Self Compassion

Stop beating yourself

Sharon Salzberg is one of the outstanding teachers of Buddhist philosophy and mindful living. Here is a quote from a conference she attended with the Dalai Lama:

Sharon Salzberg in a conversation with the Dalai Lama:

  1. “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 to the suffering I had seen so often in my students, a suffering I was familiar with. The room went quiet as we all awaited the answer of the Dalai Lama, the revered leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Looking startled, he turned to his translator and repeatedly asked in Tibetan for an explanation. Turning back to me, the Dalai Lama tilted his head, his eyes narrowed in confusion. “Self-hatred?” he repeated in English. “What is that?”
  2. “All of us gathered at that 1990 conference, India-philosophers, psychologists, scientists, and meditators were from Western countries, and self-hatred was something we understood.”

Self-hatred is a well-understood reality in the Western world. However, It leads to why self-hate is so familiar in the West. For me, as an individual, it is easy to understand. I have always been competitive. Perhaps my competitive nature was rooted in my childhood experiences with my older brother, who always seemed to best me in getting top grades. 

My jealousy of his “A” grades led to self-doubt and self-hate. After all, the only explanation for my performance must have been not being as intelligent or worthwhile as he was, or so I told myself. That is why I set out to get two Master’s degrees and a Ph.D. It was also why I attended and graduated from an arduous course of study in psychoanalysis.

In Western society, perfection, competition, and achievement are emphasized. Many patients entered my therapy practice complaining of depression and self-hate. They felt this despite their many successes. Among these were successful doctors, lawyers, teachers, and business people. They all shared my dynamic. Regardless of how much they achieved and the money they earned, they still felt bad about themselves. As a psychotherapist, I discovered I was far from the only person who suffered from this dynamic.

How is that possible? The answer is that there is no end to what must be achieved. The quest for recognition is endless. Having a Ph.D. is not enough if you are not the best. It’s not enough to be an attorney unless you work for the best law firm in the nation. Being a teacher is not enough unless you become the national teacher of the year. Even then, it’s not enough. 

As I have learned, the quest for perfection is an attempt to cover the pain of being disappointed with oneself. In all of this, there is a lack of self-compassion. 

What Is Compassion? (See the Greater Good website).

  1. *Compassion means to suffer together. It is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering. One feels motivated to relieve that suffering.
  2. Compassion is not the same as empathy or altruism. But the concepts are related. Empathy refers to our ability to understand and feel another person’s emotions. Compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help. Altruism is the kind, selfless behavior often prompted by feelings of compassion. Though one can feel compassion without acting on it, compassion doesn’t always motivate altruism.
  3. While cynics may dismiss compassion as touchy-feely or irrational, scientists have mapped the biological basis of compassion. They suggest it has a rooted evolutionary purpose. This research has shown that when we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, and we secrete the bonding hormone oxytocin. In addition, regions of the brain linked to empathy, caregiving, and feelings of pleasure light up. Often this results in our wanting to approach and care for other people.* From the Greater Good Website.

Kristin Neff is a clinical psychologist. She is an expert on mindfulness and self-compassion. Neff states self-compassion is treating ourselves with care and understanding rather than harsh self-judgment. It means treating yourself as you would treat a good friend you care about. You soothe and comfort yourself and frame your experience and imperfection as part of the shared human experience. To do this means that painful feelings must be embraced with the self-compassionate understanding that the rest of humanity shares those feelings.

The greater the gap between what we wish for and have, the greater the self-hate. Self-hate originates with the inevitable failure to be perfect. 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 in the West, that it is never acceptable to be average. No one stops to think that being average is a good thing. It is a good thing because what is most important is to embrace who we are.

A quotation from the Buddha:

“You could search the entire world and find no one as deserving of your love as yourself.” Not only did the Buddha say that love for oneself is possible. But he also described this capacity as something we must nurture since it’s the foundation for being able to love and care for others.

Kristin Neff, Ph.D., explains all this in her wonderful book, “Self-Compassion, How to Stop Beating Yourself.”

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