self-criticism | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Who Is The “I” That Is “Worthless”?

Many of us harbor deep-seated negative ideas about ourselves that nothing we accomplish out in the world seems to shake.  No matter how much money we make or possessions we accumulate, how many degrees we earn, or how ideal our lives look on the outside, we’re plagued by the nagging suspicion that something is wrong with us.  In fact, what we do in the world often feels like an effort to disguise what we really are—“worthless,” “losers,” “disgusting,” and so on—and we worry that some day our true natures will be “exposed” for all to see.

What we don’t usually consider is who we’re talking about when we think something like “I am worthless.”  In other words, what do we really mean by “I”?  I’ve found that regularly asking myself this question has done much to give me a sense of peace and composure, and quiet my negative thinking.

To many people, this will seem like an absurd or meaningless question.  “’I’ obviously means ‘me,’” you may be thinking.  “What’s unclear about that?”  But if you probe a little deeper, I think you’ll see that the answer isn’t quite that obvious.

To illustrate, see if you can physically pinpoint who you’re talking about when you say “I.”  Take your finger and point to what you mean by “I” when you have a thought like “I’m incompetent” or “I’m not good enough.”  The people I’ve done this exercise with tend to point at their chests, or perhaps their heads.  (This is based on an exercise described by spiritual teacher Richard Moss in The Mandala of Being.)

If you, like most people, pointed at part of your body, let’s take a closer look at whether you actually have your body in mind when you say “I.”  Try raising your arm and putting it back down.  Notice that, when you did this, you had the experience of causing your arm to move.  You may even have had a thought like “I am moving my arm.”  You didn’t have the thought “I am moving myself”—in your experience, you were moving something outside of yourself.

In other words, you experienced yourself as the controller of your arm’s movements.  And if you’re in control of your arm, you must be separate from it—just as the driver of a car is in control of the car but separate from it.  You are not your body—you are in control of it, in the driver’s seat.  You can also grasp this point if you imagine how you would think and feel if you lost your arm.  Even if your arm were gone, you would still think of yourself as “I.”  You wouldn’t think of the lost arm as “I.”

But even the idea that you are the “driver” of your body doesn’t completely express the truth.  After all, there are functions of your body, like breathing and circulation, that you don’t have the experience of controlling at all.  So really, you are not in full control of your body—you are something with partial responsibility for your body’s activities, and something else takes care of the rest.

Some people, as I said, point to their heads when doing this exercise, and say that they are their brains, or at least some part of them.  However, this idea doesn’t fit with our experience either.  The brain, as we know, is an incredibly complex organ, with more than 100 billion neurons that constantly interact through the exchange of chemicals called neurotransmitters.  But these things don’t come to mind when we say “I.”  For example, when we say something to ourselves like “I can’t do anything right,” we don’t mean that our neurons or brain chemicals are incompetent.

The truth is that it’s very hard to pinpoint what we mean when we say “I”—most of us, myself included, can’t do it in a satisfying way at all.  At first, this uncertainty about what we really are seems frustrating.  But when we hold our attention on the uncertainty—when we allow the fact that we don’t know what we are to simply be—we start to feel inexplicably calm.  It’s actually comforting, I think you’ll discover, to accept that you don’t know who and what you really are.  Personally, when I allow this uncertainty to be without judging it or forcing it away, I sigh or laugh with relief.

Accepting this uncertainty leads us to peace because it helps us see how ridiculous the things we think about ourselves are.  We have all these negative beliefs like “I’m not smart enough,” “I don’t relate well with people,” and so on, but we don’t even know who we’re talking about when we say “I.”  To really get how meaningless and comical this is, try making up a nonsense word, and then making some negative statements about that word.

For instance, you might try saying something like “Grum is a loser,” or “Grum is worthless.”  This statement is, of course, laughable, because in saying it you’re putting “Grum” down without even knowing what he, she or it is.  And if this statement is absurd, the beliefs “I am worthless,” “I am a loser” and so on are equally so, because you are just as unaware of what “I” really means.  In short, you have no business calling yourself names when you don’t even know who or what you are.

I’ve found that holding my lack of knowledge of who I am in my awareness gives life a sense of freshness and adventure.  The possibilities open to me no longer seem so limited by negative beliefs.  When I keep in mind that I don’t know who I am, those beliefs can have no power over me.  In some ways, it’s as if I’m a child again, full of curiosity and wonder at the world and unrestricted by harmful ideas about what I can’t and shouldn’t do.  As Lao-Tzu wisely put it, “to know that you do not know is best.”

