Equalizing Our Attitudes toward Ourselves: Overcoming Self-Hatred
Moscow, Russia, September 2010
Session Two: Developing Equanimity in Terms of How We’ve Treated Ourselves
Yesterday, we began our discussion of how to equalize our attitudes about ourselves, which is aimed at helping us to overcome disturbing emotions directed at ourselves. The strongest one, for many of us, is a feeling of low self-esteem and a negative attitude toward ourselves. It can manifest in not liking ourselves or, even stronger, hating ourselves. But this isn’t the only disturbing attitude that we could have toward ourselves. We could overexaggerate how wonderful we are – be obsessed with ourselves. Or we could totally be naive about ourselves, ignore our needs and, in a sense, be in denial of our needs. We spoke about how we could adopt some of the Buddhist methods in the technique known as “equalizing and exchanging self with others” to deal with this problem, based on the line that we find in the Seven-Point Attitude-Training (a text written in Tibet) in which it says, with respect to the giving and taking practice – tonglen – start with yourself.
One of the points that we discussed yesterday in relation to developing a sense of equanimity toward ourselves had to do with a distinction between the conventional “me” and the false “me.” Remember, what we were trying to develop here was an attitude toward ourselves which was even, smooth. That's what equanimity means here. And that means to regard ourselves without a negative attitude, without some positive “How wonderful I am!” and without ignoring ourselves. So without aversion, rejection, repulsion, without attraction, and without naivety: sort of ignoring ourselves.
We looked yesterday in terms of what we’ve done in our lives: When we’ve made mistakes or been a failure. When we have succeeded at something. And when nothing significant was happening in our lives, just the ordinary day-to-day routine. And we saw that everybody makes mistakes. Everybody has some successes; they don’t have to be dramatic: just making a good meal is a success. And there’s no reason why life should be dramatically either really wonderful things or really terrible things happening. The fact is that, for most of us, life is very ordinary.
It’s like feelings of happy or unhappy; they don’t need to be dramatic. Sometimes we think that they really have to be strong and exaggerated in order to actually feel anything. So that drives many people to extreme sports, or body piercing, or things like that, so that they have a strong sensation. Otherwise, they have this idea that they’re not actually feeling anything. But this is really based on, of course, some sort of alienation. But if we go deeper, then we find that this is really a very confused idea about feelings – about who we are, and what experience in life is; what it actually is. It’s not dramatic. It doesn’t have to be dramatic. And it isn’t that only dramatic experiences establish that I exist. You see, this is the fallacy. That’s why this distinction between the conventional “me” and the false “me” is quite important. It’s crucial.
What we tend to do is identify just with small events in our life or small aspects of ourselves. Often these are quite emotionally dramatic events, like a failure or some success. It could be even extreme: an experience of having been abused, for example. You identify with that and then you base that as your whole identity. Or, of course, you could deny it and just completely repress it. But when we identify with this, then we have a very clear example of the false “me,” that “this is ‘me,’ this is solid. This is how I always am in all situations.” And that’s not referring to anything real. This is just a projection of our imagination.
So that’s the false “me.” What we have to negate. “Negate” means to understand that this is garbage; this doesn’t refer to anything real. So get rid of this idea, which, of course, is not so easy to do because we’re in such a strong habit of projecting this and believing in it. So that requires a lot of training, discipline, concentration, clear discriminating awareness between what’s reality and what is fantasy, etc. – that’s a big training – based on having a strong motivation for doing this. And Buddhist training specializes in these sorts of things. But when we refute the false “me,” it’s not that we’re left with nothing. We’re left with the conventional “me.” I do exist. You exist. A Zen master would prove that to you by hitting you with a stick and you feel pain. So obviously I exist.
So the conventional “me” covers the whole span of everything in our life, doesn’t it? It’s not that there’s some solid “me” moving through life as if we were removed from it and sort of watching it in a movie, which is a dangerous attitude to have because it leads to a feeling of alienation, and that could lead to many, many emotional problems. But the Buddhist way of describing this is that the “me” is what can be imputed, or labeled, onto the ever-changing events and experiences of life. That’s “me.” And I’m constantly changing, growing, growing older, changing from moment to moment – nothing solid, but it’s all “me.” “Me” refers to the whole thing. Or to be more precise, the “me” is based on the whole thing.
So what we need to do is to avoid two extremes here. One extreme is the nihilistic extreme, which is to deny completely “me,” my existence. When we go to that extreme, then we experience naivety about ourselves: We ignore our needs. We don’t assert ourselves. We don’t assert what we want – what we need, basically – like limits, setting limits in terms of relationships, and so on. So the first extreme is denying the conventional “me.” Nihilism: I don’t count; I’m a nothing.
