I’m reticent to write personally about self-hatred, because part of me fears that if I admit that self-hatred arises in me, then people will think I’m a spiritual failure and discredit anything I say. This is inconvenient, because as a friend of mine recently reminded me, openly talking about self-hatred (in an appropriate setting) is one of the best ways to diffuse its power. Also, how can we have a meaningful conversation about something too shameful to admit?
I’ve spent over a decade wholeheartedly practicing ways of freeing myself from the grip of self-hatred, and the following are some of the most useful insights and practices gleaned from that ongoing exploration. May it be of benefit.
Investigating Self-Hatred (Without Believing it)
As I wrote in my love letter to meditation retreat, one of the most valuable shifts in understanding that I’ve ever had through meditation is that I don’t have to believe my thoughts—that’s especially true for self-hatred. A most effective way of applying this insight is Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s mantra: “Real, but not true.” When self-hatred arises, I can acknowledge: I’m really telling myself these things. The body sure is constricted. But what I’m telling myself is not true, much like the quote from the Dalai Lama in my last post, “You're thinking, or you're feeling, I am something [of] no value…that is wrong. Absolutely wrong.” The capacity to acknowledge the dark thoughts without believing them awakens the possibility of meeting even the most difficult experience with compassion, lightness, and even humor.
Sometimes I imagine the cruelest and most vicious inward thoughts as coming from a duck. Yes, a duck. I imagine this duck stomping its little webbed feet, and saying, “You blew it. You’ve ruined everything, forever. You’ll never be forgiven.” It’s amazing how quickly the duck can make self-hatred adorable.
Once there’s a willingness to investigate, self-hatred without buying into it, I’ve found it tremendously beneficial to ask meditatively some of the beautiful questions offered to me by my teachers*:
- What is this?
- What is my suffering? Can I be with this?
- What is it that I’m unwilling to feel?
- Where does this feeling live in the body?
When asking each of these questions, I’ll remain connected to the felt sense in the body, and I’ll drop a question into consciousness. I’m not thinking my way to the answer, but simply noticing what arises when the question is present. I’ve found it especially important when exploring these questions to not have the attention exclusively gravitate towards what’s most painful in the body or the mind. It’s just as important to be asking the questions with a genuine curiosity and gentleness, and not an impatience for the hateful feelings to just go away.
The Plot Twist
Here's the most valuable insight I’ve had on this topic: Whenever I’m feeling self-hatred it’s almost always an indicator that I’m angry with someone else.
Wait, Scooby Doo ending?
Yup, I’ve found, nearly without fail, that self-hatred is a mask covering up who I’m really angry with—it’s anger re-routed. For many years, I’d leave a business meeting that didn’t go my way or a conversation with a family member that didn’t sit well, and I’d mercilessly berate myself afterward. Then one day I realized: I’m actually angry with the other person.
Here’s the short version of my hypothesis about why my anger with someone else is conditioned to morph into self-hatred:
When I was growing up, my father had a volatile temper (that’s cooled considerably in recent years). My father’s anger took up a lot of space in my childhood home, and it didn’t feel like there was much space for my anger. At a young age, I figured out a way to deal with hot emotions, given my conditions: turn the anger on myself—that seemed like the best option. Little did I know that I was racking up emotional credit card debt that would take years to pay down (with interest).**
The first step of working with anger was so ludicrously obvious that it eluded me for years: Recognize the anger when it is present. For many years, I’d tell people, “I don’t get angry.” In retrospect, I marvel at the depths of that self-delusion. I had an intensity of anger—even rage. That rage had to be dealt with somehow, so I channelled it towards hating myself. It was the best that I could do at the time.
After learning to recognize anger, through the help of therapy, meditation, and friends (it took many years), I next had to learn how to skillfully respond to anger. Let’s be clear: anger is a messy energy. And why shouldn’t it be? This energy is designed to protect us from imminent danger—it’s wired for survival, not civility. I remember being in my therapist’s office the first time I let the anger rip—I was wailing and yelling profanities and beating my chest. It was cathartic and terrifying. Years later, I hazarded showing my anger to a girlfriend (wisely, not when I was angry with her), and it was profoundly healing that she did not run away or shame me. Though I did learn in the years to follow that it’s best to be sparing when sharing that energy. Once I could recognize and acknowledge anger without fear that people would disown me for it, I was ready for the real work to begin.
