The Stonewater Zen Centre is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are currently meeting regularly online, please see our Online Zendo page for further details.

Self-loathing – Sarah Kokai Thwaites

I’ve only recently realised that the emotion that I find the most challenging is whichever one I don’t want to face at that time, the one that I have been resisting the most. For quite some time this was self-loathing and I wrote this post a couple of months ago when this was still the case. At the moment I’m waiting for my next most difficult emotion to appear; it could be something new or another layer of self-loathing. Although what I’ve written here no longer feels current for me, I thought it might still be worth sharing it. If self-loathing re-appears it may remind me that I have ways to deal with it.

The emotion that I find the most challenging is self-loathing – because it rarely shows its face directly but is often the hidden reason behind some of my thoughts, words and deeds.

After the self-created defensive walls I’d lived with for so long crumbled I found myself getting acquainted with a whole new range and depth of emotions. Of course they weren’t really new, they had just been buried and so popped up with all the force of a volcano. Those of you who have sat near me in the zendo during convulsive sobbing spells will have seen some of that. My rakusu tells the tale, having extensive water damage from one of my most tearful sits. Having now sat with and lived with the buried emotions it seems to me that they rarely appear in isolation but as a chain, or maybe as different layers. Once one is stripped away it is possible to see another and how they interconnect and can reinforce each other. Some of those it was easy to see. Some I’ve had to dig deeper for. The self-loathing has been one that had been hiding in the deeper shadows.

Until starting to write this I wasn’t aware that I had a strategy for dealing with self-loathing and thought that my responses just happened, but now I can see that there are several things that I do or allow repeatedly which makes them at least an involuntary strategy. I have to add here the warning that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them all to others – I seem to have a particularly gung-ho or reckless attitude to life and practice and if there is something that feels ‘off’ or uncomfortable I’ll dive into it headfirst. This reflects my historic lack of gentleness towards myself. I’d probably recommend a more gentle approach.

Noticing
In the past I didn’t notice the self-loathing, it was so much part of me that I took it for granted but in retrospect I can see how it showed in various ways: in how I cut myself off, not wanting to inflict my company on others; in how I avoided speaking except where a work, helping or parenting role required it; in the rushed and hushed way I did speak when I made myself; in assuming that nothing I did or said could have any consequence. Because of the concealed nature of my self-loathing my first strategy is to notice where my behaviour or reaction to a situation doesn’t fit with how I think I feel or doesn’t seem to match the situation. This is easier to spot now. I live very differently and my default emotional state now seems to be cheeriness and with a new and surprising level of gentleness towards myself. The exceptions therefore become easier to spot. This can include having expectations for myself that I wouldn’t have of others, or a temptation to be reckless with my health and well-being, thinking that it just doesn’t matter.

I can now also often spot when there is anything bubbling up that I’m resisting seeing. Self-loathing has usually been part of that. Sometimes an unease at the pit of my stomach is the first sign. At other times it might be when I find myself doing unnecessary tasks before sitting as a delaying tactic. This never stops me from sitting because I sit twice a day come what may. My gung-ho approach shows here though. If I’ve been putting off sitting I sit for longer. I don’t think this is an exercise in self-punishment, but a recognition that anything difficult enough to want to put off will need more time and space.

An intention to open into what is there
With any emotion that surfaces I deliberately feel it as fully as I can, even sometimes asking “what does it feels like to be completely this?”. It seems to need a deliberate intention to really feel the self-loathing. In trying to describe this, the word surrender comes to mind but it isn’t a surrender to the buried emotion but a surrendering of the resistance to seeing it. The emotion is already there and seeing it seems to release it rather than allowing it to remain in the shadows and continue to influence my actions. There have been some sits where I’ve felt a need to actively wear down the resistance and have found myself doing a speedy 108 full bows before sitting. The first time this was definitely not intentional but it worked so well that I’ve used that approach again with other difficult sittings. By the time I’ve done the bows I have no energy left to resist anything and whatever is there to come up pops up effortlessly. This allowed me to go into some of my darker places and memories. While that sounds grim it was transformative, seeing the memories and my life from a different perspective and accepting or owning my darker elements and how they can be an active and even helpful ingredient in my life.

