Self-Hatred: Equalizing Our Attitudes toward Ourself
Dr. Alexander Berzin
Low self-esteem and self-hatred come from an emotionally charged negative view of ourselves, based on exaggerating and fixating upon our shortcomings and ignoring or denying our strong points. With equanimity toward ourselves – avoiding the extremes of self-recrimination, self-pampering and self-neglect – we become open to developing a more positive attitude toward ourselves. With such an attitude, we can nurture our good qualities to become of more help to both others and ourselves.
I would like to speak about a problem that is quite typical among Westerners, which is the problem of a negative attitude toward ourselves, low self-esteem. It can go even to the extreme of not only not liking ourselves, but even hating ourselves.
It’s very curious that this doesn’t seem to be a universal problem. For instance, it’s something that is quite strange and alien to the Tibetans. Once I was at a conference with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and a group of psychologists. The topic of low self-esteem and self-hatred came up, and His Holiness was very surprised: he had never heard of that. He found it very hard to believe that Western people actually had this type of attitude toward themselves. There were about 20 of us at this conference. His Holiness asked each of us if we had low self-esteem and everybody in the room said yes. His Holiness was completely shocked.
Of course one could speculate as to what the reasons are for why we don’t find this low self-esteem so frequently among Tibetans or among Indians either. Having lived in India for 29 years, one theory I came up with was that it has to do with the childrearing practices. I think this is the case not just among the Tibetans and Indians, but I think also in medieval times in Europe and certainly in Africa and Latin America and other parts of Asia. In traditional societies, the babies are always with their mother or an older sister. They’re either strapped to the back of the mother, or in India they hold them on the sides – they always have this physical contact. I think this makes the baby, especially when they’re very young, feel quite secure.
Think about the way that many modern Westerners treat their babies: they leave them alone in a crib, and they only reward them when they cry, by then picking them up, hopefully. By leaving them alone in the crib, I think it engenders a basic feeling of being abandoned and being insecure.
Think of a baby carriage, the strollers that people in the West walk babies in. The baby is in front of the mother or the father. So here’s this little child, maybe a year old, sitting there looking at the traffic on the street, and there are these big trucks and things going by, and they’re just facing it by themselves. This is very frightening, I’m sure; whereas in traditional societies the baby would be strapped to the mother or the father’s back, facing these things, feeling secure that they are protected. So I think at a very early age, the way that we raise our children can give a feeling to the child that “something’s wrong with me.” I think that helps to engender this bad feeling toward oneself.
Now, whether what I just hypothesized is true or not, I don’t know, but it seems to be at least one factor for why we find this attitude so prevalent among modern people raised with Western methods and we don’t find it so much in traditional societies. Add to this, in a system in which there’s competition and so much pressure to perform, like in the modern West, very often we feel: “I’m not good enough” if we don’t win.
In any case, low self-esteem and self-hatred are problems that many of us face. If we look at the Buddhist teachings, everything in them is intended to help us to overcome suffering by ridding ourselves of the causes of suffering. So if low self-esteem, having a negative attitude toward ourselves, is a cause of suffering and unhappiness, and if we have a strong confidence in the Buddhist teachings, there must be Buddhist methods that we can apply to help overcome this.
Perhaps some of you are familiar with the program I developed called Developing Balanced Sensitivity. I wrote a book like that; it’s on my website. In that program of 22 exercises, I put various Buddhist methods together in a way that could address specific types of problems that we tend to have more strongly in the West, problems that are not discussed so explicitly in the traditional Buddhist teachings. Primarily, these are the problems of being insensitive to others or to ourselves, or being oversensitive and getting hurt very easily, being out of touch with our feelings, out of touch with our body, alienation, and so on.
Since developing this program in 1998, I have worked out other types of programs to deal with yet other problems that I didn’t address in this first book. For instance, I developed exercises for integrating our life as a whole and all the different aspects of our life. I felt this was necessary because very often in our modern times our lives are so fragmented that we don’t feel whole. That’s also on my website.
