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 disturbing emotion 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 over-exaggerate 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 are trying to develop here is an attitude toward ourselves that is even, smooth. That’s what equanimity means here. It means to regard ourselves without a negative attitude, without some positive “How wonderful I am!” and without ignoring ourselves: so without aversion, rejection, or repulsion, without attraction, and without naivety (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. 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 have dramatically either really wonderful things or really terrible things happening. The fact is that for most of us life is very ordinary.
It’s the same case with 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 for us to actually feel anything. Such thinking 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 based on some sort of alienation from one’s feelings. If we analyze this alienation more deeply, we find that there is a very confused idea about feelings – about who we are and what experience in life actually is. Our experiences don’t have to be dramatic. We don’t need to have dramatic experiences in order to establish that we exist. Thinking that such experiences have the power to establish that we truly exist 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 even be extreme: an experience of having been abused, for example. You identify with that and then you base that as your whole true 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.” We regard this identity as “me” and imagine that it is truly me, solid and real, and how we always are, in all situations. But this false “me” doesn’t correspond to anything real. It is just a projection of our imagination.
That’s the false “me,” what we have to negate. “Negate” means to understand that this is garbage; it doesn’t correspond to anything real. So we need to rid ourselves of this false concept, which of course is not so easy to do. That’s because we have such a strong habit of projecting this and believing in it. To rid ourselves of it 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. 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 then you feeling pain. So obviously I exist.
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 watching our life unfold as if in a movie. That’s a dangerous attitude to have because it leads to a feeling of alienation, and that could lead to many emotional problems. The conventional “me” is the “me” that 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 – with nothing solid always remaining the same. “Me” refers to the whole thing; it’s all “me.” Or to be more precise, the conventional “me” is based on the whole thing.
We need to avoid two extremes here. One extreme is the nihilism, which denies completely the existence of “me.” When we go to that extreme, we experience naivety about ourselves: We ignore our needs. We don’t assert ourselves. We don’t assert what we want or need, such as limits in terms of our relationships, our work, and so on. The first extreme, then, is denying the conventional “me.” Nihilism means thinking: I don’t count; I’m a nothing.
The other extreme is the extreme of inflating the conventional “me” into a false “me” and then identifying ourselves as the false “me.” This results in what we would call in the West “narcissism”: “I’m so important. What I think and feel are so important, everybody has to know it.” As if everybody actually was interested. This narcissistic self-importance is exaggerated nowadays with social networking, such as Facebook and Twitter, where people feel they need to put down what you feel about every single thing that’s happening in their lives. The emotional counterpart of this is this feeling of “I’m so important. I’m so special. I’m so wonderful.”
When we have a negative attitude of anger toward ourselves, it could go to either of these two extremes. In a nihilistic manner, we could deny and ignore our needs as a person: “I’m so stupid and so bad that I don’t deserve to be liked. I don’t deserve to have friends or to be happy, because I’m no good.” Such a negative attitude toward oneself goes to the extreme of nihilism. Basically, it denies the conventional “me”: “I don’t exist. I don’t count.”
The other extreme, an over-exaggeration of oneself with anger, brings on tremendous guilt and the feeling that we need to punish ourselves because we are so bad. This can manifest psychologically many ways, often unconscious. One of the unconscious ways is that we sabotage any relation that we get into, insuring that it won’t work and that we will continue to fail. In a sense, that’s like punishing ourselves. When we feel guilt, this is really an obsession with “me,” which we inflate into a false “me” that we imagine truly exists as “bad.” We fixate on “I’m so bad. What I did was so bad” – and we don’t let go. So, in these ways, 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 reach is sort of a middle – what we call in Buddhism a “middle path,” a middle way. A middle way doesn’t mean half nihilism and half over-exaggeration of oneself. That’s not what a middle way means. Rather, it means to go beyond this type of polarity and to confirm the conventional “me” and stop identifying with a false “me.” We do that by trying to quiet down or calm these disturbing attitudes and emotions that we have about events in our life and about “me” in relation to those events.
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 – not necessarily in relation to an event, but just in general – the type of attitude that we have toward ourselves. It can be of three types. First of all, our attitude could be just general low self-esteem. That could manifest in speaking very harshly to ourselves in our minds: “I’m such an idiot.” “I’m such a loser.” We probably use much stronger language than that.
The second type of attitude could be 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 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 with others about ourselves.
The third attitude is ignoring our needs, and that manifests in not treating ourselves fairly. It often can be brought on when we have babies or small children. Then, of course, the needs of the baby outweigh our needs, and we might push ourselves beyond our limits by not getting enough sleep, and so on. That’s a different type of situation. However, here we’re talking about being a perfectionist and pushing ourselves too hard: we don’t have a realistic attitude about ourselves, our needs and our limitations.
Let’s apply the same method that we used yesterday in terms of events in our life in order to calm down and gain more equanimity in terms of how we have regarded and treated ourselves.
First we think of 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. We try to recall that feeling 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.
Then we analyze it: “If I were 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; no one would ever have liked me. But wait a moment. Actually, my dog does like me, so I can’t be all bad. My mother still loves me, hopefully.” So we see that we don’t always feel so 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. 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 the question of which is more, the positive attitude or the negative attitude; that’s a different issue. But if we look objectively, we see that sometimes we have treated ourselves well. Even if it just means buying a chocolate bar and eating it, because we like chocolate. We try to think of simple examples like that.
