By Jan Carden
Access Wellness Group
Rather than trying to vanquish waves of emotion and rid ourselves of an inherently impure self, we turn around and embrace this life in all its realness – broken, messy, mysterious and vibrantly alive. By cultivating an unconditional and accepting presence, we are no longer battling against ourselves, keeping our wild and imperfect self in a cage of judgment and mistrust. Instead we are discovering the freedom of becoming authentic and fully alive.
- Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha
Tara Brach tells a story about the Dalai Lama’s response to the concept of self-hatred. The Dalai Lama met with Buddhist teachers and psychologists from the United States and Europe. When someone asked about self-hatred he was baffled and confused. He’d never heard of this concept and had to ask for clarification, “Is this mental state a nervous disorder?” He asked how anyone could experience self-hatred when everybody is born with a divine and good nature.
Self-hatred is rampant in our culture today. Many struggle with a sense of not belonging. Frequently people in our culture experience a deep-rooted feeling of being basically flawed. We struggle with feeling like outsiders of feeling disconnected from others. There is that belief that deep down there is something wrong with us.
Often we turn to other things to experience some relief – chocolate, television, social media, alcohol or drugs. Shopping and working also bring us a sense that we’re okay. Of course, done in excess, all of these things bring about negative consequences. And then frequently exacerbate feelings of self-hatred.
Sometimes it actually feels better to identify whomever or whatever is responsible for our experience of self-hatred. Sometimes we blame teachers, the education system and our financial circumstances. We spend hours rehashing the things our mother said or did (or didn’t do) during our growing up years. Determined to resolve these feelings of inadequacy, we obsess about our past in the hopes of identifying the root of our self-hatred. We blame society, our job, our spouse or our friends. If only these things would straighten out then we’d feel okay. We’d be OK.
We struggle to feel better. To overcome feelings of inadequacy, we start self-improvement projects. We go on diets and exercise regimens. We spend time trying to improve our wardrobe, our finances and our homes. We believe that if somehow we could achieve a certain weight we’d be better. Other times we think that once we purchase a specific car or earn a better income then we’ll be OK. We believe that these things will finally alleviate our feelings of inadequacy.
Maybe this feeling of deep-rooted inadequacy or this self-hatred is because of our culture. Some believe that there is an emphasis in our culture on competition and winning, which breeds self-hatred. There must always be a winner and a loser. Our value of independence and success over family and community, some argue, contributes to those feelings of not belonging, of not fitting in.
What I know is that our brains instinctively track for and hang onto negative information. So if one client expresses gratitude following a session and the other client looks at me with a blank stare and states she won’t be coming back in to see me, then I’m more likely to remember the “blank stare” client. It’s just more natural for me, or for anyone, to pay more attention to the negative. The problem is when we hold onto the negative responses and fail to register the positive experiences in our lives, we emphasize feelings of inadequacy. We develop negative stories or beliefs that we play over and over in our heads. And the more we experience these stories in our head, the more we develop feelings of inadequacy. This is the root of feeling basically flawed.
There is nothing wrong with self-improvement. The problem is when people begin self-improvement plans motivated by the belief that they’re not good enough. Self-improvement as a way to get better or to be better is a form of self-aggression, suggests Pema Chodron, a meditation master. Zen master Dennis Genpo Merzel states everyone is already “complete, whole, perfect as you are. All this action and effort to become special is just making you very unspecial and creating a tremendous amount of pain and suffering.”
Mediation and mindfulness are natural and effective ways to retrain our thinking. Some believe that meditation practices that cultivate mindfulness (yoga, tai chi), cultivate clear seeing and enhance a sense of compassion and self-acceptance.
Below are a list of things to promote self-acceptance and self-compassion:
Label thoughts: Sit in meditation for five, 10, 20 minutes. Focus on your breath. When a thought pops up, identify the thought (worrying, thinking or judging) and let it drift away. Return to your breath. Then, during the day, when a negative thought pops up, label the thought and simply return to the focus of your breath.
Make a gratitude list: Identify everything for which you are grateful. On the days when you feel grumpy and tired avoid judging yourself for not finding anything to be grateful for. Instead record the things that you’re grateful you don’t have, e.g. you don’t have a toothache, and you don’t live in a third world country.
Pay attention: When someone pays you a compliment or when you experience some success, bask in it. Really take some time to experience that positive feeling. The point is to train ourselves to experience the positive and let that really resonate with us.
Help someone: Give a gift. It doesn’t have to cost anything. Smile and make eye contact with the cashier. Bring a friend some flowers. Send a card to a friend at work. Bake some bread and share with your coworkers. On the days you feel depleted, give yourself a gift. Give without expectations. Give a gift because it makes you feel good.
Meditate in loving kindness: “May I be filled with loving kindness. May I be well. May I be filled with peace and ease. May I be happy.” Say this meditation to yourself for several minutes. Then substitute “I” with the names of those you love. Then with those you don’t really know. Finally, substitute “I” with those you resent.
The path to greater self-acceptance begins with an awareness of our thoughts and leads us to solutions as simple as noticing the good in ourselves and others.
Jan C. Carden is a licensed clinical social worker at Access Wellness Group in Lexington where she provides individual and family counseling. Jan works with adolescents, families and women. She uses a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness in her work and specializes in issues related to addiction, trauma, depression and anxiety. Carden lives in Lexington with her husband. She has three grown children and one granddaughter.