Now I’ve developed another program, another training, specifically on how to deal with overcoming self-hatred. I have modeled this program on a very specific set of teachings in Buddhism, a type of training known as “equalizing and exchanging our attitudes about self and others,” which is intended to help us to overcome what’s called “self-cherishing” – so selfishness, just thinking of ourselves and ignoring the needs of others. It culminates in a practice called “tonglen” in Tibetan, which means “giving and taking.” With it, you imagine taking on or accepting all the problems of others, dealing with them with as much importance as if they were our own problems, and then giving others a solution to them, and so giving them happiness. Regarding this meditation practice, Geshe Chaykawa, in Seven Point Mind Training, wrote “as for the order of taking, start with myself.” In other words, we should start with taking on our own problems first.
What are our own problems that we need to address first? These include the problems associated with old age and sickness, for instance – and not just having to take care of our sick aged parents, but ourselves growing old and getting sick, such sorts of things that sometimes we don’t even think are going to happen to us. Even just providing for our family after we die is something that we need to take care of. So, rather than being in denial about these things, we take them on now. We say, “Okay, now I’m going to deal with this. Am I going to be emotionally prepared for this? Am I going to be psychologically prepared? Do I have some idea of how I will handle this situation?” and so on. We deal with these now, at least in our minds, which is of course a very helpful practice.
Preparing ahead for problems that might arise has a very practical application in daily life as well. For example, we might be trying to undertake something. My teacher, Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, emphasized that you should always have plan B and plan C prepared in case plan A doesn’t work. For instance, one of my students was applying for a visa to study in another country, but he didn’t have plan B in case the visa was refused. That was very dangerous because his visa was in fact refused, and he already was past the deadline to be able to apply for a study program in some place that would have been easier to go to. Well, anyway, he was fortunate: he applied for that visa again, and eventually, on the third try, he got it. But I think this strategy is very important – to be prepared in case something doesn’t work out – then you have some alternative; you’re not just left with nothing.
The point of my mentioning this is that since the instructions for this giving-and-taking practice say to start with yourself and since there are a whole series of steps in the training that precede the giving-and-taking practice, I got the idea of why not start, from the very first step, with dealing with our own problems? That’s how I derived this method. Rather than applying all these steps of equalizing and exchanging our attitudes about self and others in a way that is focused on others – which is the traditional way – what we will do with this new training I’ve developed is to focus the steps on ourselves in different periods of our life.
Unfortunately, we don’t have very much time this weekend, and actually there are many steps to the program. In order to really benefit from these exercises, I think they need to be done slowly over quite a number of sessions, more than the number that we have available this weekend. But here I’ll just introduce the material, and you can work with it later.
Each step requires serious thinking, going deeply in ourselves and considering various aspects of our life. And as with sensitivity training, I need to warn you beforehand that dealing with difficult issues in our lives can bring up some emotional turmoil. So if any of this becomes a little bit too much for anyone, don’t do it. In any case, we don’t have so much time to spend on each part of this training, so we will have just a little taste. Let’s begin.
Developing Equanimity toward Ourselves
The first step in the process is to develop equanimity toward ourselves. There are many different types of equanimity. The type we are dealing with here is the state of mind that is provisionally free of repulsion, attraction, and neglect. Neglecting or ignoring ourselves is traditionally referred to as “naivety.” When we don’t really take different aspect of ourselves or our needs or our feelings seriously, we’re naive about ourselves. What we want to do here is to clear away – at least on an initial level (we’re not going to get rid of them completely) – the gross level of these three types of disturbing attitudes we might have toward ourselves. Once our minds are more even, we become more open and can develop a more positive feeling toward ourselves.
As you can see, the analysis will become very personal. It’s not that you’ll need to share these private feelings with anybody, but if you want to have some positive results from this program, you’ll need to be introspective and examine yourself honestly.
