When the person who hates you most … is you.

We’ve all probably heard about the 21st century phenomena that is trolling.  Defined as deliberately and provocatively insulting someone online, on public forums or social media sites like Facebook, it is a frequent topic in media reports about the challenges of the internet and apparently around 2000 cases of online trolling are reported to the police each year.  But recently one media article about trolling caught my eye.  It talked about an emerging problem internet experts are calling ‘cyber self harm’ - where young people (predominantly) actually ‘troll’ themselves.  

You can read the report here, along with the brave admissions from people supported by selfharm.co.uk who were willing to talk about their own experience of attacking themselves online.  But what exactly is it within someone that drives them to this kind of extreme manipulation of the opportunity for anonymity offered online?  How do you get to a position where you feel so strongly about yourself that you send yourself abusive messages?  I can only imagine the shock of parents mentioned in the BBC report when a website where bullying messages had been posted that apparently led to the suicide of their daughter claimed she had sent some of them to herself (a claim yet to be confirmed).  

Shocking and apparently incomprehensible though this might appear at first I am all too aware that this symptom of a bubbling and erupting self hatred, growing in spite of attempts to suppress it and threatening to become overwhelming is one I have encountered with several people, young and adult, I have worked with.  I know also that of all the thoughts, beliefs and feelings I have helped people to challenge and overcome, this one tends to be the hardest.  Not just hard to beat, but hard even to face.  The admission that you hate yourself is like a knife wound to your very core.  

Where, why and how do these feelings develop?

So where do these intense feelings of self hatred come from and why do they become so powerful?  Children are essentially what we call ego centric - that is they are unable to see the world from another point of view than their own.  They are literally the centre of their own world.  This means that whatever happens in childhood, children are biased to link it to something to do with them - good or bad.  Children are also very logical and link things very simply in their heads.  So bad things happen because you are naughty, or perhaps you are just bad yourself … Traumatic events in childhood, particularly the devastating blow that abuse can bring can repeatedly confirm and strengthen a belief for a child that they must be the cause.  

But not everyone who hates themselves has been abused.  The development of your adult self esteem - that is the literal concept of yourself that you carry around in your head - is very complex.  The building block are formed in childhood, where information and feedback from significant adults means the young child learns some basic facts about themselves.  Simple things - I am funny, I can make people laugh, I sometimes get cross, I am sometimes naughty - most children grow up with an overall realistic appreciation of who they are.  But some acquire less helpful labels.  We’ve all lost it and called our kids ‘naughty’ before, but if a message like that - you are ‘a naughty boy’ - is consistently and aggressively communicated time and time again, this too becomes part of that baby self esteem. Messages can be subtle, but repeated over time for a child who is like a sponge in the way they soak up the things they learn from adults about the world around them, they can become powerful without meaning to be.  So the child who is ‘just not like her brother’ or who becomes aware that ‘things were easier before he was around’ or knows that ‘its a shame he wasn’t more sporty’ can gradually take on something negative into their self concept.  

In adolescence we then build on this naive self esteem to try to form our adult idea of who we are.  But this is a time when we are bombarded with information about who we are, and more significantly who we should be.  Suddenly it is not the option of your parents which matters, but that of friends, the media and hundreds of other people really matter.  At this stage anything which makes you different can be a bad thing and is a massive challenge to self esteem.  Also anything which means you do not conform to the media ‘ideal’ is very difficult to handle.  Most teenagers navigate all this ‘self confusion’ remarkably well, trying out different versions of themselves almost as if play acting, experiencing different things and gradually learning about who they want to be and think they are.  But if the person you perceive yourself to be is very different to who you think you should be this can cause real problems.  We live in a world where everything feels possible - when air brushing presents a perfection ideal and studies show again and again that it is our teenagers who are most likely to feel bad about themselves as a result. 

