Disgust, Contempt, and Self-Hate – May 2013
“I’m so stupid, I’m so stupid,” is the chant that most often accompanied me in my waking hours before my healing finally caught up with my internal voice of self-condemnation (for the sake of transparency, ashamed though I am to admit it, this happened over the last 12 months, prompted by some deepening understanding about shame and self-judgment). It had taken multiple years of journeying for me to begin to have curiosity about this voice. As I began to listen to the voice more closely, I caught the hope for relief, for surcease of pain, in the tonal quality of the chant. How could that be? This curiosity arrived simultaneously with an expanding understanding that my self-contempt was such an uninterrupted flow within me that it was invisible to me, almost indistinguishable from my being. I could feel the shame clearly, but I could not feel its precursors, self-hate, self-contempt, and a kind of inner panic that was longing to have some sense of being on solid ground in this life.
As I slowed the chant down, and began to explore what happened immediately before I started to say the magic words over and over again, I found that my thoughts had strayed into flashbacks of shame-ridden experiences, with the accompanying feelings of self-recrimination, regret and pain about the past. I was surprised to find that by saying, “I’m so stupid,” I was hoping to stop the excruciating self-blame with my admission of culpability. If I took responsibility and admitted my worthlessness, maybe the merciless replay of pain would cease.
We take in the brains with which we are most closely connected, as if they were our own. If the people who are supposed to love us the most, (our parents, our intimate partners) see either us or themselves with disgust, contempt or hate, then we experience these emotions right along with them. We go for the same ride. And we take in that pattern of attempted self-regulation by shaming ourselves. We make it our own.
As we begin to heal, we start to shift and challenge these entrenched and painful replays – not by making them wrong, but by holding all the voices within us with open, generous curiosity. As we gradually develop warmth for self, and start to carry our resonating self-witness with us for more and more of our waking hours, we hear “I’m so stupid,” and we might guess for ourselves, “Are you feeling anxious and trying to take care of me? Are you wanting to stop the voices of pain?” And then we turn to the voices of pain: “Are you worried that I have left a swath of destruction behind me? Are you longing for repair, for a way to rewrite time, and to never do anything like this again? Do you have an inhuman expectation of perfection and grace and social fluidity that you are measuring me against? Do you love the beauty of hitting the exact right note with everyone you interact with? Do you just want me to utterly, irrevocably belong to the race of humans and have the best chance possible of being loved and accepted?”
The feelings and needs will differ for each of us as we start to listen to these voices, but each of us will find within us the inhuman voice of judgment, the merciless voice of the left hemisphere, with its absolute incapacity for expansiveness, generosity, warmth and understanding. Start to listen to it within you, and invite yourself, just for this moment, to take it a little less seriously. We will never win the love of our inhuman selves, but all of us have the capacity to gradually bring our right prefrontal cortex into relationship to hold ourselves with tiny tendrils of openness, self-compassion and small moments of delight, building and building over the years left to us, to make our lives more meaningful, ease-ful, and satisfying.