Counteracting Self-Loathing

Americans seem to have an unhealthy relationship to mistakes, especially those of the younger generation. I happen to find myself in that often-maligned category—“millennials”—so I say this partly based on my own personal experience and also from observing what’s been happening in the media landscape. It’s quite possible things have long been this way and I’m only now becoming more aware, but the evidence seems to say otherwise.

This is how a sizable number of American millennials describe themselves: self-absorbed, wasteful, greedy, and cynical. It’s one thing to recognize traits we wish to improve, but these come across as decrees: We don’t do wasteful things. We are wasteful. Daily, we’re bombarded with messages that we’re not smart enough, strong enough, beautiful enough… Insert whatever characteristic that we should already be good at.

So we feel stressed, and our pursuit of perfection makes us suffer. Naturally, many Buddhist practitioners in the West turn to the Dhamma for refuge. The Buddha’s teachings welcome us with open arms and re-affirm what is clear from the outside: the world is insatiable, a slave to craving. Of course we will never live up to worldly standards.

But old habits die hard and the wounds of the world are real. (Though we would be quite content to ignore that). There is much work to do. Awakening is not sudden; it is hard.

How many times have I felt discouraged, wondered if I was even cut out for this? More times than I can count, that’s for sure. When I break a precept, is my immediate reaction one of shame and judgment or compassion and understanding? (More often the former, but I’m working on it.) These are leftovers from a mind and world that is quick to condemn and slow to forgive. What’s a practitioner to do? Well, listening to the Buddha is a start.

Recognize Your Mistakes, Deal With Them, and Grow

An astute person is known by three things. What three? They recognize when they’ve made a mistake. When they recognize it they deal with it properly. And when someone else confesses a mistake to them, they accept it properly. These are the three things by which an astute person is known. (AN3.4)

You made a mistake. It was foolish, stupid, and unskillful of you to act in that way. But since you have recognized your mistake for what it is, and have dealt with it properly, I accept it. For it is growth in the training of the noble one to recognize a mistake for what it is, deal with it properly, and commit to restraint in the future. (SN16.6)

It Is Possible to Change for the Better

Mendicants, give up the unskillful. It is possible to give up the unskillful. If it wasn’t possible, I wouldn’t say: ‘Give up the unskillful.’ But it is possible, and so I say: ‘Give up the unskillful.’ … Giving up the unskillful leads to welfare and happiness, so I say: ‘Give up the unskillful.’ (AN2.19)

Don’t Converse with People Who Mercilessly Tear You Down

When a person is asked a question, if they intimidate, crush, mock, or seize on trivial mistakes, then that person is not competent to hold a discussion. (AN3.67)

Associate with Good Friends

How does a mendicant with good friends develop and cultivate the noble eightfold path? It’s when a mendicant develops right view, which relies on seclusion, fading away, and cessation, and ripens as letting go. They develop right thought … right speech … right action … right livelihood … right effort … right mindfulness … right immersion, which relies on seclusion, fading away, and cessation, and ripens as letting go. (SN45.2)

Even if You Falter, All Is Not Lost

[Someone who does a bad deed and lands in hell.] What kind of person does the same trivial bad deed, but experiences it in the present life, without even a bit left over, not to speak of a lot? A person who has developed their physical endurance, ethics, mind, and wisdom. They’re not small-minded, but are big-hearted, living without limits. That kind of person does the same trivial bad deed, but experiences it in the present life, without even a bit left over, not to speak of a lot. (AN3.100)

Be Honest with Yourself

There’s no privacy in the world, for someone who does bad deeds.
You’ll know for yourself, whether you’ve lied or told the truth. (AN3.40)

After you have acted with the body, you should check on that same act: ‘Does this act with the body that I have done lead to hurting myself, hurting others, or hurting both? Is it unskillful, with suffering as its outcome and result?’ If, while checking in this way, you know [that is was], then, Rāhula, you should confess, reveal, and clarify such a deed to the Teacher or a sensible spiritual companion. (MN61)

And Begin Again

Someone who, with skillful deeds,
shuts the door on bad things they’ve done,
lights up the world, like the moon freed from a cloud. (MN86)


What a lovely collection of quotes!


I don’t think this is limited to Americans, nor to “millennials”!

First of all, thank you so much for your little essay on this topic. It is a topic I have been struggling with for many years—decades—, and, I’d say, it’s actually the point where the Buddhist teaching has proved the greatest benefit for me: Getting involved in the Dhamma made me understand that this self-loathing isn’t the only possible way of looking at myself, and helped me to slowly change this (very deeply rooted!) pattern in me. For this I have the highest degree of gratitude!!


