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just another reason why I hate myself

May 13, 2014

Have you wondered how it happens that you go into a meeting intending to give negative feedback to someone and find yourself leaving after having spent most of the meeting consoling and reassuring them they are not that bad?

A few weeks ago I wrote about “fine!” arguments that often result in the physical as well as emotional separation of the people involved. I am sure you recognised the situation and the circumstances that give rise to those sorts of exchanges but I am equally sure that you felt there was a part of that conversation that was missing.

There is.

There is another argument going on. Instead of going head-to-head with your boss or significant other this new opponent is much more skilled at attacking you at your weakest points. They know every one of your secrets and they are not afraid to use them against you. It is a fight that you can not run away from and it is one that you will never be able to win.

That is because you are fighting with the voice inside your head.

On the surface the argument sounds like this:

Them:  “I cannot believe you could be so insensitive.”
You:     “Me? You’re the one who called me fat.”
Them:   “I didn’t say you were fat, I simply said that the clothes dryer wouldn’t shrink your pants that much.”
You:      “You meant that I had put on weight.” (Pause)

But inside your head it can often sound like this:

Them:  “I cannot believe you could be so insensitive.”
You:     “Me? You’re the one who called me fat.”  Oh God, you’re right. I have put on weight. I have no self-control.
Them:   “I didn’t say you were fat, I simply said that the clothes dryer wouldn’t shrink your pants that much.”
You:      “You meant that I had put on weight.” (Pause) But I know that what you really meant is that you don’t love me because I can’t control myself and why would you love me, just look at  me, I mean I don’t deserve to be loved….

and it results in us adding this to the conversation:

You: “You are right, I am fat and ugly and I have no self-control.”

It feels bad to be in that conversation. Really bad. There is nothing that feels good about declaring negative things about ourselves.

You can substitute just about anything for “fat” – physical ability or capability, mental capacity, interpersonal skill, career success, beverage choice … the list is endless but the internal conversation is almost always the same.

Deliberately or not, the fact you have drawn attention to one of my potential shortcomings becomes just another reason why I hate myself.

In “fine” arguments we are motivated by the idea that the best defense is a good offense. To protect ourselves we attack the other person for real or imagined transgressions in the hope they will run away, in the hope they will stop.

This is the other side of that same coin – where the best defense is to have no defense. To avoid conflict we simply agree and join in the attack on ourselves. Perhaps, if I do a good enough job of attacking myself, of declaring my deficiencies  and putting myself down, you might stop. You might even feel sorry enough for me to tell me I am wrong!

So what have I gained by joining you in attacking me? The answer is the hope of some control – control over what form the attacks take and how deep they go. It is a race to the bottom where winning is losing but at least I got there first and I got some say in laying out the finish line.

It is at its heart a self-protective response aimed at controlling and hopefully minimising the pain I feel. But it can also be used manipulate others and gain control over them. There is no need to talk about my poor behavior in meetings (or any other issues I might be creating in the workplace) if I can take you quickly past that down into the miserable failings in the rest of my life. My excessive and immediate self-flagellation is intended to avoid having to take responsibility by stopping you before you really get started.

Used in this way the unrelenting attacks that come from within ourselves are incredibly damaging to our relationships and our self-confidence and causes others to conclude we lack self-esteem.

There are times when it is appropriate that we do this to ourselves – when there is no question we are wrong, when we have behaved poorly, we are rude or insensitive or when we have done something that results in others dealing with the consequences of our poor choice of action. Admitting our actual failures to ourselves and to those we have harmed and taking responsibility for those actions is an important step towards making amends and beginning to restore and repair damaged relationships.

Used in this way to identify how we might need to change or how we might act differently next time helps build our relationships and our self-confidence.

There is no trick in being able to tell the two approaches apart – you will know which one you are seeing. The challenge is in not letting yourself getting caught up in the race to the bottom because if you do, nobody wins.



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