Imagine my surprise upon discovering that self-hate is not the rare and tragic disorder I would have assumed it to be, but rather something from which every human suffers, to some degree. Here is a deep dive into my own, and early thoughts about how to conquer it.
There may not be another compound word as alarming — as injurious — as the eight-letter albatross, “self-hate”.
Like that metaphorical bird — from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner — the specter of self-hatred hangs around one’s neck — a burden to be borne in full view — weighing down everything.
And yet, all of life, according to an insightful book by Dr. Theodore Rubin, M.D. titled Compassion and Self-Hate, is apparently a dance between two polar, central, themes. Compassion, he writes, “is the strongest human therapeutic agent in existence. Its potential for constructive growth and human creative possibility is almost limitless.” Self-hate, he then counters, “is the strongest human antitherapeutic agent in existence. Its potential for destructive possibility is almost limitless.”
In the way he describes it, these two forces are a kind of yin/yang, or lightness/darkness; and together, they form a whole being. Each of us is somewhere along the spectrum between its poles.
In defining self-hate, he offered something in the very first chapter that caught me off guard:
“Any thought, feeling or action based on any combination of false beliefs, which in any direct or indirect way detracts from, depletes, denigrates or hurts that which is real and actual about oneself, must be considered as part of the self-hating process.”
That description applies — at least on occasion — to just about every human on Earth. We have all done things counter to our “true nature”, whether in a bid to fit in, societally; to comply with laws, norms or expectations; to make our parents happy; in self-defeating rationalization of whatever kind; due to mental gymnastics aimed toward self-justification; to lash out at others when we feel hurt, whether we do so willfully or reflexively, in a Newtonian “action-reaction” relationship; or as commonly, the self, to chastise our own failures or shortcomings, small and large.
That none of us is fully exempt from these governing truths is, I think, Dr. Rubin’s central point.
So the first time I heard the term aimed at me — from an executive coach with whom I just began working, last month — I was stunned. Without softening the blow, he had just accused me of suffering from self-hate. Instinctively— without the slightest awareness of what I was doing — I quickly mounted a full-scale defense-offense. I performed mental gymnastics in front of him, employing language as a weapon, spinning what I felt were convincing stories—irrefutable proof— about why he was wrong… even though he hadn’t asked me what I thought.
He let me go on for a good five minutes — maybe ten — before he finally interjected.
“What are you doing?!”
In hindsight, my next comment was hilarious. “I’m sitting down. Wait. What do you mean?”
What he meant was that my outsized reaction was proving his point. He then said some pretty harsh things to — and about — me next: character-damning, or so it felt. I was gobsmacked. So flabbergasted, in fact, that his words overcame my defense and my mindset, expertly, and I shut up, right then and there. In doing what he did, he had managed to refocus me.
After a long pause, feeling utterly deflated, all I could do was muster, “I’m sorry. It’s just that I’ve never heard that term before, nor ever thought that I…” I stammered, “hated myself.”
Another very long pause.
“Maybe I do.”
Even though it was just a phone call, and we were perhaps 4,000 miles from one another physically, at home, it was a moment of jarring intimacy with a near-stranger. And my wholesale change in demeanor was palpable to him. Gone were the gymnastics, self-aggrandizements and attacks that accompanied my extreme visceral reaction — my deep offense — at being accused of self-hating.
Forget that it’s not all I am. No one is fully self-hating or compassionate, though some people are in fact supremely in touch with their loving selves, able to lavish those feelings onto others, while at the opposite end of the spectrum, others are crippled by self-hate, manifesting as total resignation, or despair, bitterness, hatred projected onto others, acerbic negativity, self-harm, or a dozen other recognizable traits.
The insight crystallized when the coach I had met just once prior somehow managed to describe my own albatross —my self-hate—so incisively. Going a step further, he accused me—correctly—of exhibiting a punishing level of perfectionism — aimed squarely at myself, even more than at others — borne out of a bid to tame — to control — everything in my life to an ever-increasing—thus increasingly impossible—standard of accomplishment.
I was frankly stunned.
And apparently, that obvious, to his trained eye.
He was right. I did — and do — expect the world of myself, and have spent a lifetime chasing an illusory ideal, believing that if I just tried harder, I could get there. Of course, the problem is that every time I arrived anywhere — achieved something, anything — the bar moved. That’s because “quality”— even preeminence—was never my true objective. Rather, my real goal was to fill an un-fillable hole dug early in childhood.