Very true! I figured I’d keep things focused on what I know more intimately. But it’s also definitely one of the most appealing things to me about the Buddha’s teachings: the path is open to everyone (no guilt or shame necessary).


Hi, TamHanhHi - just before I’m ready to really answer here, I just want to express being deeply moved by your essay. As a 66y old to see how one “millenial” is looking at our time and how he’s giving a good example of sense of analysis and compassion, this provokes a glimpse of positive faith into the farer future based on trust on next, and next, and next… generation… It’s a bit as when I listen to the adventures and experiences of my young daughter and her sometimes unbelievably intelligent and compassionate interpretation of them. ----
(Well, this might sound now like some geriatric compliment :wink: , but I just wanted to do a bit more than click a “heart”-symbol for your nice essay)


@Sumano Bradley, if it’s of any help, I can offer the idea that with the precepts, we are really allowed to take them and keep them as training rules, and not injunctions or laws/rules per se. We translate these precepts as “rules,” but we might best think of them as training tools or practice tools.

The Pali itself is translated, as least as I understand it, as this:

veramani: ‘to refrain from’
sikkhāpadam: ‘the training rule/precept’
samadiyami ‘I undertake’

  1. pānātipātā veramani sikkhāpadam samadiyami
    I undertake the training rule to refrain from taking life.
  2. adinnadana veramani sikkhāpadam samadiyami
    I undertake the training rule to to refrain from stealing.

This is a Path of training, and not a road covered with landmines that blow us up if we are unskillful. I feel that to facilitate the practice of these precepts, we practice them seriously, but see them as part of a long and lengthy Path of training. Like an athlete training for an event, we do our best to keep these practices, to work at them, and then give our best effort with the trust that we are living an ethical life as best we can. We may fall short, but the best athletes know that the mind must stay positive, and if Monday’s training didn’t go well, then Tuesday’s will be the chance to do a bit better. Over time, the good results will reveal themselves.

So, just keep training. No laws will be broken, and no self punishment is allowed. Just accepting this training Path is worthy of a lot of good feelings, and a lot of Metta for oneself. Even when we fall short, we’re doing great.


Not at all! Thanks for your kind words, and I look forward to reading your answer.

Thanks for sharing all that Michael! Theoretically, I’ve always viewed the precepts as training tools—but there’s still a lingering knee-jerk reaction from my inner critic, which has a lot to do with other baggage I have.

Over time, though, that judgmental reaction has been getting less and less, especially as I practice more wholeheartedly (and with lots of metta too!). I was lucky to come across a number of Dhamma talks and essays that really motivated me to change my mindset bit by bit :slight_smile:


I’m sure you will do fine. These things take a lot of time. These old baggages, they often have many layers, and you remove one, only to find another, deeper one underneath later-on. Just keep going, don’t give up! You’ve already achieved a lot—it’s always important to look back from time to time to where we started, so that we can see that our efforts are not in vain. And as has already been mentioned, self-metta is of utmost importance in this process! :heart:


One day a woman came up to me in a temple and said ‘keeping precepts might feel hard for you (I was young), but stick to it, it’s not impossible but possible’. It was great to see some :bulb: at the end of the tunnel!

This is surely for monks who were conceited and maintained their innocence and not for them who immediately saw their mistakes and confessed right away. The Buddha may have set an example as well.

This practice is mostly for monks and limiting guilt, learning from it and remembering what was learnt when the same issue comes up again helps in changing human behaviour.


After my earlier comment/compliment at you I’ll try to get more an answering mode. Well, my empirical basis is not really large for to say much “how the younger generation (probably) has more unhealthy stance with mistakes” and about the “self-loathing” thing.
But to introduce two sutras that I remember and which I imagine to have some relevance for that specific topic of “self-loathing” I want to differentiate at least two types of self-loathing which I think I might have understood in the course of my life.

First I’m pretty sure one could say, that the “self-loathing” must be something achieved in the course of growing up. It seems reasonable that a baby brings with it, then as a child grows up with, a natural positive self-esteem/-emotion. But it is also sensitive to signals from outside, a modern observation and concept is that of the so-called “mirror-neurons”. They seem to be able to digest the signals from the near person: its loughter, its joy, but if it’s the way, also the rejection (of course in any explicite or sublime form).

