The Dalai Lama on our inner critic

In a meeting between the Dalai Lama and a group of American psychologists in 1990, one of the psychologists brought up the concept of negative self-talk. Since there are no words in Tibetan that translate into low self-esteem and self-loathing, it took quite a long time for the psychologists to convey what they meant. But this wasn’t a translation problem. It was a problem of conceptualization. Self-loathing? People do that?! The Dalai Lama was incredulous. Once the Dalai Lama understood what they were saying, he turned to the Tibetan monks in the room, and after explaining what the psychologists were suggesting, he asked, “How many of you have experienced this low-self esteem, self-contempt or self-loathing?”

Here was a psychological state of mind so ubiquitous in our culture that everyone experiences it from time to time, if not every single day. Yet the Tibetan—-trained since childhood in the art of a mental exercise they call meditation—acted like they were being told about some alien life form. The Dalai Lama turned back to the psychologists and asked a simple question: “Why would you ever let your mind get like this?”

SHARON SALZBERG: I would like to ask you about the mind state, very common in Westerners, of strong hatred toward oneself. In Theravadin Buddhism, we teach that the strongest cause for loving kindness, or metta, is to see the goodness in somebody, but very often people say they cannot see their own goodness. Or, when we ask people to reflect on good things they have done in the past so that the mind is filled with joy, self-respect, and confidence, they say they cannot easily do this. They can dwell on the bad things they have done but not on the good … Sometimes, Your Holiness, there’s another component as well. It’s not just that people wish to be happy and aren’t. They wish to be happy but feel they don’t deserve to be; they feel guilty, as if it would somehow be wrong for them to be happy. So when we teach loving kindness and compassion, should we talk very specifically about loving yourself?

[After a long exchange in Tibetan, Alan Wallace comments that this concept is alien to His Holiness.]

DALAI LAMA: Is this self-contempt or lack of compassion for oneself something that arises now and then as a result of specific circumstances, or is it a matter of temperament, an enduring mental trait?

SHARON SALZBERG: I think this is an enduring mental trait that is very commonly found in Western culture.

DANIEL BROWN: Cognitive therapists have discovered that many ordinary people carry on an incessant and very negative inner monologue. They say to themselves in effect, “I can’t do this. I hate myself. Nothing good will ever happen.” This becomes a constant habit, even when people aren’t aware of it. Therapists say you have to intervene and intentionally think positive thoughts as an antidote to change this habit, which is very difficult. When people get depressed, this negative talk becomes much more intense. It’s also very characteristic that when Westerners start to look inward, in psychotherapy or in meditation, a lot of this self-hatred emerges in their early experiences.

JON KABAT-ZINN: Your Holiness, this problem of low self-esteem is very common in the West. People ordinarily are not even aware of the negative inner monologue. Much of this comes from early childhood experiences: a mother is angry and says to a child, “You’re a bad girl,” where what she really means is, “I don’t like what you’re doing.” The message, “I’m bad,” stays with the child even when she has grown and forgotten why. We see this in almost everybody who comes to the hospital with medical problems. People don’t feel like they’re worth much.

DALAI LAMA: Are those people violent?

JON KABAT-ZINN: No, they are normal, ordinary people.

SHARON SALZBERG: That’s us. [laughter]

DALAI LAMA: If people with such low self-esteem are caught in a situation where they lose their temper, don’t they have a strong feeling that their own self is worth defending?

JON KABAT-ZINN: Sometimes they just give up. They feel helpless, as if they deserve whatever bad happens. On the other handmany people respond to deep inner feelings of low self-esteem by creating aggression. They run over others like steam rollers. …

DANIEL BROWN: Usually it doesn’t lead to aggression or violence directed outwardly, but to more negative self-hatred.

JON KABAT-ZINN: Are you surprised?

DALAI LAMA: Oh, yes, very much. I thought I had a very good acquaintance with the mind, but now I feel quite ignorant. I find this very, very strange, and I wonder where it comes from. Are you all suffering from nervous disorders, and is the source of such self-deprecation simply physiological?

THUBTEN JINPA: Maybe it really comes from your culture, maybe your religious heritage, and these kind of social factors.

DALAI LAMA: Perhaps it arises from an absolutist mentality. That is, if something is somewhat negative then one labels it as absolutely negative; and if something is rather good, it is seen as absolutely good, ignoring all the subtle variations in between. That might give rise to this mental dysfunction.

