The heart of Buddhist practice is about freeing ourselves from suffering. Self-criticism and other forms of low self esteem are pervasive in the modern world and create an enormous amount of suffering. Luckily there are Buddhist teachings that can help us to let go of them and find self-compassion.
The Origins of Self-Criticism and Low Self-Esteem
Every human being must constantly try to make sense out of why things are the way they are. It is a function of the human mind. Cognitive scientists call it the “narrative bias” and Buddhists call it “bhavanga citta.” Both are describing the way that the human mind constantly creates stories to out of experience in order to make sense out of the world. When someone is treated badly (another experience that is common to every human being) we inevitably create a story about “why” that happened. Some people blame themselves and some blame others. Still other people don’t blame anyone and believe that anyone treating them badly must be a person who is suffering. When children are treated badly, they almost always blame themselves. For a child, it is much scarier to imagine that there are adults who would be mean to them for no reason. It generally feels safer to imagine that they did something to deserve what happened because then they have some amount of control. We know that no child ever deserves to be treated badly, but it is so common for children to think this way. When a child internalizes harsh treatment in this way, they plant the seed of self-criticism in their consciousness.
Finding Self-Confidence and Letting Go of Insecurity
When we are able to recognize that we have never deserved to be treated badly, we can begin the path of healing. However, it is impossible for anyone to let go of an old story (no matter how untrue) until they have a more compelling story to replace it. The human mind needs to have a story to make sense out of everything, and won’t tolerate an experience with no explanation. We need to revisit old experiences of hurt and create new meanings about why things happened as they did. The important thing is that in the new story, we can not have deserved anything other than love and kindness. The creation of this story is step two.
Grieving and Healing
Changing the story is a good start, but it is not enough for deep healing. We must learn to be present with these old experiences. We begin by being able to merely tolerate the feelings associated with them for short periods of time. We revisit the memory, let the feelings come up, and just allow ourselves to feel them. Once we can tolerate the feelings, we can begin the process of getting comfortable with that feeling. We bring the feeling up and ask it questions:
“What do you need?”
“How can I help you?”
“How are you trying to help me?”
We listen to the responses without needing to act on them. We just listen and acknowledge what we notice. Then we ask again until we have learned all we can. We know we have learned everything from a feeling when we can easily see the beautiful humanity in it — what some call its Buddha-nature. With this awareness, our relationship to the feeling and the experience has transformed fundamentally and we feel free of it.