history that fosters and reinforces affiliative responding and self-compassion skills. In this way, the therapeutic relationship offers a setting in which a different approach to the self and one’s own experience becomes possible. This can range from helping clients learn to receive their negative self-concepts with strength, wisdom, and kindness to helping them transform a sense of self that is unstable or disorganized. Within this context, clients can also adopt a more flexible sense of self.
The verbal community in which one is situated is central to learning one’s relationship to one’s own private experiences, thoughts, and emotions. But what about the influence of verbal processes on self-criticism and self-compassion?
Understanding the verbal processes that lie at the root of self-hatred and reinforce it can help clinicians devise targeted interventions to gradually undermine self-critical behavior and foster a more compassionate approach to how hard it is to live in this world. This approach highlights the importance of being kind to oneself in order to have a chance to move toward what is important in life, even in the face of deep-seated and painful inner obstacles.
As previously noted, fusion with the content of one’s experience and verbal constructions is the process that fuels self-criticism and self-hatred. Though it is useful and at the root of our ability to think abstractly, fusion makes it highly probable that individuals will define themselves by the content of their experience. From there it is natural to evaluate one’s self-concept and classify it as aversive. Thus, clients will judge themselves as bad because of what they have experienced (for example, trauma) or still experience (anxiety, sadness, fear, doubts). They may condemn their present selves for past actions. They may feel ashamed of having intrusive ego-dystonic thoughts. They may fear their inner experience and equate their feelings of emptiness with proof that they are somehow less than others.
Whereas traditional cognitive approaches may recommend helping clients reevaluate their self-definitions more rationally, the problem with self-hatred does not arise from the content of one’s self-concept, which would prescribe changing the problematic content, but from excessive fusion with one’s self-concept, or self-as-content. If the problem is not primarily how one evaluates the content of one’s self-definition, then trying to move evaluative constructs, such as self-esteem, might not prove most helpful.
From the perspective of acceptance and commitment therapy, for example, trying to directly modify one’s self-evaluation (i.e., improving one’s self-esteem) runs the risk of investing self-evaluations with excessive importance. Then, through derived relational responding, the risk of increasing or strengthening negative self-evaluations arises. A positive evaluation marshaled in the service of weakening a negative sense of self might serve to put both in a frame of coordination that can result in the aversive functions of the original evaluation being transferred to the proposed alternative evaluation. Thus, the intended positive self-evaluation becomes associated with the same experience of suffering as the original negative self-evaluation.
Furthermore, high self-esteem in itself is not necessarily correlated to better social or general functioning. When insensitive to context and attached to one’s self rather than one’s actions, positive evaluations are liable to lead to higher degrees of narcissism and lower levels of prosocial behavior (Morf & Rhodewalt, 2001). In addition, such artificially inflated, conditional self-esteem is fragile.
A potentially more fruitful approach to dealing with negative self-evaluations, and one that carries fewer risks of unintended side effects, would be to cultivate compassion for aversive self-concepts, with a central focus on developing the ability to take perspective and receive one’s suffering and negative evaluations as they arise.
For more on ACT and compassion, check out The ACT Practitioner's Guide to the Science of Compassion.
Mansfield, A. K., & Cordova, J. V. (2007). A behavioral perspective on adult attachment style, intimacy, and relationship health. In D. Woods & J. Kanter (Eds.), Understanding behavior disorders: A contemporary behavioral perspective (pp. 389–416). Reno, NV: Context Press.
Morf, C. C., & Rhodewalt, F. (2001). Unraveling the paradoxes of narcissism: A dynamic self-regulatory processing model. Psychological Inquiry 12, 177–196.