JON KABAT-ZINN: There is another possibility here … In our society in the past, there were many systems that gave the individual a sense of belonging and connectedness. The systems provided some control and defined a little world that made sense. The church and the extended family, for instance, were very powerful forces in people’s lives. Nowadays, the church in the West is much weaker and less important to many people. The family has very often broken up. Work also is very fragmented: it’s no longer the farm that your father had, and your father’s father, and on back in time on the same land. Social relationships now are much more in flux, and this makes it difficult for young people to know where they belong in the society.

LEE YEARLEY: It isn’t just a modern phenomenon. When Alexis de Tocqueville observed America in 1830, he identified one of the two major characteristics of Americans as what he called “American nervousness.” Although he was in favor of a liberal, democratic society, he thought the price for such a society was quite extraordinary; because of it, you couldn’t place yourself. Not being clear who you were, or what was valuable, seemed built into the system. He believed that the American experiment might therefore fail, and this was close to two hundred years ago.

DALAI LAMA: Does a high percentage of the American population have this type of attitude?

JON KABAT-ZINN: Very high.

DALAI LAMA: Is there much difference for Europeans or South Americans?

FRANCISCO VARELA: It’s very much less common, Your Holiness. I think part of the reason is something that was mentioned earlier: the possibility that emotions are partly culturally conditioned by language. When I go to the United States, the enormous amount of talk about self-esteem surprises me. In Europe and South America, that is much less the case. In France, for example, the word for self-esteem is not normally heard. The language reinforces the emotion and makes it very prominent in their lives. I think it might be a very good example of how history, culture, and language shape a certain repertoire of emotions.

DALAI LAMA: Does this mentality occur among mute people?

DANIEL GOLEMAN: Yes, Your Holiness. In fact, in America people with handicaps often have it even more.

DALAI LAMA: I mean, are there such obstructions for people who have no possibility of communicating in words?

FRANCISCO VARELA: There is the case of Helen Keller, who was born blind and deaf. However, she had a very good tutor, who communicated through touch. She eventually learned to read and write, and described her experience of being blind and deaf … It is a perfect example of what you’re asking, and the answer would be definitely yes, the lack of language in participation in a culture would shape the sense of self.

DALAI LAMA: An important term in Tibetan Buddhism is self-centeredness, which means cherishing your own well-being above that of anybody else. Is it possible to have self-centeredness simultaneously with this lack of self-esteem?

DANIEL BROWN: Yes, they often go together. People with extreme esteem problems often have a puffed-up, grandiose self-image, as well as low self-esteem.

DALAI LAMA: These people with low self-esteem certainly have a sense of “I.” Don’t they also have some sense that they want to be happy?

DANIEL BROWN: Yes, of course, very strongly.

DANIEL GOLEMAN: Wanting to be happy is self-centeredness?

DALAI LAMA: In Tibetan Buddhism one can ask, “Does a buddha have self-interest or only concern for other people?” The answer-and this is a crucial point-is that a buddha has both. Similarly a Bodhisattva, who is free of self-centeredness, still wishes to attain full enlightenment for the benefit of all creatures; and so such a person has both self-interest as well as public interest. Without that, there’d be no confidence and you’d have very low self-esteem.

But self-centeredness is something beyond that, and a buddha or a Bodhisattva does not have self-centeredness. Self-centeredness wishes for one’s own happiness but discards the well-being of others. It doesn’t need to be grandiose, but it does make oneself the priority and put everything else second.

DALAI LAMA: In these cases of people with low self-esteem, three things seem to be present. First, they certainly have a sense of self; secondly, they do want to be happy; but thirdly, there is this self-directed contempt, or anger. This may also be related to hopelessness and despair. You commented that when people with these kind of problems are taught through mindfulness meditation to watch their thoughts arising, and they realize that they are mere thoughts, this somehow helps reduce their low self-esteem. Is this because by so doing, they feel a sense of achievement? Is that what reduces their low self-esteem, or is it something else?

JON KABAT-ZINN: […] To answer your question…it increases people’s feelings of self-efficacy when they discover in meditation that they do not have to feel weighed down by a thought — when they recognize the thought “I’m no good” as a thought rather than as true, and let it go. The next time it happens, they let it come, catch it, and then let it go, so they don’t feel so depressed. Their belief in their capacity to become more skillful grows, and that feeling of mastery is a very positive way to increase self-esteem.