In The Intuitive Way: The Definitive Guide To Increasing Your Awareness, Penney Pierce aptly describes the sense of freedom and awe that comes from being willing to accept how little we know about ourselves and the world:

Truly successful students possess a natural “beginner’s mind” and can temporarily suspend what they know to listen, act, receive, and process new data with childlike innocence and directness. With a beginner’s mind you will not be threatened by not knowing or by having personal experiences that vary from the norm. You’ll feel fresh and sincere. You’ll trust yourself, trust the process of learning, and trust that whatever you need next will be revealed in a way you can understand.

The next time you start beating yourself up, I invite you to see if you can return to this calm, receptive state of “beginner’s mind.”  Simply ask yourself “who is this ‘I’ that I am being negative about?”  Who is the “I” that is supposedly bad, unattractive, unsuccessful, and so on?  Notice, and cherish, the blankness and emptiness that come up in response to this question.  Regularly bringing this question into your awareness can gift you with a deep sense of peace and freedom.

(This article appeared in the Carnival of Positive Thinking, located at http://www.widowsquest.com/carnival-of-positive-thinking-62/.)

Entering The “Inner Body” To Quiet Painful Memories

For many years, I was tormented by memories of uncomfortable events from my past.  I’d find myself constantly reliving arguments I had with others, breakups of relationships, disappointments in my career, and so forth.  The painful part of these memories was what I’d feel in my body as I rehashed them in my mind.  I would feel an unpleasant tension and heat in my upper back, right below my shoulder blades.

A disturbing part of my habit of reliving difficult events was the sensation that I was choosing to do it.  I had this feeling in the rare moments when my mind would be completely silent, undisturbed by thought.  When my mind would go quiet like that, I’d be able to tolerate it for a little while, but then I’d start feeling strangely uneasy.  To relieve my unease, I’d start searching my memories for something—anything—to break the silence.  Invariably, it seemed, I came upon memories of unpleasant events and replayed them in my mind, causing more physical discomfort.  It was almost as if I was addicted to mentally hurting myself.

How, I wondered, did I develop this habit?  Why would I want to dig up these unpleasant memories and create tension in my body?  The answer came to me one day when I was meditating.  When I meditate, I breathe without pausing between my inhalations and exhalations.  This approach gives me a warm, peaceful sensation in my abdomen and back.  The experience of feeling my body from the inside—of feeling the “inner body,” as some spiritual teachers call it—helps to calm me and hold my attention in the present moment.  It can also be quite blissful.

I noticed during that meditation that the warm sensation was filling the area right below my shoulder blades—the area that tensed up when I’d mentally rehash a painful memory.  This was interesting, because most of the time I was numb in that area.  It was only while meditating, and beating myself up over the past, that I felt sensation there at all.

Then an intuition hit me.  What if I was reliving painful memories because I wanted to have more feeling in that area of my body?  What if, by replaying difficult events, I was trying to access my “inner body,” and experience the peace and focus I’d felt during meditation?  Maybe I had such a strong, unconscious desire to access that peace, and to feel more of my body, that I was hurting myself to achieve those goals.

I decided to test this theory the next time I found myself replaying uncomfortable events from my past.  When I had one of those moments again, I closed my eyes and fell into my meditative breathing pattern.  After a little while, I connected with my inner body, feeling a warmth radiate out from my abdomen, through my chest, and into my upper back.  As I’d predicted, the difficult memories began to subside until they disappeared from my awareness.  When I accessed my inner body through meditation, I no longer needed to dredge up unpleasant memories to feel myself from within.

This was an exciting realization for me, as I’d wanted freedom from my painful memories for a long time.  I continued to practice entering a meditative state whenever I’d remember difficult events.  Eventually, I became so accustomed to quickly accessing my inner body that I stopped needing meditation to do it.  Whenever the bad memories came up, I could instantly connect with a deep sense of peace, and the memories would dissolve.  This helped me kick my addiction to rehashing the past.

If you’re constantly plagued by uncomfortable memories, I invite you to try a similar exercise.  Notice where you feel the pain or discomfort in your body when you relive the events.  Then, do an exercise or practice that causes you to feel sensation in that area.  As I noted, meditation using the “circular breathing” I talked about earlier—a technique I learned from Michael Brown‘s book The Presence Process—helps me connect with the part of the “inner body” that my difficult memories stimulate.  You might also try physical exercises that cause you to feel more inner sensation.  Qi Gong, which is specifically intended to put you in touch with the inner body, is a particularly good example.

You may observe that, when you take up more practices to feel your inner energy field, the need to dig up unpleasant events begins fading away.  And as you experience the inner body more often, you’ll find that accessing it becomes easier and easier.  You don’t need to rehash painful memories to connect with your inner body—you can do it in far more peaceful and empowering ways.

You’ve Never Been “Good Enough”!

