You might think that the antidote to self-hatred is liking yourself. But is that desirable, or even possible? We all contain impulses such as jealously, hatred, and greed. What would it mean to like them? Are we supposed to approve of them? To give them free rein and act upon them?
The idea of liking “ourselves” seems badly put. When I look at myself I don’t see any one thing. I see a broad range of phenomena, some that promote my wellbeing and others that sometimes compromise it. There’s no one “self” there to like.
I have plenty to work with. I have skillful impulses, of course. But I also have destructive or harmful habits such as irritability, a desire to be “right,” depressive doubts about my own worth, and so on. These cause suffering for me and also for others in my life.
But hating these things is pointless. Hating these aspects of myself would just be introducing more unskillfulness and conflict into my being. To hate ourselves is to be at war with ourselves. And in such a war, who can be the winner? Hatred, as the Buddha observed, can never conquer hatred.
That doesn’t mean that I approve of these impulses or want to express them. If I was to give those habits free rein, I’d just end up with even more suffering in my life.
I certainly don’t like these potentially destructive habits. To like something means we have pleasant feelings associated with it, and I don’t experience pleasant feelings with regard to my irritability, self-doubts, and so on.
I can accept them, though. And I can be kind toward them.
Practicing acceptance simply means that I accept that these things are a part of me. They are part of the broad range of emotional responses that I have inherited as a mammal and as a human being. I didn’t choose to have them. It makes no sense for me to judge myself harshly for having these habits. I don’t need to hate myself simply for being human.
An audience member at a discussion between two Buddhist teachers described how she came to see that it was possible for her to have compassion for herself:
I’ve been thinking a lot about loving myself, but I felt like I would have to like everything about myself to love myself. But then I had a realization … that I could just have some compassion toward myself. I don’t necessarily have to like every part of myself.
It’s possible for us to relate with kindness and compassion to every part of ourselves, including those destructive tendencies I’ve described. I can recognize that they are born from suffering. Our unskillful habits are simply ways of trying to deal with painful feelings that have arisen. Irritability tries to keep at bay some source of distress. Jealousy wants us to have for ourselves a benefit that someone else has access to. Doubt tries to analyze what’s not going right in our lives. Every single unskillful impulse any of us has represents an attempt to find peace and happiness. The problem with them is not that they are “bad,” but that they don’t work.
One of the most radical things the Buddha said was that if letting go of unskillful habits caused pain rather than brought us peace, he wouldn’t have taught us to do it. He didn’t seem to see them as inherently bad. He’d have encouraged us to keep on going with our greed, hatred, and delusion if they actually made us happy. But they don’t.
Our task is to find better strategies. This is what developing “skillfulness” involves—finding ways of being that actually bring about peace and harmony. To lack skill means aiming to create happiness but instead bringing about suffering and conflict.
When we react to our unskillful tendencies by hating them we’re treating them as if they were enemies. They aren’t. They’re just confused friends. They’re trying to benefit us, but most of the time failing. Once we start to empathize with what these confused friends are trying to do for us, we can find more skillful ways to accomplish the same aims. Mindfulness and self-compassion are the most powerful tools we have for doing that.
Our irritability and hatred maybe trying (and failing) to keep some source of distress out of our experience. We’re trying to push the distress out of our lives. Mindful self-compassion helps us see that it’s not the unpleasant feeling that’s our real problem, but our resistance to it. It allows us to be present with painful feelings until they pass, naturally, and can open up the way for us to have fondness and appreciation for whatever it was we were irritated by.
Jealousy may want us to grasp for ourselves some benefit that another has access to (this is of course painful), but self-compassion can help soothe the pain of grasping and also help us feel a sense of abundance; there is so much kindness we can show to ourselves! And this can allow us to feel glad for the other person.
Self-doubt may be a clumsy way of trying to discover if there’s something wrong in the way we are. Mindful self-compassion can help reassure the uncertain part of us, seeing that there’s nothing going on that we can’t work with, reminding us to trust in our practice, and helping us to see our inherent goodness.
In all cases empathizing with our unskillful tendencies helps us to be happier.
Practicing self-compassion is like learning to be a kind and wise parent to ourselves. If our children act badly in some way, they do not need either our hatred. That wouldn’t be helpful for them. Neither, however, should we blindly approve of everything they do. That wouldn’t help them either. When our children act badly they need our kindness, our empathy, and wise guidance.
