At some point after being born – be it three days, three years, thirteen years, sixty – certain people start disliking themselves. Whom? What does it take? Surely it could happen to anyone. But are some of us neurochemically predestined, biologically more likely, to dislike ourselves? Although no baby is born hating itself, are some babies born predisposed to low self-esteem? Could a low self-esteem gene exist in our DNA?
Scientists have identified a breast-cancer gene, a diabetes gene, an obesity gene, even an addiction gene – and have actually come close to identifying a self-loathing gene.
In one study, researchers set out to determine whether variants of the oxytocin-receptor (aka OXTR) gene might be linked to psychological aspects including self-esteem, optimism and a sense of mastery. Popularly known as the feel-good hormone, oxytocin is a hormone linked with positive emotions and social skills. The researchers found that people who had one or two copies of the OXTR gene with a type of allele known as an adenine allele tended to have less optimism, self-esteem and sense of mastery – and more negative emotions such as depression – than people who had a different allele known as the guanine allele.
Human beings aren’t all born alike. Our personalities, potentialities and latent likes and dislikes were to some extent blueprinted in the womb – largely by genes.
This is a relatively new discovery. For most of history, it was assumed – even by great thinkers, from Aristotle to Freud and beyond – that human beings are blank slates at birth: all identically uninflected, our characters coalescing over time, shaped wholly by our families, circumstances and societies: that is, by nurture, not by nature.
Recent research shatters this tabula rasa theory. Magnetic resonance imaging reveals highly varied, highly individualized patternings and concentrations of gray matter – which comprises mainly neurons and synapses – in the brains of human newborns. These diverse patterns have been shown to prove that many traits and talents are inborn.
Studies of twins are further evidence. Gray-matter patterns in the brains of identical twins, who share 100 percent of their DNA, are far more similar than gray-matter concentrations in the brains of fraternal twins, who share only 50 percent of their DNA. Gray-matter patterns among randomly selected, unrelated human pairs are vastly dissimilar.
These variances "are not just differences in anatomy, like the shape of your earlobes. They have consequences in thought and behavior," according to leading brain researcher Steven Pinker.
"We're not born blank slates. Kids come into the world with certain temperaments and talents. It doesn't come from outside."
Again, twins provide evidence. In the Minnesota Twin Family Study, thousands of twins who had been separated at birth or soon afterward and were raised apart as strangers were reunited as adults and compared. One such pair comprised Oskar, raised in Germany as a Nazi-sympathizing Catholic, and Jack, raised in Trinidad as an observant Jew.
Reunited as adults, Jack and Oskar displayed amazing similarities. Both habitually wore rubber bands around their wrists. Both flushed toilets before and after using them. Both liked dunking buttered toast in coffee. Both even enjoyed sneezing on crowded elevators.
Oskar and Jack must have been born with these highly individualized traits. Although gray matter can fluctuate over a lifetime based on experience, the chances of both men having independently adopted such unusual habits while being raised as strangers half a world apart are nearly nil. The Minnesota study yielded a wealth of similarly amazing cases.
"Something is written on the slate," Pinker asserts.
Just as some people are born with aptitudes for math or music and with preferences for rock-climbing or bowling, and just as some people are born debaters or born sailors, those with the low self-esteem gene are born with innate sensitivities that establish them as born self-haters. They don’t hate themselves at the literal moment of birth any more than born debaters are literally born debating. But if the low self-esteem gene really exists, born self-haters are perpetually at higher risk than other people for losing self-esteem, just as those with family histories of diabetes and cancer are at higher risk for developing those diseases.
Which traits might the low self-esteem gene entail? Studies have not yet been conducted examining the MRIs of newborns for the long-term purpose of gauging and tracking their self-esteem. But if gray-matter patterns can predetermine toilet-flushing habits as it did for twins Oskar and Jack, then gray-matter patterns can predict propensities for shame, fear, pessimism, insecurity, hypersensitivity, perfectionism, self-absorption, doubt, and other esteem-killers.
You don't need the self-loathing gene to hate yourself. But it sure helps.
But genes are no guarantee. Someone with the low self-esteem gene could be born into a gentle, supportive, nonjudgmental family and thenceforth by a great stroke of good fortune encounter only gentle, supportive, and nonjudgmental people – in every playroom, classroom, club, workplace, and street. Perpetually buffered, this lucky person – despite being at-risk – might never develop low self-esteem. Then again, someone lacking the low self-esteem gene could undergo a trauma and be lost.
Nature and nurture conspire to shape our self-image. The existence of a low self-esteem gene is liberating in the same sense that it is liberating to learn that people with epilepsy aren’t possessed by demons. The possible existence of a low self-esteem gene lends scientific heft to the notion of self-loathing as a syndrome, an assemblage of molecules that could happen to anyone.
Examining the nurture side of our self-loathing stories liberates us too. Sifting through memories, seeking sparks in the dark, we ask: How did I get this way? Each anecdote is evidence. With it, we shout: Eureka. Now I know.
But sooner or later, we have to ask: Does it even matter anymore? However we got here, we all share a goal. This is our path, our practice: to stop hating ourselves. Starting now.
Adapted from Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself by Anneli Rufus. Copyright © 2014 by Anneli Rufus. Published by Jeremy P. Tarcher, an imprint of Penguin, a division of Penguin Group USA, a Penguin Random House Company.
Anneli Rufus is an award-winning journalist and the author of eleven books including Stuck: Why We Can’t (or Won’t) Move On (2008) and Party of One: The Loner’s Manifesto (2003). Her writings have appeared in many publications, including The Daily Beast, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Huffington Post, Spirituality & Health, and Salon.com. Follow her blog Worthy here.