DANIEL BROWN: Let me speak to the issue of methods here … In the West, the usual approach to these kinds of problems is psychotherapy, and within psychotherapy there are two methods that have been useful for this problem. One method, cognitive therapy, works directly with the thoughts. You first identify the pattern of negative thinking, for example, by asking people to write a list of their typical negative thoughts, such as, “I’m a bad person; I can’t do anything; bad things will always happen; it’s going to get worse.” Then, on the other side of the page they write down the positive thought, or affirmation, that serves as an antidote. For example, in opposition to “It’s going to get worse,” people write, “Take one step at a time,” or they counter the statement “I’m a bad person” by saying what they value about themselves.

They then take those affirmations and practice holding them in their mind continuously, like a meditation or a mantra. It’s been found that when people practice those affirmations regularly, twenty minutes or half an hour a day, or a few minutes at times interspersed throughout the day, this whole pattern of negative thinking eventually changes, and they think more positively about themselves. So that’s one way: identifying the negative and applying the antidote, which is affirmation.

[…] A second approach used in psychotherapy has more to do with the quality of the relationship between people, in this case between the patient and the therapist. It’s believed that a patient who thinks so negatively was ignored by parents and others while growing up, or was not praised enough for realistic accomplishments. These people have a legitimate need in their desire to be admired. So the therapist tries to praise them for realistic accomplishments. Over time, if the therapist is continuously interested, respectful, and admiring of the patient, the self-hatred will change and the person will develop a more healthy, balanced sense of themselves. It’s as if they’re being re-parented by the therapist.

DALAI LAMA: I am trying to trace the etiology, the natural causal links leading to this. To trace this, we note there is a sense of self that wishes for one’s own happiness, and then the low self-esteem and self-deprecation come in. But underlying this, might there not already be compassion toward oneself on a deeper level? In that case, the low self-esteem is a distortion on a more superficial level, whereas underlying that is a sense of appropriate self-love.

JON KABAT-ZINN: I think that’s true, but if you can’t get in touch with that sense of self-love then you feel cut off and alone.

DALAI LAMA: If there is no genuine sense of love underlying all that emotion, then even if others praise you, you are not affected by that praise. When others praise a person with low self-esteem, he or she says they’re wrong. The method that Dan Brown described about affirmations to counter negative feelings was almost like reminding the patients of their own value.When the patients read the list of negative words on one side, and positive words on the other, it reminds them that they can do something, they actually are worthy in these ways, and it seems to help them. But unless one assumes there is some kind of self-love underlying their emotion, it would be difficult to understand; there would be no motivation.

DANIEL BROWN: In Western psychotherapy, we have a concept called healthy self-esteem, which is different from what you’re describing about Bodhisattvas, Your Holiness. An individual with healthy self-esteem is not grandiose, not arrogant without basis, but most important is that the person maintains self-esteem relatively independent from the context … People with healthy self-esteem are less dependent both on the external context and on the discrepancy between their performance at the moment and their own internal standards for that performance. So we can say their self-esteem is steady, without a lot of change.

DALAI LAMA: Because it’s based on evidence, based on reason, then it has a greater stability.

DANIEL BROWN: Yes, it has greater stability, so these people are not easily affected by whether others think badly of them or admire them greatly. It’s beyond praise or blame in that sense, and it’s less affected by whether what they’re doing at any given time falls short of their own internal standards or goals. What’s missing in this Western notion of healthy self-esteem is the very thing that your tradition emphasizes. The concept of healthy self-esteem usually emphasizes autonomy, that is, independence. The concept of the Bodhisattva emphasizes relationship to others, doing things for others, and in that sense it seems different.

DALAI LAMA: For people who have such a problem and are not Buddhists, what is the best method?

DANIEL GOLEMAN: Cognitive therapy.

DALAI LAMA: Can you take elements from Buddhism and apply them for people who don’t believe?

DANIEL GOLEMAN : A very important part of cognitive therapy is mindfulness, just learning to notice that you have these thoughts.

ALEX BERZIN: But I think the other aspect is also very important, a relationship with somebody like a teacher, not necessarily a psychiatrist … but someone who sincerely wants to help you and takes you seriously, who makes you feel you are worthy of being helped. This relational aspect is very important for Westerners, since we’ve been raised so much in isolation and everyone feels so lonely.

DANIEL GOLEMAN: For instance, when Western students find a teacher who is very loving and very accepting, that’s very healing for this problem of low self-esteem, because they feel loved for themselves, as they are, and that helps them get over this feeling.

