The Toxicity of Hate

Robert Saul, MD explains why hate evokes such a powerful emotion that its toxicity affects our own thoughts, our interpersonal relationships (partner, family, friends) and our social relationships.

I hate the word “hate.”

Oops, I didn’t mean to say that.  I intensely dislike the word “hate.”

The word “hate” has such a negative influence on our lives that I am making a concerted effort not to use it.  One might rightfully argue – what is the difference between an intense dislike and hate?  The definition of hate is an intense or passionate dislike.  But I think that hate goes one step further.  Hate evokes such a powerful emotion that its toxicity affects our own thoughts, our interpersonal relationships (partner, family, friends) and our social relationships.  When we hate something or someone, we have actual visceral and emotional reactions that can affect our physical and emotional health – and, more often than not, in a negative way.

The other collateral damage from using the word hate is passing that process of dealing with things on to our children.  Children are not born with the capacity for hate, in my opinion.  Quite the contrary, they are imbued with the capacity to love unconditionally as they are nurtured and sustained by a loving family and a caring society.  We unfortunately have instilled the concept of hate in children and too often carried that forward from generation to generation.

Let me highlight some thoughts about hate.

  • It is too easy to say that we hate something. “I hate [fill in the blank] football team.” “I hate that type of food.”  “I hate it when you chew your food with your mouth open.”  The list really goes on forever.  But the use of the word hate in these contexts is more like an annoyance or a dislike.  When we use the word hate in a glib manner, it takes on a life of its own and an unintended meaning.  And children hear these comments and internalize them because their parents or their peer group say them.  The words now become part of their psyche and their reactions to often inconsequential things or actions.


The word “hate” has such a negative influence on our lives that I am making a concerted effort not to use it. Click To Tweet


  • It is too easy to use the word hate. Instead of being more precise about our dislike of a behavior, we just hate someone.  This process easily dehumanizes others and justifies subsequent actions.  How else can we explain the lynching of blacks in the South, the concentration camps for Jews in Germany, and the detention camps for Japanese Americans in the 1940s?  We actively hated these people.  We demonized them.  We dehumanized them.  We easily justified our actions because we hated them.
  • It is too easy to say you hate someone when you actually dislike the behavior. The prime example here is telling a close family member or even your children that you hate them.  Children take this quite personally.  They see that they are not worthy of the love and affection of their parents if a parent says that they hate them.  Children do not understand the difference.  And this pernicious influence over time has a devastating effect on children as they grow and transition into adulthood.  Parents can dislike a behavior (or set of behaviors) but they should NEVER state that they hate their children.  I would argue the same for close family members or others.
  • It is too easy to let hate creep into our activities. When we hate something, we assume that everything is black-or-white.  Hate becomes all encompassing.  You either hate it or you don’t.  One of the strengths of maturing in adulthood is recognizing that almost everything is nuanced.  You might dislike certain parts of something or certain traits of someone at the same time that you embrace certain other parts of something and certain other traits of someone.  These differences are to be accepted as we learn how to improve ourselves, to seek to reach out to our fellow citizens, and to enrich our communities.


It is too easy to let hate creep into our activities. When we hate something, we assume that everything is black-or-white. Click To Tweet


  • It is too easy to let hate become a visceral reaction. Instead of listening and responding in a thoughtful way, we often state that we hate this or that or someone.  Hate becomes a knee-jerk reaction and substitutes for reasoned and rational discourse.  These types of reactions are toxic for children, families, communities and society.  Emotional reactions to hate can lead to chronic disease and emotional distress.  Hate becomes that “thorn in our side” that stays and is not easily removed.  It erodes our emotional well-being over time.
  • It is too easy to transition from hate to violence. Examples for this abound, especially in our current political climate.  Too many people fall victim to those that fan the flames of hate and subsequently carry the banner to a malicious conclusion.  Irrational behavior too often follows irrational rhetoric.

Some will argue that certain behaviors and people are indeed loathsome and deserving of hate.  My concern with this approach is that it becomes a slippery slope to use the term for too many things.  It then becomes a pervasive sentiment in all of our actions.  When that happens, it is hard to take things back or to retreat from an entrenched position.  I am still drawn to the words of Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address – “with malice toward none, with charity for all” as we seek to move forward in our lives and the lives of others.

My plea.  Drop the word “hate” from our (and your) vocabulary and actions.  This is not easy, and I slip up many times.  But I pledge to do better.  A concerted effort to embrace each other, recognizing our common humanity, allows for us to have targeted “dislikes.”  We can look on these dislikes as opportunities for improvement.  When we hate, we are closed to rational discourse – we are right, and they are wrong.  Let’s allow for room to improve how we interact and treat each other.  Let’s take the toxicity of hate out of the lives of our children.


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