Self-hatred and addiction: cognitive development turned toxic

Self-destructive thoughts and feelings grow from ripples to tidal waves in people who develop addictions. But how does self-directed aggression become entrenched in our inner worlds, and how can it be dislodged?

Everyone who’s ever been addicted to anything is bound to know two feelings — craving and self-hatred. These feeling states essentially define addiction. They’re coordinates on the map. We more or less understand craving, biologically as well as psychologically. I’ve written about it and so have others. But we don’t understand its infamous partner in crime. How do people come to hate themselves? And why might this feeling be central to addiction?

Self-hate isn’t exclusive to addicts. Almost anyone you talk to about their inner world will admit to a hostile self-critic who blames them, sometimes savagely, for whatever they did that was wrong or stupid. Self-directed aggression spans many cultures. The tradition of seppuku (suicide motivated by shame or guilt) grew up in the warrior classes of ancient Japan. The Catholic Church spread the idea of original sin (leading to repentance) wherever colonialism took hold. Self-nastiness seems to have quite a hold on human civilization. But how does it seed itself in young minds? How does it grow?

Kids everywhere are notorious for one overarching concern: “I’m gonna get in trouble!” You hear it on the way home from school, when someone’s buddy suggests cutting through the construction site. Or when your friend starts opening drawers in your parents’ bedroom. Or when you lock the dog in the bathroom. There’s only one reason not to try and have some illicit fun. That if you do, and you’re caught, someone is going to get mad at you, which probably means you’re going to get punished.

Getting in trouble turns the world from bright to grey. It replaces ease and freedom with a sense of doom. So…when your friend or your little sister gets you in trouble, you get pissed off at them. Now look what you did! If that happens repeatedly, you start to avoid them, mistrust them, and dislike them. With friends like that, who needs enemies?

But around the age of four, little kids make several potent discoveries. They begin to understand that other people are defined not only by their behaviours but by the thoughts, feelings and intentions that generate those behaviours. They realize that other people have private and unique minds, and this discovery is called Theory of Mind. Shortly after that, kids begin to appreciate that they themselves have minds, and that their thoughts, feelings and intentions cause their own behaviours. They start to see “myself” as a human category, comparable to other selves.

This universal advance in cognitive development makes the social world a complex place and joins it irrevocably to the internal world. If you’re the kind of person who’s impulsive or defiant, I’d better stay away from you, so I won’t get in trouble. But if I’m that kind of person…then what? I can’t reject myself…or can I?

That’s the crux of it. We start judging and classifying others by age five or six. We start taking needed precautions so they won’t get us in trouble. And we start judging and classifying ourselves around the same age. But we can’t avoid being ourselves, being with ourselves, and we can’t avoid the feelings of desire and defiance that well up in our own minds. So…just as we reject others for being the kinds of people they are, we begin to criticize and reject ourselves for being the kinds of people we are. We can’t delete our inner states — states such as craving — but we sure don’t like it when they get us in trouble.

There are many ways adults get in trouble — saying the wrong thing, at the wrong time, in the wrong tone, looking too long or not long enough at the wrong person. But there is no more surefire way to get in trouble than to take powerful drugs (including alcohol) against the wishes of those around us. Other people reject us when we do these things. Yet somehow some of us continue to do them. And we quickly learn that these behaviours are generated by the very mental states — craving, anxiety, defiance — that define us.

We silently yell, Stop it! Don’t go there! I hate you for doing this to me! I hate you for getting me in trouble! The only glitch is that the person we hate happens to be ourselves. (And in case you didn’t see it coming, these are among the “parts” that IFS tries to identify and soothe.)

Most everyone is self-critical, to a degree. But addicts raise this human pastime to some kind of art. In all my interactions with addicted clients, in my reflections on my own years of addiction, I find no more lethal volley of self-abuse than the tuned self-denigration addicts level at themselves the morning after. I did it again. I hate myself. And there’s nothing more likely to trigger renewed craving than the sense of assholeness left simmering for the rest of the day.

So how do we overcome this dark spiral? For healers and humanists of many stripes, self-compassion is what’s needed. Self-compassion breaks through self-hatred, saying “I get what it’s like for you. You’re not so bad!” But self-compassion can feel foreign, and people often need help discovering it. It’s no coincidence that self-compassion is the main message behind many forms of psychotherapy, including ACT, EFT, IFS, and mindfulness-based approaches. Once you get the hang of it, self-compassion starts to extend itself, and that’s a lovely thing. Maybe that’s the reason former addicts often end up in better shape than those who’ve never strayed.




