How to overcome toxic self-criticism 

7 mins read.

It all starts with changing our experience.

If we want to change our actions or behaviors, we need to change our intentions. If we want to change our intentions or wishes, we need to change our sense of who we are. feeling smallAnd if we want to change our sense of self, this has to be based on changing our experience.

Carrying on from this article, Giving up self-hatred once and for all. 

We underestimate ourselves badly a lot of the time — in the case of self-dislike by experiencing and relating to an inherently limited unworthy small self. But where is that self to be found? What is it?

That self is who we are not rather than who we are. We want to get to the point that whenever it appears it actually reminds us that it is fake — it is appearing, but not really there. It is like — to use an analogy from the Buddhist scriptures — seeing two moons when we press our eyeball reminding us that there is only one moon in the sky.

Our sense of self at any given moment feels independent, existing in and of itself; but it arises 100% in dependence on what we happen to be thinking.

With self-criticism, we have a lack of patient acceptance for ourselves. We are never waking up happygood enough; we always have to do more or do better. Fighting this self-image, there is no room or energy for growth. We might also have the master emotion of guilt — the feeling that we’re not worthy, competent, or good, that we are, in a sense, rotten at the core.

The opposite is the case

But the reality is in fact the OPPOSITE of what we are telling ourselves. Far from being flawed, we are a being of boundless indestructible potential, pure and good at heart, and in a position to connect to the infinite wisdom of enlightenment.

By learning to accept ourselves happily within an understanding of our enormous capacity for freedom and growth, we will begin to awaken a source of deep inspiration and wisdom from within.

It is terribly sad to go through life not knowing about what we have inside us, or who we already are and can become. As mentioned in this passage from How to Transform Your Lifewhich I’ll repeat because it’s so significant for our spiritual development — our pure essential nature, who we really are, is mind-blowingly good:

Buddha compared our Buddha nature to a gold nugget in dirt, for no matter how disgusting a person’s delusions may be, the real nature of their mind remains undefiled, like pure gold. In the heart of even the cruelest and most degenerate person exists the potential for limitless love, compassion, and wisdom.

Yes, this means us too. However badly we are thinking ourselves to be, we are not.

Unlike the seeds of our delusions, which can be destroyed, this potential is utterly indestructible and is the pure essential nature of every living being.

hero insideOur delusions, such as disliking ourself, are all based on faulty or distorted thinking, inappropriate attention — so once we get rid of that faulty thinking for good, the delusion goes away and can never come back. But the seeds of compassion and wisdom will be our essential nature for as long as reality remains. (For more on how that is, check out this article.)

And now is the best time to really figure this out, while we have this precious human life.

Buddha’s analogy for our current opportunity

Buddha gives the analogy of a person living in poverty, in a hovel, scrabbling around to be happy and make ends meet for himself and his family. He is working really hard but feeling really poor.

But one day he gets a visitor – a wise person comes to his door and says: “I don’t think you realize this, but below your house is a gold mine. You are in fact exceedingly rich.”

The man may be skeptical at first, but he gets curious one day and checks it out. Sure enough, he realizes that he has been living on top of a gold mine since he was born. And his and his family’s life now changes completely.

gold mine.gifIn a similar way, Buddha has turned up in our lives to tell us that we have an incredible gold mine inside us — innate goodness and purity, possessing the capacity for lasting peace and happiness. Perhaps we don’t really believe him because we have gotten so used to identifying with being a poor person, but one day we check it out anyway and discover that he is right! And our life changes beyond recognition.

As Geshe Kelsang says:

Whenever we meet other people, rather than focusing on their delusions, we should focus on the gold of their Buddha nature. This will not only enable us to regard them as special and unique, but also help to bring out their good qualities. Recognizing everyone as a future Buddha, out of love and compassion we will naturally help and encourage this potential to ripen.

This includes meeting ourselves!

We are not doomed!

In other words, you are not doomed, and nor is anyone else. It is so important that we understand this because, until we do, our wish for lasting freedom for ourselves and others will never be sustainable. We will just keep getting tired, worried, and discouraged, losing energy, burning out. We can’t sustain a wish for something we don’t actually believe in, and if we don’t wish for it we won’t have any energy, effort, or patience to achieve it.

super womanStep 1 ~ new improved experience

Given all this, the first step is to allow our inner chatter to stop for a bit. We can simply turn inward to examine our mind, as explained here, and then use breathing meditation or clarity of mind meditation or absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thought.

As result of not focusing on our distracting thoughts, they disappear, because thoughts can only survive for as long as we are thinking them. Initially, just by allowing delusions to go away for a short while, we already feel better.