The other extreme is the extreme of overinflating the “me,” so the false “me,” identifying oneself as the false “me.” Then we have what we would call in the West “narcissism”: “I’m so important. What I think and what I feel is so important, everybody has to know it.” As if everybody actually was interested. And this is exaggerated nowadays with this social networking of Facebook and Twitter, etc., where you have to put down what you feel about every single thing that’s happening in your life. And so we have the emotional counterpart of this, is this feeling of “I’m so important. I’m so special. I’m so wonderful.”
When we have anger, a negative attitude toward ourselves, it could go to either of these two extremes. We could either ignore ourselves: “I’m just so stupid,” and so on, “I don’t even want to deal with myself.” So we can go to the nihilist extreme. I’m so bad, and so on, that I will just repress and deny, not think of it. This attitude of “I don’t deserve to be liked. I don’t deserve to have friends or to be happy, because I’m no good.” So it’s a negative attitude toward oneself, going to the extreme of nihilism that I don’t exist. I don’t count. Denying the conventional “me.”
And the other extreme, which is overexaggeration of oneself with anger, manifests itself in tremendous guilt – therefore I need to punish myself. This can manifest psychologically many ways. One of the ways is that you – often it’s unconscious – but you sabotage any relation that you get into, so that it insures that it won’t work, that you will continue to fail. In a sense, that’s like punishing yourself. But when we feel guilt, this is really an obsession with “me.” “I’m so bad. What I did was so bad.” And we don’t let go. So, in this way, a negative attitude toward ourselves can go to either of the two extremes.
All of this is relevant to our discussion here about equanimity. What we want to get is sort of a middle – what we call in Buddhism a “middle path”, a “middle way.” And a middle way doesn’t mean half nihilism and half overexaggeration of oneself. That’s not what middle way means. But rather, it means to go beyond this type of polarity, so confirm the conventional “me” and stop identifying with a false “me.” And we do that by trying to quiet down or calm these disturbing attitudes and emotions that we have about – here we started with events in our life, “me” in relation to events in our lives.
Now let’s go on with this equanimity part of the training. The next aspect that we’ll examine is how we’ve regarded ourselves, how we’ve treated ourselves – in general, not necessarily in relation to an event. Just in general, the type of attitude that we have toward ourselves. This can be just general low self-esteem. It could manifest in not taking care of ourselves. Speaking very harshly to ourselves in our minds: “I’m such an idiot.” We probably use much stronger language than that. Right? “I’m such a loser” – if you have that expression.
Then the second one is an overly high opinion of ourselves. “I’m so wonderful. I’m so special.” And then we tend to overindulge ourselves. That can manifest in many, many ways, of course. “I always have to be the center of attention,” for example. “I’m always right.” These sorts of things. We’re very pushy about ourselves.
The third one is ignoring our needs. And that manifests in not treating ourselves fairly. That often can be, of course, brought on when we have small children, babies – that then, of course, the needs of the baby outweigh our needs, but you push yourself really quite far in terms of not getting enough sleep, and so on. That’s a different type of situation. Well, this starts to get quite complex. If we have this perfectionism, we push ourselves too hard and really, again, don’t have a realistic attitude about ourselves and our needs and our limitations.
So let’s apply the same method that we used yesterday, in terms of events in our life, to try to calm down and get a little bit more equanimity in terms of how we have regarded and treated ourselves.
Well, first we think and try to bring up a feeling that we might have had of low self-esteem. “I’m a loser.” “I am an idiot.” This type of attitude, which I’m sure most of us have had at some time or another. So we try to recall that – so that we can examine it; it’s not as though we are practicing to feel this.
“Nobody loves me.” “Why should anybody love me?” “I don’t deserve to be loved.” There could be many manifestations of this.
But then we analyze this: Well, if I was really like this – that I’m no good, I don’t deserve to be loved – then I’d have to be like that with respect to everybody. My dog wouldn’t like me. My mother wouldn’t like me. But actually my dog does like me. And so I can’t be all bad. My mother still loves me, hopefully. So we see that we don’t always feel this negatively toward ourselves. There’s no real everlasting basis for that, is there?
See, this is the real problem. When people are very deeply into low self-esteem, they can’t even recall any positive aspect about themselves, anything that they’ve succeeded in, or anybody who really likes them, like their dog or their mother, or anybody in their life – as if they never had any friend, which is highly unlikely. So we try to balance this out and see “Well, I’ve not always had a negative attitude toward myself. Sometimes it’s been okay.” We’ll deal later with which is more, the positive attitude or the negative attitude; that’s a different issue. “Sometimes I have treated myself well. Even if it just means buying a chocolate bar and eating it, because I like chocolate. So sometimes I have treated myself well.” One tries to think of simple examples.
So there really is no reason to always treat myself badly and to scold myself. I’m quite capable of treating myself nicely, as with the example of buying a chocolate bar.
