When Self-Help Equals Self-Hate.

Via Miriam Hall
on Apr 30, 2013
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Waylon’s post Self-Help is Bad For Us made me really, really happy.

I kept talking about it everywhere I went, posting on Facebook, clogging my airways with it.

Yes, I thought, Yes. Absolutely.

Here’s why:

I am just about to turn 36 and I’ve been in therapy since I was 19. I read a lot of self-help literature, from Dance of Anger (awesome) to The Power of Now (suck). I take it all in—and, I teach Buddhism in creative forms to hundreds of students in-person a year, as part of retreats and classes. So I dare say I am pretty steeped in the stuff, whether I like it or not.

Of course, there are no ultimates: self-talk and positivity, affirmations and picturing universal light can all be phenomenally helpful.

In my experience, personal and professional, often they are not.

Here is what I have noticed from seven years of teaching*:

1. Affirmations feed shame. If I say to the Universe  “I am beautiful and worthy” (believe me, two messages I personally need to hear), I overlook and accidentally feed the deep monsters that get shoved down by such speech. They are not evicted by positivity, they are enthused by it.

2. Positivity puts up a face. When we try to present ourselves as more functional than we are, to ourselves or to the world, we are faking it. You cannot fake it until you make it. Cannot. Not when it comes to being real.

3. Replacing negative self-talk with positive self-talk is still self-talk. In Buddhist teachings, the issue is that we are talking to ourselves at all. Period. Especially when we deny the effects of that self-talk, or strangely, recognize them by saying that it is powerful, then changing what it says. It’s powerful, take away some of the power by being present.

4. There’s nothing wrong with anger. Disappointment. Nothing. In fact, wishing we felt them less only makes them stick more. The dark, oozy, sticky stuff—we have to work with it, through it. There’s no way around. There’s no secret.

5. Self-help easily becomes self-blame. I have had so many students come through my classes writing, saying, thinking: If I only thought better about this, this wouldn’t keep happening to me. I flinch whenever this happens. There is so much potential for self-blame behind positivity talk—if I only stayed positive, this wouldn’t happen, etc.

6. Self-help, ultimately, can feed self-hate. Why? Because it is selfish, narcissistic.** Wanting to change ourselves is overall bad news. The inherent message in the majority of self-help writings/speeches/programs is that there is something wrong with us. Guess what? Then there is something wrong with all of us. Really. We suffer. Not cool. I am very clear on that one. Practices like Tonglen, exchanging oneself for another, help us to really connect with the raw, paradoxical truth that, as Suzuki Roshi said: “All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.”

Well, thanks, Miriam—now you have pooped on my positivity parade. So now what?

1. Notice when you are clinging to the idea of an outcome as the answer.

Affirmation: I am beautiful just as I am.

Issue: I am actually overweight and need to lose weight to be healthy.

Try: I sincerely want to and need to lose weight. Accept this while not beating myself up. Actually connecting with my body as is, rather than some ideal or pretending I don’t experience self-hate. A constant effort, with fruitful results.

2. Go on ahead and use sankalpas and other intentions in their wanting form.

Affirmation: I am flexible and open to life.

Issue: I am pretending to not feel rigid a lot of the time.

Try: Feeling that rigidity in my body, working with it, being kind to it. That’s accepting it, deeply. So instead say “I want to be more flexible and open to life” and feel that wanting in your body, as well as feeling when you “are” flexible and when you “aren’t.”

3. Let all your self-talk (especially the negative, but also the positive) run itself dry.

Affirmation: I am a positive person.

Issue: Really? Honestly?

Try: Feel that negativity. Don’t feed it by denying it. Write it, say it, let it run itself ragged. It will. It is not endless and acting as if it must be denied only feeds it more. Feel how it effects your life, your body, every moment. Then you’ll really want to renounce it, as Chogyam Trungpa says: you’ll become nauseous about Samsara.

4. Let the negative beliefs reveal what they are hiding.

Affirmation: I believe in myself.