But please don’t be perfectionist – we don’t have to have a perfectly clear mind; any clearing of the clouds will do. Even a handkerchief of blue sky on an overcast day encourages us that there is plenty more where that comes from. We don’t want to over-judge our meditations, but instead be gentle and relaxed.

Concentration is not about pushing. We can simply relax into whatever peace we have, even if it is tiny. We can allow ourselves to enjoy this. Otherwise we are just buying into being useless at meditation as well – I am too useless even to learn how to be less useless!

When we first start meditating, we realize that we have an endless inane talk show going on. It takes a bit of time and practice to switch this off, so don’t have expectations, aka pre-meditated resentments! Just practice happily without grasping at results. This is how we get good at meditation. It doesn’t matter if our mind is full of busy thoughts — provided we are alert to that and letting them go we are doing really well, as explained in this article on mindfulness, alertness, and concentration. monkey mind

A friend said this the other day:

I love the admonition regarding meditation: “expectations are pre-meditated resentments.” For me, one of the greatest delights of meditation is knowing that any meditation is a good meditation and that judging simply gets in the way of absorption, concentration, and realizations.

I tend to be hard on myself in everything else I do and, unconsciously until recently, use high expectations and my regular failure to meet them as certifications of my not-good-enough self. Sitting down to meditate and just exhaling “Ahh!” is my empowering opponent to and vacation from beating myself up – at least once a day.

Saying “I cannot meditate because my mind is too distracted!” is like going to the doctor with a bad stomach ache but refusing to take the medicine. The doctor says, “Take these pills, you’ll feel better!”, but we reply, “I can’t because my stomachs hurts too much.” It is precisely because our mind is so distracted that we need take the medicine of breathing meditation 😁.

The rest of this explanation on overcoming self-hatred is on its way soon — I figured your coffee break might be up. Meantime, your comments have been very helpful up to now, so please leave more below!

Related articles

Just who do you think you are?!

Being kinder to ourselves and others

How to meditate

 

 

Giving up self-hatred once and for all

5.5 mins read.

Kadampa Buddha 4Call me biased, but I can’t help thinking that Buddha Shakyamuni is the best psychologist who ever walked the earth. Yet he is also transcendent, visionary. His vision is not just about us all feeling better, but about us all being our very best self, which just happens to be enlightened.

Following directly on from this article, How to stop being so down on ourselves.

A friend of mind recently went through the stuff of nightmares, a hellish trauma. This only happened in November, but she feels that with Dharma she should have “got over it by now,” and is upset with herself for feeling constant flashes of anger, fear, and sadness. Instead of accepting these unpleasant thoughts as entirely normal post-traumatic weather in a sky-like mind, she is buying into them and feeling they define her; and therefore she feels she is failing at being a “good Buddhist.” It will be hard for her to move beyond this horror if she keeps beating herself up, and her Buddhist practices and meditations will just be overlayed onto a sense of an inadequate self. I am glad we had a chance to talk yesterday because this is exactly the kind of problem we are dealing with here.

The last 4 articles have been about toxic self-criticism or self-hatred, what’s wrong with it, and where it comes from, including the relationship between our experience, sense of self, intentions, actions, and life. Now, with all this practical insight, we’re ready to give it up once and for all.

So how do we? First it might be helpful to see how NOT to.

Option 1. Change my view of self?

pep talk in mirrorMaybe we think the first step to overcoming self-hatred is changing our sense of self by telling ourselves we are great?

But this doesn’t work, any more than it works for someone else to tell us we’re great if we’re not feeling it. Maybe we talk to ourselves in the mirror: “You’re wonderful! You can do anything!” But our experience tells us otherwise. Affirmations or pep talks in the mirror won’t work if we’re feeling crummy inside.

Option 2. Change my intentions?

So maybe I should change my intentions or wishes?

But that doesn’t work while we are holding onto a limited view of self because what we want depends on whom we think we are, our sense of identity. So, for example, if we feel we’re a really hopeless person, we cannot help but have underwhelming wishes that hold us back from realizing our potential. This in turn makes us feel even more hopeless.

Option 3. Change my actions?

Often we try to change our actions through sheer will power, for example by forcing ourselves to do things outside our comfort zone, things that are supposed to be good for us. However, this is a stretch and not sustainable because there is a gulf between our head and our heart. It generally winds up with us having to control or suppress our actual wishes, which can make us feel hypocritical or more conflicted. For example, if we feel we need to be on a diet but are identifying ourself as an overweight loser whose only comfort is food, we may lock the fridge door but then give in and stuff ourselves later.

To summarize, what we do depends upon what we want, which in turn depends upon who we think we are.