13 thoughts on “Self-hatred and addiction: cognitive development turned toxic

  1. Lisa K October 14, 2021 at 10:05 am #

    Yes. That’s it. Now 35 years clean I feel bad every morning about the way I ate the night before. And 15 years before I got clean, age 10, I kept a diary the theme of which was how fat I was though in photos I appear to be an absolutely ordinary size. And this was the way in which I was bad or about to be in trouble in the world, according to my parents. Self compassion is still a weak muscle for me. I don’t trust it to keep me safe from myself. I still look in the mirror and instinctively wrinkle my nose. I once had a therapist who, when I told her I couldn’t stand to look at myself in the mirror, said “so don’t look.” It was a start, actually; I’m less fierce and incessantly critical than I was. But I’d love to hear how others have practiced this art – and when practice makes its way into belief, or at least relief.

    • Janet October 14, 2021 at 1:54 pm #

      HI Lisa,

      Beautiful post. For me, my addiction was my obsession with getting my son clean. I developed my own set of insane belief systems along with my own sense of shame and failure on the battlefield. At my lowest, I was completely bankrupt of any sense of self or perspective. When I surrendered to the pain and stood with it, I started to heal. I learned to co-exist with it and not fight it. I befriended myself. I learned to identify my fears, to stop making comparisons, and to identify and release judgement into reflections where I sit and feel peace. It takes practice. Daily. I show myself compassion and my compassion for others has flowed enormously through that. It’s freeing. You deserve it.

      • Lisa K. October 15, 2021 at 2:34 pm #

        Janet, thanks your thoughtful response and what you shared here elsewhere. I will go read your guest blog as Marc recommended after I write this response. I have done duty with an addicted ex-husband and an addicted daughter, too, and have had the experience, as you so beautifully put it, of being ‘bankrupt of any sense of self or perspective,” so consumed was I by trying to rescue her, and to resent/rage at/blame him into changing. I still don’t have a lot of skill at self-nurturing (and oh yeah, practice is helpful, when I practice!) But I have been able to let my daughter go (she’s clean now 9 years but has bipolar disorder which can make our lives unmanageable), and to my profound surprise, discovered a deep well of compassion for my ex. I say discovered because I didn’t aim for it or work at it. I only worked on letting go of my grief and anger about the life my children and I didn’t have–my own “failure on the battlefield,” as you again so beautifully put it–to accept the one we did. Compassion for their father was a byproduct–an unexpected spiritual gift. I feel heartbroken for him, and the relationships he failed to form with his girls, and his life so diminished by addiction and by a pathological self-centeredness that he couldn’t outgrow–not because he was a terrible human being , but because he was a broken one. Maybe more compassion for me, will come in time. Very best wishes to you.

        • Janet October 15, 2021 at 3:41 pm #

          Lisa, This is exceptionally exquisite and so full of the grace we all seek. To move from resentments to that level of acceptance and compassion is a spiritual journey of the highest order. I could feel the lift while reading your words. Thank you ever so much for this. We are all connected. My very best to you. Janet

    • Marcelle Sprong October 15, 2021 at 1:58 pm #

      Beautifully put.

    • Terry McGrath October 17, 2021 at 11:53 pm #

      saying we are ‘clean’ hits towards the point of much of this – learned behaviour – so much of it comes from the moral basis of the laws and the attitudes towards drug use – even ‘recovery’ smacks of it – that thing that requires a disease or a moral failing at its core to thence need God or some miracle to get “clean and sober” – addiction lies in the realm of those whose self esteem has already been worked on via attachment issues and trauma, which instils anxiety in the brain which tells one they are what those around them say they are – dirty and sick and in need of cleaning – Mate’ says this, how we treat the traumatised by traumatising them more so they can realise the messages they tell themselves are true and thus they can never be ‘normal’ – always in need of reminding oneself just how bad a person they became – not for me – i believe very much on the newer strength based positive psychology, not this deficit morality that only worsens the self hatred

  2. Tim Greenwood October 14, 2021 at 10:07 am #

    Hey Marc, love this piece. Really can relate to all aspects of it and it ends in such a hopeful way. William Blake did say “The Road of Excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom”. I think that should be amended to “CAN” lead to the Palace of Wisdom. I know my own struggles with my addictive tendencies has led me to develop deeper self awareness and an arsenal of tools I use to make it through each day. Lately I have been thinking about each day of life like a Rock Climber – like Alex Honnold climbing El Cap or Tommy Caldwell finally nailing the Dawn Wall – if each day we learn to pay attention we can learn from our mistakes and develop the tools (“moves”) to make it through one more day. And what I would add to what you have written one of the best tools of all is to learn to Celebrate as we move forward, as we ascend each day and learn to be our own best friends and allies.