More recently the resistance has been lower and just setting an intention to be fully open to what comes up has been enough. Once that led to a sort of ‘thought-amnesty’ in which all sorts of previously blocked old thoughts bubbled up. I’m not surprised I’d blocked these for so long. They were vicious in the extreme. Behind them all was an old, dark, bitter self-hatred. It seems that there was nothing so bad that I didn’t think I deserved. No punishment or torture that didn’t feel merited. There was no logical basis for these and they fell apart for having been seen.
It can be easier to work with a difficult emotion if I befriend it rather than challenge it. Just as there is no point being angry with anger or fearful of fear, hating my self-loathing would only add fuel to the fire, would be rejecting part of me, part of my life. Like all difficult emotions it seems they have served some function – otherwise we’d find it easier to give them up. The downsides of my self-loathing were only too apparent but it was harder to acknowledge that, like all my other difficult emotions, it served a purpose, at least originally. It was perhaps functionally dysfunctional: while I was busy hating myself, my self-loathing protected me from what I though other people might think of me –they couldn’t possibly think worse of me than I did of myself. That purpose is no longer needed, and from one perspective never was.

Becoming friends with my dark places
I’ve learned to know my familiar grooves. Many of my buried thoughts and emotions stemmed from a very young age. When I first lifted the lid on this it was like letting out a wild demon at times, furious for having been ignored for so long. Over time this has healed and mellowed and for quite a long time I had strange but incredibly helpful conversations with ‘child me’ whenever I recognised that I was at least in part acting from a scared or hurt child perspective. Befriending that side of me became a beautiful and joyful experience. When something felt ‘off’ my first step was to check in with ‘child me’ to see if there was anything there I’d been ignoring, any fear I’d been blindly walking over.
Nowadays the characteristics of child me seems to be just another part of the whole me and I have to look into other dark places when I feel the familiar signs of self-hatred. This often shows other buried thoughts that left unspotted can influence my attitudes. On sesshin when I saw that I was mentally excluding myself from the positive approach I have to others I found a long buried belief that I was ‘evil’. It seemed to have stemmed from the Christian idea of original sin – I was brought up Church of England but with a fire-and-brimstone style northern Irish vicar. It seems that I had internalised that idea but only in relation to myself. The strength of the conviction both surprised and amused me and led to a surreal mental fight-out in which part of my brain challenged the belief “what makes you think you are so special that you alone get to be too evil to be helped?” and “name one evil action you’ve ever done”. Carelessness, selfishness and thoughtlessness I have a track record of at times but I’ve been far too mild and dull to justify the word ‘evil’. With no good answers to be found, the assumption crumbled. There will be more dark spaces and dark thoughts there I’m sure but I’m no longer scared to look and see.

Laughter
Facing this old self-loathing doesn’t seem to create new reinforcing thoughts and behaviours. This makes it easier to see it as a sort of belated clear-up exercise, albeit one that may last a lifetime as there could be much more that I’m not yet even aware of. The task is made easier with laughter. I’ve got quite good at laughing at my stupidity. This is one part of my strategy I’d definitely recommend, although perhaps in moderation. I think I owe an apology to those sitting in the zendo next to me at Crosby in October who had to sit through a full hour of my laughter when I spotted another layer of my ceaseless stupidity. Sorry!

Mirror sitting
Twice I’ve found myself undertaking mirror sitting. This is my least favourite practice and not one I’m recommending because I found it really challenging but it probably is the practice that for me has most effectively opened up a stream of self-compassion that I’d long blocked. Each time I spent three hours sitting spread over a couple of days in front of a large mirror. I’d read about the practice and expected that it would bring up concerns about appearance and aging and was surprised the first time when instead I saw a parade of childhood emotions and attitudes to life played out on my face. The second time it was emotions from my early adulthood. Both times it was at first difficult to resist looking away but over the hours I found my gaze softening and an affection appearing: self-hatred was temporarily at least replaced by self-compassion and respect and never quite returned to the previous level.

Life
It seems that the remaining element in my strategy is life. I’ve needed to start living life with a new assumption that all the really hateful thoughts I had about myself aren’t true, that they were all my creation and aren’t shared by everybody else. That has involved gradually opening up to people, to become less spiky and defensive, to show myself in a way that I was always too scared to and to allow people to be as nice as they are. It has been a delight to discover how lovely people are when I give them a chance. My sincere thanks to you all for being so lovely and kind.