Combatting Our Own Vicious Words

“You look like crap.” “What a moron.” “Stop crying, stupid.” “Who would love you?”  These piercing phrases are often associated with abusive boyfriends or violent parents, and invoke deep feelings of pain and shame.  Yet many of us dole out such verbal violence on a daily basis, not to our girlfriends or our family members, but to ourselves.  This venomous self-criticism may not seem harmful, but it can damage the most seemingly confident person’s self-esteem.  Efforts involving self-image campaigns and positive thinking have been made to combat such violent self-hatred, and while some can be effective, their success generally remains short-term when faced with conflicting societal factors such as television and negative social norms.

If a person were to repeatedly shout “nobody likes you!” or “you’re such a failure,” at a peer, it would be considered verbal abuse, a form of psychological violence, which “appears to have as great an impact as physical abuse” (O’Leary).  According to a study conducted by Glamour magazine, “on average, women have 13 negative body thoughts daily; nearly one for every waking hour,” which means that many women are constantly inflicting verbal violence on themselves.  A participant in Glamour’s study expressed that “If a guy said to [her], ‘wow your belly looks really flabby,’ that would be really offensive. Somehow, these thoughts never seemed as degrading coming from [her] own mind” (Dreisbach).

Similar self-abuse was also evident in a psychological study in which a woman recovering from a recent breakup repeatedly insisted to herself that she was “unlovable” and that “there must be something wrong with [her], despite evidence that her former partner’s commitment issues caused the separation.”  Another participant, “Shannon, believing herself a ‘slut,’ withdrew from her classmates and declined all dates” (Bergner).  While this kind of self-criticism is often attributed to women, they are not the only perpetrators of psychological self-hate.  The study indicates that some males “poisoned” their leisure time watching television at home with thoughts including “you’re so lazy and unproductive” despite having worked all day (Bergner).  When people berate themselves constantly in this way, it is “damaging to the individual’s ability to participate fully and meaningfully [in life’s activities], and it may be regarded as destructive.”  By calling themselves “incompetent” or “failures,” they “mark themselves as ineligible or unable to succeed,” therefore hindering their recovery from their own verbal abuse (Bergner).

Some attempts have been made to alleviate this psychological violence.  This has generally been done by identifying possible sources of self-criticism, and addressing how to combat them.  In a recent issue of Glamour magazine, an article entitled “97% of Women Will Be Cruel to Their Bodies Today” identifies “neural training” and social norms of “public bashing” as leading causes of self-hatred.  Glamour explains that “if you’re constantly thinking negative thoughts about your body, that neural pathway becomes stronger, and those thoughts become habitual.”  This is exemplified in a frequent female-bonding norm: “getting together and tearing oneself down,” which “makes the internal insult-athon seem normal.”  It is in this way that people are trained to “beat themselves up” (Dreisbach).

Glamour’s solutions for combating such self-“bashing” condemn the typical “love your body” approach, and instead suggest that readers reverse their neural “training” of self-violence through positive thoughts about themselves in order to build confidence and self-esteem.  The article proposes that this can be achieved through exercise, which is proven to be a “big confidence booster,” regardless of the weight-loss achieved.  Glamour also suggests that self-haters ask themselves if their negative emotions are truly body-based.  Psychologist Nichole Wood-Barcalow asserts that “if we’re having a bad day, we often take those negative emotions out on our body, rather than directing them at what’s really troubling us, like our boss or boyfriend.”  Glamour is essentially encouraging readers to “stop” self-abuse in its tracks with positive thinking and to question their motives rather than simply beating themselves up (qtd in Dreisbach).

However, Glamour’s proposed solutions have little credibility, as they originate from an industry that glorifies unattainable body images and self-loathing.  This article wasn’t pulled from “Self” or a company dedicated to fitness and health, it comes from “Glamour;” a magazine filled with pages and images that contradict the very advice it is offering.  It is difficult to train one’s brain to produce healthy, positive comments when reading a magazine that declares “29 things he’s thinking when you’re naked” or “I hate my legs!” because such taglines encourage verbal abuse of ourselves and normalize self-criticism, therefore reinforcing the urge to berate ourselves.

To Glamour’s defense, this kind of violence is not as obvious as domestic abuse or bullying in school, so efforts to combat it are less developed and available than other anti-abuse campaigns.  When attempts are made to raise awareness about internal verbal abuse, they collectively advocate “positive thoughts and confidence.”  Similar to Glamour, various ‘self-help’ websites spread this “look and find the positive instead of looking at what’s wrong with you” doctrine (About Personal Growth).  While positive thoughts and increased awareness may alleviate self-criticism temporarily, they usually do not have lasting effects on our well-being.

These existing efforts simply don’t address the difficulty of reversing peoples’ neural training to abuse themselves on a long term basis.  The process is hindered by American society, which often supports self-hate, despite claims to the contrary.  There are notable self-empowering, self-esteem boosting programs in the United States, such as Tyra Banks’ Self-Esteem Campaign and Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, but these projects are overshadowed and quickly forgotten about in comparison to the numerous positive cultural references to self-loathing, therefore their success is limited.  For example, in the widely popular film “Mean Girls,” even the most fawned-over, “good-looking” characters habitually stand before a mirror and declare how awful they look.  On many TV shows, it is considered vain and arrogant to acknowledge ones’ strengths, and characters who do so are often viewed negatively as the bullies of the program.

American society tends to put forth the idea that it is almost always better to criticize and berate ourselves in pursuit of ‘improvement’ than to embrace ourselves for who we are, strengths and weaknesses included.  This subtle yet harmful message is repeatedly conveyed through magazine articles and television programs provide methods of ‘curing’ the negative traits people think they possess, and ultimately overpowers the few efforts to combat verbal self-abuse that exist.

It is slightly unsettling to consider the idea that trite criticisms people make of themselves throughout the day are actually as vicious as the condemned verbal abuse between unstable relationships and violent households.  If we are ever to combat such verbal violence, we must not only reverse our thoughts about ourselves, but more importantly, address the positive portrayal of self-criticism in our culture in general.  When it is no longer the norm to respond to compliments with a negative comment about oneself rather than a sincere “thank you,” the battle against self-inflicted verbal violence will be more effective.

Works Cited

Bergner, R. M. Pathological Self-Criticism: Assessment and Treatment. Springer Us, 1995. Web.

Dreisbach, Shaun. “97% of Women Will Be Cruel to their Bodies Today.” Glamour 2011: 305. Print.

Musa, Fatimah. “Self Criticism and Being Self Critical.” About Personal Growth.Web. <http://www.about-personal-growth.com/self-criticism.html>.

O’Leary, K. D. “Psychological Abuse: A Variable Deserving Critical Attention in Domestic Violence.” Violence and victims 14.1 (1999): 3-23. Web.