    • Janet October 14, 2021 at 1:45 pm #

      Hello Tim,

      I love your post. Yes, regrets can become wisdoms. Awareness, acknowledgement, acceptance… and the action is self-love. Thank you for posting.

  3. Janet October 14, 2021 at 1:34 pm #

    Hello Marc and fellow Travelers,

    Marc, as you always illuminate. “Self-compassion” yes. It has taken me, as the mother of an addict, much time and self- healing to have the proper compassion for myself and for my addicted son. I have had to forgive myself for all the things I believe I did or didn’t do, as I felt I had failed as well as I could not fix my son. I know my son has these feelings of self-loathing as well as he cannot stop using. Our suffering is acknowledged and now accepted and we are not at war with each other. I am no longer at war with myself. I do know my son is still on the battlefield and at war with himself.

    My son is now 39 and living in the streets of San Diego, California. I feel only love for him.

    The last time we spoke he said, “I could get clean but I always relapse.”
    My heart swelled with love and compassion instead of fear and recrimination, and I said, “I understand. I love you. I believe in you.”

    And he said, “I know.”

    • Marc October 15, 2021 at 2:11 am #

      Good to hear from you, Janet, and thanks for your multiple comments. You make the issue come alive with your intimate and honest portrayals of what it’s been like for both of you…the journey as it has unfolded for parent and child. I’m more than happy to hear how you’ve settled — after so much struggle — at a place of compassion for yourself and your son. I urge readers to look at Janet’s “guest memoir” ( — a window on her intense feelings about his addiction from roughly ten years ago — in comparison with her sense of things now. You’ll find a vivid description of her journey from agony and despair to a kind of acceptance and forgiveness that most people can’t even imagine.

      • Janet October 15, 2021 at 11:53 am #

        Thank you dear Marc. Your book over 10 years ago, was a massive breakthrough and illumination for me. Since then, I’ve never stopped learning, and growing. And this blog community has been such a resource of knowledge and comfort. I am always so grateful that our paths have connected. Thank you for your kind words about my memoir. Writing here, and connecting with others, has been part of my healing and understanding. We are all in this together and need each other. We can be happy and hurting and healing all at the same time. Thank you again, Marc, for the work that you do and for your human kindness.

        • Marc October 15, 2021 at 12:34 pm #

          Wow. That’s a major mood boost on a grey fall day. Thank you for that! Yes, community is absolutely necessary. This sharing, mutual learning, informing, accepting, being heard, and at least symbolically being held….it’s really just Social Baseline Theory writ large (SBT was reviewed two posts ago, here: Deep change is fundamentally risky, especially when loved ones are impossible to find…so we need to be buoyed up by our conversations with others who get what we’re going through, who’ve been there, or at least part way there, themselves.

  4. Annette October 16, 2021 at 7:53 am #

    I loved your post, Marc, and especially Janet’s heartfelt replies and her acceptance of her son’s path too. My son is still at home, still bingeing and making his life really miserable. I ache for the happy child he was, everything went wrong after he turned 17. Our drinking played a role in it though, and I accept that. I’ve been sober 6 1/2 years and my husband, 15 months, so that is real progress.

    Through my own sobriety, I slowly learnt compassion and self-acceptance. I can now embody that and extend it to our son. We take long walks together every week. We talk for at least an hour a day, and I know by listening, it helps him a little bit. At least he is heard. We live with his anxiety and mood swings daily. By being calm and peaceful, we can get through it.

    I’ve noticed that many addicts aren’t only stigmatised by most people, but also by healthcare professionals. My son has experienced that. When I talk to homeless/vulnerably housed people, I hear that as well. This is on top of their self-hatred, and that’s TRAGIC 🙁

    My job is to be empathic, grounded and to listen. Listen to that deep pain, reflect back and make 1 or 2 practical suggestions. That’s all I can do, and that is good enough. Peace to all who endure this. It’s a path of inner transformation, for sure.

    Rather than judge, I prefer to be The Change….

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