We all have an inner critic that tells us we’re not good enough. Sometimes it tells us far worse things than that — that we’re worthless, that no one likes us, that we’re essentially unlovable. In cultivating metta we’re supposed to love ourselves, but the inner critic is a part of us; how do we love that? And how to we stop listening to the inner critic long enough to experience any love for ourselves?
Actually all practice helps deal with our inner critic. Any mindfulness practice helps because as soon as you’re mindful of the brain’s “self-hatred module” you’re no longer being self-hatred. Self hatred is at its worst when we think that the voice it speaks with is “us.” But you’re not speaking with that voice as long as you’re standing apart from it and relating to it in some way. You’re hearing the voice, not being the voice. To relate to the inner critic in any way — even if it’s just mindfully listening to its words — is to stand apart from it. That distance, however slight to begin with, is crucial.
And like in the cute story about the two wolves (too well known to bear repeating), you’re choosing which wolf to feed — the wolf of love or the wolf of hatred. And your brain being an economical sort of organ, unused parts will start to atrophy so that your body’s resources can be used elsewhere. Your brain is malleable and adaptable and the part of it devoted to self-hatred will wither away.
Your lovingkindness practice helps because you can take this “standing back” a bit further. You’re standing back and you can wish the self-hatred module well. And you can become aware of any pain that your inner critic gives rise to and give it compassion too. This is all very healing.
There’s another effect of metta too, which is that you’re learning a more effective strategy for relating to yourself and finding happiness. Self-hatred is, oddly enough, a way of seeking happiness. The idea behind it is that if you criticize yourself enough for “making mistakes” you won’t make them in the future, and therefore you’ll be better, more popular, happier. It doesn’t work, of course, so it’s a very ineffective strategy. But it’s helpful to recognize that your self-hatred actually is based on a desire to be happier and to avoid suffering. Its motivation is fine — it’s the strategy it uses that’s messed up.
Mindfulness and metta give us different and more effective ways to deal with our “faults” — our unhelpful habits that cause suffering for ourselves and others. We can be more forgiving and kinder. We can want to change, but not be so punitive about it. Self-hatred assumes it’s necessary for our well-being, but we can live perfectly well without it.
Another really helpful ‘ah ha!’ moment of insightful comment. I’ve just been through a rather intense period of self-loathing (for various reasons): I eventually gave up on beating the inner critic over the head, but it then threatened to overwhelm. By seeing it in the way presented here is truly revelatory. Thank you once again, Bodhipaksa.
(But what I really want to know is – how is it that every newsletter one of your articles seems to touch on an issue I’m currently struggling with?!)
That’s my little secret :)