Much of the psychological research in the area of self-hatred owes its origin to the work of the American philosopher and social psychologist George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) and his idea of the “looking-glass self.” Mead claimed that people pay attention to the view that others have of them, and when that view is largely negative, a person can internalize it and develop self-hatred. Mead’s other major contribution to this area of social research was the importance he placed on the role that language and symbols play in society. A number of later researchers pointed out that American symbols were major conveyers of negative views of blacks and other ethnic groups. At least one prolific author, Sander L. Gilman, has gone so far as to suggest that persecution is inherent in a society’s language. Erving Goffman (1922–1982), another influential sociologist, claimed that ethnic (and other minority) groups were often “stigmatized” by society’s negative symbolic interaction and the internalization of such stigmatization (often termed “racism”) is a major cause of self-hatred.
There is, however, some controversy among scholars concerning the degree to which ethnic group identity affects the development of self-hatred. Some researchers take the position that mere membership in an ethnic group, whether freely chosen or not, is sufficient to cause the individual member to develop feelings of self-hatred if the group is negatively viewed by the majority group. Other researchers take the position that it is not group membership per se that results in self-hatred but the degree to which the individual identifies with the group in question. High or strong identification with one’s own ethnic group can sometimes block or ameliorate the kind of psychological damage that results in self-hatred. Ethnic group membership can thus be viewed as a protection against self-hatred as opposed to a cause.
Because of their unique experiences with racism and oppression, blacks and Jews have been the populations most heavily studied in the area of self-hatred. Many of the early researchers were themselves Jews who sought to understand the people in their communities who exhibited visible signs of self-hatred. The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), wrote Moses and Monotheism in part to explain Jewish self-hatred produced by external oppression in Europe during the 1930s. The “self-hating” or “self-loathing” Jew has become an archetype in modern American social science, as the term is often used to disparage those Jews who are viewed as anti-Zionist or anti-Israel or for any Jew who is “not Jewish enough.” A similar term, “Uncle Tom,” has been used to describe the African American who is deemed to possess a high degree of self-hatred. (The term Uncle Tom comes from the title character of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.) Apples, bananas, and coconuts are terms that have been used to describe people whose external features are nonwhite (red, yellow, and brown respectively) but whose internal thought patterns are said to be white and reflective of a high degree of self-hatred. The individuals who are the recipients of such negative appellations defend themselves by claiming that it is possible to assimilate some values of the dominant society while at the same time rejecting those (such as white superiority) that they find offensive. Research in support of the possibility of such selective socialization is sparse.
The feminist-oriented research in this area is a reminder that self-hatred is not restricted to members of marginalized groups or subcultures. It is found in the wider society and has been linked to symptoms of depression, substance abuse, and general anxiety. What is perhaps unique about this type of self-hatred is that it does not seem to be related to anything other than a sense of personal failure. It has proven difficult, if not impossible, for researchers to specify a causal link among the possible variables. Self-hatred is as much a cause of as well as a result of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and gender ambiguity. It can therefore be viewed as both the hub and a spoke of the wheel of social misfortune. As a hub it represents the central role that the self, however damaged or elevated, plays in the dynamics of social life. As a spoke self-hatred represents one of the negative consequences of the socialization process itself.
SEE ALSO Anxiety; Assimilation; Depression, Psychological; Ethnicity; Feminism; Freud, Sigmund; Gender; Goffman, Erving; Identity; Jews; Looking-Glass Effect; Mead, George Herbert; Multidimensional Inventory of Black Identity; Nationalism and Nationality; Race; Racism; Sexual Orientation, Social and Economic Consequences; Socialization; Stigma; Uncle Tom
Freud, Sigmund. 1967(1955). Moses and Monotheism. New York: Vintage.
Gilman, Sander L. 1990. Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews. Reprint ed. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.
Goffman, Erving. 1986. Stigma: The Management of a Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Mead, George Herbert. 1955. Mind, Self, and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. New York: Vintage.
Carolyn B. Murray
Self-hatred is a reflexive notion: In it, the subject is the hating person and at the same time the hated person. The concept of self-hatred appeared in Sigmund Freud's "Mourning and Melancholia" (1916-17a [1915-17]): "If the love for the object . . . takes refuge in narcissistic identification, then the hate comes into operation on this substitutive object" (p. 251).
This concept was thus initially understood as the vicissitude of identification with the object of loss: "The self-tormenting in melancholia... signifies... a satisfaction of trends of sadism and hate which relate to an object, and which have been turned round upon the subject's own self" (p. 251). Later, in "The Ego and the Id" (1923), it was developed in connection with obsessional neurosis and melancholia, but this time within the framework of the second topography. At this point, the superego was theorized as replacing the object that persecutes the ego: "The fear of death in melancholia admits of one explanation: that the ego gives itself up because it feels itself hated and persecuted by the super-ego, instead of being loved" (p. 58). Revealed here is the degree to which self-hatred is infiltrated by sadomasochism, and to which the superego, in this context, can become the "culture of the death instinct" (1923b, p. 53).
In Language and Insight (1978), Roy Schafer emphasized the idea that the persecutor and the victim can unconsciously be persons other than the self, "say, one's father in the act of hating one's mother; here, 'I hate myself' translates into 'In this way I enact, experience, and perpetuate my father's hating my mother'" (pp. 123-124). In (1990), André Green introduced the interesting idea of the logic of despair, in which self-hatred is posited as reflecting "a compromise between the inextinguishable desire for revenge and concern for protecting the object from the hostile desires directed against it."
See also: Turning around upon the subject's own self.
Freud, Sigmund. (1916-17a [1915-17]). Mourning and melancholia. SE, 14: 237-258.
——. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.
Schafer, Roy. (1978). Language and insight. New Haven: Yale University Press.