Many of us are in the habit of telling ourselves we’re “not good enough.”  Whether it’s in our careers, our intimate relationships, our appearances, or some other area of our lives, we’re always convinced we don’t measure up to some standard of how we’re supposed to be.  Because it seems we can always find something to criticize about ourselves no matter what we achieve in life, this habit can be hard to break.

I used to say this sort of thing to myself all the time, until I had a realization that transformed my understanding of what being “not good enough” really means.  One day, I was beating myself up for not having published a book yet, telling myself that my work would never be good enough and that no one identified with or understood it.  (This, by the way, is a testament to the fact that you’ll never run out of ideas if you’re determined to beat yourself up.)

For some reason, it occurred to me that I used to torment myself in similar ways many years ago, when I was nine years old.  When I was nine, I entered some sort of essay contest for kids and didn’t win, and I didn’t let myself hear the end of it.  Hey, I noticed—I’m criticizing myself for exactly the same stuff, and in exactly the same ways, that I did when I was nine.

This realization prompted me to wonder:  when and why did it all start?  When was the first time I said “I’m not good enough”?  And what prompted me to do that?  Interestingly, I couldn’t recall a period of my life when I wasn’t under some sort of mental attack.  Beating myself up had been a pretty consistent theme throughout my life.  Maybe I’d never been “good enough” in my own eyes.

But somehow, that didn’t seem to make sense.  I’d always believed the reason I didn’t feel “good enough” was that I’d done something inappropriate or immoral, or failed to do something I should have done.  And this is consistent with the way that, for better or worse, we typically judge ourselves and others.  If we judge someone else as “bad,” it’s normally because they did or failed to do something.  “This politician is bad because he supports policies I don’t like,” we say.  “My ex-boyfriend is bad because he left me.”  And so forth.

If I haven’t been good enough all my life, however, it can’t be because I did or failed to do anything.  When I was two years old, I’d hardly “done” anything at all in the world—and yet, as far as I could remember, I didn’t feel “good enough” even then.  Apparently, I was “bad” before I even had the opportunity to do anything bad.  But believing I was bad before I had a chance to act badly was kind of like calling a tree or a rock bad.  A tree doesn’t “do” anything but grow and absorb nutrients, and a rock simply sits there.  The idea that an object that hasn’t done anything—and can’t really do anything—isn’t “good enough” seems absurd.

This realization gave me a sudden sense of freedom.  I didn’t “deserve” my feelings of inadequacy at all.  In beating myself up, I wasn’t “serving my sentence” or atoning for some past sin.  I wasn’t sure how I acquired the conviction that I wasn’t “good enough”—maybe it was my genetic makeup, an early-life experience, or something else.  But the point was that, because I saw there was no good reason why I should suffer, I became able to let go of that suffering.

Further, I understood the mistake I’d been making in addressing my sense of inadequacy.  Before, when I’d have a negative thought about myself, I’d assume I could eliminate that thought by improving in a certain area of my life.  Thus, I’d pursue more achievements in the world—I’d look for ways to make more money, get invited to more social occasions, publish more articles, and so on.  However, nothing I did seemed to shake that core conviction that I wasn’t good enough—my mind would simply come up with more ways my life needed fixing.  Now, I recognized that seeing that core conviction for what it was—not adjusting my circumstances in the world—was the path to peace.

If you’re constantly plagued by thoughts that you’re inadequate, I have a mental exercise for you.  Forget, for a moment, about the specific ways your mind is criticizing you, and the areas in which it’s saying you need improvement.  Instead, ask yourself whether there’s ever been a time in your life when you’ve been free of mental criticism.  No matter what you’ve accomplished, has your mind ever given you a break?

If your answer is no, consider the possibility that changing your outer circumstances won’t address your mind’s concerns.  For whatever reason, your mind has been convinced for most, or all, of your life that you’re not good enough.  You don’t “deserve” the criticisms your mind levels at you, and nothing about you needs to be changed or fixed for you to be a complete human being.  This realization may make you feel free to release your sense of inadequacy, and to access the peace and wholeness available to all of us.

A New Perspective On Procrastination

At some point in your life, I’ll bet you felt like you weren’t getting enough done.  You wished you could keep your attention on your work, and stop “procrastinating” by doing frivolous or unimportant things, but it just didn’t seem possible.  I used to have this problem myself, until I had a realization one day that transformed my understanding of what procrastination is and how to deal with it.

At work, I would sometimes have trouble staying on task.  After working on a project for a little while, I’d find myself losing focus and finding ways to avoid being productive.  I would deal with low-priority work issues, read the news, or get antsy and pace around the room.  I’d try to get back to my project, but I’d feel like every cell in my body was resisting my will.