How can one measure how well one is doing toward achieving that?
Like world class athletes who are (generally) driven not by enjoyment, but rather by punishing perfectionism — by a form of self-hate — I had lost my enjoyment for what I was doing a long time back in many, or perhaps even most, spheres.
When you’re looking to beat the whole world, as I have been, until recently, competition is everywhere. It can manifest in things as meaningless as being first in line: on foot; at the grocer; at a traffic light. It can be walking faster than other people. (I don’t know why this is a thing for me.) It can be owning a home, objects, or possessions in a bid to compete on the grounds of “taste”. It can be besting competitors for new work; or co-workers for reputation-building within the company. Privately, it can be about getting the most laughs, or most attention, when telling stories. Or becoming the favorite child (more on that shortly). Or sounding smarter. Or looking younger. Or dressing better. Or feeling superior to others, for whatever reason, then judging everything—EVERYTHING—about them, whether or not they have the slightest clue that I am waging a kind of war against them in my head, as I stand on the subway, walk down the street, stand in line, drive, socialize or sit on a Zoom call. I can conjure whole worlds and battles, with or without their knowledge, or participation.
Life is a relentless tidal wave of self-hate when the one thing you don’t do is accept the world as it is, and act within it… in synchronicity.
Perfectionism is a particularly pernicious form of self-hatred. It doesn’t in any way hamper one’s ability to function highly, to be charismatic, or even — ironically — to exhibit perspicacity. This last word is in fact precisely how my coach described me, right before he revealed what stood in the way of my own inner peace.
How ironic to tell someone that insightfulness could be an impediment to self-awareness. But there it was.
We all have blind spots. Some, apparently, are huge.
Inner conflict set in quickly after that. I was confused: I had long felt lucky in life, both inside and out. I had — and continue to — find joy everywhere, at home, traveling, socializing, creating; with family, friends and when alone. I’ve had innumerable experiences, large and small, that left me feeling joy — not false joy, filling the void; true, in-my-bones joy.
We all have, I think. Some of us—many? most?—may not be haunted by demons to the degree that I am. But the point I’m making is that I have also felt true joy, and lightness. So the idea that I somehow hated myself took more than a little getting used to.
With that said, the more I let it sit over the ensuing days, the more I was able to see my coach’s view; and to realize that he was most likely—almost surely—ok, spot-on right.
So when I told him I wanted to learn more on the subject between calls, he told me about the book that I’m now reading, by Dr. Rubin. Already, just three chapters in, it’s incredibly illuminating.
He writes that while self-observation can be useful as a “precursor to constructive criticism and to real growth,” he warns that it also contributes to a “splitting of self” and a “self-consciousness”; and that these things make us that much more dependent on self-hate as a stimulus of guide in living.
Unfortunately, what starts out as benevolent self-protection often, especially in all-too-common adverse circumstances, turns to tyrannical despotism. Standards begin to be imposed which cannot be met. Examinations are constructed which cannot be passed. Self-consciousness and observation turn to self-contempt and to an underlying ever-pervasive sense of self-defeat. Spontaneity and free behavior become confused with impulsiveness and foolishness. In an effort to be safe from punitive aspects of this split-off hater of self, the victim becomes increasingly constricted and circumspect about behavior, feelings and even thinking.”
That is, we don’t even need to act in order to find fault with ourselves.
We just need to think.
Then, he dives into one of the long-term forces that perpetuate self-hate. He introduces the idea that many parents readily and unconsciously foist their own self-hate onto their children. This makes sense. Take a glaring stereotype, for instance: the so-called “tiger mom” driving her child to achieve punishing standards of excellence. When she does this, it is invariably to fill a void that the mother herself feels inside, and which she erroneously — and criminally, in my view — sees in her child the ability to fill, by dint of her association with their accomplishments, and how they reflect on the mother’s “good parenting”.
Dr. Rubin writes:
“Parents who in one way or another way reject the child or any aspect of him or of his natural proclivities are often, without awareness, engaging in the process of hating the actual child, and are producing fertile soil for growth of self-hate.”
“The very young child… largely learns from his parents how to feel about himself.”
