The safety of self-hatred
It is a long, hard winter of therapy. We are trudging through snow and each session is bleak and effortful. The warmth between us has given way to suspicion and a simmering resentment. We feel stuck in drifts. There’s no movement. And it’s miserable.
‘What are we going to do to move forwards?’ asks the therapist at the beginning of the session. I feel mild animosity that she’s taken the lead, and I want to find fault and complain that it’s my session and that I should be allowed to lead it. But also part of me is relieved that she’s vocalised what I’ve been feeling. I haven’t had words for the stretched-out tension in my tummy. And she’s right: we really are stuck and we really do need to move forwards.
I sulk only momentarily. I chance a furtive glance at her and then look away, frowning, displeased. This is my dysfunctional, ambivalent behaviour: it says, ‘I want you to know that I want to engage with you, but I also want you to know that I’m not happy with you, so I’m not going to make it easy.’
I grump a bit longer. Then I sigh. And some of the tension escapes with it and suddenly there’s space for words.
‘I don’t know.’
I do know, or at least I do know a little bit but I need to say something so that I don’t forget how to speak and the silence doesn’t deafen me.
‘I … I …’
Suddenly I’m irritated with myself and I want the connection back again.
‘I want to move forwards … I don’t know why we’re stuck … I guess … I guess …’ Shall I say it? I know it’ll sound stupid. I beat myself up a little in advance of my mortification. ‘I guess I don’t feel safe any more.’
She raises an eyebrow, seemingly a little surprised. Sudden shame, because I got it wrong. I didn’t mean to surprise her. I thought she knew that’s how I felt. I constantly forget that she can’t mindread me.
‘Go on?’ she prods.
Another self-irritated sigh, and then the words leak out.
‘Nothing feels safe. I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel you’re safe. I can’t trust you. I want to trust you, but I can’t trust you. I don’t know who you are. I can’t remember you. I think you hate me …’
I trail off, embarrassed. I expect her to scold me for thinking and feeling the wrong things. Instead – of course! – her face smiles softly. I notice it, even though I’m not looking at her, and it hurts. I hate that softness. I want to be told off. I feel safer being hated and hurt. The softness is jarring. It contradicts my core beliefs about what other people are like, and how I deserve to be treated.
‘Go on …’
I shrug helplessly because the words have dried up and suddenly I feel like I’ve stepped partway into Narnia, into a deep place of unreality in my head. Part of me is with her in the room. Part of me is somewhere else. I’m not sure which world to choose. I’m not sure if I can choose.
We’re stuck because I’m perpetually in danger mode, convinced of her hatred of me. We’re stuck because I don’t feel safe enough to ‘do’ relationship with her. We’re stuck because I can’t see the therapist as who she really is, but only through the filter of previous attachment figures; and all I experience from her is threatening, sneering disgust. We’re stuck because we were right on the cusp of a major shift in my acceptance of the reality of my trauma, and it felt way too scary, and I panicked. We’re stuck because I don’t know if I’m up to it: I don’t know if I can be any different to the way I’ve always been. We’re stuck because self-hatred just washes over me like a waterfall after heavy rain. We’re stuck because stuck feels safe.
‘We’re stuck,’ I venture – all these thoughts having meandered through my head in the silence between us – ‘We’re stuck because stuck feels safe.’
Softness again. Ugh.
‘What feels safe about it?’
A spurt of irritation internally. What a stupid question: like asking what’s blue about blue. Then shame. Because evidently I’m so defective that I’d rather be stuck and safe than risk being free. I despise myself, and my face must contort with my self-disgust, because she notices it and asks what’s happening.
‘Nothing,’ I reply, surlily.
‘Yes there is,’ and there’s the softness again, coaxing me, saying to me, I won’t hurt you; I won’t judge you; I won’t think badly of you. And oh it’s so tempting to believe it, to lean right into it. But it also feels like a trick, because surely I don’t deserve softness, do I? I’m torn.
