Why Do We Hate Ourselves So Much?

beatings will continue

I once had this pin, and put it up on a cubicle in my workplace back in the early ’90s. Not everyone thought it was funny or even understood the “joke,” but it seems appropriate today. Only in this case, I refer not to upper management, but to our own selves administering the beatings. Why is it that we beat ourselves up here in the West? Is it because so much is expected of us ? Is it because our culture is so focused on “winners” and “losers”?

Enough already? I was reading a piece by Pema Chodron recently and she talked about how surprised the Dalai Lama was to hear from Sharon Salzburg (a well known Western practitioner) that people in the West basically don’t like themselves very much. And I think that’s true, in general: how many people do you know (including yourself) who feel that they’re not good enough, smart enough, thin enough, successful enough, etc.? There’s always some sort of deficit–once one void is filled or a problem is solved, another seems to pop up in its place. There are few people I know who care for and about themselves unconditionally–and I’m not talking here about indulging in “feeling good” through external means (think Ben and Jerry’s, binge-watching Breaking bad, avoiding doing the laundry for just one more day, etc.). I’m talking here about some core self-compassion (something I wrote about the other week: Note to Self: Be Kind (to Yourself) — The Importance of Self-Compassion).

What I found interesting in the posting was how every one of the Western teachers at the Dalai Lama’s retreat was aware of the constant lack among Western Buddhist practitioners–but he was not. As Chodron explained:

Sharon Salzburg, who’s a teacher of western insight meditation, was talking to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and explaining how in teaching in the West one of the things that teachers always encountered was how widespread it was that people were very hard on themselves. That when the teachings were taught in a traditional way, sometimes they simply didn’t communicate because we were so good as a group of people at taking whatever we heard and turning it against ourselves. For instance, there could be some excellent teaching on the difficulty, the pain that comes from ego clinging and that teaching could be taught in a very traditional way and then people could hear it, and somehow people could come out feeling bad about themselves. Instead of feeling inspired or uplifted to heal themselves, they’d come out feeling bad about themselves.

She was explaining this and His Holiness the Dalai Lama stopped her and said he didn’t know what she was talking about. She tried to keep explaining that people have a low opinion of themselves. There’s a lot of self-criticism, self-loathing, and things like this. And somehow, still he didn’t really seem to understand. So he went around the room and asked all the Western teachers if they knew what she was talking about. And, of course, everybody knew what she was talking about.

When it had gone all the way around, he said, Well that’s very interesting. There is a difference between the Tibetan people, that he knows so well, and the people of the West.

Pema’s Wisdom. Chodron’s piece is well worth reading–especially because it addresses some important issues that everyone is dealing with today (i.e., scary times on planet earth), but it also teaches the importance of kindness and mindfulness. That being in pain and self-doubt is part of life’s suffering and the goal isn’t to somehow hope that mindful practice “makes that go away,” but to view it differently. To understand it more clearly. Chodron even includes some references to our ancient brain’s survival mechanism and “old patterns” of behavior:

This particular teaching on the Four Limitless Ones, on maitri, compassion, joy and equanimity is really a teaching on how to take the situations of your life and train- actually train- in catching yourself closing down, catching yourself getting hard, and training in opening at that very point, or softening. In some sense reversing a very, very old pattern of the whole species, which is a pattern of armoring ourselves. It’s sort of like the essence of the whole Path is in that place of discomfort and what do you do with it?

To me, this “catching” of one’s self in the act (e.g., hating, hurting, focusing on pain) is key–it’s that  pause. The mindful moment that can help prevent you from getting “hooked” into old behaviors of self-doubt and self-hate. Something that the Tibetan people, apparently, don’t have, but that we Westerners have in spades. Chodron also talks to the issue of our inner child; how the child wants to be taken care of–a core issue in modern psychology today. We’re scared children, and practice helps alleviate this suffering. As Chodron explains:

“…growing up, it’s not all that easy because it requires a lot of courage. Particularly it takes a lot of courage to relate directly with your experience. By this I mean whatever is occurring in you, you use it,. You seize the moment? moment after moment? you seize those moments and instead of letting life shut you down and make you more afraid, you use those very same moments of time to soften and to open and to become more kind. More kind to yourself for starters as the basis for becoming more kind to other

To me, this is how I practice and this is the most important thing. You never know what’s going to happen to us. In any day of our lives you never know what’s coming. That’s part of the adventure of it actually, but that’s what makes us scared, is that we never know. And we spend a lot of time trying to control it so that we could know, but the truth is that we don’t really know.

Interesting. The uncertainty. The fear of the unknown. There is, to me, at least, a lot of opportunity for mindful acceptance, loving kindness, an opportunity for giving (not just to others, but to yourself), and a time to tell your inner child that everything will be fine. To paraphrase Thich Nhat Hanh, we must, each day, talk to our inner child and listen to that child. Let the child know that it is safe from harm. Wise words that could have come from a Buddhist or a therapist.

Take the time to be Kind to Yourself. Here are some links to some excellent guided meditations from Dr. Kristin Dr. Kristin Neff, an expert on self-compassion, to help cultivate individual loving kindness:

Affectionate Breathing

Body Scan

Loving Kindness Meditation

Noting your Emotions

Soften, soothe, allow:  Working with emotions in the body

UPDATE: Four Ways to Constructively Criticize yourself at Greater Good:

When we fail at something important to us, whether in relationships, at school, or at work, it can be very painful. These experiences can threaten the very core of who we think we are and who we want to be.

To cope with failure, we often turn to self-protective strategies. We rationalize what happened so that it places us in a more positive light, we blame other people, and we discount the importance of the event.

Click here to read the whole piece, which includes practical steps for handling self-criticism!
Yours in Mental Hygiene,
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The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness

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  1. June Hamilton /

    Finally my thoughts in print! Donald Trump asks “Why do THEY hate us?”
    Why do we hate OURSELVES? Experience as a teacher and a mother taught me so much about life. Briefly: I tried to teach the (my) children that they were OK, individual, had self esteem and could survive in the big, sometimes scary world. Give them choices, reward good behaviour, separate the child (person) from who they are and what they do. Having empathy is a challenge but helps with maturity. Perhaps think of someone else, help someone else. Need stable home environment with somewhat of a routine, as Dr. Phil says “a soft place to fall”.
    Please try not to have children for the wrong reasons – parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world. It’s OK not to get married and/or not have kids. Spirituality, yes – any extreme religion – no. Guns, absolutely not! My Dad was a policeman, later Inspector, in a big city for 36 years. If a citizen has a gun, they are more likely to be killed (than someone unarmed). Pay attention to the recent hienous murders of armed Police Officers in the U.S. – I am sick. The “American Dream” – good education, job, “own a house” – what’s wrong with renting – I do! Too much materialism and ME thoughts. For many years, Police in th U.K. were unarmed. How did that work- well! I could write a book! Just my (unedited)
    thoughts. I feel OK about myself and have just tried MY best! From a 72 year old woman, mother, grandmother (widow) and very proud Canadian! Thanks for reading.

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