“Too many people overvalue what they are not and undervalue what they are.” ~Malcolm S. Forbes
There is a widespread problem in the west that many people don’t seem to like themselves. The term used to describe this in psychology is self-loathing, although this term is far too strong and is not an appropriate descriptor for the majority of people. In general, the dislike of self has a much smaller magnitude than the word loathing implies. As a result I prefer self-dislike.
The self-dislike sometimes means that the individual dislikes every aspect of themselves; but most frequently people only don’t like certain aspects of themselves. Often it is there physical appearance, their school achievement, their career, their social behavior, etc. Making matters worse, they tend to overlook their strengths and discount them, focusing instead in the parts that they find problematic.
The discounting and overlooking of strengths shows up in what psychologists call the Imposter Syndrome. Here very successful people do not appear to be able to assimilate their success and instead attribute it to luck. The esteem with which they’re held makes them feel like imposters. It is estimated that two out of five successful people consider themselves frauds that 70 percent of all people feel like impostors at one time or another.
When this issue of self-dislike was raised to the Dalai Lama he was totally perplexed and repeatedly asked for clarifications. Not liking oneself is unheard of in his culture. So, he was dumbfounded and without comment. Hence, the problem seems to be primarily one of western culture. This suggests that self-dislike is learned within a particular cultural context with western culture and its values particularly adept at producing it.
There are sometimes circumstances that underlie self-dislike. Abuse or bullying, belittling parents, learning disabilities, physical appearance or disabilities are apt to result in self-dislike. But, most frequently it originates from western culture’s tendency to promote unrealistic expectations.
Physical appearance is a good case in point where the media holds up extraordinarily attractive individuals as what we should strive to be. Very, very few people can ever measure up and so can end up disliking their appearance. Academic achievement is another case where for many anything less than an “A” is seen as failure. Once again few can measure up and most end up disliking their intellectual ability. Sports are another case where the media holds up professional athletes as role models. These are exceptional people and the vast majority of the population can’t perform anywhere near their level and thus feel inadequate. It is relatively easy to think of many other unrealistic expectations prompted by our hyper-success oriented culture.
What can we do to overcome self-dislike. Unfortunately, the self-dislike is usually deeply ingrained and becomes resistant to persuasion or evidence. No matter how successful the person becomes or how much praise is received the person cannot truly believe that he or she has value or worth. They believe themselves to be imposters.
Self-dislike is an indicator that the individual is unsatisfied with the way things are. There is a strong desire for them to be different and the individual believes that if one or more aspects of themselves changed, then things would be much better. This is in fact rarely true. An overweight person who loses a significant amount of weight doesn’t usually become happier instead it frequently produces depression. A far better approach is for people to learn to accept things, including themselves, just as they are.
Meditation is uniquely suited to promote accepting things as they are. So, it would seem appropriate for dealing with self-dislike. Meditation focuses on awareness of the present moment. As we’ve seen, self-dislike is often rooted in the past. By learning to focus on now, the past recedes in importance. When individuals learn to look closely at what is actually going on in the present moment they can begin to see that there is nothing wrong at all. In fact, there is tremendous good present. So, meditation can move the individual away from the past where the self-dislike originated and can then move forward in the present moment to develop self-acceptance.
Another method to address self-dislike is to employ what psychologists call counterconditioning where one behavior or belief is eliminated by replacing it with its opposite. Self-dislike can be eliminated by replacing it with self-love. Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM) is designed to do just that. We practice loving ourselves and wishing ourselves well. It seems overly simple, but experience and research has shown that it can have remarkable impact.
Self-dislike is deeply ingrained. It will not be changed overnight. It will take practice and patience to weaken and eventually overcome it. But, contemplative practice can help.
So, engage in contemplative practice and learn to love thyself.
“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love & affection.” ~Buddha
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies