Self-Loathing and the Self-Esteem Industrial Complex

By Anneli Rufus

Lifelong self-loathing made me anorexic and bulimic. It caused me, weeks after graduating from UC Berkeley, to run headlong down a hallway jabbing myself with a (thankfully) dull knife screaming, I'm horrible, I'm fat. That was one me.

Self-esteem has been a billion-dollar industry since the 1980s, when children's self-perceptions became an official obsession of American public education. People spend money on workshops, books, even pop songs of self-love, such as "I'm Smokin' Hot."  I call all this merchandise "self-esteem serum." 

In a sense, it's like the snake oil sold by crafty Wild West con artists. We’re told its purchase will make us happy at last, able to find and keep better jobs and relationships and all the other alleged by-products of high self-esteem. However, not buying it will leave us lonely and sad.  

But does it work? Most self-esteem serum is based on affirmations. An increasing number of studies suggest that affirmations (the repetition of "positive" statements such as "I'm beautiful" and "Everyone loves me") don't help people with low self-esteem, and sometimes make them feel worse. I think that's because affirmations work only if they nourish a seed that has already sprouted: the belief, however tiny, in one's own competence, intelligence, and worth. People who truly dislike themselves lack that seed. Making them chant affirmations is like fertilizing unseeded ground. Worse yet, saying they love themselves makes people who hate themselves feel like they're lying. Which—trust me—makes us hate ourselves even more.

Do the self-esteem serum sellers know this? They should, if they've ever experienced self-loathing. I believe that whoever hawks self-esteem serums (1) has never experienced low self-esteem, (2) has experienced low self-esteem but forgot how it felt, or (3) has experienced low self-esteem, remembers how it felt, but is not above blatantly misleading sufferers with affirmation-based merchandise.  

If a self-esteem serum doesn't "work," and the buyer feels no better after using it, then she feels like a sucker, a loser, a fool for spending money, time, and hope on junk. Even this deadly sense of "suckerdom" is double-pronged, because it gives us two choices: the serum is actually junk, so I'm a stupid gullible fool for buying it; or the serum is great, but I got no results because I'm a fumbling, bumbling hopeless case.

So either the serum sucks, and I suck for trusting it; or the serum doesn't suck, but I suck for not making it work. Lose-lose-lose-lose!

Serum-sellers thrust this two-pronged possibility for self-persecution upon us. And while I don't want to PUSH US into the victim role, we who struggle with low self-esteem are somewhat fragile, not in a poor delicate flower sense, but as soldiers who've been crawling through battlefields for decades on end. Self-loathing is war: we're at war with ourselves. And it weakens our entire bodies. 

I'm fixated on serum-sellers' intentions because the lowering of our self-esteem was itself a transaction, an exercise in being sold what Grandma called a bill of goods: we were sold notions. Bad ones. About ourselves.  

Wait, who did this to us? Who made us feel badly about ourselves? Bullies. Cheaters. False friends. Abusers. Sociopaths. Sadists. Narcissists.

But sometimes our self-esteem was stolen by accident. Some of us, myself included, were raised by parents whose self-loathing we absorbed, by nature or nurture or both. Drowning in their own sorrows, these adults we loved, our miserable role models, didn't mean to make us hate ourselves. It was a legacy they passed on to us just as other adults hand down condominiums or pearls. 

Deliberately or inadvertently, we were duped by fellow members of our species: individuals, or society's collectively prejudiced "them." These people who wielded power over our young innocent selves said and did things that made us hate ourselves.    

The bullies, narcissists, sadists, and sociopaths did this to weaken us, to maintain power over us. Our self-loathing was a priceless tool for whoever wanted, say, to steal our lunch money or our dignity, to make us do their bidding or to make themselves look good by making us look bad. A certain type of person thrills at watching others cry. 

The ones who stole our self-esteem by accident did so heedlessly, recklessly, just as you might drop and shatter a teacup without meaning to. These inadvertent self-esteem thieves simply went about their daily regimens—glaring into mirrors, say, and hissing Pig as my mother did; or raging, I'm so stupid, I'm so stupid, as did the tormented elder brother of a friend who worshiped him.  

I have been asked: Can self-loathing be cured? I think it's all a matter of degree. We can inch our arduous way into mid-level self-esteem: that sweet-relief region of self-acceptance, tolerance, and self-compassion. I believe we can. I'm not saying nothing can help us. I just think that most of what can help us comes not from without but from within. And I recognize that having written a book about self-esteem, I'm a serum-seller as well. But I'm not making false promises. I'm just saying: I know. You suffer, and I understand and so do far too many more of us than should. Inching toward medium, you will not be alone.

But that Other Me, having sampled a few self-esteem serums here and there, found more inspiration from the roaring sea, and finally came to see self-loathing as a lie, a trick, a waste of years and soul, a form of narcissism all its own. Realizing this, I thought, I'm neither glorious nor awful, which felt like a sparkling revelation from the stars, and chanting this through clenched teeth, I crawled out under the barbed wire—and so can you. 


Anneli Rufus is an award-winning journalist and the author of many books, including her latest release "Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself." Having struggled with low self-esteem for most of her life, and seeing how self-loathing devastated her mother (who never recovered from it), she wanted to free people, however possible, from that kind of suffering. Unworthy is the result.

Image:  Merciful via flickr