We resolve that I’m going to try not to speak so harshly to myself in my mind or treat myself so badly. You see, one has to acknowledge that acting this way causes me unhappiness. And why do I want to be unhappy? Nobody really wants to be unhappy. I mean, just naturally we’re unhappy a lot of the time anyway. Why make ourselves even more miserable by a negative attitude toward ourselves?
Then we recall when we’ve had an overly high opinion of ourselves, and so we’ve overindulged ourselves, stuffed ourselves with chocolate, stuffed ourselves with whatever.
Then we think “Well, why do I overindulge myself like that?” It’s because I think I’m so wonderful? Well, I don’t always think like that, do I? So there’s no need to overindulge or deprive myself. This is the point. One is I deprive myself – “I don’t deserve to have this” – and the other one is to overindulge ourselves: “I’m so wonderful, I deserve to eat the whole chocolate cake.”
It’s sort of like – We don’t have to go to the extremes of having ice cream every day, or never having ice cream. Sometimes. Moderation. We don’t have to be on permanent holiday – vacation – or never take a vacation. Moderation. Now, of course, we don’t go to the extreme extreme – most of us, in either direction – but we tend to go to these extremes. So no point in constantly saying, “I’m an idiot. I’m an idiot.” And on the other hand, no point in constantly saying to myself, “I’m so wonderful. I’m great.”
And the third example is remembering when we’ve ignored our own needs, as if we were an insignificant nobody who didn’t count, and we don’t treat ourselves fairly.
Obviously we could analyze deeper and deeper. There can be many reasons behind, let’s say, not expressing my needs or my wants. We could be afraid that if we expressed it, we’ll be rejected. These sort of things. There are many variations here.
So these three trends of low self-esteem, overestimation of ourselves, and ignoring ourselves, they don’t just occur completely separately. Often there’s a mixture here. As in this example: “I will ignore my needs and not say anything, or not set any limits” – so that’s naivety – “because I am afraid I will be rejected if I do” – that’s low self-esteem.
But is there any reason not to treat myself fairly? I’m not a nobody, am I? I have needs, just like anybody else. I have limitations, just like anybody else. If there’s a cake, why shouldn’t I have a piece, like everybody else?
If others can say “no” to me, why can’t I say “no” to them? That’s a much more difficult one.
Of course we’re referring to saying “no” when it’s reasonable to say “no,” not just somebody who always says “no.” That’s an extreme.
As I said, that’s an interesting one and a difficult one to analyze. Am I so starved for affection that I’m afraid to say “no,” because I really want other people to like me? And I’m starved for that? Is that the mentality that’s behind it? I am starved for affection. I’m starved for people liking me. And so I don’t want to say “no” because I want to get more and more and more, because I feel that I have never had enough. I never had it. And I need it desperately, so I’m not going to say “no.” Not going to set limits. We’re talking about limits in relationships. So when others are taking advantage of us or treating us badly, and we don’t want to say “no” because we’re so – the expression, at least we use it in English, is “I’m starved for affection.” Like you’re starved for food.
And then we think, “Well, what would it be like if I actually had my wish?” If somebody was affectionate and all over me all the time, it would get very annoying. On the one hand, we feel we’ve never had enough. On the other hand, it gets annoying if we have too much. Imagine the dog licking your face all day long. It would drive you crazy. You’d push it away.
It’s a Buddhist method. You use absurd, extreme examples to show: is that really what I want? The dog licking my face all day long? The other person saying, “Oh you’re so wonderful!” and hugging us all day long and touching us. After a while, “Enough already!”
But then you say, “But couldn’t I have just a little bit?” But a little bit is never enough. That’s the nasty thing about it. How much of our favorite food do we have to eat in order to enjoy it? An interesting question. Is one spoonful enough? By that example, we see we’re never satisfied.
So in the end of this step we think of ourselves in these three moods and these three ways of treating ourselves: Speaking harshly to ourselves – “I’m such an idiot,” and so on – because we have such a negative attitude: “I’m such a loser.” And then when we’ve overindulged ourselves: “I’m so wonderful. I’m so great. I’m so special.” And the third one, in which I’ve just ignored my needs: “I’m an insignificant nothing.”
And we would try to regard all of these, these three, in terms of “It’s just me.” Just conventional “me.” There’s no need to add onto it this negative attitude, or this over-positive attitude, or this ignoring attitude. And the type of way in which we treat ourselves is a consequence of that.
You see, this gets into even a more basic level as you analyze further and further. I mean, this is just normal in life. Life goes up and down. So sometimes we feel unhappy, sometimes we feel happy – although maybe not dramatically happy – and sometimes it seems as though we don’t feel anything. What is important here is to see “me” is labeled on the whole thing; that’s the basis for “me,” this up and down of life. Not only in terms of the up and down events of life, but up and down moods that we’re in. How we feel: happy, unhappy, whatever. And no need to identify with any of these. “I’m unhappy, so I’m such a loser. I’m no good,” “I’m happy, so I’m so wonderful,” or “I don’t feel anything, so just nothing” – a big nothing about ourselves.