My normal reaction to this experience was one I think most of us identify with—I shamed myself.  “Come on, get a work ethic,” I’d tell myself.  My belief was that I procrastinated because I was fundamentally a lazy and selfish person, and that I only cared about doing what I wanted to do instead of helping others achieve their goals.  The only way to change this mindset, I figured, was to punish myself until I became willing to change my evil ways.  Unfortunately, beating myself up only seemed to strengthen my body’s resistance to getting work done.

One day, however, I made an interesting observation while I was having trouble focusing.  I noticed that, while I was reading the news, checking e-mail, or doing some other unproductive activity to avoid work, I wasn’t actually enjoying myself.  Even as I procrastinated, I was thinking to myself “this is boring.  I want to do something else.”

This observation didn’t support my theory that I procrastinated because I was lazy and only cared about having fun.  If that were true, you’d think I would have enjoyed my frivolous diversions.  But in fact, while I was in “procrastination mode,” I didn’t like doing anything.  Procrastination, I recognized, was just a symptom of an overall attitude that sometimes overtook me—an attitude of refusing to accept the situation I was in, regardless of what it was.

For whatever reason, I had moments when my mind basically decided it wasn’t okay with any aspect of reality, and became determined to reject anything the world gave it as inadequate and “boring.”  I call this mindset one of non-acceptance.  Some spiritual teachers call it “saying ‘no’ to the present moment.”  I procrastinated when I was in this state.

Happily, simply recognizing that I was in a place of non-acceptance had the effect of liberating me from that place.  If I just admitted to myself that I was saying “no” to my situation, without punishing myself for it, I’d find my refusal to accept reality dissolving, and a peace and alertness pervading my body.  Once in this state, I could concentrate on my work again.

If you find yourself procrastinating at times, and you want to improve your ability to focus, I have two suggestions for you that build on the realization I described.

First, be aware of, and acknowledge, when you’re in a state of non-acceptance.  To start doing this, notice that, when you find yourself procrastinating, nothing seems to satisfy you.  You can try doing a few different activities to prove this—you can read the news, play solitaire, call a friend or loved one, and so forth.  You’ll start to see that, when you’re in a state of non-acceptance, everything you do seems to be inadequate, boring or unfulfilling for one reason or another.

The central lesson here is that, when you are in this state, looking for something better to do won’t help, but recognizing that you have this attitude will get you back on track.  Once you see that your mind is generally rejecting reality in that moment, admit it to yourself.  Saying it out loud, for me, is the quickest way to dissolve my state of non-acceptance.  “I don’t like anything right now,” I’ll say to myself.  “Nothing is good enough.”  Normally, when I say this, I find myself laughing, and the boredom and discomfort I had been feeling disappear.

Second, start noticing what events tend to put you into a state of non-acceptance.  In other words, what usually happens right before you lapse into that state?  Maybe it’s a communication with a certain person at work; a particular type of document you have to prepare; a certain hour of the day; or something else.  For example, I would start “saying no” to the world whenever I’d get an e-mail from a colleague checking on my progress on a project.  I’d feel like they didn’t appreciate the quality of my work or how much effort I put into it, and I’d start getting resentful.  For at least a few minutes after I got that e-mail—and perhaps a few hours—nothing I would do would seem enjoyable or meaningful.

When I figured out that I’d start rejecting reality whenever I would receive this type of e-mail, I became mentally prepared for, and able to stay productive in, that situation.  Whenever I’d get an e-mail checking on my progress, I would simply acknowledge to myself that I was about to enter a state of non-acceptance, and that, once I was in that state, nothing would be able to satisfy me.  Admitting to myself I was about to say “no” to the world would dissipate my resistance to reality and help me regain my focus.

Why do certain situations cause us to reject reality?  In my view, we say “no” to the world when we feel that the world doesn’t love or appreciate us.  Saying “no” is our way of telling the world “you don’t care about me, so I’m not going to enjoy you or do anything for you.”

Often, the situations where we react this way resemble moments from our childhoods when we felt rejected or neglected by our parents.  For instance, after some reflection, I recognized that, when a colleague would ask how my project was going, I would feel the same way I did when, as a kid, one of my parents asked whether I was done with my chores yet.  In those moments, I felt like I was only appreciated for the quality of my work—as though I were a machine, or something less than human—and I’d feel the vindictive urge to shut out the world.

Overcoming procrastination is about becoming aware of those situations where you tend to reject reality.  Simply gaining that awareness, and acknowledging—without beating yourself up—when you’ve said “no” to your circumstances, is an effective method for dissolving that “no” and getting your productivity back.  Just accepting the fact that you’re in a rut, without blame or judgment, is often the fastest way to pull yourself out of it.

(This article appeared in the Carnival of Engaged Spirituality, located at http://virtualteahouse.com/blogs/beth/archive/2008/05/05/2nd-carnival-on-engaged-spirituality-engaging-resistance.aspx.)