What to do when you hate yourself

There was a man who was destitute and desperate. He lived day by day, struggling to survive. His bed was a park bench, but that wasn’t the uncomfortable part of his night. 

This man hated himself. Thoughts of worthlessness tormented his nights. 

One day in the grips of his mental pain – the type take makes you clench your teeth as your jaw forgets whose mouth it is – he thought something different.

“How can I hate myself?”

Can you hate yourself?

This didn’t invite the usual pep talk, which usually involves telling yourself you have worth. This time was different. Instead of arguing with the thoughts, he called their existence into question.

“I am either my thoughts or the person behind those thoughts. I cannot be both. So which am I?”

As humans, we have the unique ability to think about our thinking. Try it. Picture a red ball. Now, stop for a moment. How do you know that you’re thinking about a red ball?

Because of you – the observer.

There you are, behind the thought of a red ball. You can watch it, think about it, judge it.

You are not your thoughts; you are the observer behind them.

The man continued to press. 

“I am not my thoughts, but the constant observer of these thoughts.”

“I cannot hate myself. I can only have thoughts, which are about hating myself.”

You are not your thoughts

When you hate yourself, this is only a thought. As the observer, you are not and cannot be your thoughts. You can generate thoughts, and thoughts can generate themselves. But you are never these thoughts. What you can do, however, is endorse and associate with your thoughts.

Without understanding that you are the omnipotent observer behind your thoughts, you can easily become attached to them. The thoughts become your identity.

Our greatest power is creating space between us and our thoughts. From there, we have the power to see thoughts in context and take control.

Some thoughts are pleasant, some painful. Some thoughts are helpful, some a hindrance. When you create space between yourself and your thoughts, all thoughts become the same – a piece of information you, the observer, must decide what to do about. 

You don’t hate yourself. You have an undesirable thought.

The thought is no different to the red ball. Do not let “I” confuse who you are. You are the observer behind the thought – not the thought.

Thinking is a tool of your mind. Do not let your thoughts deceive you into forgetting who you are. You are not your thoughts; you are the person behind them. 

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.

The Usual Suspect (film), adapted from Charles Baudelaire.

What can you do

  • Create space – As the observer, separate yourself from the thought.
  • Use context – Don’t be deceived; this thought is not special. It is no different to any other and merely a piece of information you must decide what to do with. 
  • Action – Should you take action? Knowing when to take action is a skill honed with time. Realise that some thoughts are useful to engage with and some are not. Hating yourself is a useless thought. Trying to prove otherwise only communicates that the thought is important. Likewise, ignoring it also tags the thought as important. Ignoring the thought tells the mind that it is dangerous. The thought will grow in power and command more fear. 
  • Take action – If it is appropriate to take action, then do so and move on to acceptance. If action is not appropriate, then move straight to acceptance. 
  • Acceptance – Completely accept your thought. Acknowledge and embrace the thought without avoidance or judgement. Make space for it, and let it dance as it pleases.
  • Move on – Watch the thought dance its dance. In the meantime, shift your attention to where it would be if you did not have this thought. In time, it will dance itself out. But accept it as if it were there to dance forever.

When you’re in doubt, think of the serenity prayer. You don’t need to be religious to apply its wisdom.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Niebuhr
Published in Psychology, Self Improvement, Stories
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