And we decide that I’m going to not treat myself badly or overindulge when doing things for my own sake. Like trying to make myself too comfortable, and always getting what I want, always getting what I need. It’s like spoiling ourselves. You can spoil a small child by always giving the child anything that it wants. We’re spoiling ourselves. And I’m not going to ignore my needs, either.
So, no matter what I am feeling – happy; unhappy; relatively, what seems to be like nothing – that I shall treat myself with equanimity. No matter what kind of mood I am in, I have an even attitude toward myself. Not go to any of these extremes.
You see, it’s on the basis of this equanimity, in which we don’t have any disturbing attitude about ourselves, that then we can develop more positive attitudes or healthy attitudes toward ourselves. We can recognize our potentials, our abilities – what in Buddhism we call various Buddha-nature aspects – without denying them, but without overexaggerating and thinking “Oh I’m so wonderful! I have all these Buddha-nature aspects. I have all these potentials.” That’s a gross exaggeration, as well, of “Me Me Me.” I’m so wonderful. I’m so special.” We all have abilities. There might be more obstacles with one or another of us, but the basic human potentials and abilities are there. But we need to recognize that, without making it into something so special: “I’m so special. This is so great.” Equanimity toward it. Work with it with an even attitude, not a disturbing attitude.
Okay. So the last minutes we have of this session, maybe it’s good to have a few questions, if you have any. Yes?
Question: Do we need to help our child to be better than others, than his friends? Do we need, maybe, to set limits for him and explain you don’t need to do it? Or do we need to help him so maybe he needs to overcome that by himself?
Alex: That’s a difficult question because, obviously, different children will be different in this regard. Using the examples of others – “Why don’t you do as well at school as your older brother or your older sister does?” – sometimes that could really backfire and make the child feel absolutely worthless. I mean, even if you don’t point it out.
I know examples in which the older child in the family was like a superstar in school. They were good at football, got good grades and everything. Then the younger brother or the younger sister comes and has the same teachers. And even if the parents don’t say anything, the teachers make this thing: “Why aren’t you as good as your older brother or sister?” This is difficult, very difficult.
So, in terms of encouraging our child to grow and develop by giving the examples of others, one has to be very careful not to push that too much. To avoid “I’m not good enough” – this type of attitude.
But I think encouraging the child to have more discipline, to work harder, to develop various skills – whether it’s in terms of school, whether it’s in terms of whatever – that if you explain, and if the child is too young they won’t maybe understand, but “It will make you happier,” rather than “It will bring you more success,” and these sort of things. It will just make you happier, a happier person. Maybe that is more skillful. And not use the reason that you’ll make more money in life. That also can be a bit of a problem. Just leave it more simple: you’ll just be happier. If there’s something that you want to do, that you’ll be able to have the discipline and concentration to do it.
But whether that will work or not is very difficult. Because, even if you use yourself as an example, the children of very, very successful parents also sometimes can feel completely inadequate. So, again, this equanimity is very important. If you are a successful business person or whatever as a parent, don’t overemphasize it to your children because they will feel inadequate: “I have to live up to this. I can’t possibly live up to this. I’m no good. And you won’t love me if I don’t do this. And I’m not able to do this.” So a lot of problems. Or, as a parent, “I’m a failure, so don’t you be the failure like me.” That also can be rather strange. If I’m the child of a failure, therefore I need to be a failure too in order to be loyal to the family tradition. That gets really very messed up.
So this equanimity that we’re talking about here has many applications, many positive applications.
Any other short question? Actually, short answer, I should say.
Participant: On the other hand, if we are nihilists toward ourselves and we think, “I don’t exist. Nothing exists,” then we can go to the other extreme. So if nothing exists, nothing matters. And I can actually do whatever I want, and buy whatever ice cream I want, because nothing exists.
Alex: Yes, absolutely. There are many consequences of naivety. Right? Naivety about “me,” that I don’t exist, I don’t count – so that’s naivety about reality – that can then lead to naivety about cause and effect: that no matter what I do, it doesn’t matter; there’s no effect of it.
So in Buddhism we identify two types of naivety or unawareness – unawareness is the technical term, or ignorance. One is about cause and effect, referring to behavioral cause and effect, not just laws of physics. And that leads to destructive behavior because – whether destructive to others or self-destructive – because we think there are no consequences, no effect of what we do. Then there’s unawareness or confusion about reality – how I exist, how everybody exists, how the world exists – and that is behind the continuing endlessly, the up and down difficulties of life. What we call samsara.
So let’s end here for this morning, and we’ll continue in an hour.
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