The wave of self-disgust manifests in nausea and I want to retch my guts up to be rid of myself. She prods again, and instead of vomit out come my words.
‘I hate being like this,’ I whine. ‘I hate hating myself. But everything I do, I hate myself for it. I hate being stuck. I hate wanting to stay stuck. I hate feeling unsafe. I hate the fact that I won’t do anything to feel safe. I hate being me.’
Suddenly I realise that I don’t hate her. I hate me.
She allows the words to sting the walls and she remains soft and compassionate. I don’t know how she does it. I expect her to strangle me, for sheer aversion to rise from within her and throttle me to death. It’s what I think I deserve, right at that moment. But of course she doesn’t. She just remains comforting and warm, like a human blanket.
‘And how is that helping you, to hate yourself like that?’
There is no hint of accusation in her voice, even though I desperately try to find it. There’s no hint of sarcasm, or judgement, or contempt. I feel like I’m testing her a thousand times, in everything she says, the way she breathes, the un-tension in her body, the muscles around her mouth. And she keeps passing the test and proving her safeness. But I don’t want to admit this to her, let alone to myself.
What does she mean by her question? How is self-hatred helping me?
As I realise that it’s a genuine question, unmarred by cynicism, it surprises me. How could self-hatred be helping me? She’s serious. She’s not telling me off for hating myself. She’s not even asking me to stop it, to change. She’s asking me to notice it and to be curious about it. She’s assuming that this self-loathing is there for a reason, and that it’s a good reason.
I’m startled and a little disoriented. I force my brain to think even though it’s tempting me to let go, to allow the numbness of dissociation to creep over me. I make a deal with myself that I’ll try to answer the question, I’ll try to engage, but increasingly I’m wanting to opt out.
‘How is hating myself helping me?’ I repeat and I turn the words over in my head because I still can’t comprehend them.
‘There’s usually a good reason for everything you do,’ she says, tethering me to her, helping me to resist the temptation to zone out. ’When you hate yourself like this, what’s it achieving? What’s its purpose and function?’
I don’t know what I’m going to say until I’ve said it, but suddenly the words belch out from within. It doesn’t feel like it’s me talking.
‘It keeps me safe,’ I explain. ‘If I hate me, then I’m ready. I’m ready for you hating me. I won’t be taken by surprise. It feels safe. It feels comfortable. It’s the way it’s always been. It stops me getting angry. I don’t want to be angry. I don’t trust myself – what I’d do if I were angry. If I were really, really angry. And I would be angry, if I didn’t blame myself. I’d be angry with the people who hurt me. I’d be furious, bloody furious. And I’m scared of being angry like that, scared of what I’d do, who I’d become. So if I blame myself … if I hate myself … if I think of it as all my fault, then it keeps me safe. It stops me being angry.’
The blood is pulsing in my neck and suddenly I feel alert, as if I’ve stepped into bright sunshine.
‘If I hate myself, I can’t be disappointed with myself. I can’t let myself down. I’m so scared … I’m so scared of having to admit that I’m a thoroughly despicable person, that I deserved what happened to me … so it’s like … instead of going through the shame of a trial, I just plead guilty and put myself in prison. Because I can’t bear to hear the evidence. I don’t want to risk the death penalty. I don’t want to have to go there.
‘I hate myself because everyone else has always hated me.’ I know this isn’t true, but right now it feels true, and that’s enough. ‘It’s this thing … you look at your mother and what you want to see is softness …’ – I’m aware of the word I’m using, and my mental image for what I mean by it is staring right back at me – ‘… but what you see instead is hatred. It’s in the eyes. Just cold and despising and full of contempt. Like there’s nothing in the world that she hates as much as she hates me. It’s awful …’
Suddenly I don’t know if I can tolerate this feeling, and a fuzzy cloud starts to descend from the top of my skull and everything in me wants to drift away with it. But I also know that I can fight it, and that if I stay present it will be worth it. I lean imperceptibly towards the therapist, to cling to her empathic presence, rather than retreating within myself. It’s taken a long time to develop ‘approach’ rather than ‘avoid’, and I’m pleased with myself for doing it.