We decide: “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 us unhappiness. And why do I want to be unhappy? Nobody really wants to be unhappy. 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 rewarded ourselves by overindulging, stuffing ourselves with chocolate or drinking too much alcohol. Then we think, “Why do I overindulge myself like that? Is it because I think I’m so wonderful? Well, I don’t always think like that, do I? So there’s no need either to over-reward 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; I deserve to take the whole week off.”
We don’t have to go to the extremes of having ice cream every day or never having ice cream. Sometimes is OK; everything in moderation. We don’t have to be on permanent holiday or never take a vacation. Moderation. Now, of course most of us don’t go to total extremes, but many of us tend to go in the direction of these extremes. In short, there is no point in constantly saying to ourselves, “I’m an idiot. I’m an idiot.” And on the other hand, there’s no point in constantly saying to ourselves, “I’m so wonderful. I’m great.”
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 our needs or our wants. We could be afraid that if we expressed them, we’ll be rejected and abandoned. There are many variants here.
Moreover, these three trends of low self-esteem, overestimation of ourselves, and ignoring ourselves don’t just occur completely separately from each other. Often there’s a mixture, 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).”
We need to analyze: “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 to being 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?” 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. I want to get more and more and more, because I feel that I have never had enough or I never had it, and I need it desperately, so I’m not going to say no. I’m not going to set limits.” We’re talking about limits in relationships. So when others are taking advantage of us or treating us badly, we don’t want to say no because we’re so starved for affection, like we’re starved for food.
Then we think, “What would it be like if I actually had my wish? If somebody were 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. That, by the way, is 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, we would certainly say, “Enough already!”
Now you might object: “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? That’s an interesting question. Is one spoonful enough? By that example, we can see that we’re never satisfied.
Lastly, we think of ourselves in these three moods and these three ways of treating ourselves: speaking harshly to ourselves (“I’m such an idiot. I’m such a loser,” and so on) because we have such a negative attitude about ourselves, 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 we’ve just ignored our needs (“I’m an insignificant nothing”). We then try to regard all three of these in terms of “It’s just me, just the conventional ‘me.’” There’s no need to add onto it this negative attitude, or this over-positive attitude, or this ignoring attitude. How we treat ourselves is a consequence of adding such an attitude or not.
This brings us to a more basic level as we analyze further and further. Life goes up and down; this is perfectly normal. 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 that “me” is labeled on the whole thing. That’s the basis for “me,” this up and down of life. This is the case not only in terms of the up-and-down events of life, but also the up-and-down moods that we’re in, how we feel: happy, unhappy, whatever. So there’s no need to identify with any of them: “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 I’m just a big nothing.”
We decide, “I’m not going to 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.
We also decide, “I’m not going to ignore my needs either. No matter what I am feeling – happy, unhappy, and relatively what seems to be like nothing – I shall treat myself with equanimity. No matter what kind of mood I am in, I shall have an even attitude toward myself. I shall not go to any of these extremes.”
It’s on the basis of this equanimity, with which we don’t have any disturbing attitude about ourselves, that we can then develop more positive, healthy attitudes toward ourselves. We can recognize our potentials, our abilities, without denying them – what in Buddhism we call various “Buddha-nature” aspects – but without over-exaggerating 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. We need to recognize that fact without making it into something so special (“I’m so special. This is so great!”). Have equanimity toward it. Work with it with an even attitude, not a disturbing attitude.
It’s the last few minutes we have of this session, so maybe it’s good to have a few questions, if you have any. Yes?
Participant: 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 he doesn’t need to do it? Or do we need to help him so maybe he can 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, even if you don’t explicitly make the comparison.
I know examples in which the older child in the family was like a superstar in school. They were good at sports, 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 comparison: “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. We need to avoid causing them to have the attitude of “I’m not good enough.” But I think when encouraging the child to have more discipline or to work harder, to develop various skills – whether it’s in terms of school, whether it’s in terms of whatever (and if the child is too young, they won’t maybe understand) – if you explain “It will make you happier,” rather than “It will bring you more success,” and these sort of things, “It will just make you a happier person,” maybe that is more skillful. And don’t use the reason that “You’ll make more money in life.” That also can be a bit of a problem. Just leave it simpler: “You’ll just be happier. If there’s something that you want to do, you’ll be able to have the discipline and concentration to do it.”
Whether that will work or not is very difficult to say, because even if you use yourself as an example, the children of very successful parents also sometimes feel completely inadequate. So again this equanimity is very important. If you are a successful businessperson or whatever as a parent, don’t overemphasize it to your children, because they might come to feel inadequate: “I have to live up to this. I can’t possibly live up to this. I’m no good. You won’t love me if I don’t do like you did, and I’m not able to do this,” so a lot of problems. The same thing is true with saying to your child, “I’m a failure; so don’t you be a failure like me.” That also can be rather strange. “If I’m the child of a failure, 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.
Are there any other short questions?
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. “If nothing exists, nothing matters. I can do whatever I want and buy however much ice cream I want because nothing exists.”
Alex: Yes, absolutely. There are many consequences of naivety. Naivety about “me” – “I don’t exist. I don’t count” (so that’s naivety about reality) – can then lead to naivety about cause and effect: “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, whether destructive to others or self-destructive, because we think there are no consequences and no effects 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 endlessly continuing up-and-down difficulties of life, what we call “samsara.”
Let’s end our session here and we’ll continue in an hour.
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