 Issue: You need to believe in all of yourself, not just the parts that will get you what you want.

Try: Working with Basic Goodness, with Enlightened Society. Find the goodness that is under all of us, way under all these issues we want to blot out or ignore or even transform. Keep the faith. Deep faith.

5. Realize we all suffer. Really. It’s not your fault.

Affirmation: I am a being of perfection.

Issue: Blame and shame (as opposed to guilt, which is simpler and shorter-lived) don’t help us accept responsibility for our actions.

Try: Working on being responsible. See what truly is your fault and what is actually a condition of circumstances beyond your control. (Read/listen to some Brene Brown for oodles of practical help on this.)

6. Don’t discriminate against your suffering.

Affirmation: I am at peace.

Issue: Really? Maybe sometimes. Great. Great when that happens—what about when you aren’t?

Try: Getting down and dirty. Get ready to feel awful, then, slowly but surely, get ready to feel really good. Like a runner’s high, you have to put in the miles to get to the goods. Ironically, you are already good enough. All that effort is to—for real, permanently, dismantle your disbelief in your own and others’ inherent goodness.

No affirmation, no positive mantras are going to stem the tide of a lifetime of self-hate, self-blame and feeling unworthy.

You’ll need to put in the effort you have put in so far, and then some—effort that is constant and subconscious.

Once you see just how far down you are not helping yourself, you can start really helping yourself, bit by bit, until you can also start helping others and help all of us be exactly who we are, already.

*These certainly don’t make me an authority—everything in this article is based on my opinion. However, it does give me a lot of personal and intimate experience watching, over time, people work with different modes of healing and mindfulness.

**These two words are what one of my students, who is a great teacher to me, says are “loud words” —ones that provoke a lot of people and trigger a lot of defenses. I use them because they are loaded with what I intend to say and no more: the idea that we exist alone. You don’t think you believe that? Listen, I believe that. Inherently, underneath. And the only way to counter that kind of belief is to do the gritty, compassionate work of really feeling your feelings and feeling for others and seeing there is no difference.


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Ed: Bryonie Wise

Source: shoandtellblog.com via Ehren on Pinterest



About Miriam Hall

Miriam Hall teaches Nalanda Miksang Contemplative Photography, Contemplative Writing and other fun practices that combine perception and creative process as a part of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage. Natalie Goldberg (of Writing Down the Bones,) says: “Miriam Hall has the heart, hands and head of writing practice. Study with her.” She can be found at her website, Flickr, Twitter, Facebook and all over the world teaching and playing. You can also read more of her here, here and by visiting her website.


13 Responses to “When Self-Help Equals Self-Hate.”

  1. Fiona says:

    This was a really irritating article and I'm glad I read it only because it made me realize what I am doing is better than whatever awful advice you are giving. It is proven that a positive thought is effective in changing pathways in the brain and by starting to believe something is changing will actually help with the changes. We live in a busy crazy world yes but you are certainly putting a very strange spin on something that works. Just the fact that you thought the power of now sucked tells me that you will probably never be happy.

    I have personally seen the power of now work in my life and affirmations along with using affirmations. They are important to induce change for people who are looking for a solution. I do however believe you have to face the problems first like in EFT so I don't disagree with everything you said. But really do not agree with most of this. To each your own and I"m sure in your own path then you have discovered that your practice works for you.

  2. ilona says:

    Excellent! Thank you.

  3. Miriam Hall says:

    Fiona – Everyone gets a word in – so I appreciate your pitching in your disagreement.
    I am actually very happy. I am struck by how irritated you are. Do you fear that this won't be helpful for some folks? Then we have the same fear – I am fearful that other ways won't be helpful for some folks. Irritation usually points to something else – sounds like we might have the same core irritation.

    I am glad what you do works for you.