The fog dissipates and the words flurry out of me again like a snowstorm.
‘It’s like … that’s who I am. I am someone who is hated. That’s what I think, when I think of my mother. She created me. She made me. And it’s like she’s declared that I’m hateable. That’s who I am.’
I’m squirming now under the pain of it, and something else is forcing its way through my chest as well. Something like grief, but it’s got mushy edges and it feels like it will suffocate me.
‘But it’s not who I am!’ I cry, pushing back from the cloistering emotion rising up along my breastbone. Indignation is dripping from every word. ‘It’s not fair that I’m hated. It’s not fair!’
‘No,’ she says sombrely, and with more compassion than I think I can bear. ‘It’s not fair. And it’s not true. You’re not hateable.’
But then I’m caught again, because what she’s saying is so alluring, and I so want to believe it, that panic rushes through me. My fingers tingle with it and there’s no room suddenly in my lungs for air.
‘No, I can’t believe that! It’s not safe!’ and I’ve got no words to say why, but it feels like a law of the universe. Just as I believe in gravity without being able to explain it, so I believe in the dangerousness of not being ‘bad’.
We sit awkwardly for a few moments. Inside, I’m willing her to perform a Jedi mind-trick on me so that I can believe her and be done with it. I want her to make it all alright. I don’t want to exert my will. I want to be rescued.
I feel exhausted and slightly disgusted by my outburst, especially as the rescue doesn’t materialise.
My mind races ahead, anticipating what she’ll say next. I feel I need to do this, to block off her next ‘attack’. Always predicting, always planning, always trying to secure an advantage in every relational encounter. And always operating from a false basis that people are out to hurt me.
But she doesn’t say anything. She just sits softly. It’s as if she’s breathing out waves of compassion and gentleness and willing me to absorb them. For all I know, she might be planning her dinner. But I’m confused because she’s not acting as I’ve anticipated. Once again she is surprising my unconscious.
At last she speaks. ‘How about we just breathe through that sense of unsafety, rather than trying to dismantle it?’
‘Dismantle’ is an apt word, because the self-hatred feels like a fortified castle: mechanical, metal, all bolts and latches and ramparts and rust. And so it feels impossible to dismantle. Again, I’m surprised. There’s a soft squidginess to ‘breathing through it’. It feels organic and human. It hadn’t occurred to me.
I don’t really know what she means, but my guts glow warm at the thought of it. I nod. We’ve done this kind of thing before, and although I’ve never been convinced that we’ve done anything other than waste time in whooshy, companionable silence, I’ve also learned that if I want a different outcome, I need to try a different method.
‘Hating yourself feels safe,’ she says. ‘So you’re trying to protect yourself. That’s a good thing. Let’s not fight it. Let’s just imagine for a moment that you don’t hate yourself …’ – she pauses, because she sees me bristle and tighten – ‘… and let’s just relax your body as you imagine yourself not hating yourself but still being safe.’
I’m not quite sure how long we do this exercise for. What matters is that I don’t resist. What matters is that it helps me stand back for a moment and notice that this feeling of unsafety is just a feeling. What matters is that I don’t drift off anywhere in my head. What matters is that I stay relationally connected. What matters is that I conquer the panic at trying something new. What matters is that, just for a moment, I don’t berate myself.
Increasingly, this is what we do. We focus on calming the body down when it rises to alarm and action, when it floods with a feeling. We don’t argue with the mind. We just soften the body. It works because her body is soft. Her gentleness anchors me. I feel safe with her even while I feel unsafe within myself.
I can only tolerate it for a couple of minutes, but I know that something small has shifted, and partly only because I didn’t argue back. We return to the familiarity of words.
