Many readers of this blog may not have to travel far to meet their harshest and most unyielding critic. A few steps to the nearest mirror will probably do the trick. There you can look into the eyes of the person who talks to you in a way that they would never dream of talking to their friends. The person who cuts you far less slack than they do even their vaguest acquaintances. The fault-finder so relentlessly carping that any triumphs you experience can be savoured only briefly, any failures must be constantly remembered, and who seems to believe that you will never amount to much.
When the Dalai Lama first encountered the self-loathing and low self-esteem felt by so many of us in the West, he not only found it hard to fathom. He was actually moved to tears. Why is it that we feel so compelled to treat ourselves this way? Where did the habit come from? What is the point of beating ourselves up?
There are good reasons to place a high value on self-examination and humility, especially in an era of unfettered narcissism. But the self-criticism I’m referring to here is not one of constructive reflection so much as the kind that robs us of any sense of wellbeing, and condemns us to a bleak emotional existence entirely of our own making.
From a Buddhist perspective, there are two very compelling reasons why it’s time to quit the habit of self-loathing.
- Self-compassion is necessary to empower our own inner journey
Buddhism defines compassion as ‘the wish to free others from suffering.’ Self-compassion is therefore the wish to free ourselves from suffering.
This is a very different attitude from one of relentless self-criticism. In practising self-compassion, we let go of seeing the self from the perspective of conventional reality as a loser, a failure, a being who constantly falls short of expectations. Instead we see them from the perspective of ultimate reality as one who has achieved a precious, but all-too-brief, human life, who has the rare opportunity to purify negative karma and create virtue, and whose worldly accomplishments are, frankly, neither here nor there compared to the far more panoramic purpose of inner growth (See: http://davidmichie.com/blog/2016/07/28/too-busy-to-be-happy-a-buddhist-perspective/).
In using a different yardstick by which to evaluate our situation, we dramatically shift the way we see ourselves and what we do in the world. We are less hung up on concerns that are of only temporary, extrinsic value, as we focus more on those which offer more enduring, intrinsic purpose. Perhaps for the first time, we may begin to experience what it means to feel a sense of wellbeing, contentment and inner peace.
- Self-compassion is necessary if we wish to help others
If we give ourselves hell, it’s highly likely that our feelings will overflow to affect our family, friends, work colleagues and even perhaps long-suffering pets. How can we possibly be available to others if we are caught up in a storm of self-reproach and self-recrimination? We may be at the other end of the spectrum from the egotist or narcissist but, like them, if we are so caught up with ourselves, we may find we have little room in our hearts for others.
In the words of the Dalai Lama: ‘There is something about the dynamics of self-absorption, or worrying about ourselves too much, which tends to magnify our suffering. Conversely, when we come to see it in relation to others’ suffering, we begin to recognise that, relatively speaking, it is not all that unbearable. This enables us to maintain our peace of mind much more easily than if we concentrate on our problems to the exclusion of all else’.
Beating ourselves up may be a pattern of behaviour that began from the noble wish to be the best that we can be, to fulfil our potential, to make the most of our life – perhaps fostered or encouraged by parents who wanted the best for us too. But when it becomes a compulsion, it’s a habit that can transform into the most awful form of self-sabotage.
So lighten up already! Don’t take yourself so seriously! Recognise the horrible double standards you so cruelly apply to that poor soul in the mirror and cut him or her a bit of slack. Self-compassion offers a far more effective – and very much happier – way for you to be of benefit both to yourself as well as to others.
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(Image of woman looking into mirror courtesy of: http://img1.liveinternet.ru/images/attach/c/2/74/318/74318997_womanlookinginmirror.jpg)