First let’s consider our attitudes about what we’ve done in our lives. For this, we’ll consider three situations: when we’ve made a big mistake in life or failed at something, when we’ve succeeded at something, and when nothing significant was happening in our life. Let’s examine our feelings about each of these three.
Thinking of When We’ve Failed
First, try to remember when you’ve made a big mistake in life or failed at something – whether it was at work or at school, whether it was in a relationship, whatever it might have been where you felt, “Wow, I really messed it up.” If you think more deeply, you might be able to remember several incidents. Just choose one as an example, however, but not one that is really too painful or emotionally difficult to work with.
We think of this failure of ours and let the feeling arise of “How horrible I am.” I’m sure we often use much stronger language than that toward ourselves when thinking about when we’ve made a big mistake or failed.
We then reflect: “Why do I think I’m so horrible? The reason is because I failed. I made a mistake. That’s why I feel I’m no good. Maybe I hurt somebody emotionally, or I might not have been a good parent or a good son or daughter or a good friend; nevertheless, there are many other things that I’ve done in life that I’ve done well. It’s not that I have failed in absolutely everything. I’ve not only made mistakes in life. So it’s not fair to just focus on these mistakes and failures. It’s not being fair to myself. Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody succeeds at some things. I’m no different from anybody else, so why do I expect that I’m always going to succeed? I’m only human.”
Then we try to think of that situation where we failed or made a mistake in our life and try to regard it without a feeling of recrimination and self-hatred. Of course it’s important to regret our failures and the mistakes that we’ve made and to resolve to try our best not to repeat them, but to do better in the future. Yet there’s no need to hate myself because I failed. This is what we’re trying to achieve here: to be able to think back about these failures – or even when we presently fail at something – and have equanimity toward them in the sense of “Well, I’ll try better.” Equanimity here means thinking: “Sometimes I succeed; sometimes I fail, just like anybody else. So there’s nothing special about sometimes making mistakes in life. Everybody does.”
[Pause for practice]
Thinking of When We’ve Done Well
The next thing that we consider is a time in our life when we succeeded and really did a good job, whether it was in our work, or at school, or helping somebody – whatever it might have been that we did well. Then we let a feeling arise of “How wonderful I am.” I’m thinking of the gesture of football players when they kick a goal and they raise their arms and shout “Yes!” They’re so proud of themselves.
We then consider: “Why do I feel so wonderful about myself and that I’m so special? It’s because I did very well; I succeeded. But I haven’t succeeded in everything. Sometimes I’ve failed, haven’t I? So succeeding in something is nothing special.”
Similar to what we did with failing, we resolve that when we succeed, when we do well, we’re not going to get this overexcited: “How wonderful I am!” as if we could go and kiss ourselves in the mirror. In other words, we regard our successes with a calm state of mind.
When we talk about equanimity here, we’re talking about a calm state of mind. Whether we fail, whether we succeed, we still remain calm. Feeling calm doesn’t mean that we feel nothing. What we want to do here is diminish as much as possible – and hopefully we temporarily might not have it at all – a disturbing state of mind regarding our successes or failures. Then, on the basis of being calm rather than being disturbed, we can develop a more constructive state of mind.
Rather than feeling guilty if we’ve done wrong – and then we have to punish ourselves – we just simply feel regret. “I’m sorry that I messed up, and I will try my best not to repeat that.” That’s not the same as guilt: “How horrible I am! I’m a bad person.” And instead of feeling “Oh how wonderful I am that I succeeded” – which is actually quite a disturbing state of mind of arrogance, pride, etc., as if we have to reward ourselves – we simply rejoice in what we’ve done. “I’m happy about that.”
