7.5 mins read.
I thought we’d start by looking at why we really need to do something sooner rather than later about this inner critic — or inner bully — which is always putting us down.
Carrying straight on from Silencing the inner critic.
As part of anger, it is a toxic inner poison, so no wonder it leads to so many problems. Anger is a distorted unrealistic mind, so how can it serve any useful purpose?
Destroying our confidence, self-dislike and over-critical self-judgment blocks our creativity and inspiration, and therewith can sabotage not just our careers but our spiritual practice.
It deadens our relationships – keeping us trapped in relationships where we might put up with the other person criticizing or abusing us, because we feel we “deserve” it.
A quick Google search shows that it leads to shame, sadness, self-doubt, fear, hopelessness, irritability, frustration, and learning and memory problems. We get depressed, suffer from lower energy, experience constant anxiety, and engage in self-destructive behaviors. For example, if we believe we are hopeless and cannot stick to a diet, we may just as well eat those six donuts – it’ll provide temporary relief at least!
We become our own worst enemy, but it doesn’t stop there – it can make us criticize and complain about others as well, making enemies of them. This can be because, when we are feeling irritable, everything appears irritating. Then people don’t like us and we end up liking ourselves less too, in a negative spiral.
Constantly complaining about others or ourselves is bad for our mind and for our body (Google it!). Experiencing anger and frustration causes our body to release the stress hormone cortisol, which contributes to higher blood pressure and cholesterol, a weakened immune system, and the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Need I go on?!
Putting others down can also be an attempt to distract ourselves from our own perceived inadequacies, or an attempt to bolster our own self-esteem. If we liked and valued ourselves, would we really need to put others down to raise ourselves up? No self-respecting person actually feels the need to do that.
Toward a healthier society
Collectively, I would submit, a lack of self-respect and self-liking has led to a painful lack of respect and liking for others on a societal level. This incredible new documentary on PBS recently examines the century following America’s Civil War, and has affected me quite deeply. (If you live outside the United States, it is available for purchase on DVD here.)
Among many other things, this 4-part series shows me how oppressing or dehumanizing other people to deal with our own feelings of inadequacy leads to frightening hypocrisy, self-deception, and societal problems; and how it is little wonder that so many African Americans experience not just less opportunity but also report to feelings of low self-esteem, given this nation’s long violent history of systemic racism. This documentary has given me a far clearer picture of the factors at play in many of the problems faced in America today.
In a section on overcoming self-cherishing in The New Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe Kelsang says:
It is often so painful to admit that we have faults that we make all manner or excuse rather than alter our exalted view of ourselves. One of the most common ways of not facing up to our faults is to blame others.
America has a lot of amazing qualities and I love it, but I have been thinking how white-washing our history is not helping us to stop demonizing each other, let alone to love and respect one other; which we need to do if we are to have any hope of a fair and peaceful society. I was not brought up here so it may be less surprising that much of this documentary was news to me, but I watched it with an African American friend who told me that he learned very little of this history of slavery and its aftermath in school in Texas. Other American friends, Black and white, old and even young, in the south and in the north, have also told me that the US educational system has been highly selective with its facts about the Civil War and Reconstruction, that they were fed a lot of propaganda. But until this history is widely explained and acknowledged, I can’t see how it can go away.
We need to acknowledge our delusions in order to overcome them, otherwise we are fooling ourselves, as it says in Eight Steps, …
… like pretending that there is no dirt in our house after sweeping it under the carpet.
I was struck in Berlin’s monuments of how owning the faults of the past has allowed people to learn what not to do moving forward, to claim back some self-respect as a society, to heal, and to move on. What’s to stop us doing something similar in America?
The past is like last night’s dream, it has gone. So I don’t see all this so much as sorting out a solid, real past so much as using the past as a mirror for recognizing the patterns of thinking and behaving that are still alive in us today, so we can deal with them in ourselves and in our society. If we look in the mirror and find there’s nothing to fix, that’s great; but I think there is value in looking. Or else, you know what they say about history repeating itself??!
In terms of making external improvements to our society, people come up with different ideas, political or otherwise, some more effective than others. If we use Buddha’s teachings, known as Dharma, to solve our inner problems – in this instance, solving the problem of self-hatred and low self-esteem – I reckon that this in turn will make our outer actions more successful and compassionate wherever we stand on politics.
Anyway, this is a deep subject to wade into, but, like I say, the documentary has been eye opening; so I just wanted to throw some of my thoughts out there to continue a conversation about how Buddha’s radical ideas can help society.
What’s the Buddhist solution to self-loathing, then?
It doesn’t work to push these self-critical thoughts away or suppress them any more than it works to squish a jack back into the box and expect him to stay down. We can’t just tell ourselves to shut up. So what can we do?
