The Self-Hatred Within Us

Monday, November 9, 2015 - 5:43am

The Self-Hatred Within Us

I often think about a memorable conversation I had with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1990 while we were at a small conference in India sponsored by the Mind & Life Institute. At one point during the event, I had an opportunity to ask the Dalai Lama a question, so I ventured,

“Your Holiness, what do you think about self-hatred?”

He looked at me seeming somewhat confused and asked in response: “What’s that?”

It powerfully sums up a fundamental difference between our Western, ambition-focused value system and the Buddhist moral compass. While I came to meditation at 18 as a result of dealing with feelings of inadequacy and self-judgment for my entire young adult life, the Dalai Lama didn’t even know what the meaning of self-hatred was. When I explained to him what I meant by the term — talking about the cycle of self-judgment, guilt, unproductive thought patterns — he asked me, “How could you think of yourself that way?” and explained that we all have “Buddha nature.”

In other words, he simply didn’t get the fact that many of us are often overcome with fundamental feelings of negativity and inadequacy. I revisit this story repeatedly because there was, and still is, something so freeing about the fact that the Dalai Lama was so surprised about this negative way of relating to ourselves, an attitude that seems so common in today’s day and age.

I don’t want to deify Asian culture, or Tibetan people, or Buddhist thought. There are problems in every society, group, and philosophical school. But, I think it is powerful to reflect on what we think we will find within if we look underneath our habits and our desires and our fears. Is it a capacity for love and awareness? Or is it pretty much nothing, or nothing good?

In particular, I’ve thought about this in the process of writing my upcoming book theses past few months. I’ve found that many, if not most, of the people with whom I’ve spoken, feel the greatest sense of struggle around the question of cultivating love for oneself. We are conditioned to associate self-love with selfishness, and self-deprecation with virtue. It often seems easier to access feelings of judgment and anger about ourselves than towards those around us.

In my research for the book, I’ve encountered extensive information about evolutionary biology, and specifically about the phrase “negativity bias.” This concept refers to the fact that our nervous systems are programmed, on an evolutionary level, to look for possible negative outcomes in our surroundings. Our job as living creatures is to spot imminent danger and any sense of threat in our surroundings. Looking for negativity in our lives is literally a survival mechanism, dating back to the times when we were actually required to protect ourselves from being killed by predators. Given that most of us probably have no need to measure ourselves against the potential threat of a tiger or bear, we simply become lost in this pattern of dwelling on negativity, which includes more and more fixation on our own failings and inadequacy.

When I went to India to learn meditation, I hoped that I could become an entirely different person through meditating. Unsurprisingly, I found that I was unable to establish a practice of meditating from this place of self-hatred. In order to get to a place where I was able to feel a positive change in my life from the practice, I had to challenge my own self-judgment, as difficult as that was. Because it went against my habit, my survival mechanism of pointing out the negative in my life, it felt almost dangerous. By challenging myself in this way, I was able to let go of my constant state of guilt and find a sense of spaciousness and acceptance, even if negative feelings arose. Creating that spaciousness as a foundation allowed me to get to the place where negative feelings could come in, and go out, with greater ease and gentleness.

Of course, sometimes we have feelings of self-judgment; it’s important for us not to get caught up in judging the self-judgment, which leads to a vicious cycle of negativity. Years ago, a friend of mine visited the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts for the annual three-month retreat, and our teacher Dipa Ma was visiting during the course. One day during the retreat, my friend simply felt like he “couldn’t” meditate, and wanted to go check into a motel to watch football. So he did, but hardly cleared his mind.

When he came back, he was encumbered by self-judgment and preemptive shame about telling Dipa Ma. He ended up telling her despite his fear, and she unsurprisingly was OK with it and accepted him unconditionally. “Now you can begin again,” she reassured him, repeating a phrase that I now use to describe the practice of meditation to my students, no matter if they’re beginning their practice or have been meditating for years. Every time we sit with our breath, we can begin again an incalculable number of times. We can let go of our distractions, our ruminations and establish clarity of vision that is also filled with love.

