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Maintaining Stable Feelings of Self-Worth Despite Internal and External Criticism

We are pack animals. Our evolution as a species has deeply ingrained in each of us an understanding that survival rests dependent on belonging to a group, from which we receive protection when sick or emotionally vulnerable; when we have safe and reliable support, we are aided in regulating and processing our difficult emotions, such as fear, sadness, frustration, loneliness. Feeling disconnected, on the other hand, creates distress; emotional states cannot be properly understood or processed without the help of others—this is why the Buddha noted that wise friends are the foundation and entirety of the spiritual path. Indeed, connection lies at the very core of the human psyche, the structure of the human brain: how do I maintain a secure relationships with others? While the brain's left hemisphere creates ideas and language, the right hemisphere maintains emotional systems based on how securely connected we feel to others. These emotional systems are in effect maps of our relationships; the more connected we feel, the happier. (To learn more about the right hemisphere's role in social mapping the books on affect regulation by Allan Schore are highly recommended.)

In human history, to be banished or shunned by a group, forced to wander a dangerous world alone was one of the most extreme forms of punishment, along with chopping off limbs in its severity.

As infants we continually communicate our states of being and needs—for example fear, sadness, frustration, hunger, contentment—to parents via nonverbal signals: body movements, sounds, facial expressions. If our caregivers are attuned and understand our messages, providing security, a safe connection with the pack is established and positive feelings result; we feel protected. But if our parents regularly overlook, misinterpret, or punish us signaling authentic needs, strong negative feelings are created; we’ll feel that we don’t matter, outside of the pack. If these experiences pile up, feelings of self hatred invariably appear. Inadequacy winds up deeply etched in our emotional memory systems.

Generally our interpersonal history falls somewhere between these extremes. Throughout childhood and early socialization and educational institutions we learn that certain kinds—and amounts—of signals will be tolerated by others. A little fear or moderated sadness is ok; too much and others may show exasperations. Moving beyond the limits of what is tolerated by others results in some form of parental or social criticism or rejection. So we learn to inhibit forms of authentic self-expression, even though such a process often involves suppressing real needs, feelings, states of being. After all, as children we cannot fend for ourselves, and we only feel safe when we feel securely connected to the pack; outside the group there’s vulnerability and a sense of impending annihilation.

The qualities and behaviors that are ignored, criticized or punished by others are invariably associated with feelings of humiliation and self-contempt. For the child’s emotional health, parents are well advised to limit criticism to specific behaviors, rather than making global statements about the child. For example, “chasing after the cat is not o.k.” and “hitting your little sister is not permitted” associates a specific behavior with criticism, whereas “what’s the matter with you!?” rejects the child globally, signaling there’s something wrong with the entire child, and creates damaging emotional states.

As judgment is often conveyed non-verbally, and often by subtle facial expressions and body language that signal derision or contempt, its important that we learn to monitor what we transmit to others, especially those who are emotionally vulnerable. Studies show that disdain is invariably the most damaging form of communication in any relationship, whether between romantic partners, family members, work colleagues. To maintain healthy relationships we should carefully limit criticism to specific behaviors, while offsetting criticism with assurances of ongoing care and appreciation; when someone feels criticized without reassurances of being valued, their ability to learn from the events will be compromised, as fear of being cast out from the pack will be the dominant emotional experience.

When someone no longer wants to maintain a close friendship, or a group severs ties with us, especially if there has been a connection in the past, such an experience can trigger deep and painful feelings of being rejected by the pack. Such events can be traumatic.

To maintain our connection to the pack and learn from negative experiences, we turn to an inner critic that continually notes which behaviors have linked us to the group and which have threatened our connection. If the critic is to some degree reassuring, noting that our issues are limited to certain behaviors, rather than our global personality, its a useful resource. But when the inner critic becomes globally rejecting, or internalizes the contempt of others, it can become a source of significant emotional distress; akin to living with an inner tyrant that can never be appeased. A vicious cycle results: as we criticize ourselves we become more anxious, and anxiety results in poor social performance, which leaves us feeling even more shunned and rejected, both externally and internally.

These mechanisms of self-contempt eventually can become quickly activated by a wide array of triggers: a text message that isn’t returned, a Facebook post unliked, etc.

Here’s an exercise to reduce feelings of self-contempt: 
Visualize yourself lying on the beach on a warm day—if you don’t like the beach, change the image naturally. Imagine the sensations of warmth, ease, lack of concern or vulnerability. Sitting in beach chairs next to you are people with whom you feel safe, someone who appreciates you. While maintaining the feelings of security and well-being, imagine telling your friends about a recent, embarrassing event or impulse. Experiences we haven’t had the courage to share with others are the keys to this practice. See if you can your companions acknowledging that they too have made mistakes, can understand the emotions that lead to your actions, will still accept you and keep you as a valued member of the group. Hold the experience in your heart: you can make mistakes, but it doesn’t threaten your value to others.

—Josh Korda, dharmapunxNYC

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