DALAI LAMA: So possibly a major cause of this low self-esteem is simply lack of being loved.

DANIEL BROWN: Yes, and being loved in the right way. With conditional love, where the child is loved only if he or she does the right things, the child learns that he or she is valued and respected only if the child behaves in a certain way.

JON KABAT-ZINN: And that way is the way some parents want it to be.

ALEX BERZIN: There’s another important factor in Western child-raising. Children are rewarded for being bad. If you cry enough and you act in a horrible way, then your parents will finally give in and give you what you want.

DALAI LAMA: That may be much more widespread. The Tibetans seem to do that as well. [laughter]

FRANCISCO VARELA: Don’t you find, Your Holiness, that is also true among Tibetan families, that love is perhaps not always unconditional? That parents also have their own obscurations, and therefore they’re not completely able to love their children unconditionally?

DALAI LAMA: Generally, the Tibetan attitude is that parents’ love toward their children is not so much based on the feeling that “My child is good,” but rather, “This is my child.” I think that’s the main reason. This love is based on the fact that the child is one’s own, and the love simply increases if the child improves and cultivates good qualities. If the child has bad qualities, and continues with those, then the love may diminish.

Perhaps there could be some sociological factors. For instance, the capitalist economic system of the West is very competitive, and many of its values are considered in terms of economic consequences, so that pattern may be extended to the parent-child relationship. In the economic system, you give some money and you get something in return, and that may even be applied to children’s behavior. It’s almost like a business transaction: For children to receive their parents’ compassion, the children should pay something, such as respect, or a nice attitude.

LEE YEARLEY: I would like to offer a different view on this, with which my colleagues may not agree . I do think that there is a deep problem with self-esteem for a part of the American population. But there is another very large part of that population, who have very strong self-esteem, and who aren’t simply grandiose or somehow sick. Many of them hold power. They run the country, and they do so with a forcefulness that represents a very strong sense of self, even if it’s a largely deluded one. A significant part of that country consists of people who would be better off if they had more problems with self-esteem!

DANIEL BROWN: If you look at depression, the statistics are significant. Fifteen percent or so of the entire population are diagnosed as depressed at some point in their lives, and depression is usually associated with low self-esteem. That’s only the people who come to clinical attention, so I would estimate that at least a quarter of the country should be included, at a minimum.

LEE YEARLEY: I don’t question that, but I think for another half or at least a third of the population, this is not applicable at all; and many of those people are the ones that make the major decisions about what the country is and where it goes.

DALAI LAMA: Have you found any differences in this regard in a socialist system as opposed to a capitalist system?

DANIEL BROWN: We don’t know. But there have been some family studies concerning low self-esteem. One pattern that emerges in a number of studies is that families with very high expectations, particularly those that are upwardly mobile, are likely to raise children with problems of low self-esteem. […]

ALEX BERZIN: From my experience in socialist countries, I find it’s not so much the economic system that makes the difference. Each country seems to have its own culture. Polish people really don’t care what anybody says, and in Russia , with the Orthodox Christian background, they don’t have the Western problem of guilt. Each culture, each country is quite different.

DALAI LAMA: So, in answer to your initial question about beginning the cultivation of loving kindness directed toward oneself, and whether this has a place in Buddhist practice: Yes, it does. [laughter]

Excerpt from Healing Emotions, ed. Daniel Goleman.

“Is it not possible to feel hatred for oneself? You seem to define it as only toward others.”

Matthieu Ricard: “When one speaks of hating oneself, hate is not really at the core of the feeling. You might be upset with yourself, but this could be a form of pride, a sense of frustration arising from the realization that you don’t live up to your expectations. But you can’t truly hate yourself.”

“So there’s no such thing as self-loathing in Buddhism?”

Matthieu Ricard: “Probably not, because that would be against the basic wish of any living being to avoid suffering. You may feel you hate yourself because you want to be so much better than you are. You may be disappointed at yourself for not being what you want to be, or impatient for not becoming so fast enough. Self-loathing actually includes a lot of attachment to the ego.”

Excerpt from Destructive Emotions, ed. Daniel Goleman.



Professional coach, effective altruist and audaciously optimistic about helping to fix the global mental health crisis.

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Dave Cortright

Professional coach, effective altruist and audaciously optimistic about helping to fix the global mental health crisis.