So what CAN I change?!

No-one-can-make-you-feel-inferior-withoutGiven this, what do we need to change in order to get rid of self-hatred and other delusions? We have to change our EXPERIENCE. And this starts by getting in touch with our peaceful, pure, and boundless nature. It is not a case of, “Whatever! I can’t do this, it’s not me!”, believing that our lack of peace and incompetence is our very nature. Look what that leads too! We need to know our real nature or potential versus doubting it.

In How to Transform Your Life (free here), Geshe Kelsang explains:

Buddha compared our Buddha nature to a gold nugget in dirt, for no matter how disgusting a person’s delusions may be, the real nature of their mind remains undefiled, like pure gold. In the heart of even the cruelest and most degenerate person exists the potential for limitless love, compassion, and wisdom.

We need to discover who we truly are. This can be as simple at first as doing a short breathing meditation and giving ourselves some moments to identify with the result. When we disconnect from the external world and the internal chatter, we discover an innate peace of mind and goodness. We have changed our experience to one of relative happiness and contentment. We start to get what Buddha means about our mind being like a limitless sky.

hero inside 2If we sit with this for long enough (as a guest writer explained beautifully here and I plan on exploring more in the next article), we come to realize we have developed a new view of ourself. We have changed our basis of imputation. And we can build upon this with many virtuous and wise states of mind, all the stages of the path of Sutra and Tantra if we so desire.

A conversation

 Just as I was writing all this, I overheard a conversation at the next table in this Denver café – a young woman was sharing with her friend how she hadn’t been invited to a social occasion: “I don’t like it; it makes me feel small. Who does she think she is?!” The other commiserated animatedly with some swear words and distasteful “facts” about the unfriendly person; and they both laughed.

To serve and protect our unworthy small self, to try and make ourselves feel bigger, one strategy is to be down on somebody else and ideally get other people to agree with us.

feeling small 2The dissing and laughter seems to have solved the problem temporarily! But, no, after a brief relief they are back on the subject – “What I want to say but can’t is ‘I’m tired of you being so b****.”

What her friend could usefully say to empower her is, “Look at the limited self you’re holding onto right now. It’s not actually you. It is a fake sense of self. Just let it go. You can be the master of your own moods.” But instead they are both now pinning all the frustration about the way she feels on the b**** friend who didn’t invite her; and that person of course is out of their control so there is no solution there.

As mentioned all over the place, there are two problems here. The inner problem can be solved by dissolving away the limited self by realizing it’s not actually there, and identifying with her natural self-contained happiness and boundless potential instead. On that basis, maybe she can find the courage to talk to her b**** friend, making an attempt to solve the outer problem, but in a calm way, without feeling on the defensive. If she does that, her friend is also more likely to listen.

The next installment is here.

Comments welcome!

Related articles

Body image: a Buddhist perspective

Meditation in the pursuit of happiness

Overcoming stress at work

What would a Buddhist do? 

Toward an empowered sense of self

5.5 mins read.

Buddha is not saying that we don’t have faults and limitations because of course we do (well I do); and we need to identify what these are if we are to have any hope of getting rid of them.

Carrying on from this article, Being kinder to ourselves and others.

If we are honest with ourself, we will recognize that at the moment our mind is filled with defilements such as anger, attachment, and ignorance. These mental diseases will not go away just by our pretending they do not exist. The only way we  can ever get rid of them is by honestly acknowledging their existence and then making the effort to eliminate them. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Identify our faults without identifying with them

self-criticismHowever, there is a world of difference between identifying our faults and identifying WITH them. Sure we need to improve, but we can’t improve at the same time as feeling bad about ourselves, or guilty, because this is creating a negative self-fulfilling prophecy.

Try picking up a glass of water. How heavy is it? Not very? Okay, hold it for 5 minutes. How heavy is it now? Hmmm.

In the same way as water becomes heavy if we don’t let it go, similarly our bad feelings become heavy and guilty if we don’t know how to let them go. It is possible to admit to our mistakes without feeling guilty. Guilt holds on. It keeps us stuck. It comes from a fundamental lack of self-acceptance.

We need to let go of our delusions not because they are inherently bad or because they make us inherently bad, but simply because they make us and others unhappy. As Geshe Kelsang says:

Just as mud can always be removed to reveal pure, clear water, so delusions can be removed to reveal the natural purity and clarity of our mind.