As one great Indian Buddhist master said: when our hand feeds our mouth, do we have to congratulate and thank our hand? “Wow, you really did a good job there. You brought the food up to my mouth.” This is silly, isn’t it? Don’t misunderstand that the state of equanimity means being a robot and having no feelings whatsoever. It doesn’t mean that. But we want to have healthy emotions, not disturbing emotions.
Please go back now and try to regard when you’ve succeeded at something without this attitude of “I’m so great; I’m so fantastic!” Try to be calmer when recalling it. Then, on that basis, feel satisfied and happy about your success – what we call in Buddhism “rejoicing.”
[Pause for practice]
Now we think of the third situation: when nothing significant was happening in our life. We neither were failing at anything nor succeeding at anything, just going through our usual life. What do we feel about that? “How boring.” Don’t we? “How boring,” and we would just as soon ignore those aspects of our life. We’re bored with ourselves, bored with life.
So we let that feeling of “How boring” arise. Then we consider: “Why do I feel bored with myself? Why do I feel tired of myself? Well, it’s because nothing was happening, really – nothing exciting. I was neither succeeding nor failing; my life was just the same, over and over again – how boring!”
But that’s not really true, if we think about it. First of all, why does life have to be exciting all the time? Who said that it has to be exciting? Hollywood movies or what? And in fact I do succeed and I do fail at small things all the time. “I made a nice meal.” That’s a success, isn’t it? Or “I didn’t make a very good meal.” Even very simple things: “I had a successful bowel movement this morning.” Right? If you are constipated, then to actually be able to move your bowels is a big success. It’s not a dramatic success. I’m just saying that we have small successes. We found a parking space. We managed to get home without getting stuck in traffic for two hours. Life isn’t just boring, boring, boring. There are the small ups and downs. So we try to look at these periods in our life that we tend to just ignore and think are so boring, without that attitude of “Ugh, nothing!”
[Pause for practice]
Thinking of All Three Situations
The next step, if you can do it, is to try to keep all three situations in mind at the same time: We visualize ourselves as failing, then next to it ourselves as succeeding, and then next to it ourselves as just leading our same old life every day. We try to have equanimity toward all of them: not repelled from the “me” who failed (“What a loser!”), not attracted to the “me” who succeeding (“I always want to be like that”), and not ignoring the other (“I don’t even want to think about this boring one over there.”) If it helps, we can think that we’re at a dinner table, the four of us. I know that this is really very dualistic – it’s not even dualistic; it’s double dualistic. But just try to imagine, in an emotional encounter, dealing with all these different “me”s without feeling repelled from one, attracted to another, and ignoring the third one. We’re just open to all of them; we’re open to all these phases of ourselves.
[Pause for practice]
The Conventional “Me” and the False “Me”
To understand this attitude of equanimity more deeply, we need to introduce an important point from the Buddhist teachings, namely the difference between what Buddhism calls the conventional “me” and the false “me.”
The conventional “me” is what is imputed on the whole continuity of our entire life. Each event that’s happened in our life – success, failure, or just ordinary everyday things – is equally just an occurrence in our life. The pattern of life is that it continually goes up and down; after all, a lifetime encompasses and spans all of them. The conventional “me” exists and it refers to the whole continuum. Of course I exist; but my existence is based on all these changing events throughout my entire life. That’s the conventional “me,” always changing.
The false “me” doesn’t exist at all. It’s what we project. What we project is a “me” that’s identified with just one part, one event – “I failed; I’m no good!” – and then never changes. We imagine that that is the totality of “me”: “I’m guilty” or “I’m so wonderful. I’m God’s gift to the world” or “I’m such a boring person. I’m a nobody; I’m a nothing. I’m just a little, insignificant piece in the big machine of this society. How boring!” That’s the false “me,” the “me” that we imagine is concrete and permanent, but which in fact doesn’t exist at all. But when we have disturbing emotions, it’s because we are identifying ourselves with this false “me.”
