We all know those moments when we do something we didn’t really mean or want to do and then feel bad. In this context, self-judgment can start automatically and spiral us down fast.
Self-judgment in the West
Years ago when a Western student asked the Dalai Lama about self-hatred, he repeated the word, “self-hatred?” He appeared perplexed. “What is that?” he asked. He had to question his translator, his learned senior teachers, and his audience before he gradually understood. The term does not exist in the Tibetan language, and it was a new idea for the Tibetan leader. Guilt or shame for particular misdeeds he understood, but hating your own self? How could that be? He found, strangely, that most of us Westerners seem to suffer from a feeling of wrongness that never quite goes away. This inner attitude is one of the major differences between many Asian cultures and our own. John Welwood explored this problem in depth in his book Toward a Psychology of Awakening. He found it was a source of much misunderstanding for Western practitioners of Eastern teachings.
So “advanced self-criticism” is a very painful habit most of us share. When we meditate we might notice these tendencies, and they can be quite disturbing. Some forms of therapy in particular shine light on these automatic patterns and thoughts. We can learn in meditation, or for example with the help of some forms of cognitive-behavioral therapy, to interrupt these automatic processes and to focus instead on observing them without judgment.
The power of awareness
Having trained our self-awareness in meditation, yoga or other practices, we might notice our self-critical thoughts. In a situation where they are unconsciously happening we naturally feel bad and can then notice that we are putting ourselves down, that we are holding a negative view of ourselves. Sometimes this attitude can trigger vicious verbal attacks that we would never voice towards others. But negative views can be very subtle, and the words we use against ourselves might be hard to catch. There may not even be words, but simply a kind of harsh inner stare, like frowning at a person we just don’t like. Or we might tighten a muscle somewhere in irritation at ourselves. But if we allow ourselves to give voice to that tension it might say something quite painful.
How are we actually doing that?
If we use these situations to be aware of that inner frown, we can notice what is actually going on beneath the surface; we can find insight into how we are judging ourselves. What are the contexts? What stories are repeated? What are we telling ourselves? What are we comparing ourselves to? What are we blaming ourselves for?
In my own mind it’s basically always a very similar scenario. If I can catch myself right there in the beginning or in the middle of it, I can stop engaging in it and just observe the process instead. It’s like being a bystander and not an active participant in a bullying going on. Still I can feel the pain and I don’t feel supported, but at least I’m not engaging actively in it.
Having noticed what is automatically happening inside my mind I can see the different topics, insecurities, forces at play. I can see that there was something to begin with that I felt confident about, or good about. And then the tables turned, and I did the best that was available to me in the situation, but afterwards I thought it wasn’t very good, certainly not the best. I see then that I judge myself negatively for “what I did” and then that I think at some level that “I’m bad”—or incompetent, or weak, or embarrassing, or whatever bad word fits. Then the feelings come of being embarrassed, sad and weak. But here, the more I can notice my struggle and my pain the more I can move into compassion and loving care. Like a friend of the bullied child I can be there for myself, be present for my experience and feelings and put my arm around myself and hold myself in this painful moment.
Sometimes in Buddhist teachings this self-critical dynamic is discussed in terms of pride and then wounded pride, but again, the problem with us Westerners is that our self-critical habit is so strong that we just use the teaching against ourselves, making wounded pride even worse! Instead we need to find a way out of self-hatred.
Self-understanding usually allows for more clarity about the actual situation. I’m out of the fear and the stress, held in loving care. When I receive this compassion I can slowly see and understand myself in all of this. These are deep patterns and they have happened many times before. I can slowly stop them by recognizing them again and again and finding the real truth in them—which is that they are unconscious habits, nothing more. Compassion sees that I try to do my best and it acknowledges that. Compassion always sees a bigger picture than a harsh label. It sees that I am not xyz but that I fear that I am that. Compassion understands my distress and cares for it right there. The more often I can break the self-judgment pattern after the fact, the more likely I’ll catch myself earlier next time. At some point I won’t have to fall into it anymore as all the signs of the painful trap show themselves quite readily to my awareness. Instead I can smile with understanding at the old tendency that is now more and more fading in the light of this newly-gained awareness.
Self-criticism is deep and has many faces. As we train to catch ourselves in more situations and replace criticism with care and understanding, we find it easier to handle the pattern of self-criticism as it shows up again. What I love most about this process is the loving care that it inspires. This so softens the inner harshness and automatically shows up when we witness others in a similar situation. This gift allows us to help them also to see and understand themselves, instead of cycling downward in the spiral of judgement, criticism and conflict.
I hope you too know this process well and I wish that you’ll always have access to love and care within yourself whenever you notice a situation like this, inside or outside.