What is anger? What’s it like to sit and really be with the experience of anger when it’s arising? Not acting upon it. Not denying it. Not verifying the righteousness of the story perpetuating the anger. Not blaming anger for being there or turning it inward. Curious: what is this? What are the sensations in the body: sharpness, throbbing in the neck, piercing sensations in the right arm, intensity of heat in the face, excruciating tightness in the calves, muscles clenching in sole of the left foot, unpleasantness. What’s it like to lovingly recognize this changing flow of sensations? What’s happening in the mind? Is it possible to let the mind think whatever it’s thinking, even it’s visualizing doing horrible things to the person towards whom the anger is directed? It’s not pretty, but this is what’s happening in the mind. Can this state of mind be experienced with humor and lightness? Is it possible to be with the intensity of anger and not act out of it?
Upon such an investigation, I often find that I’m clinging to things being a certain way, but that presents a problem articulated by Marlo of The Wire (greatest show of all-time):
Once I cease clinging to it being one way, then the suffering passes.
After I genuinely investigate the anger, I usually go for a run. It’s a great way to act out the fight/flight energy in a non-harmful way. Oftentimes clarity about the situation arises mid-stride.
Many times I realize there’s something that needs to be addressed with the person I’m angry with, and I’ve found that these discussions go much better when I’m aware of my anger but not acting out of it. I’ve also practiced a number of great tools in having these conversations, such as Nonviolent communication or the Harvard Negotiation Project’s work on difficult conversations.
The realization that self-hatred is misdirected anger has been immeasurably transformative, and I may never have arrived at that insight if not for the practice of metta.
Metta: The Antidote to Self-Hatred
If misdirecting anger with others inwardly is how I learned to hate myself, then metta is how I remembered to love myself. I first learned the metta practice (also known as lovingkindness, unconditioned goodwill, friendliness) from Sharon Salzberg, and the effects were immediate. A dear friend (who had no love whatsoever for meditation) said to me after my first metta retreat, “You seem really calm…You always sound a little different after a retreat, but this time you seem really, really calm and relaxed and at peace.” If you’re interested in learning more about metta, I recommend Sharon’s book Lovingkindness, and you can read an excerpt here.
After many metta retreats and years of practice, here’s what I’ve found to be most transformative about metta: The intention for myself and others to be happy, peaceful, safe, and free of suffering is always present. When consumed by self-hatred or anger, I’ll tell myself a barrage of horrible things, often in a widening loop. Metta counteracts the hate, not by pushing the hate away or denying its presence, but by bringing attention to another aspect of experience: the wishes of metta.
If hateful thoughts persist, then I might switch over to compassion practice, saying inwardly, “May this suffering pass with ease,” or putting my hand atop my heart and repeating inwardly, “Forgiven, forgiven.”* When the harsh thoughts subside, which they always will, then I’ll return to the metta practice.
Previous to meditation, I honestly didn’t really know that I wanted happiness for myself—I’d told myself so frequently that I was not a happy person that I actually started to believe that delusion. It was also much easier to wish others well, and it felt selfish to wish happiness, peace, and all the rest of it to myself. Yet in truly attending to my own wellbeing through metta and other practices, I’ve gotten much clearer about how I can serve the wellbeing of others.
When I first started practicing metta, my only criticism of the practice was that it felt contrived, as I were conjuring the wish to be happy. It took a long time to realize that the wish for the happiness and wellbeing of myself and others is always there, even if the feeling is not always accessible. Metta is not a denial of any experience of suffering, it’s simply connecting with the wish to be free of suffering. I’ve found that the suffering and the wish to be free of suffering are not at odds with each other, but I do have a choice about where I’m going to direct my attention. I can say, without any hesitation, that training my mind to incline towards metta has profoundly changed my life for the better.
What’s the good of all these practices if self-hatred still arises in me sometimes? If I was only going to be satisfied with the complete eradication of the pattern of self-hatred arising within me, then I’m setting myself up for suffering. The patterns of self-hatred within me run deep, generations deep. I’ve not yet conquered self-hatred to the degree where it never comes up, but my relationship to it could not be more different than it once was. Through the practices and shifts in understanding shared above, I experience self-hatred only a tiny fraction of the amount of time that I used to live with it. Self-hatred comes up much less often; it lasts for less time; but perhaps most importantly, when self-hatred does surface, I’m not afraid of it. I know how to respond.
**I want to be clear here that I’m not blaming my father—my best guess is he did the same thing as me to get through the circumstances he grew up with, which were much harsher than the conditions of my own childhood. This habit pattern is not unique to the Gottliebs—lots of people have found their way to this approach of transforming anger with others into self-hatred. It doesn’t matter all that much how this pattern came about—what’s of great importance is how we deal with it.