Of all the things you can do, loving yourself is perhaps the most important. It is probably THE key to happiness, affecting both personal happiness and happiness in a relationship. Unfortunately we don’t all love ourselves.
Over the next few posts I will be examining a lack of self-love, anxiety and depression with the help of my buddy Gandalf who has been down the rabbit hole of anxiety, depression and self-loathing. He struggled for years with self-love, and found that anxiety was central to his problem (as anxiety disorders break down the very fabric of what is needed for loving both yourself and those around you).
One important note about my buddy’s situation is that at the time he didn’t know he had a problem. For him, this was just how he was, how he behaved and how he viewed the world. It was horribly broken and unhealthy, but it wasn’t until he hit rock bottom and was able to get better that he was able to look back and see how much damage he was doing to both himself and those around him.
Issues with self-love usually originate in childhood. I’m a parent, and I’ll admit that although we usually have the best of intentions we rarely have any idea what we are doing. We make mistakes, and can inadvertently harm the very people we care the most about.
Sometimes it’s not showing children sufficient affection, berating them for their faults or continually comparing them to others (why can’t you be more like…). Sometimes it’s because we don’t love ourselves, and without a strong model of love this issue is perpetuated from parent to child.
Although each person is different, there are often commonalities across situations. My buddy didn’t just struggle with self-love, he hated himself.
Trying to understand this, I asked him if he had any idea where this self-loathing originated. From reading on Attachment Theory, my guess was it had something to do with avoidance and anxiety at these traits are closely linked to chronic unhappiness.
Here was his response:
Yes, I know exactly how my self-loathing occurred, and you are correct that there is a relationship between anxiety, attachment, and avoidance. For me to understand, I had to work backwards as I started at the end of the list and uncovered the different steps along the way. Here is how it happened for me:
Stage 1 – Hyper-active arousal
This is the stress arousal, or fear response, that everybody is born with. In about 20% of all babies, this stress reaction is hyper-sensitive and everything causes a stress, or fear, response.
This is how I started. Even as a baby I was fearful. I don’t have memories of this, so I heard this from my mom. But I was hyper-sensitive to any new or novel stimulation (person, place, toy, etc.)
Stage 2 – Poor attachment
For a child where the entire world is scary, you need a place where you feel safe, loved. Parents provide this through unconditional love, and lots of touching, of all things. Touching calms the stress response, provides comfort to the child, and signals that they have a safe haven to explore from.
Without this “safe haven”, the world remains scary, home and parents provide no comfort, and the child is actually more stressed at home than away. It’s ironic that the environment where a child should feel most safe and secure ends up being where the child feels most stressed and scared.
I was never “loved” as a child, and I can’t recall my parents ever hugging me or comforting me. My dad would sit in front of the TV all evening and my mom would make the meals, and clean the house. They were very hands off and fend for yourself parents. I ended up being the teacher’s pet as that was my only outlet for attention and affection. But this did damage as well, as I ended up linking my self-esteem to my school work.
Stage 3 – Anxiety
From here, everything is now scary and induces a stress response that the child cannot control. Going to school is a daily ordeal of stress and fear. Activities are not fun, sports are difficult as the child cannot coordinate themselves properly as they are paralyzed with fear, and making friends is difficult as you are tongue tied and stumble, or stutter, words in the conversation.
The fear response is triggered from new/novel situations and people, and without a “safe haven” to start from, the child does not learn how to control this reaction. This is now full-blown anxiety.
It didn’t start out that I was scared of everything right away. I tried to make friends, and I tried to be involved in school activities, but without a supportive adult helping you, it’s difficult. At first I tried, but eventually, I stopped trying all the time and that’s when I started to avoid life, which is the next stage.
Stage 4 – Avoidance
Avoidance is when you stop doing things. I would think “If I just avoid doing this activity, then I won’t feel stressed”. The issue is eventually you apply it to everything in life, including life itself.
It becomes a natural response to any situation. You don’t explore, take chances, engage with other people, or do activities as all of these are new (and therefore scary). Just avoiding everything that causes discomfort, stress, annoyance, and anxiety become so easy and was the solution to all of my problems. Or so I thought. What I didn’t realize is that I disengaged from life. I was there, existing, but not really living.
Avoidance is the most common coping mechanism for dealing with things, and becomes part of your personality. But there are others. For me, computers and games became that “safe haven” for me where I felt loved, accepted for who I am, and safe. The problem with coping mechanisms is they prevent you from getting at the root cause of the problem and dealing with it.