And so as self esteem browns the real problem is that each stage builds on the one before.  So if your self esteem is good enough, you start to grow and give new stuff a go and discover more things that you can do, and bit by bit your confidence grows - and each new thing you learn to do boosts your self esteem still more.  But if the foundation was too weak, anxiety and nerves can limit what you can do, and this failure to achieve what you see others doing makes you feel even worse.  It is hard to get out of the cycle of feeling like a failure even if the truth is you are nothing of the kind.  

The struggle to develop a healthy adult self esteem can therefore trigger a lot of painful emotions.  This tends to coincide during adolescence with some changes in how emotions are experienced, as the part of the brain responsible for the more complex social emotions starts to mature and develop.  Teenage emotions are brittle, strong and unpredictable.  Some are very difficult to express and many find that they become generalised as a persistent feeling of ‘bad’ or anger.  If there isn’t anywhere to take these feelings - no one they can be talked over with and nothing positive to do with them, they do not just disappear but must be directed somewhere.  With no outward source to blame the only place to direct these feelings is at yourself. A pattern can develop of blaming yourself for everything that goes wrong - and those suppressed, inward turning emotions build up and bubble, painfully beneath the surface looking for some outlet.  Eventually that frustration turns inward, and a hatred that can feel terrifying in its strength can emerge. Feeling like this very often fuels some form of self harm, and I have heard countless people talk about how they feel they need to ‘punish’ themselves, as well as talking about how harming brings some temporary relief from the emotional pain they are feeling.  

Is there a way out of self hate?

The funny thing about these kind of feelings is that to most people outside of yourself they can seem totally incomprehensible.  I can honestly say that the young people and adults I have worked with who have utterly hated themselves have almost almost all been lovely.   In fact the majority were young people and adults I would be proud to call friends.  And yet, no end of reassurance from friends and family that they were in fact lovely, wonderful, funny, valued friends, fun to be around, loved by God - none of this seems to release them from their own judgement on themselves.  

I have seen only two ways, often connected, to work out of these kind of feelings.  The first is to gradually and gently challenge what you feel and learn why you feel the way you do.  This is about gaining more of an understanding of how your beliefs about yourself formed and daring to look into whether the evidence they formed from was reliable or not.  It is an often terrifying process - after all what if they did turn out to be true!  The beliefs you formed about the way the world works - and about your own place in it - form the core of who you are as an adult, and starting to admit that some may be inaccurate is a huge challenge.  More than that though it is very difficult to question your own beliefs about yourself.  You see yourself in a way you see no one else - bared, all ugly truths revealed.  Additionally of course you interpret yourself from within your own beliefs.  Taking a step back and trying to take a detached perspective on yourself is very hard, but it can be done - often with the help of a good therapist, psychologist or counsellor who will help you.  

The second way is through some kind of revelation from God.  Over the years I have known many people be prayed for again and again for healing from emotional problems and this is one area where I have seen definite spiritual breakthroughs - ‘in a moment’ flashes of understanding which have transformed utterly someone’s understanding of themselves and brought a realisation of how God sees them.  Psalm 119:18 talks about the author asking God to ‘open’ his eyes - the word used here can be translated as unveil or uncover.  In these situations I have experienced it has been this kind of almost literal ‘unveiling’ of a person’s eyes that has occurred.  But this has never happened as a unique stand alone experience.  It has always been as part of a journey that person is on, learning more about who they are, working through difficult feelings and experiences from their past, and seeking to go into the future with a fresh understanding of themselves and their history.  

We must pray, commit, persist and carry love and hope and most of all trust ...

Some who struggle with a hatred of themselves may find it a passing frustration - a temporary challenge of adolescence that resolves once the turmoil of that stage passes.  But for many others it remains a powerful and frightening part of themselves that they may fear to open up or challenge.  We must pray for the courage it takes for these people to start a journey of exploration, commit to walk with them throughout the journey - which may be a long one, persist and not give up when they do not change their mind about themselves within a matter of weeks, carry hope and love for them when they can feel neither for themselves and trust that the God who loves them in a way they cannot currently imagine journeys with them and will one day finish the good work he has started within them. 


Kate Middleton, 13/12/2013
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