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Of Self-Hatred and Self-Compassion

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Sharon Salzberg is one of the great teachers of Buddhist philosophy and mindful living. Here is a quote of her’s from a conference she attended many years ago with the Dalai Lama:

“What do you think about self-hatred?” I asked when it was my turn to bring up an issue for discussion. I was eager to get directly to the suffering I had seen so often in my students, a suffering I was familiar with myself. The room went quiet as all of us awaited the answer of the Dalai Lama, revered leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Looking startled, he turned to his translator and asked pointedly in Tibetan again and again for an explanation. Finally, turning back to me, the Dalai Lama tilted his head, his eyes narrowed in confusion. “Self-hatred?” he repeated in English. “What is that?”

“All of us gathered at that 1990 conference, India-philosophers, psychologists, scientists, and meditators were from Western countries, and self-hatred was something we immediately understood.”

In essence, what this means is that self-hatred is a well understood reality in the Western world. However, this leads to the question as to why self-hate is so very familiar in the West? For me, as an individual, it is not difficult to understand. I have always been competitive. Perhaps the root of my competitive nature was rooted in my childhood experiences with my older brother who always seemed to best me in getting high grades. My jealousy of his “A” grades eventually lead to a lot of self-doubt and self hate. After all, the only explanation for my performance must have been in not being as intelligent or worthwhile as he was, or so I told myself. That is why I set out on a course of getting two Master’s degrees and a PhD. It was also why I attended and graduated from and arduous course of study in psychoanalysis.

As a psychotherapist I discovered that I was far from the only person who suffered from this dynamic. Here, in the West, society puts a lot of emphasis on perfection, competition and achievement. No matter how successful they were, a long line of patients entered my therapy practice complaining of depression and self-hate. Among these were successful doctors, lawyers, teachers and businessmen. All of them shared my dynamic that, regardless of how much they achieved and regardless of how much money was earned, they still felt bad about themselves.

How is that possible? The answer is that there is no end to what must be achieved in the quest for recognition and what we thought was perfection. It’s no enough to be a doctor if you are not the best doctor. It’s not enough to be an attorney unless you work for the best law firm in the nation. It’ not enough to be a teacher unless you become the national teacher of the year. Even then, it’s not enough. In fact, the quest for perfection is really an attempt to cover the pain that is felt from being disappointed with one’s self.

In all of this, there is a lack of self-compassion. First, what is compassion?

Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering. (See the Greater Good website).

According to Kristin Neff, clinical psychologist and expert on mindfulness and self-compassion, “It is treating ourselves with care and understanding rather than harsh self-judgement,… “Treating yourself as you would treat a good friend you care about, actively soothing and comforting yourself… and framing your own experience and imperfection in light of the shared human experience” To do this means that painful feelings must be embraced with the self-compassionate understanding that those feelings are shared by the rest of humanity.

In other words, the self hate originates with the inevitable failure to be perfect. The greater the gap between what we wish for and what we have the greater the self-hate. This results in flagellating ourselves by submitting ourselves to endless criticism. Then, we attempt to hide the painful emotions behind this by drinking and taking drugs to numb the pain. What is tragic about this is that we are convinced, at least we in the West, that it is never acceptable to be average. No one stops to think about the fact that being average is a good thing. It is a good thing because what is most important is to embrace who we are.

This is a quotation from the Buddha:

“You could search the whole world over and never find anyone as deserving of your love as yourself.” Not only did the Buddha say that love for oneself is possible; he described this capacity as something we must nurture, since it’s the foundation for being able to truly love and care for others.”

Kristin Neff, PhD, explains all of this in her wonderful book, “Self-Compassion, How to Stop Beating Yourself…”

More will be explained about self-compassion in future blogs.

Your comments are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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