A Boy’s Self-Hate Ignites
Well, my own demons are many; and while one parent in particular (we’ll get to him shortly) fits the description Dr. Rubin provides above, I had other contributors, besides him. My brother’s peerless high school record — unmatched for over a century, and oohed and aahed over regularly by teachers and our father alike —soon taught me that anything I did, short of outdoing him, would be met either with tepid non-reaction — certainly not the praise that he received, regularly — or with clearly expressed disappointment. It was not just my father. I recall one teacher in particular — a ninth-grade history professor — who in front of the entire class, after having just returned our graded tests to us — asked me loudly to remain in the room, afterwards. I was momentarily delighted, assuming she wished to congratulate me for scoring 99/100. Not having studied for it, I was particularly pleased.
“I’m disappointed in you, Anthony.” Her words were knives. “I know the family you come from. Your brother would never have missed that last point.”
This was, sadly, more common than uncommon in my experiences.
My brother’s perfect SAT scores and his membership in Mensa — from the age of ten — were bad enough. His admittance to Harvard following 11th grade, a year earlier than most, and his track record while there, graduating with honors, being elected Phi Beta Kappa, then doing it again at Harvard Medical School, where he was not only accepted, but valedictorian of his class, just added to his ‘lead’. He did all this in spite of his having nearly died from a brain tumor during his Freshman year in grad school—one from which he became medical history’s first and only long-term survivor. These things — and so many others — made it torture to grow up as the younger Fieldman.
For twenty years, “Harvard” was the first and last word to fall from our father’s lips, anywhere and everywhere he could find an excuse, especially in public. Waitresses who never asked for it—all of them, in my presence—were forced to stand there and listen at length to stories about his son, the Harvard doctor. He did the same to me when we were alone, regularly, as though I was unaware of his towering accomplishments. My father was, in a very real way, a “Tiger dad”, demanding academic perfection by withholding love — in the form of expressed pride — when our achievements (well, mine, mostly) didn’t reflect well enough on him. If that wasn’t bad enough, things got worse — far worse — when I later went into my father’s profession.
Alas, hindsight is 20/20.
At the age of eighteen, I had no idea yet that my father — his own talents in ample supply — was deeply broken, inside; that he, too, hated himself, largely at the hands of an upbringing he’d never spoken about, but which my mother did, out of earshot. He had always felt, duly, unloved.
A Fork in The Road
When Harvard rejected my high school application, I was forced for the first time to chart my own path, separate from my brother’s. Finally, I thought, this was my chance to get out from under his shadow, and do something against which he would never also be measured. In other words, I could “own” my own space, and the freedom to pursue something more aligned with my authentic artistic passions. Creativity was something I had a natural proclivity toward, and had thus far been the only member of my generation to exhibit any of it.
When I chose architecture, though, I had no idea that I not only wasn’t removing the albatross from my neck, but rather, I was doubling down, by adding one more.
Said another way, I was leaping from the frying pan into the fire, and taking the frying pan with me.
I had no idea at a young age that my father suffered from acute self-hate, and that because it was so all-consuming for him, our relationship would further erode. That’s because by entering “his” profession, I was exposing myself not only to the parental toxicity I felt growing up, but was now a foil to his considerable professional demons, as well.
And to be clear, he was a very successful architect, both qualitatively and economically.
I rose up the corporate ladder quite quickly, spurred by my “need” to achieve perfection, whatever that meant. I amassed awards, seniority, and was entrusted with high profile work. As a result, I expected my father to finally see me favorably—to see what I could do, when he knew intimately how difficult it was to do many of these things, to the degree that I’d managed. After all, here I was taking his profession seriously, and following in his footsteps.
Well, the adulation never came. Not after years and years of investment or accomplishment. Rather than beam with pride for his son, as he did for my brother’s every move, I now know that my father saw me forever more — astoundingly, as competition — a threat — levied against his own skills and talents, and most acutely, his recognition.
For years, whenever I’d show him my work — work that had earned merit in its own right — yearning to hear the kind of support and love that I’d heard some of my friends’ less self-hateful parents lavish upon them, what I got instead was design advice: forceful advice, as though I was working for him, and that he had better ideas. I was told regularly that I should alter my designs — to “fix” them — and if that weren’t enough, he would regularly follow-up to make sure that I’d followed his instructions.