What we need to realize is that this projection of a false “me” doesn’t correspond to anything real. We then need to reaffirm the conventional “me” that has all these different aspects, all these different things that have happened in our life: sometimes we’ve done well, sometimes not done well, sometimes nothing special was happening. That’s it. So we try to reaffirm that. If we have these false ideas of “me,” identifying with just one or two events, and we’re stuck in that, then just say, “This is garbage. This is not reality.”
As we imagine these three different incidents in our lives, try to realize that we’re the whole thing: the conventional “me” is labeled on all of this, and it’s changing all the time as different things happen in our lives. We’re never stuck on one event. And we try to feel calm about the whole thing: neither repelled, attracted, or indifferent to “me,” just open to each moment of life, without making a big deal out of anything that happens. Basically, then, we’re at peace with ourselves, and we accept ourselves. On that basis, we can build more positive attitudes toward ourselves. And on the basis of that, we can develop more positive attitudes toward others; but first we need to be at peace with ourselves.
[Pause for practice]
Maybe that’s enough for our first session. Do you have any questions or comments? Questions
What does “success” mean and how do we measure it? Is it an inner, subjective feeling or is it something set in terms of socially decided parameters? If it's the latter and so success is relative and can only be measured in comparison with others’ achievements, does that mean we always need to compete for success?
Your question raises the point of whether or not there is a difference between what societies consider a success and what we subjectively consider a success. The difference is not so clear cut. What we personally think could be conditioned by what our society considers a success, and obviously what society considers a success varies from place to place. In some societies, like in the West, being slim is a sign of success. In others, such as India, being portly indicates wealth and success. So, what is the criterion for success?
From a Buddhist point of view, when we speak of success, we’re not talking about what society might say or about what we might feel based on some personal concept – that’s something else. Success from a Buddhist point of view means to accomplish some spiritual goal. Here, spiritual goal means some level of self-improvement – self-improvement with a goal of being able to help others better. So success is not dependent on how good-looking you are, or how much money you have, or whether you have the latest fashion clothing.
The appropriate attitude toward success is one of rejoicing: you’re happy about it, but not overexcited. You don’t make a big deal out of any success you might have. You don’t need to put a notice in the newspaper, and whether other people acknowledge it or not is irrelevant. Rejoicing, then, is a calm and secure state of mind. It’s a feeling that “I’m going in the right direction, and I’m happy about that, and I will just continue.” So it entails self-satisfaction and peace of mind, which is a happy state. You’re secure enough in yourself to know that you’re going in the right direction in life. You did a good job – as well as you could at this stage. In the Seven Point Mind Training, Geshe Chaykawa says that of the two witnesses, ourselves and others, we need to take ourselves as the main witness to attest to whether or not we have become a great-hearted person, always thinking of others.
There’s a big difference between being happy about what we’ve done and identifying the false “me” with “I’m so great!” The focus is not on “me, me, me.” The focus is on there being a greater and greater ability to help others. This could be that I’m more patient, not so angry. These are the types of successes that we’re talking about. “I handled that situation of a family dinner with all the aunts and uncles without getting angry.” Pretty good. That’s a success. “I didn’t get angry when my mother kept nagging me: ‘Why don’t you do it like this? Why don’t you get married? Why don't you get a better job?”
Success, then, doesn't need to be a dramatic victory, like with winning a prize in a contest. What we’re aiming for is to be secure enough in ourselves and at peace enough in ourselves that we don’t judge ourselves in terms of what others have done. Of course the philosophy of capitalism is that, by having competition, you can compare yourself with others, because you want to do not only as good as them but even better. So by comparing ourselves to others, it can inspire us to do better. That’s certainly a positive aspect of making comparisons.