Stage 5 – Negative thinking, Narcissism, and Self-Loathing
I have lumped these together as they occurred together for me and are linked.
Negative thinking directly comes from the avoidance coping mechanism. As I avoided people and situations, I started to think that I wasn’t good or that I can’t do it, but what I really was doing was rationalizing why I was avoiding people and situation. If I convinced myself I couldn’t do something, then I wasn’t avoiding it out of fear. I built up this negative persona of myself to protect me from my anxiety and to rationalize my avoidance. However from a mental health perspective, this is horrible.
Narcissism is an ironic effect from anxiety and not one most people think is part of it. Anxiety sufferers become hyper-vigilant to try and avoid any conflict as they don’t know how to deal with it. So they constantly scan the environment, including people, for signs of danger or trouble. This means anxiety sufferers are constantly scanning others for signs of anger/unhappiness/sadness/disappointment and evaluating if this will “hurt or affect me”.
This leads to what one book called “Nice Guy Syndrome”. I would try to please everybody all the time and pretend to be happy so nobody would be upset or angry around me. I did this by being hyper-vigilant to the people around me and trying to please them instead of myself. My thinking was that if I did this nobody would have any cause to be upset or angry at me allowing me to avoid conflict. On the outside, it look altruistic, but the motivation is completely self-centered.
As I avoided what I wanted to do and suppressed myself due to Narcissism, I started to hate myself, and I don’t mean just a part, but my entire core being. I really can’t describe how this self-loathing feels, other than to say that
I felt trapped in a prison that I had both designed and built. The worst part is that I knew I did this to myself, but I didn’t know how to get out of it.
Every time I suppressed myself to accommodate somebody else, I hated myself a bit more, but I didn’t connect this to my anxiety. It just became a coping mechanism for avoiding conflict.
Stage 6 – Behaviours
There are three behaviors that come out of Stage 5: Routines, Passive-Aggressiveness, Learned Helplessness, and Depression.
Routines became a way to minimize new situations in life. After all, if you’ve done something before and it didn’t hurt you, then it’s fine. Like an obsessive compulsive I would ensure that I stuck to my set routine every day as much as possible, and any deviation from my routine was met with anger, resistance, and childlike whining or tantrums.
Passive-aggressiveness was my only way to deal with conflict. I won’t say too much here as the article you wrote sums it up well, but I do want to say is that its roots are in avoidance. Passive-aggressive behavior is the mechanism that anxiety sufferers use to avoid conflict. When an argument can’t be avoided, then I would just avoid communicating to avoid further conflict.
Another part to passive-aggressive behavior is a belief on how other people should treat you. From my routines, I developed very strict and ridged rules on how people should interact and please me, but I never communicated them to other people. Instead of asking for what I wanted I would drop hints, like, “I really enjoy X”, which meant I wanted someone to got get or do X for me. I never clearly stated what I wanted, but if I didn’t get it I would still be upset with someone for a short time and then carry on like nothing happened.
Learned Helplessness became a way of life for me. The more I avoided, the more helpless I became. Eventually, it became my default behavior as I would say, “I can’t do it. Here, you do it.” I actually would not do anything new unless I was with somebody else to be there with me.
Eventually depression set in. The more you suppress, the more you loath yourself, the more I avoided, the more I deferred to others as I thought I was helpless, eventually leads to hopelessness. This hopelessness caused the depression. I saw all my dreams disappearing one by one as I did nothing to pursue them because I was helpless to do anything. Life became meaningless and all I did was go through the motions of my daily routine.
As a kid I had linked my self-worth to my school work. As an adult it was my job. My core self-worth and self-esteem was completely dependent and linked to my academic and career performance. Without being in school or in a meaningful job, my depression deepened as there was nothing to fill the emptiness inside. I was looking for external validation for my existence and self-worth, when it can only come from inside. The end result was a hopelessness and despair that I can’t explain. My life had no meaning, and there was no point to anything.
Stage 7 – Acceptance
This step means that you have accepted the anxiety as a part of your core being. This is the final stage in the process. I really can’t say much of this stage as I didn’t reach this stage, but I’ve seen it in other people, and the result is that the person stops trying to fight the previous six stages, and gives up. They become set in their ways, and won’t, or can’t change.
I’m not sure I agree that it’s ever too late, but all of these stages led to a chronic unhappiness and a sense of self-loathing. Next I will look at the broken thinking patterns and toxic behaviors that arose from this, and how they impacted his life and relationships.