Spiritual bypassing

Geshe Kelsang talks all the time about our innate purity, our Buddha nature, and our need to identify with it; but sometimes people don’t pick up on this, which is partly why I’m writing these articles. The other day someone in Germany pointed out, accurately I think:

Western people are different. Like you described it in the article, we learned always to put the blame on ourselves. Perhaps because of that Christian tradition (or what the church made of it), you’re guilty, small, and so on. I don’t really know. When we follow the Buddhist spiritual path we learn so much about delusions, uncontrolled minds, negative karma, and so on; and we are always told to purify our bad baaad karma, to tame our monkey mind. This is all clearly necessary. But I often ask myself, how can we love others honestly if we don’t take the first step to accept ourselves? We need more teachings on self-compassion.

burdenWithout skill, spiritual practitioners can indeed beat themselves up with guilt and feeling small while “pretending” to be good Buddhists or Christians or whatever – and this disconnect eventually leads to hypocrisy, or burnout, or abandonment of their spiritual practice. People can even use their Tantric practice as pure escapism from an unworthy sense of self, completely missing the point. It is no accident that one of our commitments as trainee Bodhisattvas is to “avoid pretension and deceit;” and I would argue that this is highly useful when it comes to talking to ourselves.

Buddha has covered this lack of self-worth from every angle. For example, I think renunciation is deep love and compassion for ourselves; we want true and lasting happiness and freedom for ourselves. However, here we are talking about our pure potential-filled self — not the painful, fixed, limited self held by self-grasping and self-cherishing, which in any case can never be made happy because it doesn’t exist.

And Geshe Kelsang is very clear about never identifying with our delusions, but always with our pure nature so that we can feel happy with ourselves while overcoming our faults. For example, as it says in How to Transform Your Life:

While acknowledging that we have delusions, we should not identify with them, thinking, “I am a selfish, worthless person” or “I am an angry person.” Instead we should identify with our pure potential and develop the wisdom and courage to overcome our delusions.

self-likingHow could it be put more clearly? Moreover we come to experience extraordinary self-confidence and happiness with ourselves as a Bodhisattva and blissful Tantric Deity, if we learn how to do it right. In Tantra, we totally identify ourselves with the result of our spiritual practicereality itself, the bliss and emptiness of a Buddha’s mind — and work to overcome our faults in that light, never while identified with a small intrinsically ordinary self that doesn’t even exist.

Becoming someone we like

From letting go of our painful thoughts in breathing meditation, as mentioned in this article, we can then go onto see that there is nothing fixed or immutable about us — through changing our thoughts, choosing better, wiser ones, we can become whom we want to be. Buddha and his followers have been saying this forever, and research abounds these days on the impact of positive vs negative thinking on ourselves and others, and the fact that we have the potential to transform ourselves by changing our habits of mind.

We can, for example, ask ourselves what advice we’d give to a good friend if they were suffering from the same low self-esteem, and then start to take that advice ourselves. We can even observe ourselves through the eyes of enlightened beings and Bodhisattvas who know the truth, that we are not our delusions, that we are basically great and full of potential – as it says in How to Transform Your Life:

It is because they distinguish between delusions and persons that Buddhas are able to see the faults of delusions without ever seeing a single fault in any living being. Consequently, their love and compassion for living beings never diminish.

A healthy sense of self

empowered selfWhat we really need to do is to reidentify who we think we are, which is called in Buddhism “changing our basis of imputation.” We can change our sense of who we are from someone who is inadequate to someone we really like and respect. Then we can enjoy our own company all day long, encourage ourselves to do great things, and like and respect other people more.

We need to develop a healthy sense of self, an empowered sense of self, based on something genuine.

To do this, it’s really very helpful to understand the relationship between our experience, sense of self, intentions, actions, and life. That next installment is here, How to stop being so down on ourselves.

Meanwhile, over to you! Please keep the feedback coming, it’s been helpful. 

Related articles

Silencing the inner critic

How much can a person really change? 

The relevance of inner peace

 

 

 

Being kinder to ourselves and others

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.

not way to relate to potential
Not the way to look at our potential.

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!self-hatred like cancer

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.)

Reconstruction

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.

dirt under carpet

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. mirror to the past

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.

clouds in skyAs 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.

Related articles

Articles on Buddhism and society 
Tired yet of living a cliché?
Healing the past

 

Silencing the Inner Critic

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. For starters, how much do you like yourself?! Someone told me she was dismayed recently to hear her 5-year old express self-doubt … Continue reading “Silencing the Inner Critic”

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.

low self-esteemFor starters, how much do you like yourself?!

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.shame on you child

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.

b. Repetition

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?overthinking

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.

self-hatredThat 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.

 d. Ego-grasping

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.

Next installment is here.

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.)

Related articles

Overcoming self-doubts

Do you ever feel discouraged?

How to overcome anxiety