One small aspect of tantra practice is take a certain emotion that could be potentially disturbing and transform it so as to use it in a beneficial way. A simple, everyday example is anger. Suppose there’s something unfair happening in society. You could get very angry at that. That anger could lead you to destroy something by throwing a bomb, so anger leads you to a destructive action. Alternatively, that anger could move you to feel: “I’m so incensed about this, so angry about it, I’m going to do something about this unfair situation to improve it.” With such thoughts, you can use the energy of anger in a constructive manner rather than in a destructive way. Similarly, with competition, comparing ourselves to others, you can use that energy to whip yourself – “I’m so terrible” – or you can use that energy to motivate yourself to try to do better.
As we’ve discussed, there’s a big difference between the conventional “me” that does exist and the false “me” that doesn’t exist. So a positive attitude toward the conventional “me” is quite different from a positive attitude toward the false “me.” A positive attitude toward the false “me” – “I’m so wonderful; I’m so great” – could lead to reinforcing self-centeredness and selfishness. In contrast, a positive attitude toward the conventional “me” can lead us to be more open and fair, not only with ourselves but with everybody else.
There are many methods that are used in Buddhism to refute this false “me” – in other words, to demonstrate to ourselves that it doesn’t correspond to anything real. If I’m so wonderful or I’m so horrible, then if that were really my true identity, I would have had to have been like that always, in every situation. This is clearly not the case. So I’m not the same as that “God’s gift to the world” me. But am I totally different, totally separate? If so, who is that “me” that thought it was so wonderful? Is that somebody different from me? Analyzing like this, we come to the conclusion that this whole concept of a solid “me” with this solid identity is just garbage; it doesn’t correspond to anything real.
The Role of Regard for Others in Developing a Positive Attitude toward Ourselves
You’ve explained that we need to develop a positive attitude toward ourselves and only then can we turn it sincerely toward others. But I experience that when I’m dealing with other people, it’s easier for me to accept myself and have positive feelings and compassion toward myself. Does that contradict what you explained?
It’s true that one of the best ways of building up self-confidence and a more positive feeling toward oneself is being generous. If we’re able to do something for somebody else, or be kind to someone else, or think of others in a kind way, then it demonstrates to us that we have something to offer. When you feel that “I have something to offer,” you don’t feel that “I’m worthless.” So yes, this is definitely one of the methods that are used to develop a more positive attitude toward oneself.
But what I was explaining was that if you start with a very negative attitude toward yourself, and then try to jump from that to being generous and helping others – well, for some people maybe it’s possible to make that leap, but I think an intermediate step is to calm down that self-hatred first. But for some people that might not be necessary. It might be easier to just work straightforwardly with generosity and giving them the opportunity to be generous.
What I’m thinking of is one psychiatrist friend of mine who was dealing with how to help unruly teenagers, who are violent, who never cooperate, and who are very, very hard to discipline. These are teenagers that society says, “You’re a loser; you’re no good” and so then they identify themselves with that and develop the attitude: “I’ll show you really how bad I can be.” If you can somehow get such teenagers to help do something, even if they do it terribly, it gives them a sense that they do have something worthwhile to offer. One therapy that incorporates this principle is taking these teenagers on a long trek and giving each one a mule to take care of. By taking care of the mule and getting it to cooperate, they contribute to the success of the trek and demonstrate to themselves that they can do something positive. They are not complete losers.
What you’re saying is completely true, however: sometimes it is much easier to have positive feelings toward others than to yourself. I’m not refuting that. But the problem here is how to motivate yourself to think of others, to be kind to others, to do things for others, if you’re completely obsessed with self-hatred. How do you make that transition? This is the problem. For many people who are stuck in self-loathing, it’s very difficult to make that transition, and so calming down their self-hatred first can be helpful. I think that’s why in the standard presentation of this giving-and-taking practice that I mentioned, it says to start with yourself. But that’s not the end of the program; that’s the very, very first step. Then you gradually extend it to people you like, then strangers, and then even people you don’t like. And for some people, helping strangers actually is easier than helping people they like because there’s not so much emotional baggage, emotional involvement with them – for instance, people who can help in some social movement, but can’t really deal with the members of their own family.