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Self-Hatred: The Cause of Autoimmune Disease?

SkepDoc's Corner

Harriet Hall

November 14, 2016

When we get sick we naturally want to understand what is happening to us. Our first question is: What is it? We want to put a name to our suffering by establishing a diagnosis. Then we ask: “Why is this happening to me?” “What caused it?” “Could I have done something to prevent it?”

For many illnesses, there are no good answers to those questions. “Chance” or “bad luck” are not good enough explanations to satisfy most people. We want a definitive answer; we want to understand what caused the illness. When science has no explanation, people are tempted to make one up. When scientifically ignorant people speculate about the causes of disease, it can lead to bizarre false conclusions and to blaming the victim.

A prime example is a blog post by Sarah Wilson who contends that female self-hatred is the real cause of autoimmune disease. You might immediately wonder how female self-hatred could cause autoimmune disease in men. Apparently men can hate themselves too, but women do it better.

Wilson has an autoimmune disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and has tried to treat herself from many angles: “gluten, cosmetic toxins, and, of course, sugar.” But once all these angles are ironed out, to her mind everything points to anxiety, or “a profound, visceral, itchy dis-ease with myself.” She claims to recognize an autoimmune personality type: they have an intensity, a desire to impress, an air of not being good enough.

She watched a TEDx talk by Dr. Habib Sadeghi and was impressed by his concept of health as requiring nurturing soil and of illness as caused by depleted soil like the Dust Bowl featured in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath; Sadeghi attributed his testicular cancer to faulty thinking and a lack of self-nurturing. I watched the same talk and was impressed that it was nothing but a load of enthusiastic hyped-up New Age, mind-over-matter, feel-good hooey.

Wilson believes that if we don’t self-nourish, we end up living in a spiritual Dust Bowl of self-judgment, hopelessness, and cynicism. She believes that self-hatred is the biggest impediment to self-cradling, especially in women. It emerges from thinking we’re not adhering to the ideals set out for women by society. She leaps to the conclusion (without any evidence) that this self-hatred causes autoimmune disease, which, boiled down, is the body attacking itself. She believes the solution is self-love, although she admits that she doesn’t exactly know what that means.

Her blog post has garnered 294 comments. I didn’t take the time to read them all, but what I read seemed to fall mainly into two categories: those who praise her insight and those who think she is wrong and that her ideas amount to blaming the victim. Here are some examples:

“Consider all the people you have hurt with this pointless and cruel article.”

“you need to investigate the science behind your outrageous claims because what you are saying is, at the heart of it, damaging and hurtful!”

“As a partner of someone with chronic illness, this is an extremely offensive article…you are blaming women for their own pain.”

“I was born with Rheumatoid Arthritis…how is it possible that my self-hatred began as an embryo?” Another commenter explained that “You messed up your dna in a former life and that of your offspring. Might sound cruel but it sometimes takes many lifetimes to realize it.” And yet another commenter added that “Our DNA changes from the time we are born to the time we die based on our thoughts (scientifically proven). If your ancestors had self-hatred thoughts that became ways of thinking, it can be passed down the bloodline.”

Another commenter cited a book that promises to reverse and heal autoimmune disease with the Paleo diet. Another said a spiritual healer had helped her clear her womb of past issues relating to pleasing others, limiting beliefs around how a woman should be.

The idea that we can take control of our destiny and can prevent or cure illness with our thoughts alone is a seductive one. Wouldn’t that be nice? I wish it were true.

Idle speculation by uninformed persons is useless and often counterproductive. Wilson’s ideas are imaginative but they are not supported by any shred of scientific evidence. The causes of autoimmune diseases are not well understood, but there is no reason to think that they could be caused by self-hatred. There is no credible scientific evidence that thoughts and emotions can cause any physical disease. The only nugget of truth here is that a positive attitude can help patients adhere to their medical treatment regimen, encourage them to stick to a healthy diet and lifestyle, and it can make them feel better although it does nothing to change the course of the disease.

The danger here is that women may feel guilty because they have not been able to live up to the standards of self-love, and they may feel responsible for their disease. There is also a danger that some patients might reject effective medical treatment and think they can heal themselves through self-nurturing.

Hashimoto’s is eminently treatable. One wonders why she felt the need to experiment with things like eliminating sugar and gluten, things that are not known to have any effect on the disease. If you have an autoimmune disease, you are far better off following the advice of a science-based medical doctor than listening to the uninformed ramblings of a blogger who knows nothing about science.

No, self-hatred does not cause autoimmune disease. It just makes people miserable.

Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall's photo

Harriet Hall, MD, a retired Air Force physician and flight surgeon, writes and educates about pseudoscientific and so-called alternative medicine. She is a contributing editor and frequent contributor to the Skeptical Inquirer and contributes to the blog Science-Based Medicine. She is author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and coauthor of the 2012 textbook Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.