You don’t have to beat yourself up to change

The entire spiritual path is a process of abandoning our faults and cultivating our good qualities.  The approach we take to doing this determines whether our spiritual path is a “joyful” one or a miserable one.  Due to conditioning from our childhood and society, we have a bad habit of beating ourselves up and making ourselves feel bad about ourselves due to our faults, believing this is the way to get ourselves to change.  Such an approach is completely self-defeating.  Instead, we need to motivate ourselves positively by feeling good about aspiring to doing things right and living up to higher principles of wisdom.  In short, we need to “identify with becoming better,” and live out that narrative.  Likewise, with others in our life, we need to stop trying to change others by making them feel bad about themselves and instead we should see them as “becoming better,” and we should encourage them to continue in that sense by helping them feel good about themselves for the fact that they are getting better.

One of the main obstacles to people embarking upon and progressing along the spiritual path is they don’t have a healthy way of relating to their own faults.  Our parents quite often used “guilt trips” or made us feel bad about ourselves as a means of getting us to change.  It is not their fault that they did this, since that is how all of society is programmed.  We often get such negative reinforcement in school, at work, amongst our friends, etc.  So when we start on the spiritual path and we learn what the correct and perfect ways of doing things are, we realize how far we are from that ideal.  It is almost as if the more Dharma we learn, the more we realize we are a total failure, and we beat ourselves up more and more.  This is a very common “Dharma neurosis.”  We even think if only we beat ourselves up enough, then we will get ourselves to change.

But the reality is such an approach not only makes us miserable and feel bad about ourselves, but it actually blocks our change.  When we feel bad about ourselves, we feel like we cannot do anything right.  Changing ourselve is the hardest thing we will ever do in life, and when we feel like we can’t do anything right we destroy our own confidence in our ability to change and we destroy our capacity to do so by beating ourselves up.  Guilt is anger towards ourselves.  Anger seeks to harm the object of our anger.  When the object of our anger is ourselves, we harm ourselves and therefore undermine our own capacity to change.  When we then try to change, but fail to do so, we really then feel like a total failure and lose all hope.  We then beat ourselves up even more in a vicious cycle.  There is no bottom to this pit or end to this process.   It ends in suicide.

Instead, we need to motivate ourselves by “feeling good about getting better.”  We need to let go of identifying with our faults and with being a failure, and instead choose to identify with “somebody getting better with effort.”  We should take the time to identify and rejoice in our little successes, and to see how, even though we still have a long way to do, we are heading in the right direction.  Our bad habits are just that – bad habits, they are not intrinsic parts of ourselves.  We are not our faults, we are rather somebody shedding all that isn’t us.  When we identify with “getting better” we enter into a virtuous cycle of feeling good about ourselves, which increases our confidence and capacity, which then enables us to change ourselves even more.  It is not arrogance to identify with getting better because we are honestly acknowledging our faults, but are at the same time confident in our ability to overcome them with effort.

We also need to be very careful that we don’t try change others by making them feel bad about themselves.  This is an easy trap to fall into, especially with those in our family or those who work for us.  Because we do this to ourselves, we do it to others.  I have a terrible habit of doing this with my wife and kids.  The fundamental reason why is because I have aversion to being around people with faults.  But how can one be a bodhisattva, somone committed to help all beings overcome all of their faults, if we can’t stand being around people who have faults?!?  It is a total contradiction.  Because it bothers me that they have faults, I get upset at them for having them.  I focus only on what they do wrong because that is what bothers me.  Because I focus only on what they do wrong, they too see within themselves only what they do wrong.  Because I don’t like that in them, they don’t like it in themselves.  Because I am, even if only mentally, beating them up about their faults, they too then start beating themselves up about their faults.  They then enter into the guilt traps described above.  They become worse, I get more frustrated and we all feed off of each other in a negative way.  It is very unhealthy and most unhelpful. 

When instead I see them as “somebody getting better” and I help them see that in themselves, then they can identifywith  themselves as “somebody getting better” and feel good about themselves.  For example, my daughter identfies with “being stupid” because she struggles in school.  She feels bad about herself, expects herself to do better, then when she falls short of her (my…) expectations, she then feels worse about herself and like even more of a failure in a vicuous cycle.  If instead I help her identify with “being a hard worker” and “doing better today than she did yesterday” then, even though her starting point is a low level, she sees how she is getting better and she will feel confident that she can continue in this direction. 

So both with ourselves and with those around us, we need to stop beating ourselves or others up over our faults, but rather identify with “getting better.”  This one simple change will transform our spiritual path from one of self-flaggelation to one of moving from joy to joy.

One thought on “You don’t have to beat yourself up to change

  1. Faults are horrible. Some of them are downright awful. But all of them can be laughed it. Done in a skillful way, ‘inside ourselves,’ we can laugh at others’ faults, not in a mean way, just as we should laugh at our own faults, without anger but with joy. The faults are not them and these faults are not me.

    We all get angry, we are all selfish at some times. We’ve all been that person everyone wants to avoid. These are examples of impermanence. Temporary dirt in our infinite clear-sky mind.

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