6.5 mins read
Happy Easter everybody! It’s a good time to slough off any stale self-limiting sense of self and arise as someone altogether more incredible. I hope this article helps with that.
Someone told me she was dismayed recently to hear her 5-year old express self-doubt and self-loathing. She was trying to figure out how he came to feel that way given that she is always trying to encourage him; but we agreed that these days self-doubt is prevalent and can be picked up anywhere, including by kids.
This young mother went onto say that she herself suffers from low self-esteem so he may be picking it up from her.
Do you ever feel overly self-critical? Do we all feel like that sometimes? Most of us are not immune to identifying with a painful, limited sense of self and experiencing a resultant self-loathing.
Where does it come from?
I am going to come up with a few theories here, numbered a-d. Please feel free to add to these in the comments.
a. External conditions
Being overly self-critical can come from other people criticizing us a lot and us internalizing that feeling of unworthiness. It could have started in childhood with an influential adult in our life saying stuff like, “Shame on you! There’s something wrong with you! You’ll never amount to anything.” And, not knowing better, we then started to repeat those insults in the first person.
It could arise from cultural or societal put downs, such as racism, sexism, or homophobia, where again we internalize these harsh voices and repeat these narratives to ourselves.
Self-criticism can also come from life events we find hard to deal with — for example, if we are fired we might feel unworthy and useless, letting our job (or lack of it) define us. If we are rejected we can feel unlovable because the person we love doesn’t love us back and, internalizing this, we conclude it must be our fault.
Whatever conditions encouraged it, self-criticism is negative self-talk that gets stronger with repetition.
In 2005, the National Science Foundation published research on the number of thoughts we have, concluding that the average human being has about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. And, get this, they also concluded that about 80% of those thoughts are negative and 95% are exactly the same repetitive thoughts as the day before!
The person who pointed me to this statistic asked me whether training the mind in meditation meant that we switched out those 60,000 negative or uncontrolled thoughts with 60,000 positive thoughts. Pondering this, I would say that we don’t have that many thoughts once we start training in concentration and finding our happiness in peaceful, positive states of mind. For example, we can learn to stay focused on love all day. What do you think?
This as opposed to the young multitasker with the split-screen, thoughts flitting all over the place – “what number shall I put in this Sudoku box? Which email shall I reply to now? Do I even like this music? Who’s that texting me? Why did he say that to me? Will I ever get a job I like? I’m hungry” – amounting to surely tons of thoughts in even the short time I was covertly observing her. The number of thoughts we have, I would wager, is going up every year as our mind becomes more and more outward orientated, constantly seeking happiness in a multiple of things outside ourselves.
Buddha called an uncontrolled mind a “monkey mind” precisely because it’s jumping all over the place from one object to the next (as well as grabbing stuff or chucking it around). Our mind can only focus on one object at a time – so in multi-tasking the mind is simply moving rapidly from one object to the next and back again. Distractions and over-stimulations like these are literally the opposite of concentration, a single-pointedness in which we focus on one object at a time, eventually for as long as we like.
Add to all this the discovery that 9 out of 10 thoughts are reportedly out of our control and you can see why we have a problem on our hands. Is it any wonder that our uncontrolled, repetitive, negative, over-thinking monkey mind is causing us to feel bad, mad, or sad all day, and in life after life? Including all those repetitive self-bullying thoughts!
c. Anger directed inwards
Self-dislike or self-hatred is actually part of anger, anger directed inwards, which exaggerates our faults and edits out our good qualities. We are talking to ourselves about ourselves in ways and at a rate that we’d quite possibly never put up with from someone else. If someone was following us around all day telling us we were hopeless, we could at least lock ourselves in the bathroom for a few minutes respite. Not so much when we are doing it to ourselves.
In How to Solve our Human Problems, Geshe Kelsang gives the definition of anger:
Anger is a deluded mind that focuses on an animate or inanimate object, feels it to be unattractive, exaggerates its bad qualities, and wishes to harm it.
Then he explains how this works in terms of being directed toward someone else, giving the example of a partner; but I think it also works just as well with anger directed toward ourselves, so I’m going to use his words but switch out partner for ourself.
For example, when we are angry with ourself, at that moment we appear to us as unattractive or unpleasant. We then exaggerate our bad qualities by focusing only on those aspects that irritate us and ignoring all our good qualities and kindness, until we have built up a mental image of an intrinsically faulty person.
That self we are relating to is a mental image. That’s it. There is nothing actually there. There is nothing behind that image. It is a reflection of our thoughts. The sooner we realize we keep projecting mental images of a painful, limited self and believing they are solid, the sooner we will be free not just from self-anger but from all delusions and suffering.
We then wish to harm ourselves in some way, probably by criticizing or disparaging ourselves.
Naturally, if we have set our self up as the problem, the only way to get rid of our problem now is to somehow belittle or get rid of this dislikeable self. But how is that supposed to work?!
Self-dislike arises from inappropriate attention, which means that it is not relating to something or someone who actually exists, but to an hallucination, a projection. Anger edits out everything good about ourselves, leaving all redeemable qualities on the cutting room floor, because it can only sustain itself by focusing on faults. As Geshe Kelsang puts it:
Because it is based on an exaggeration, anger is an unrealistic mind – the intrinsically faulty person it focuses on does not in fact exist.
This is why we cannot solve the problem created by anger with anger itself. Anger only sees faults, so as soon as a solution or redeeming quality appears, “Oh, I’m not so bad! I’m quite nice really!”, anger starts to fade away.
We can see from this that at root, self-criticism, like all anger and other delusions, grows from ego-grasping — projecting and then believing in a distorted sense of self, believing it is inherently existent or real. In this case the distortion is a sense of an intrinsically unworthy or dislikeable self, whom we consequently dislike and put down. Luckily, thanks to Buddha’s deep and eminently practical psychological and spiritual insights, this is something we can remedy.
Update: A quick request to those of you who are leaving great comments on this article on Facebook — please leave your feedback here as well so I can address it or use it in the next 4 articles 😃 (Yep, 4, already in the pipeline.)