The Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard likes to tell an anecdote about the Dalai Lama. During a conference on how East meets West in the Indian town of Dharamsala, one of the American psychologists talked about ‘self-loathing’. At first, the Dalai Lama thought he’d misheard, and he asked the interpreter to repeat his translation several times. He then asked for someone to explain what on earth this concept was, since it was inconceivable to him that a human being could hate himself.
When he finally understood and realised this was a common phenomenon in the West, he expressed profound sorrow. Sorrow at the thought that so many people could feel alienated from themselves to the point of self-hatred. Where do they come from, these terrible judgements with which we condemn ourselves? ‘I’m worthless’, ‘I don’t deserve to be loved’, ‘I’m not good enough...’.
At one point, I worked for the World Health Organization, teaching Cambodian and African psychologists about the identification of negative feelings towards oneself. This is a central concept of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), and of cognitive therapy in the treatment of depression and trauma. They, too, were having trouble understanding the idea. Until a therapist from Senegal suddenly exclaimed: ‘Ah, I understand! You mean the things we fear that others think about us.’
And, suddenly, I understood that these thoughts we have about ourselves actually come from judgements – real or imaginary – about us that we have appropriated from other people. The woman who never got over failing her A Levels and continues to tell herself, ‘I’m not good enough’ has absorbed the view of those who looked at her that way 20 years before. It’s their voices that keep ringing in her head and continue to pollute her mental landscape. It’s not her own voice. It’s important to stem the flow of negative thoughts about ourselves.
But that isn’t enough. We also need to stop the negative flow of thoughts we have towards other people. When we put down a colleague or a family member with a harsh judgement (‘He’s incompetent’, ‘She’s too complicated’), we give ourselves a small dose of self-satisfaction by comparing ourselves positively to our victim. But the satisfaction is short-lived. On the contrary, the criticisms we make of those around us reinforce the idea of a world consisting of victims and aggressors. We’re simply waiting our turn to be criticised. It’s only by freeing ourselves from this habit of criticising others so harshly that we can in turn be freed from the voices judging us.
One of the simplest, most moving principles of Buddhist prayers represents for me a vital step towards cleaning up this mental landscape. It acknowledges our basic needs and humility to ask for help: ‘Let me be safe, let me be healthy, let me be happy.’ So, how about letting that inner voice ring in our head, instead of making harsh judgements?
Read Why being kind will make you happy on Lifelabs