In Susan Piver’s book How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life: Opening Your Heart to Confidence, Intimacy, and Joy that I wrote about yesterday, she told a small story about self-hatred that I have not been able to get out of my mind.
She recounts that in 1990 the Dalai Lama met with a group of Westerners and Sharon Salzberg (who is a Buddhist teacher from the US) asked for his advice in dealing with her students that had low self-esteem since this was a common problem that she was encountering. The Dalai Lama was quite confused by this question because he had never heard of such a thing and could not imagine how someone could dislike themselves. There was not even a Tibetan word that corresponded to the concept of self-hatred.
This story completely floored me. Could the prevalent self-hatred and self-esteem issues I see around me (and in me) be a cultural thing? I though it was just a part of human nature, but this story tells me that it’s not.
I know my own self-esteem issues are partly a product of my family of origin and my childhood faith. I remember a conversation I had with my mother about ten years ago now where she claimed that it was sinful for anyone to have sense of self-esteem or self-worth. She said that only God had any goodness or value in him, so no creature had any right to claim to have any worth. To do so would be arrogance and pride. While I doubt it was ever stated to me that bluntly as a child, that is the worldview that I was raised under, and worldviews like that are very effectively communicated to children even when they are never stated verbally.
Although I reject that worldview as an adult, that early conditioning stays with me. I still feel guilty for thinking that I might have any innate value, worth, or goodness. It makes the whole process of developing self-esteem (much less self-love) rather challenging, as I’m sure you can imagine.
To add to that family and religious background the possibility that a lack of self-esteem might also be woven into the Western culture in which I was raised means that I have even more layers that I will need to work through. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve never known anyone that didn’t have at least some degree of self-hatred. This is even more true for women than it is for me.
However, the fact that it is culturally conditioned also means that this is just a social construct that I can stop believing any time I choose to. There is great freedom in that. It means that the idea that developing self-esteem and self-love makes me sinful, prideful, or arrogant is just a story—a story I can choose to let go of. It means I can still be a good person and a good woman, even if I do think that I have some worth.
It means that there is hope that it is possible to live life a different way than I have lived it thus far. Changing conditioning isn’t easy, but it is possible. And this story was just what I needed to give me the hope I need to do the work necessary to change it for me.