Self-hatred will never uncover all your gifts

Why and how to stop this destructive behavior

I have a friend. By 30, she has accomplished a heck of a lot: top academic, prolific researcher, dedicated physician. Despite her packed schedule, she finds time to support charities. She is fit. She is beautiful.

And she is the most self-deprecating person I know.

I too am familiar with self-loathing. I grew up conditioned to always do more, be better. Striving became part of my persona, and extended to all areas of my life — hobbies and relationships too. I couldn’t simply have one interest, and not strive for somehow knowing that I am the best at that. My label: a “Type A, high achiever personality”; someone “who will go far.”

And I did go far. Over the last 9 months, I’ve boarded 18 flights, and lived in 8 different countries across 3 continents. But not because of my high profile job. I decided to take off work, and go and do the things I always dreamed of: experience India, go on meditation retreats, travel around Europe, reconnect with old friends, stay open. This decision — seen as odd or insane by some — was by far the best thing I’ve done in my entire life.

Experiencing life as it is, having no actual ‘plan’ or ‘goal’ made me grow more than I did over the last 40 years.

Striving is not growing

One of the things I have learned from my travels— and from my dear friend — is that striving is not growing. Here’s why:

  • Striving is a form of self-aggression. We force and push ourselves to get better, when in fact we are full. Instead of channeling our skills, honing our gifts, we force to ‘fit in’ or ‘stand out’. Instead of living from a core belief of abundance, we live in fear — that we will become redundant in our jobs, in our society, because we didn’t try hard enough.
  • Striving is like adolescence, growing reflects maturity. Because we are a society of striving people, we psychologically act like adolescents. Insecure, entitled, jealous of others. While there are positive things about adolescence, a society that is mostly built on this belief lacks responsibility. It takes maturity to see yourself as you truly are. It also takes maturity to become responsible of your life and of what is happening in the world.
  • Striving goes against nature. Why is it that even with all the accomplishments, somewhere inside you feel empty, unfulfilled? Because you cannot silence your own, unique gifts, your own purpose. Your gifts want to sprout and make you grow, so you become a mature, fulfilled human being. You could force some skills (even though the 10,000 hours rule is wrong, it seems), but a gift is an offering, not something to force on.

When we confuse striving with growing, we slowly wilt, just like a plant that was over watered, or set in the sun when it loves the shade. We spread our unhappiness and blame onto others, feeding a negative discourse in our communities.

When we are disconnected from our true nature, it is nearly impossible for us to connect with others in a deeper, more authentic way.

Thoughts are power. Words are swords.

“Mental actions are real actions. Thought is the real action; it is a dynamic force. It may be remembered, thought is very contagious; nay, more contagious than the Spanish Flu” [Sivananda, Sri Swami. Thought power]

You are probably familiar with the truism ‘You are what you think’. In ancient traditions and philosophies like Vedanta and Buddhism, thoughts are considered to have incredible power. As for the effect of a sharp tongue — I am guilty of injuring quite few around me, including myself.

Thought alone shapes us, as we live in our own thought-world. The moment we verbalize that thought, we give it even more power, turning it into a weapon against ourselves. How can we amplify positivity instead?

Concrete steps

From my own experience, here is what worked for me (in order of difficulty):

  • If you verbalize this negative self-talk, stop saying it. Self-deprecation and dark humor can be entertaining, a sign we are not taking ourselves too seriously. But there is a fine line between humor and satire, and you might unconsciously build an ugly caricature of yourself.
  • Be aware of when you say it — sometimes it’s a reflex, “I am so stupid” or “I’m useless”. Saying it for so long, we become accustomed to it and create a groove we keep falling back into. Create a new track, a more melodious one. Think Ray Charles instead of Rammstein.
  • Connect with what you love. If you love nature, go outside and use your senses to experience it. Instead of rationalizing it (i.e. I like biking because it gives me stress relief), notice how you feel when you bike, the air on your skin, the sounds around you. Avoid using words (and thoughts), and just experience more.
  • Replace negative self talk with positive affirmations. This is not always easy. Stand in front of a mirror, look into your eyes and repeat: I am strong, I am enough, I am loved (or your own affirmation). This will stir some reactions, but stay with it, and keep doing it. Create a positive habit.
  • Ask yourself better questions: What can I offer in an authentic, natural way? What is the gift I currently hold in exile? Then simply invite it back in your life. Be patient. Cherish it and share it when you feel ready. It will turn into kindness for yourself, and others.

[Extra tip: meditate. Meditation has been widely studied, and is definitely not ‘woo-woo’. Sitting regularly literally alters your brain and immune function.].

The story ends just as you talk (and think)…

I asked my friend what is one thing she always wanted to do. Something creative, maybe painting? Dancing?

“I honestly haven’t thought of that part of myself for so long”.

I found that ‘THAT part’ of ourselves does not respond to thinking. But to feeling. To experiencing. ‘That part’ is an essential ingredient of who you are, and why you are here. And we all miss a lot by not exploring it.

Following your gifts is infinitely more rewarding than striving for followers.

Try it out. What is the worst that can happen?

P.S.1 — Perhaps you are a self-loving, kind person but you have a friend or colleague who is self-deprecating to the extreme? Don’t feed into this discourse. Instead of normalizing or downplaying this behavior, gently remind that person of their positive traits. Respond by caring, not by ignoring. Don’t perpetuate the belief that self-hatred is a form of ‘tough love’. If it’s tough, it’s not love.

P.S. 2 — The irony is that I earned a Masters of Science in Healthcare Quality , but my deepest insights about “quality” and improvement scinece came through experiential learning. My lived experience taught me that when I stopped forcing things to happen, the quality of my life changed. Allowing yourself to grow in the direction that calls your name is not an easy thing to do. It’s easier said that done. But then, it’s not on the easy, well walked road you find most treasures…

Readings:

Peter Block, Community — The structure of belonging

Debbie Ford, The dark side of the light chasers

Sri Swami Sivananda, Thought power

Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World