Beginning again doesn’t mean we are lazy, or don’t seek excellence in what we undertake. It means we’ve figured out something that isn’t awfully available in our popular culture. Seeking to punish ourselves endlessly will leave us exhausted and demoralized. Caring about ourselves allows us to renew our efforts and continue on. This is the love that the Dalai Lama had tried to explain to me during our talk about self-hatred many years ago.

(Scott Knickelbine)

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Sharon Salzberg

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears monthly.

She is a meditation teacher and the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She is the author of many books, including Love Your Enemies, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, and Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace.

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I think and write about this topic myself. I feel so much truth here. I love the "start again". Being kind to ourselves even in self hatred and judgement. If we can see the self hatred, then we can start there, with some compassion and kindness for those parts of ourselves, that need our unconditional love.
Thanks so much for the article.

Sharon - What an incredibly insightful and timely piece. What resonates most for me is the part about your friend not being ready to participate in the retreat at that moment. It takes a lot of courage and fearlessness to say, "OK, I'm ready now"-- especially for some of the bigger challenges in life. And if one subscribes to the belief that this lifetime is but a continuum of evolution for one's ever-developing soul, then it's truly never too late to say, "it's never too late."

This is so wonderful, and so spot on. My question, though, is how to handle others whose goal it is to make you feel badly about yourself. For the last 3 years, I have been faced with this problem: beloved family members from whom I have experienced a "break" for reasons too complicated to explain here --- they involve misplaced anger and the need to place blame for grief that they carry and are ashamed to let go of --- have made it a point to try, in the most public of ways, to attempt to make me feel badly about myself (I am a publicly visible person, and a writer). I spent 2 of the 3 years doing just that, and then I realized that the problem was shame, which was entrenched in my family. But still. How to handle? Many thanks.

Hi Elissa, I'm sure Sharon will have insightful things to say in response. I will look forward to reading that. Personally when I read your post, what comes up to consciousness is the reality of inter-generational transmission of things like, well, shame. And that is something both energetic and physically etched on our chromosomes, and it manifests on many levels, including the level of family behavior you describe. If you would like, I could elaborate off line. Thank you Sharon for the very helpful article.

Thank you for your well articulated explanation. It helps to understand more clearly a/the reason behind experiences both good and not so good. Also, it brings some light to the notion that "things happen for a reason."

I am interested in learning more about this inter-generational transmission of shame, and how to heal it + limit passing it on.

The feeling inferior and less than adequate is at the core of Alfred Adler's psychoanalytic theory.

Alfred Adler/Quotes
It is easier to fight for one's principles than to live up to them.
The chief danger in life is that you may take too many precautions.
Exaggerated sensitiveness is an expression of the feeling of inferiority.

Fear of success is as great as fear of failure. Those who seek perfection are the ones who fear success the most. And shame may be a factor. TWH stardate 11102015

I love your contributions to this site, and today's is like the others--such freedom is offered. The expansiveness reminded me of the description of Teresa of Avila as one gets quieter, more honest, willing to accept the love of the Holy One, the inward journey become not to a small secret place, but to an expansive, light-filled place where we accept and love ourselves as we are loved. Thank you for this gift today. I read it just at the right time for me, which often happens, doesn't it?


When the topic of negativity vs. acceptance arises in a spiritual context, I always think of the so-called "serenity prayer" which is probably due to Reinhold Neibuhr. Serenity to accept, and courage to change, are applicable equally to oneself as to the world around us.

But as one educated in philosophy I must say I am generally disappointed in how often the spiritual community neglects the ending of this prayer, which I consider its pinnacle - that one needs wisdom to know the difference between those situations where serenity or courage is apropos.

And Neibuhr is neither alone nor the first to recognize the issue. There is Robert Burns' immortal "O wad some powr the giftie gie us, to see oursel's as others see us." And the classical "Know thyself" of Delphi.

