Self-hatred is the hidden underbelly of all the violence and nastiness in the world.
Self-hatred may seem like too strong a word to some. "I have a little self-doubt," you may say, "but I don't hate myself." Yet if you doubt, judge, or criticize yourself at all, this indicates some dislike or aversion toward yourself as you are. Or if you have a hard time spending time alone, undistracted by work, phone calls, television, computers, or other forms of busyness that pull your attention away from yourself, this suggests that you don't like being with yourself that much.
Whether you have a mild or an extreme case of self-hatred, it affects how you feel inside and how you experience your life every hour of every single day. It influences the thoughts you have, the choices you make, the actions you take, the lovers you select, and the relationships you create. In our culture self-hatred is epidemic, infecting almost everyone to some degree, even those who manage to conceal it under a veneer of success or looking good.
Self-hatred also fuels grievance and violence against others in a fairly predictable way: We try to transfer our own bad feelings onto other people as a way to not feel so bad ourselves. While this takes an especially grisly form in public displays of scapegoating and warfare, the same dynamic operates to some extent in most human relationships.
Where Self-Hatred Hides in Our Relationships
Discharging aggression on others is a classic way of trying to alleviate the shame or self-hatred that relationship conflicts often trigger. It could be something as simple as a wife making a sharp remark about her husband driving too fast. If he hears this as blame, it may trigger his inner critic. Then, to defend against feeling like the bad self, he makes her into the bad other instead. He counterattacks, blaming her for nagging him. Now she feels like the bad self, and to ward off her own critic she in turn tries to make him the bad other: "Why are you always so defensive?" And he retorts: "Why are you always so critical?"
This is what couples do all the time—tossing the sense of badness back and forth like a hot potato. No wonder marriage partners become so invested in being right, even if it destroys their connection. Being right is a way of trying to deflect the critic's attack, with its crippling self-hatred and shame. It is always very sad to see two people who love each other going at each other this way.
One of the shortcomings of conventional religion is that it often speaks in the voice of the critic, blaming people for their sins and unworthiness. Instead of castigating people for their faults, it would be far more compassionate and skillful to help people see how the so-called deadly sins are all symptoms of not knowing that they're loved.
Greed, for example, grows out of an inner sense of hunger, "I don't have enough,” under which lies an even deeper sense of “I’m not enough." Yet what is this inner poverty that we try to relieve through consuming and possessing, if not the emptiness of feeling cut off from love? Fire-and-brimstone moralists would have us believe that greed is proof of our sinfulness. But perhaps greed is only as compelling as it is because it promises to relieve our deprivation, yet without ever delivering the real goods, thus leaving us ever more prey to our hunger, which only the food of love can truly satisfy.
Likewise, jealousy only arises out of lack of confidence in being loved: Somehow life is loving others more than us. Similarly, self-centeredness, arrogance, and pride are attempts to make ourselves important or special, to make up for a lack of genuine self-love. Egocentricity is a way of trying to make the world revolve around "me," to compensate for an underlying fear that I don't really matter much at all. If we felt loved, of course, it would never occur to us that we didn't matter.
Self-Hatred on the World Stage
What drives people to seek power over others? Why would anyone want to spend their short, precious life pursuing the chimera of empire-building or world domination? What's the thrill in that? Power over others is a way of trying to prove that I am somebody, to force others to look up to me: "I'll get you to respect me one way or another, even if it means torturing or killing you." If I can show you I'm really somebody—the chief honcho, the dictator, the world conqueror, the filthy rich magnate—then you will have to look up to me, and then maybe I can feel good about myself. But if I felt held in love, there would be no reason to try to set myself above you.
Behind all the evils of the world is the pain of a wounded, disconnected heart. We behave badly because we hurt inside. And we hurt because our basic nature is wide open and tender to begin with. Thus all the ugliness in the world can be traced back to turning away from our raw and beautiful heart.
When we recognize this—that the sins of the world are but symptoms of the universal wound— we can understand the words of the French spiritual teacher Arnaud Desjardins when he writes: "There are no bad people (including Stalin and Hitler, who were responsible for the deaths of millions)—only badly loved people." Here the root of all evil is laid bare: There are no bad people, only badly loved people. If Stalin, Hitler, or Osama bin Laden experienced themselves as loved and lovable, what motivation would they have to kill? Feeling love circulating through you makes you want to celebrate and nurture life, not destroy it.
Of course, dictators like Stalin or Hitler don't realize what is driving them because they have buried the pain of their wounding underneath many layers of grievance, hardening, and self-aggrandizement. No doubt it would take many years of psychotherapy to unpack the ways that they are bruised, badly loved souls in need of tender, loving care.
Love Is the Answer
"If Stalin had been truly loved," as Desjardins points out, "he would not have killed twenty million people." The same holds true for humanity as a whole. Imagine for a moment humanity as an individual. If this fellow called Humanity knew himself as truly lovable, as a wondrous being whose essential nature was to bring luminous love and wisdom into this world, would he need to continue blindly destroying the planet while indulging in senseless vengeance and violence?
As long as Humanity fails to recognize his basic goodness, he can only act in pathological, self-destructive ways. And when he stops for a moment to look at all the havoc he's caused, he can only conclude that he is a miserable creature indeed. Indeed, the news media serve as a mirror in which Humanity looks at himself each day, reflecting back to him lurid, degraded images of what he is. How can poor old Humanity come to love himself when, continually seeing through this glass darkly, he only witnesses his own pettiness, depravity, and ugliness?
Humanity as a whole is still a child in need of healing—in need of knowing that it is beautiful in its very nature. Each of us must heal the heart and wake up to our inner beauty on our own, for the sake of humanity, by developing self-love. This is a journey of loosening up your self-concepts, letting yourself have your experience, letting yourself be the being that you are, saying yes to yourself, understanding your weaknesses with kindness, and appreciating the unique gift your life has to offer.
Adapted from Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships: Healing the Wound of the Heart by John Welwood, ©2007. Used with permission.