In a similar way to dealing with anger directed toward other people, we can follow this advice from How to Solve our Human Problems:
To solve the problem of anger, we first need to recognize the anger within our mind, acknowledge how it harms both ourself and others, and appreciate the benefits of being patient in the face of difficulties.
First off, of course, we need to become aware that those critical thoughts are there and that they are harming us and others, but without panicking. We are not our thoughts. We are like pure boundless sky. We can learn to patiently accept what is going on with our thoughts with a view to letting them go.
As explained more in this article, we have thoughts, ideas, memories, etc; but we are not these. You’ve heard of all that mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy that’s around these days? It is based on Buddha’s wisdom that we are not our thoughts.
In Great Treasury of Merit, Geshe Kelsang explains about examining our thoughts as a precursor to meditation practice:
Sometimes the mere act of examining the mind, if it is done conscientiously, will pacify our distractions. At the beginning our mind is very much orientated towards external phenomena and we are preoccupied with worldly affairs, but by bringing our attention inwards to examine the mind it is possible that these conceptual distractions will cease.
It’s very interesting and revealing to turn our attention from outward to inward. Try it and see. It doesn’t take long to notice that, after all, we are not our thoughts. There is space there, space between us and them. I don’t have to follow them, I don’t have to be helplessly swept up by them, I don’t have to identify with them, I don’t even have to think them. How is it possible to let them go? Because they are just fleeting thoughts and they are not me. I can let them all go, for example using a breathing meditation or dissolving them back into the clarity of the mind from which they arose.
This is just the first step — there is more here about how, with this as a first step, we can develop a more empowered sense of self.
Over to you … there are 4 more articles in the pipeline already written, including this one; but I can incorporate your feedback if you leave it for me in the comments below.
Articles on Buddhism and society
Tired yet of living a cliché?
Healing the past
So good and important to be reminded.
Mindfulness. Positive progress.
Thank you, Luna, wonderful beginning for such an important theme… I wrote a long comment…but it “disappeared (wasn’t sent)…
I hope now it will work. 🙄
As German I know what it means to feel guilty, not only for your own unperfections but also for the faults made in history of the country you belong to.
To whitewash history (of your country as well as your own) and forgetting the past means to repeat – sooner or later – the same…again and again. That karma and the nature of samsara. It’s not so easy to face all of that. But it is the beginning of the spiritual path.
As I mentioned before, how can we develop loving kindness in our relationships and all living beings, when we don’t start with ourselves? That’s not possible.
It’s one of most harmful illnesses of our time not being able to forgive ourselves.
Looking forward to your next article 😊,
Best wishes from Germany, Katja
Wonderful thoughts, Luna, for the beginning
❤️🙏… Thank you very much to put effort into analyzing this theme.
Like I said before my observation in social contacts (with Dharma practicioners and non spiritual people) is that self hatred and punishment, like you described it in general, is one the most important obstacles for spiritual practice and for formation of compassion and loving kindness to others. Our mind is “closed” and nothing can flourish when we sweep everything under the carpet, which we cannot bare to see. Especially our own unperfections.
So sad 😔… What teaches Dharma – in the beginning, in the middle and the end? Loving kindness! And what are we often do with these wonderful teachings?
Sometimes it feels like a weapon against ourselves and others.
Perhaps it hurts to look at our suffering in the full sense of the meaning. But to ignore that first view, and from moment to moment, we will still remain like dreamers, who do not REALLY want to awake, but only make their samsaric nightmare a little bit more bearable… That only cosmetic surgery…
I’m German and I know from our own history how hard it is to deal with cruel deeds in the past. It is a feeling of responsibility for the faults of the ancients. But to forget history leads to repeat the faults, which were made.
Whitewashing is not the way to overcome history.
So, looking forward to read more about the theme.
Thanks again 😊, Katja
Thank you for your article.
The ‘inner critic’ is such a strong tendency.
I feel it needs something powerful like the four powers to purify it.
But I anticipate employing them could be hijacked by the same tendency!
Thinking about Bodhichitta for me is a powerful motivator to overcome this tendency as, until we stop this habit we’re severely impeded in our ability to benefit others.
Oh I wish this nonsense could stop now!
It generally seems to me that Americans are far more at ease with themselves than the Brits but your articles suggest otherwise. What am I missing here out of interest.
Thank you for all your kindness and inspiration.
To answer your question, I take it you are in the UK? I don’t know who are more at ease with themselves, Americans or Brits. I think all of us could learn to relate to ourselves more wisely and positively.
Bodhichitta is a powerful solution to all our delusions. But our spiritual practice can be hijacked by this tendency if we’re not skillful in how we identify ourselves. More on that coming up soon 🙂
Thank you. I look forward to more!
This is such a meaningful article. Simply recognizing this inner critic as manifested anger motivates action. Thank you for all of your teachings on solving everyday problems through the application of Buddha’s teachings.
Thank you for your comment, I appreciate it.