When You Feel Bad About Yourself

Why do we carry feelings of being inherently wrong or bad?

One common form of suffering involves the feeling of shriveling up inside from allegedly being bad, unworthy, flawed, and defective. Such people can go through life anticipating being seen by others in a negative light. They expect that they might, at any moment, be exposed as a fake or a phony.

Some of us feel this nauseating sense of self every day, and others only occasionally. The disagreeable feeling is often a lingering shame associated with one’s fear that some embarrassing fact about us will become public knowledge or that we’ll appear foolish or inept in a public situation.

We can be convinced mentally and emotionally that this pain, which originates in our psyche, signifies some wretched, hidden flaw or loathsome defect at the core of our existence. Hence, we might be unable to establish friendships and intimate relationships because we don’t feel worthy of being admired and loved. As Groucho Marx put it, “I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.”

Often, we have no inkling where the bad feelings come from. Our parents might have treated us with kindness and respect. We might also know—mentally at least—that we’re honorable and good. Still, we’re hurting at the core of our being and can’t figure out why.

In an email, a visitor to this website put her emotional predicament in these words:

I am 23, and overall, I can describe my childhood as a happy one (no abuse, loving parents, siblings) but ever since I remember I’ve always thought that I simply don’t deserve to be loved. In high school I had a boyfriend (7 years older than me), and I always thought I was too young and too simple for him. As it turned out, he found some other girl (though he insisted that was untrue) and we broke up. I felt sad, neglected, angry and, after some time, apathy. Since then, I’ve been unable to be close to anyone – and I naturally assumed no sane person could be interested in me.

Paradoxically, I want to be loved and at the same time I avoid men – sometimes I’m even afraid to look random ones in the eye when I walk down the street. I’m thinking that I’ll be alone the rest of my life.

Also, recently, much to my surprise, a friend from high-school contacted me and we started conversing. I used to like him a lot and I’m now willing to see how this could turn out – but I am at a loss what to do. I have the same feelings as before – yet even I can see that he’s interested in me. But I’m simultaneously assuming this cannot be true.

I don’t want to hurt him with my doubts, but I can’t help having them. I really wish I could change my way of thinking.

Some of us can feel a lack of self-acceptance because we’re holding on to old, familiar feelings of being rejected, abandoned, and unloved. (Read, “The Bittersweet Allure of Feeling Unloved.”) In the above case, however, this woman didn’t feel rejected or unloved by her parents. So something else is likely causing her suffering. Let’s try another perspective—from the heart of classical psychoanalysis—to help us understand where the affliction she describes could possibly come from.

While many of us want to blame our parents for our dysfunction, our behavioral and emotional problems as adults can connect directly to childhood impressions, fantasies, and experiences that have little to do with how our parents treated us. Associations and memories dealing with the taboos and forbidden knowledge of childhood huddle in our psyche, beyond our conscious awareness. How did this emotional content get there? Children experience self-doubt and confusion when they’re told or made to understand that it’s forbidden to touch and look at certain things, such as their genitalia and mother’s or father’s nakedness. Sexual interest in brothers and sisters is also forbidden. In weaning, children are refused the breast. Next, they’re not even allowed to look at it. To do so is bad or naughty.

Civilization does rightfully require decorum, protocols, and taboos, and it would be helpful if parents had more skill or knowledge in explaining them to their children. The problem is that children, who easily take things personally, can associate taboos with insinuations of wrongdoing and wickedness on their part, especially since the taboos are so enticing to their imagination. It’s in the nature of our biology that the forbidden can excite our imagination with fantasies and secret pleasures.

A peeping or visual instinct is strong in children, and they like to look. But even curiosity, especially related to genital regions, is discouraged and then prohibited. Soon children are aware that parents have secret lives in the bathroom and bedroom. Seeing, even imagining, what goes on there isn’t allowed. Forbidden erotic wishes drift through their consciousness. What are parents up to? Why are these sights forbidden to them? Using their imagination, children begin to peep. They peep into the darkness of what is forbidden, trying to understand this secretive world, all the while wary of the formidable powers of moral reproach, guilt, and punishment which parents and caregivers can dispense.

Repression begins at an early age because the material can be so painful, shameful, and guilt-laden. At the same time, children find the subject too intriguing to relinquish entirely. The child creates an inner receptacle, a department of secrets in the psyche. This private place is conscious in early childhood. That changes when the child’s developing inner critic (superego) gains full access to the content of the psyche. The inner critic, now fulfilling its function as a harsh conscience and dispenser of punishment, begins to object to the child’s erotic longings, wishes, and curiosities. The inner critic becomes a caricature of disapproving parents. Through the inner critic, the parent’s prohibitions now apply to the child’s department of secrets.

Children now have to contend with external and internal prohibitions. In self-protection, they unconsciously deepen their repression. They move forbidden material out of conscious awareness into unconscious regions of their psyche. This repressed material, however, is not expelled or even dormant. Instead, it creates mischief in the form of anxiety, stress, and unhappiness since it’s so rich in painful, shameful, and guilt-laden content. It can also simmer quietly, producing a low-grade state of uncertainty and unhappiness.

The repressed content can cause us to feel, as we age, that something rotten dwells inside us. The sense is that we’re harboring something that’s unacceptable, bad, or wretched. This can produce the irrational impression that we’re flawed, defective, or unworthy. Life now feels like a struggle to justify a tainted existence.

Related emotionally to repressed sexuality is the function of elimination. With self-doubt, it’s easy to feel worse about ourselves when we realize our body produces what appears to us as a disgusting byproduct. Modern society may have a particular problem of shame with this bodily function because the flush toilet shrouds it in privacy and even secrecy. A children’s book, Everyone Poops, has become a big seller because parents sense a need to reassure their children of the function’s universality. One parent wrote in a customer review at Amazon.com: “My 2-year-old is obsessed with ‘poopy’. When we started to potty train her, she was upset when she did a poopy. To address this problem, we bought Everyone Poops. She loves it and the phrase, ‘It’s OK, because everyone poops!’ has become a favorite in our household. I highly recommend this one!”

In summary, we can feel unloved and unlovable not because our parents didn’t appreciate us but because we go on living with the repressed feeling that a wickedness, inherent flaw, disgusting aspect, or sinfulness resides within us. This repressed material can burst into our emotional life with explosive power to precipitate out-of-control behaviors, emotions, and astounding feats of self-defeat. In maintaining our repression, we also waste a lot of the vital energy required for joyful living.

Understanding the source of our rotten feelings exposes the nature and extent of the underlying irrationality, which helps us to release guilt and shame so we can now respect and honor ourselves at a deep level.