By Steven Pressfield | Published: November 6, 2013
Hang on while I make the case that self-loathing is a good thing. I don’t mean only within the comedic-material sphere, within which self-loathing has been mined for years by Woody Allen, Howard Stern, Richard Lewis, and the godfather of them all, Philip Roth in Portnoy’s Complaint.
What exactly is self-loathing? It appears almost always as that nasty, brutal voice in our heads. “You’re a loser, you’re a bum, a worthless waste of oxygen. Look at you. Do you imagine that someone like you could produce something original, something of quality, something that anyone else would care about? What ideas do you have that haven’t been done a thousand times before—and better than you could every dream of doing them?”
Does this sound familiar? It is, of course, the voice of Resistance.
But self-loathing adds a tweak to Resistance. It brings in a personal dimension. It informs us that we as individuals, specifically our external physical characteristics—our weight, our looks, our color, our ethnic background, our sexual preference blah blah etc. are bad news, repulsive, corrupt, despised, worthless. Self-loathing attacks our character. “You have no self-discipline, no self-respect.” Self-loathing is so smart it even indicts us for our own self-loathing. “The fact you’re thinking this at all is proof of what a loser you are!”
Here’s the mistake we make when we listen to the voice of self-loathing:
We misperceive a force that is universal and impersonal and instead see it as individual and personal.
That voice in our heads is not us. It is Resistance.
Those thoughts are not our thoughts. They are Resistance.
Resistance is an impartial force of nature, like gravity and the laws of thermodynamics. Resistance is clever. It knows if it personalizes its manifestations, it can deceive us and slip past our defenses. It’s like the software that enables direct-mail marketers to send us letter and e-mails addressed, “Dear Susie.” It’s bullshit. Resistance doesn’t know who we are and it doesn’t care.
I get hundreds of e-mails from people who have read The War of Art and Turning Pro and who tell me, often in heartbreaking detail, of their own sometimes-decades-long struggles with Resistance. Trust me, the voice is their heads is the same one I have in mine and you have in yours. Everyone has that same voice—and it is laying the exact same bad trip on all of us.
Though it seems ultra-personal, the voice of self-loathing is in fact universal. It is impersonal.
Now to the good news about self-loathing.
Self-loathing, we have said, is a form of Resistance. The apparition of Resistance is by definition a good sign, because Resistance never appears except when preceded by a Dream. By “dream” I mean a creative vision of something original and worthy that you or I might do or produce—a movie, a painting, a new business, a charitable venture, an act of personal or political integrity and generosity.
The dream arises in our psyche (even if we deny it, even if we fail to or refuse to recognize it) like a tree ascending into the sunshine. Simultaneously the dream’s shadow appears—i.e., Resistance—just as a physical tree casts a physical shadow.
That’s a law of nature.
Where there is a Dream, there is Resistance.
Thus: where we encounter Resistance, somewhere nearby is a Dream.
But let’s get back to self-loathing for a moment. What are the origins of this phenomenon? Psychologists sometimes locate them in early abuse, verbal and otherwise, from parents, teachers, older siblings, rivals on the playground. These individuals often tell us we’re ugly, stupid, etc. Other sources of self-loathing are engines of socialization like school and the church. “Sit in the corner, shut up, don’t listen to your heart, listen to what we tell you.”
There’s probably some validity to these ideas. No doubt you and I have internalized negative tapes that people in our past have thrown at us—and no doubt our inner recorders play them back and we identify it as self-loathing.
It’s not. It’s Resistance. It’s Resistance recruiting those inhering voices to keep us from doing our work.
So the next time you hear that self-loathing voice in your head, remember two things:
One, that voice is not you. It’s not your thoughts. It’s Resistance.
And two, it’s a good sign because it tells you there is a powerful, original Dream close by.
The answer? Identify that dream and act to bring it into realization.
Here’s the final tricky part. Even when we recognize the voice of self-loathing as false, our challenge-to-work doesn’t get any easier. Resistance doesn’t go away. Self-sabotage does not disappear. We still have to face them and we still have to overcome them.
What we have done, however, is to strip off their masks and to see the positive beneath them.
All we have to do now is sit down and do our work.