And this, too, is how we need to learn to relate to ourselves if we want to flourish and be happy in the long-term.
Very helpful! I’ve been feeling confused because there are aspects of myself that I don’t like but I’m supposed to love myself, but I don’t love some of these parts of myself…This article helps me to understand. Thank you!
I am not surprised anymore yet profoundly delighted by your wisdom which leads you to turn situations upside down and unpack solutions that are so helpful. Thank you for your beautiful thoughts.
Bodhivata from Brooklyn
Great words sir, but putting them into practice. That is the hard part, at least for me. I’ve been meditating for over 10 years now, and I don’t feel like I have made any real progress towards this goal.
I know from my own experience that a lot of meditation “practice” can simply be letting the mind slowly become a bit calmer. It can lack specificity and purpose. And that’s not useless, although it might not take us very far. I think things change when we get specific about learning skills, and when we have an overarching framework for bringing those skills together in a systematic way. For me, one of the most important frameworks is self-compassion, which is what I’m talking about here.
Think about what I’ve said in this article as comprising specific skills, which can be practiced over and over again. So we practice identifying and stepping back from the mental habits that cause us suffering. We practice having a kind and compassionate attitude toward everyone and everything. We practice empathizing with ourselves and others. We practice directing our kindness and compassion toward our unskillful mental habits. We practice empathizing with them, seeing what it is that they really want.
So we’re taking a whole bunch of skills, honing them, and applying them to the end of becoming more compassionate toward ourselves.
From the Dhammapada, ‘Hate never overcomes hate. Only love overcomes hate.’ And compassion appears to yield greater understanding and benefits.
You suggested and my experience confirms, “I find that it is important to like, as in feel concern or interest, in every part of myself.” To dislike, not like, have a feeling of aversion or antipathy towards myself, something, or someone, is an identity issue.
If I am jealous, I find it useful to know that I am jealous. I find it useful to even like knowing that I am jealous. This perspective points towards developing wisdom without creating identity, aka taking things personally. I find remorse and regret to be forms of self compassion.
Of course, there are many things I may do differently the next time and there are people I may choose to avoid.
Do you wish to cover mudita as well? The sense of relief, joy, happiness, and the wish for greater success resulting from compassion? Mudita is the wholesome attitude of rejoicing in the happiness & virtues of all sentient beings, a fruit of compassion rarely discussed. True happiness.
So clear and kind and … simple, as in not-complex. Your examples of being compassionate with the “unskillful tendencies” is tremendously helpful. I am expert in hating mine but only just learning what bringing compassion to them might mean – this is wonderfully helpful and encouraging, thank you!
Thanks, this has helped me. I like too your comment about learning skills , I think this is a powerful way to move forward
That’s a great way to explain it; practicing the skills you described can have a cumulative effect. I’ve been down on myself and then realized that I was the one creating that suffering. Suddenly, the thought came: “maybe try some self-compassion instead.” That isn’t the way I would normally think – it’s a result of learning about and practicing these skills. The self-hateful thinking has less of a hold on the mind and starts to weaken.
That’s great to hear, Eileen. I’m glad that your mind is turning to self-compassion in the face of suffering. It really is a revolutionary thing to do!
I can say I enjoy a lot of negative emotions and unpleasant feelings; I feel a lot more whole from experiencing them. In the process I realized that they were only negative or unpleasant when I attached to a label about them that was only meant to be of circumstantial value and I dis-disassociate. Then they just become part of the flow of emotions and of having a body. I guess that boils to: mudita
A clear and elucidating explanation of skilfullness. Much appreciated!
I trust you when you say that “the solution to hating yourself is liking yourself” and “the solution to hating yourself is feeling compassion for yourself” are totally different in Buddhist theory. In secular practice, they are equally as easy (that is, not easy at all) to implement.
Self-compassion certainly isn’t easy, but fortunately there are practices that help us to get better at it. Much of what I do involves communicating those practices. Learning self-compassion is an ongoing, life-long practice. It’s not like flipping a switch, but more like an exploration where you’re constantly discovering new ways to be kinder to yourself. Just starting on the path is itself reassuring, though!