If the spiritual community is not advocating unbiased self-examination, who is left?

Certainly an interesting article. I agree with Ms. Salzberg that self hatred is common and that the Dalai Lama could not comprehend such a thought pattern was telling of his own journey. Unlike his Holiness, I believe most of us who are raised in Western Culture find ourselves unprotected or supported along our emotional-spiritual journeys. We are left to decipher and interpret, unless blessed by high enough financial support to afford psychotherapy, our own twisted journeys in life. our backgrounds and experiences, our primary and secondary relationships all influence and help develop self-hatred, almost as a form of self-preservation. I think self-hatred is what propels us to improve our lives and the lives of others. Not as isolated human beings but in community with our surroundings.


I am wondering if the attitude of the Dalai Lama is shared by all buddhists. It may be only we westerners who suffer self-hatred, blame, shame and other ills. Or, particularly Americans. America was birthed in much violence - and is still violent to its own people, to immigrants, to the environment, and to others through endless wars. We have a lot to overcome. Having the peace of the Buddha throughout our country would be quite amazing!

There are those who judge in the inward direction and those who project it outwards. I fit in more with the latter, but am seeing that all judgement is the cause of most, maybe all, of our troubles

Sharon was my teacher on a three month retreat back in the early 1980s and to this day I look to her for inspiration and wisdom, and never leave empty handed. In reading this piece I came away reflecting on the simple notion of "what we think we will find within if we look underneath our habits and our desires and our fears. Is it a capacity for love and awareness?" I don't think many of us on the journey of self-discovery ask ourselves this type of question with much sincerity or thoroughness, or if we do, we settle sometimes for spoon-fed answers. Poignantly, this was written a few days before the Paris terror attacks and I feel that although seemingly separate spheres, perhaps we may feel supported by Sharon's words to reflect what we may find in our hearts if we look deeply that can respond meaningfully, thoughtfully and courageously in a world ravaged by some much suffering.

Thank you for this. It's hit me at a time when I can take in these words very deeply.

I wrote an essay for my blog, Prometheus Unchained, that was about releasing parts of our imagined identity in the context of changing habits. This is a paragraph from that essay that I believe mirrors some of what you're saying:

This letting go was a gentle process. For the first time, quitting (smoking) actually made me happier. In the past, trying to quit was a knock down-drag out and that fight kept happiness at bay. Happiness is generated from within, and when there’s a struggle going on–happiness will not enter. Our ego thinks we can drive out bad habits and addictions through a force of will. We have been conditioned to berate and blame, but those leave us exhausted and demoralized. It’s actually better to quietly usher the unwanted out of our lives. By calmly ordering the way we see ourselves, we make the habit seem out of place.

Thank you Sharon. I have been aware of the "Concept" of self hatred, but never fully able to work through it. You have opened a door for me. Looking forward to the book.

Thank you for this article. This is so relevant today, because so many of us are taking on the blame, hate, all negativity of the world. In some way, we feel responsible for the tragedy that happened in Paris, Beruit, Syria, and so many other places. As an empath , I know the feeling. We must remember that Love is the only recourse. We know that. Mahalo

Thanks for initiating this conversation, Sharon. In "Learning to Love - Your Guide to Personal Empowerment" I write about the role that shame plays in preventing us from embracing and loving the person who we really are. I use the word "shame" to refer to the emotion that we feel in response to an immediate fear of rejection. Throughout our lives, we all think, say, believe and do things that we feel ashamed of because our emotional survival depended on being the kind of person who never thinks, says, believes or does these kind of things. The "Learning to Love Curriculum" facilitates a re-integration of these rejected, shadow, aspects of self so that readers can once again become Whole and live the rest of their lives free from self-hatred. My students are provided with tools that enable them to fall deeply and permanently in Love with who they are right now, and as soon as they find that love, their entire experience of life is transformed and everything that they truly want and need becomes available to them. Nothing makes me happier.