What type of rejection do I know? It is very common to talk about the rejection by “the papa because you don’t fit his expectations”. This stereotype might be the base of what you refer to for yourself.
I was born shortly after world war II in a partly devastated country. Here some other rejection was possibly more prevalent “you’re too much for us, we cannot manage a(nother) child”. Here, if such a rejection finds entry into the soul of the baby/child, the adult emotional experience is surely of different type of self-loathing.

And the first part of my answer is, what is basically injected from the outside it should be healed by some effort from the outside. Friends, sangha , as far as they can handle this consciously.

Now, to come to the EBT’s, according to that two types I just scribbled here out, I remember two types of handling of the Buddha.

One is the meeting with the poor man from the untouchable caste at the river. The poor man panicked when he saw the treck of monks (even with Brahmins among them) coming to the river and instinctively he tried to hide: but the Buddha approached him, gave him peace, and if I recall correctly, even invited him to his order. (I’ll see how far I did remember the story correctly if I find it in the suttas again). This matches the second of the two types which I made here, because if I think how an “untouchable” might have grown up and how he got filled with rejection (as human being: not worth for social connection and or respect), filled with degradation and surely with abuse.

The other style of approaching by the Buddha I found in the “Tissa”-sutta (SN 22.84) . Tissa (a relative of the Buddha) suffered from feeling imperfect with his training, even beginning to loose the line and the whole perspective of the dharma. This seems to agree with the first type of self-loathing and which you referred to in your question. He gave Tissa some really kind advice: he did not, for instance increase the load of self-criticism (as some other teacher sometimes might do) but primarily helped Tissa to disconnect from the (internalized) ideal of “perfectly fulfilling the expectations” (psychologically, perhaps, of the papa inside).
But not only gave the Buddha that rational hint how to disconnect from the ideal, but he closed his talk to/with him by saying “be calm, Tissa, be happy, I’m here with you” (or the like, know it only in german), serving for the poor Tissa the practical inclusion as antidot for the rejection in his -at this moment- experience.

There may by other types (or facettes) of “rejection” (individual/personal or even cultural) which may function as root for “self-loathing”, but which I do not know at the moment - if there is some other discernable type, it would surely be equally interesting to see whether there is more about this in the suttas.

And I think, in general, this is also an aspect, interesting for our interaction in sanghas or in private contact: if there is “self-loathing” in the game we do not only need exchange comments and rational analysis, but a socializing answer …



This idea of spiritual bypassing, with regard to the dhamma, has troubled me since first I saw it used to bash someone in an online discussion. Both commenters had valid points: the initiator that the social ill needed addressed and the respondent that the people involved would benefit from using tools in their Buddhist practice. Unfortunately, the initiator didn’t see it that way and was rather rude. Reading the exchange has made me very conscious of how the phrase is used.
The Buddha didn’t see a therapist before he sat under the bodhi tree. The dukkha he addressed was not mental illness, which should be treated by a professional, but was the kind of thing that he gave us the tools to overcome. How is that bypassing?


Thank you so much for the beautiful collection of quotations - put together so nicely!
It was a lovely read and am sure some of it will rub off into my practise :slight_smile:

Excellent points imo. But even the tools he gave use can be misused; some train in aversion, and forget that can only be a tool.

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The way I find the easiest and practical is to watch the mind in the present time. And whatever object that comes into the present is not just observed, but also dealt with according to where or when it originates from. I have a fragmented personality (sub selves), so all of these personalities have to be taken seriously and treated equally, or else there be now peace and stillness to find. It will always be a struggle where I wrestle with myself. One has to give in, or the fight will go on. When I stop holding myself down on the mat or fighting to get up off the mat, the other part will also relax the grip and then we can communicate with each other.
It’s unfair just to love my higher self or the spiritual one. And all of these sub selves have important information they like me to know about.

Behave like a good parent and nurturer to your selves, is in short what I mean.


“OK spiritual self, it’s your turn to clean the toilets and do the laundry”
“OK adventure self, it’s your turn to meditate”
“OK cautious self, it’s your turn to hug people”
“OK talking self, it’s your turn to listen”
“OK quiet self, it’s your turn to speak how you feel”
“OK foodie self, it’s afternoon. Sorry, but it’s not your turn to eat.”
“OK anorexic self, it’s morning. Sorry, but it’s your turn to eat.”

(all together…) BUT DAAAAAAD MOM said it was OK!




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