I almost never did, which usually served to make his repeat arguments more forceful. He’d spend tons of energy trying to convince or bully me into doing what he said I should.
Whether or not I did, it hurt deeply, regardless.
What I cannot recall receiving was praise, or even acknowledgment that my work was any good. Not from my father, anyhow. And because a good chunk of my self-hate came from the fact that he had withheld love when I couldn’t outdo my brother in academia, and was now further attempting to redirect my own authentic self in his image as an architect, the problem just grew, over time. So even with a generous amount of success and praise from others, all of that fell on deaf ears. All I saw was the gaping hole.
Even professionally, I had no quarter — no safe space — from my parental onslaught.
Dr. Rubin wrote a passage with which I particularly identified. He said that when parents have little regard for the person that their child truly is—his or her desires, goals and talents—while they “extoll the virtues of a mythic super-being” then the child will learn to hope to be someone else; someone different. He writes that such a child will end up “aiming for impossible goals” all “fraught with failure, frustration and hopelessness;” and that they will use self-hate as “punishment for failure, and as a goad to whip him on to further journeys away from his actual self.”
Sounds about right.
With all of that said, while my brother, our shared teachers and our father may have set my self-hate in motion, it is not to say that they were to blame, per se, or that they acted with malice—with intent on hurting me. They are not bad people. My brother, in fact, was a gentle and kind soul. Sadly, I can’t discuss this with him, because he died 16 years ago. He’d have loved this line of self-reflection, It was catnip for both of us, thanks to our mom. The teachers, no doubt, believed they were encouraging success; while our father was blind to his own blindness, and pain. He couldn’t do anything differently, if he tried. With that said, I’m not yet ready to discuss this with my him, because I’m doubtful at this point that he’d be able or willing to hear it. Whether or not I change my mind down the road, there is still plenty of work I can do in the meantime.
A Silver Lining
Fortunately — and there is a thick silver lining here — my inner self never quite gave up. In fact, apart from chasing phantom perfection everywhere, demanding that my work, those around me and even my physical environment bend to my iron will [I’m shaking my head here just thinking about this], I never fully gave in to the idea that I wasn’t good enough. Somewhere deep down, sequestered though it was in its psychological prison, I was an optimist, full of life and wonder.
I’ve always been that way; but it only surfaced when life didn’t conspire to trigger my self-hate.
I can thank my mother for that. While she carried her own baggage, she was the polar opposite to my father. She praised everything. For her, everything we did was not only good enough, but worth acknowledging. Even more empowering, she taught both my brother and me how to look inward: to understand the signs and meaning of our own thoughts and body language, and to the underlying drivers of our behaviors. These skills would prove critical later in life, when I was finally primed to hear and act on those early lessons.
I had simply never heard about self-hate or of any of its manifestations, growing up. It wasn’t in our language, back then. Regardless, our mother empowered us, endowing us both with the equipment to self-reflect, to articulate what it was we felt inside, and to engender what I believe to be considerable self-awareness.
Somewhere inside, part of me understood implicitly when my actions were at odds with my feelings; so while I did hurt others, often and considerably, it was never my intention to do so.
I simply couldn’t stop myself from acting on my self-hate.
The truth is, I like people. A lot. Regardless, I have had a number of things get in the way of many—but not all—of my relationships, for as long as I can remember; to prevent me from acting “on the better angels of my nature”.
Fortunately, my self-hate never turned into “abject, chronic resignation — a true withdrawal from life,” as Dr. Rubin describes, in his book.
Sadly, many people suffer from exactly that: total capitulation — having given up, and no longer able to function, normally. He calls this the true tragedy. He says aggression, at least, shows that we are still trying. He regales us with story after story about patients over whom early life trauma — because that’s what it is — overtakes their lives entirely. One of my very closest friends fits the description of someone whose self-hate has stalled his life cold. For years, he and I have revisited the same topic, ad nauseum, without any of it really moving the needle much, for him. Over time, his capitulation has deepened. His self-hate has, by the age of fifty, turned into near-total resignation.
It breaks my heart.
I believe mine is manageable. I have chipped away at my own demons, working diligently for years to overcome things that I had little control over, as a child, even though I didn’t realize what caused it to be, until just recently. I’ve made considerable progress using the tools our mother provided to us; as well as with alternative methods of self-discovery, like mediation, psychedelic therapies, and deep dives into books about the paradigms of self, by some incredibly wise authors.
