“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Week after week, day after day, I wonder about the origins of my self-loathing. When did it begin? And why? The answers remain unclear, hence asking all the time.
When I refer to “my self-loathing” in everyday conversations—with random people at parties, friends of friends, colleagues, etcetera—I’m always amazed to find that so many people seem to really hear it, and express some kind of relief—as in: You hate yourself on a regular basis? You mean you feel the thing I thought no one else felt?
It’s like a more positive version of the feeling I have when I read WebMD message boards about hypochondriacal scenarios I’ve conjured for myself and see that everyone is bugging the fuck out. Like, oh yeah, we’re all crazy and typing in our bizarre psychosomatic symptoms into Google on a Saturday night. NBD.
Anxiety is one of those feelings that is addictive because it’s recursive. It’s cyclical. First there’s the rumination— on habits (or habits of mind), rhetorical questions, obsessions, behaviors, other self-referential objects. Then comes a “bad” feeling. Anxiety, of course, then wants to solve the feeling, because we’re wired to survive. And then more unanswerable questions pile on. Then more feelings. Usually “bad” ones.
(FYI: I don’t mean “bad” or “shitty” with self-blame. I get that any feeling is “just a feeling” but I’m trying to bevel the edges of my Buddhist ideologies by writing with more raw and colloquial language.)
In Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist texts, there is a word—papancha—that refers to this recursive, addictive, cyclical process. Sharon Salzberg, who is my meditation teacher and friend and colleague (and the amazing author of a new book, Real Love), once defined papancha as “the imperialistic quality of the mind towards negativity.” Anxiety, to me, is imperialistic. It somehow always feels like it conquers you. To add insult to injury, you always seem to want to fight back.
Exhausted by this pattern, I’ve spent the past month or so experimenting with seeing my various judgments and obsessive thoughts differently—and deliberately. For sake of contrast, below is the “before” part of my work-in-progress “before and after”:
Usually, my thought patterns look something like this.
- I feel thirsty.
- I must not have had enough water today.
- I should’ve had more to drink earlier.
- Well, just go fill your water bottle, it’s not that hard.
- Why do you buy water bottles if you don’t use them?
- If you weren’t thinking so much about this, you would just drink water.
It could go on and on.
The irony here is obvious. Anxiety tends to preclude me (you, anyone) from taking a proactive approach to dealing with the very object of the anxiety. It’s often self-sabotaging. For instance, if I’m so anxious about thirst, the best and most pragmatic choice would be to drink. But over the years, I have gotten so used to my habit of rumination as a response to anxiety that I typically lose sense of what I am actually wanting, what my body feels, and what’s best for me in a given moment.
What I have referred to as the “after” stage is a process. But the shorthand is that I am trying to practice welcoming “bad” thoughts, checking in with how they make me feel, and then choosing to say “no thank you!” to them, if that seems self-caring.
Let me give some context.
A couple of years ago, I was in one of those bad, donation-based yoga class where the teacher kept encouraging us to “not think about our fear.” I remember thinking, “That’s not rly that yogic.” Shouldn’t you acknowledge and accept your fear? The same way you should acknowledge anything that happens in the present moment—even if it’s realizing that you are spending 10 minutes berating yourself about why you don’t drink enough water? Because by acknowledging it, then you can at least be like, OK, now I’m going to release that. If you don’t pay attention, the feeling (and its effects on you) have to go somewhere.
Meditation is the first and only tool I’ve encountered that has enabled me to begin developing a more productive relationship to anxiety. I no longer want to eradicate it, but want to kindly let it know that it’s not welcome as much as it has been in the past. I don’t ignore it (“I don’t hear you knocking on my door!) but rather say something to it like a, “Hi. I see you’re here, but I’m busy at the moment. Sorry!”
I think meditation seems to be so uncomfortable because people (myself included) don’t want to watch what their minds do, and where they go, if without significant distraction. It’s unpleasant to be honest about what we’re capable of making ourselves feel. We’re confronted with watching our mind do things as unproductive as my thirst and water bottle dialogue—and constantly. But it’s only when you notice these things that you can pull yourself out of them. The process REQUIRES that you first acknowledge what’s happening—and that is courageous and useful in and of itself. Even if it feels shitty and seems like it’s showing a part of yourself you don’t want to see. Bottom line? You can’t not think about your fear. It will be there no matter what you call it, or don’t.
Fear is just one emotion in the camp of feelings most of us hate, and that often encourage us to act in ways we don’t like—acting out “our shit.” Maybe you’re feeling loss or are going through a life transition, and, like me, spend 954,334,549 hours on your phone for no reason and then hate yourself for it. Or maybe you drink too much alcohol or have gained weight or sleep too much or are a compulsive online shopper. You get my point.
Somehow, I’ve found that calling “my shit” what it is—my shit—has given me both some emotional distance and a sense of relief. In many self-help slash wellness contexts before, I’ve heard that you should “treat yourself like a child” or to “pay attention to your inner child”—that being nurtured like that is self-love. But I’ve never wanted to create that dynamic with myself; it just doesn’t appeal to me, and I think that’s OK (though I’m sure it works for many, and that’s great). In my case, a mix of cynicism and kindness is mesmerizingly comforting: I notice that there are elements of me that can simply be shitty (to others, to myself, etc.), but also that they can probably change. To start that process, I make the observations I need to make, and then experiment with saying no thanks! to some patterns. The notion of this being an “experiment” has also lowered the stakes for me. I feel less pressure to “succeed” in being less self-critical.
No thanks is kind but clear, direct but open-ended. I’m not saying I shouldn’t be having the thought, or denouncing its existence through avoidance. It’s not shutting it down. It’s strangely a technique to objectify the thought as something Other, so that you re-situate yourself in an empowered position. Like, do you want to feel horrible now? the aftertaste of self-criticism may intimate. And your answer can sure as fuck be no thanks!
I wish more self-help books said fuck and shit and didn’t pretend like change was actually something that feels tenable when you’re urgently seeking it. It will never feel that way! At least I don’t think so.
BUT if you treat your thoughts like little offerings you can take or gently say, “No thanks!” to, the project becomes far more relatable—like politely turning down an offering for fresh ground pepper at a restaurant. You’re neither rationalizing nor criticizing your behaviors. It’s a conversation, and during it, it’s possible to feel change happening, just with one decision.