The Low Self Esteem Virus

Western Civilization is home to an epidemic of low self esteem. I actually was rather shocked when I started teaching meditation to find out how widespread it is - I have never had such a problem. (My problem is more of having a high opinion of myself, even when it really isn't deserved.) When I was first told to send myself love, it was "Oh sure, easy." And it has been that way all along. But the number of students I've had who have expressed difficulty in loving themselves is shockingly high.

If the magic fairy ever comes along and says she'll grant me one wish of something (short of liberation) to give my students, my wish won't be for them to be able to reach the jhanas, or experience this or that insight, it will be that they all can easily love themselves. The fact that this is such a widespread difficulty is real damning evidence of the failure of Western Civilization at a very basic level.

It seems that one of the major reasons that low self esteem develops, is that a child faces a situation where their care-givers fail to do an adequate job. It's too scary for the child to acknowledge that the people they are totally depended upon are acting incompetently, so the child thinks "it must be my fault - I'm bad. The reason things are going wrong is because of a failure on my part." Better to be a villain than a helpless bit player. Of course the child doesn't actually phrase it in any way like the above - but this seems to be what's happening at a sub/unconscious level.

Low self esteem is like a virus. Not a medical virus, a computer virus. It's a program that gets on the hard drive and it seems like it may even be a useful program at first. But it's seriously damaging and very difficult to eradicate. It seems to be the same class of virus as a phobia or a fetish - some little program that gets all out of hand.

Now a virus on your computer can be eliminated by running an anti-virus program. But sometimes if the virus gets there before the anti-virus program, it can successfully hide from the anti-virus program. This seems to be the problem with the low self esteem virus. And when a virus successfully hides from your anti-virus program, the only way to remove it, is to do it manually. So what's the manual method for removing the low self esteem virus?

Here's a suggestion: RACE

Recognize: That last thought was a low self esteem thought.
Acknowledge: That's Not True (i.e. use TNT to blow up the untrue low self esteem thought).
Correct: Think a true thought on the same subject - substitute with the opposite.
Expand: Think more true thoughts on the same subject.

Here's what I mean in detail:

Recognize: That last thought was a low self esteem thought.
This is mindfulness (sati) - knowing what's happening. This is the key to any method you will ever use to change old habits. It's valuable to know that the low self esteem thought is useless, unwholesome (akusala). But it is extremely important that knowing that a low self esteem thought is useless, unwholesome is NOT an opportunity for further beating oneself up. It's just a simple recognition of "Oh, this is something that needs to be addressed."

Acknowledge: That's Not True.
Think it in a loud voice: "That's Not True." This is the work of filling in the old, useless rut. Just like when one stops believing in Santa Claus, one at first catches oneself "I'm gonna ask Santa - oh, wait, never mind." Knowing that something is untrue is a good way to convince oneself to stop going there.

Correct: Think a true thought on the same subject - substitute with the opposite.
The Buddha recommends dealing with unwholesome (useless) thoughts by substituting with an opposite thought (e.g. MN 20). The same process works here. For example, if the low self esteem thought was "I'm bad", then think "I'm good." If the thought was "I always screw up," then try something like "Sometimes [or Often] I do really good work." It's not useful in this case to go to the totally opposite: "I never screw up" since that's not true; and even going to "I don't always screw up" is a bit too negative - find a positive opposite. This is the work of digging new ruts to replace to low self esteem rut.

Expand: Think more true thoughts on the same subject. For example, "I'm good. I helped that little ole lady across the street yesterday." Or "Often I do really great work - everyone was really pleased by the outcome of that last project." This is the work of making the new ruts even deeper.

It's not going to be easy to manually remove this low self esteem virus - it's going to take a lot of work over a long time. The earlier any program gets onto your mental hard drive, the harder it is to change/remove it. Low self esteem seems to always be an early childhood virus, so working with it is going to be a long term project. But hey, what else ya gonna do? If you know a better method, use it. Otherwise you can play with the one above; just be relentless in applying it.

Good Luck!

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Leigh Brasington / EmailAddr / Revised 21 Feb 22