What should I do if I hate myself?
We all have moments when we struggle but for some people these moments can trigger self hatred, anxiety or depression in what may seem to others to be a disproportionate response. You might even wonder yourself ‘how did I get from missing the bus to feeling like a failure’ being passed up for a date and concluding that nobody will ever love you and you’ll die alone or reaching out to someone and being rejected and wondering why everyone hates you. To some people it can seem like a confusing leap, to others it might feel sadly inevitable. Negative self talk can lead to self harm, suicidal feelings, procrastination, confusion, shame and a general feeling that we’re losing it and aren’t ok.
In highly emotional states the parts of our brain that are involved in thinking and feeling don’t function very well. For some people feeling stupid, making a mistake or being rejected can be so difficult that it triggers an overwhelming response. From the outside it might look disproportionate and you might hear unhelpful comments like ‘don’t be silly’, ‘it was only a joke’ or ‘why are you making such a fuss’. Worse still you might not understand why you are reacting so strongly which can compound the idea of not being ok.
Dan Siegel coined the phrase ‘window of tolerance’ which describes the window in which we feel ok and therefore have access to the thinking parts of our brain. In very emotional states such as when we feel like we hate ourselves we may be hyper aroused (over activated such as anxious, agitated, angry or jittery) or hypo aroused (under activated such as depressed, numb, spacey or frozen). In either of these states, no thinking or processing can be done. The first priority therefore is to get back to the window of tolerance. You can also use anything else that is safe and calming to you (please note that whilst eating, drinking, smoking or other addictive behaviours can feel like we are calming ourselves down they are often part of the problem).
So what we should do when we find ourselves stuck in a horrible place? We might feel useless, worthless, pointless like nothing will change. Like we’re stuck in a hole with no ladder. It can feel hopeless and you might not believe that there is hope. But there is hope and I know because I’ve been there. It can get better.
You’ve probably heard people saying ‘breathe' or ‘take a deep breath’ but you might not have understood why or maybe felt like it didn’t help you. Slowing down and deepening the breath activates what is called the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the ‘rest and digest’ system because it allows us to calm down and relax. We don’t have control over many functions in our body because they are autonomic (self governing) but we do have control over our breathing. That means that we are able to change our breathing and if we can, it triggers the feeling of being relaxed. This is going to be something that you will need to practice, so don’t panic if you can’t do it straight away. Try slowing down your breath and breathing by inflating and deflating your stomach and not your chest. Any slow breathing will do, or you can google ‘diaphragmatic breathing’. Simply inhaling to the count of 4 whilst pushing out your stomach and exhaling to the count of 4 while your stomach deflates will slow down your breathing.
Try grounding or being present
Grounding is about knowing where you are; which location, which time. In times of high emotional distress, people often feel scattered or ‘like their brain’ and body are disconnected’ (which can be a type of dissociation). Sometimes people may not be able to tell the difference between a memory and a current event and it can feel very scary and disorienting. You are therefore trying to connect your body and your brain back together, to get yourself back into your window of tolerance and to let your brain know that you are in safety (assuming that is true). Feeling unsafe is not the same as being unsafe and for many people feeling unsafe is not a reflection of what is happening to them ‘right here, right now’. We are therefore trying to get the brain to acknowledge that we are safe in the here and now. You can google for grounding exercises but a simple one is to pick a colour and look for five things of this colour. This aims to reconnect your brain with your surroundings and help you to come ‘back to your body’ and the present time.
Reach out for help
If you are struggling to calm down by yourself then ask for help. If you have someone that cares about you who can help this would be ideal. You may want to talk to them about what kind of help you might need when you’re in a highly emotional state before it occurs (if this is possible). Many people will try to talk you out of it by telling you that you are ok or rationalising. The problem is that if you are outside of your window of tolerance (see above) you won’t be able to understand because the thinking parts of your brain are ‘offline’. You might not even be able to hear them. Therefore being present with you, holding your hand or hugging you if that is appropriate is likely to be more useful until you can calm down enough to get back into your window of tolerance and engage your logic.
If you don’t know what kind of help you might need that’s ok. You can try thinking about what helps you feel safe (or maybe what doesn’t) so that you can provide guidance to anyone helping you. E.g. when I’m upset I don’t like it when people stroke my back but I feel calmer when someone sits next to me.
If you don’t have anyone to help you
If you don’t have a friend or partner available, you might have a pet or a stuffed toy or blanket that is comforting to you. Maybe you feel safer in bed under a duvet or you might find that exercising such as walking or running can be soothing enough to help you reenter your window of tolerance. Try to be gentle with yourself and understand that it takes practice. The brain is plastic which means it can form new neural pathways and learn new ways of doing things. It may take some time but it is possible to find new coping strategies.
If you don’t like asking for help
I know it’s hard and it probably feels embarrassing. You consider it but then you fell better so you tell yourself you’re fine now and it’s not that big of a deal. You might wonder why you find certain situations challenging when other people look like they are breezing through them. You might wonder if there’s something wrong with you. This is all normal. You probably learned somewhere that asking for help meant you didn’t do a good enough job or maybe being independent was praised by the people you grew up around. Add to this all the messages we receive about what ‘being a real man’ means or that we need to be ‘strong women’ and asking for help can feel like we’ve failed. I’ve had many clients tell me ‘but everyone else is doing ok’. I tell them: 1. Not everyone else is doing ok, some people are just better at hiding it than others and 2. Everybody has different resources, if you didn’t grow up learning how to be resilient or perhaps events over your life were hard for you to deal with that’s not your fault.
Do something kind for yourself
If you are able to get back into your window of tolerance, understand that you may still feel fragile or wobbly. In the same way that you wouldn't expect someone who had broken their leg to run a marathon as soon as they’d had their cast removed, try to remove unnecessary stress from your day or build in some breaks and be gentle with yourself. Don’t schedule all your most hated and difficult tasks for the same day. Cut yourself a break and look after yourself.
Forgive yourself for struggling
You don’t need to be perfect, you don’t need to get it right every time. It doesn’t mean you failed or that you won’t be able to do it next time. All skills take time and practice to learn and refine. Forgive yourself if you don’t get it right and give yourself permission to have another go.
The above is an outline for what to do. If you can’t do it or get stuck on one of the steps or can’t calm yourself down you may benefit from professional help. Finding the right person to be alongside you while you figure out how to like yourself makes the journey so much easier. If you would like to talk to me about how I can help, I’d love to hear from you so please get in touch!