Still, this most recent “twin” insight — both the fact that my self-hate exists (no matter how vehemently I denied it at first), and the dawning knowledge of what conspired to incubate it, in the first place — are wildly illuminating. In fact, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since the moment my coach uttered the words. It’s as though a light bulb switched on. Or, to use another metaphor, it’s like trying on a pair of eyeglasses, realizing they fit beautifully, and that they bring everything into sharper focus, thus changing everything you see in the process.
Already, emotionally, things have shifted, for the better. Naming my self-hate for what it is has shined a light on it. I now watch for it, and upon seeing it bubble up, I can often slow my heartbeat and calm my sympathetic nervous system, thanks to a solid meditation practice. Moreover, by observing my own emotions once triggered, I have had successes with holding entrenched behaviors at bay, long enough to put some space between us and allow me to reframe them in more empowering terms.
In addition, forcing myself to focus on gratitude, rather than the criticism I learned from my father, I can often coax myself back from the brink before causing damage to myself or others. And at my wife’s suggestion, I am now keeping a journal, in addition to my usual writing. The journal gets to hear everything I think; all of my observations. The act of reframing negatives (critiques) into positives (praise) authentically, just by shifting my focus, is powerful. To force oneself to see goodness in both the self and others, rather than faults, is the human equivalent of a half-full glass. I am retraining myself to see the water that’s there, not the stuff that’s missing.
Just two days ago, I wrote a piece called Now Nurture Shapes Nature about the power of words to bring about not just emotional health, but it appears, also epigenetic change, in those who focus on empowering self-narratives. Luminaries like William James — the Father of American psychology—and Marcus Aurelius—the emperor-turned-Stoic-philosopher whose musings, Meditations, is one of the most enduring treatises ever written on the human mind—knew this. They understood the capacity for words to move mountains, for good or for bad; and to advise us to think powerfully, so that we might benefit from the outcomes of doing so.
Already, my coach’s insight is manifesting in better dreams. On October 18th this year — just a month ago — I wrote in Beyond the Human Cage that I’d been haunted by nightmarish sleep for as long as I could recall, and that only recently did it stop. Or, more accurately, the outcomes of dreams have changed in my favor. I haven’t been trapped by the demons that visited me at night for decades. In fact, in the past month, I haven’t once had a bad dream. The last time I could boast that, my age had only one digit.
This is due, I believe, to a combination of things. Certainly, the work I’ve been doing—reading, reflecting, meditating and experimenting—has been powerful. In addition, the connective thread between the awareness that I suffer from self-hate and the work I’m doing to deal with it directly has allowed me to leverage one toward vanquishing the other. Set in motion by my coach, and deepened with Dr. Rubin’s book, to lend twin focus to all the work I’d done beforehand, I am now in the process of fully uncovering what conspired to pollute my authentic self in the first place.
Lastly, I now know of other sources that have fed my self-hate, in childhood, socially; but we can leave discussion of those for another day.
The good news is that I am once again at the start of a new journey. This one promises to bring me closer to equilibrium and self-love than I ever have been. Certainly, it already feels that way.
And while it’s not easy to share these things in a public forum for others to read and perhaps judge, I’m less concerned about others’ scrutiny and verdicts, these days, than in exploring the self, in service of long-term healing. More to the point, the impetus to share these thoughts publicly is that part of my “actual self” is someone deeply interested in exchanging discoveries and insights with others, in the service of our collective healing, and growth.
Said another way, my true self doesn’t want to beat others, it wants to connect with them, and leverage our respective insights to reach higher, together.
Certainly, in the past, my behaviors have often had the opposite effect. I’m well aware of that. Destructive behaviors are what landed me an executive coach, to begin with. I’ve hurt many others, over the years — personally and professionally — in my bid to control the world. My self-hate is what has led me to measure others by the punishing yardstick I used chiefly on myself, 24/7, for all these years.
But actions are not to be confused with intentions; and my true self cares profoundly for others. This journey can only hope to close the gaps my self-hate has created, bringing my actions into alignment with the inner kindness that preceded it, before my heart clouded over.
I am excited for what lies around the corner.
I’ve no idea where this particular path will lead.
I just know it’s going to be amazing.