‘I guess it feels safer to hate myself,’ I ponder, ‘but that’s an illusion. It’s just controlling a feeling with a belief. I’m trying to help myself, and it does help in the short term, but it doesn’t improve anything in the long term, does it?’
‘No,’ she says. ‘You’re just perpetuating the abuse.’
‘And I can’t recover from abuse if I’m still being abused …’ I become thoughtful about this, because although we’ve fiddled around with this idea for months now, I still struggle to grasp its seminal truth. It is hidden in the ground and has yet to germinate.
But all of a sudden I see the self-hatred as a strategy rather than a reality. It’s like I’ve somehow taken two steps back from the montage that is my ‘internal working model’, the collation of beliefs and predictions about the world forged in me since the very first day of my life, and I can see it for what it is. Hating myself doesn’t make me safe. It just perpetuates the abuse. Ugh.
I don’t quite know how these epiphanies occur, just that they are happening with increasing regularity in therapy, and that resisting the dissociative fog is key to it. When I allow myself to drift, I don’t see things. It feels safer and numbs away painful feelings, but I don’t have these moments of insight either. The more I’m staying present, the more often the aha moments come.
‘Self-hatred has been a survival strategy,’ I say. I know I’ll need to write this session up later, to reinforce the insight. ‘It’s provided the brakes on my anger. It’s felt familiar and safe. It’s maintained the status quo in my head, the sense that this is the way the world is. Stepping out of it feels scary. I don’t know what life is like without self-hatred. And I react automatically to new things as if they’re dangerous because that’s how my brain is wired after trauma. It anticipates that new things will most likely be bad things and so sets off an alarm if I even toy with a new belief or a new experience. So the first thing to do when that happens is to breathe through it, and calm down my panic response. Because then I might be able to see things in a different way.’
‘Good summary,’ she says and I feel like a nine year old being given a sticker. For once I don’t sneer at myself, but allow myself to enjoy the deep ripple of feeling.
At one level, I don’t feel we’ve achieved anything at all this session. It all seems so nebulous. But at another level, it was as if I stepped momentarily outside The Matrix. I realised that my beliefs were a scam. They weren’t representations of truth. They were convenient lies to myself. That revelation feels, at least for now, life-changing – as if I’ve sneaked a raw, brutal glimpse into someone’s journal and it has blown my preconceptions about them. Except the journal is my own.
But I don’t know what to do with this knowledge. The habit of self-hatred is so ingrained that I don’t know how to change it.
‘How do I stop hating myself?’ I ask, and there’s something almost plaintive about my request, and again I feel little and vulnerable.
She pauses, like she’s pondering whether her usual tactic of asking me to answer my own question is the right one for this moment. It evidently isn’t.
‘Don’t force it,’ she says, and I wasn’t expecting that. I defaulted again to anticipating battle and struggle and harsh self-punishment to ‘make’ myself ‘get it’.
‘Just notice it to start with,’ she suggests. ‘Begin to notice your self-talk. Begin to notice every time you feel that rush of self-loathing. And just breathe your way through it. Don’t try to change it. Just focus on calming down your reaction to it, soothing the emotion of it, and speaking compassionately to yourself.’
It’s all a new concept, but I also know exactly what she means, because she’s been modelling it to me for years. What she’s really saying is, ‘When it happens, be towards yourself as I am towards you.’ And again, knowing this, there’s a comforting warmth on the inside of me, like a nip of brandy.
We end the session and I realise that we’ve moved forwards. We’re not stuck any more. Maybe we weren’t anyway. But the hatred that I was feeling for myself is no longer directed at the therapist. We have thawed.
‘It’s like you don’t fight other people because of them. You fight them because you’re fighting yourself,’ I say, and only too late do I realise that I’m not making sense because she hasn’t heard my internal train of thought. But she’s used to this, too, and I leave with an urgent need to capture my progress in journalling, and a rare sense that a week is not so long to wait until I see her again, because there’s so much to absorb in the meantime.
‘See you next week,’ I say, and for the first time in a long time it’s me who’s smiling softly.