  4. I so appreciate you pointing out that to "Notice when you are clinging to the idea of an outcome as the answer" – I especially relate to the example you used

    "Affirmation: I am beautiful just as I am.
    Issue: I am actually overweight and need to lose weight to be healthy.
    Try: I sincerely want to and need to lose weight. Accept this while not beating myself up. Actually connecting with my body as is, rather than some ideal or pretending I don’t experience self-hate. A constant effort, with fruitful results. "

    It took me so many years of struggling with a bad eating disorder and being in the self-help world to figure this out!
    Becoming a massage therapist also helped keep me realistic and present in a way that you need to be to understand this.

    anyhow, loved the article. THANKS!

    -Sarah Friedman, Park Slope , Brooklyn

  5. Cynthia Long says:

    Perhaps a middle path? There is indeed a tendency toward the "spiritual bypass" fostered by many of today's popular teachings. In my experience with clients, I have found denial (and the resistance it represents) to be a much greater challenge than any expression of true suffering. Just as the children's chant, Going on a Bear Hunt says, you can't go over it, you can't go under it, you've gotta go through it. In this way I think your critical eye reveals a useful perspective. However, once the shadow is faced, identified and released, then it is extremely beneficial and powerful to consciously address raising one's vibration through positive focus, and in this way develop the limitless creative potential of the heart and mind.

  6. Chrisby says:

    Absolutely fucking wonderful.

  7. Muks says:

    Self-help is not always about positive affirmations. When I started doing a bit of group therapy I read a book about grieving losses. This book helped me feel and accept my feelings. I actually felt really bad for a while, but it got better. It was not about forceful positive thoughts, more about understanding why life is sometimes unfair and other people and I have often behaved badly. I read three little reading every day and I have a set of little paper pieces at work with statements like "live and let live". They make me feel calmer, not always happier. I am happy more often though, although I am aware I cannot hold on to the happiness. In contrast to the books I have read so far I find a lot more be-happy-now talk here on Elephant.

  8. Miriam Hall says:

    Thank you all for your feedback. I have thought a lot since writing this post, and in particular, because of Fiona's feedback. It's so helpful when folks disagree and are honest about it!

    I think if I were to re-publish it now, I would make it less anti-self-help (which honestly, I am not – I agree with Muks – there's a lot of helpful self-help and non-affirmation self help), make it clearer that I mean specifically "positivity" (versus positive thinking, which is quite helpful, in fact), and state explicitly that my concern is when affirmations/self-help actually induce/trigger/make self hate worse.

    If these things work for you, then AWESOME, you know?

    I agree, and I know Waylon would agree (also Muks), that there is more be-happy-now talk on Ele, too, and that is part of the issue, for sure…

    Cynthia and Sarah – lots of grief and lots of body issues for me, too, and grief especially I have found to be just like that bear chant! It is always on-going and also always workable.

  9. Lavender Blume says:

    Fantastic post. As a Buddhist, I can't relate to self-help "gurus" who point to the Law of Attraction as a source of happiness. The more I focus on what I want, the more I am (a) focusing on something that could exist in the future and is therefore not reality; and (b) missing all of the benefits of being mindful in the present. This extends to wanting to be a "better person". There is no "worse" or "better" me. I'm just me. Connecting with who I fundamentally am and more importantly, being conscious of how I am connected to others (and therefore not really separate from anyone or anything), is how I cultivate happiness and peace. This is an important distinction to make amid so much seemingly positive self-help talk.

  10. Muks says:

    Thanks, your post clarifies your article. I guess, there are some books out there that sell the dream of happiness and when the, maybe positive, effects reside, lead to buying more self-help books with the same promises.

  11. Miriam Hall says:

    Lavender – bingo. Awesome. Here's a personal blog post that expands more of these thoughts in other directions – Muks, I think you'd appreciate this, too: http://insidespace.blogspot.com/2013/05/trust-sus

  12. Hi Miriam-
    I love your post. You might like a relevant article I recently wrote for Scientific American Mind: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=

  13. Miriam Hall says:

    Awesome, Tori. Thank you!