Paul Fulton is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Newton, Massachusetts. A co-founder and member of the Board of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy, he is also co-editor of the book Mindfulness & Psychotherapy. He received tokudo initiation as a Zen Buddhist in 1972. He is director of IMP’s nine month Certificate Program in Mindfulness & Psychotherapy, has taught at BCBS, and currently serves on the BCBS Board of Directors.
Scratch the surface of the most charmed and privileged life, and you will likely find the persistent itch of insecurity, a particular variant of dukkha. It often manifests as a confirmation of one’s personal inadequacy and insufficiency, as if to say, “If I were enough, have done enough, accomplished enough, I could put this feeling of insecurity to rest. This feeling is therefore proof of my failure.” This sort of suffering is often taken as an indication of something fundamentally wrong with ‘me.’ In this way, simple insecurity can become wrapped up in a sense of self.
As a clinical psychologist, I often see this constellation of insecurity met with harsh self-judgment. Most striking is the way in which these subjective experiences are independent of the facts of one’s life, as common among professionals at the apex of their professions as those facing actual failure and struggle. Neither accomplishment nor reputation seem to offer reliable inoculation.
Nor is this experience isolated to the somewhat selective population of those who seek psychotherapy. During a conversation between two very seasoned psychotherapists, one revealed deep doubt about her own competence, much to the great surprise of her colleague. What followed was a frank conversation in which all participants confessed to such feelings, along with embarrassment and shame. Open conversations such as these are uncommon because they run contrary to our impulse to hide our insecurity from others. One common companion of such insecurity is the sense that “I alone feel like this. The world is populated by others who are free of my particular torment.”
This sort of suffering therefore becomes bundled with layers of judgment, shame, and isolation. This ‘bundling’ may be a common feature of most forms of emotional suffering: “Not only am I suffering, but this suffering is evidence of weakness and a lack in me. If others were to see it, they would surely agree with my harsh judgment of myself.” This sort of judgment is akin to the ‘second arrow’ described by the Buddha and is a form of self harm.
How are we to understand this self-directed aggression in response to insecurity? I will briefly suggest three lenses (among many) through which this can be considered: clinical, cultural, and Buddhist.
When we suffer, we seek an explanation for our suffering. However intractable suffering may seem, having an explanation is far superior to having none at all because it offers the possibility of control, perhaps even a cure. We prefer any explanation—even one that offers no hope—to meaningless suffering because it binds our uncertainty and enables us to see suffering as a consequence of identifiable causes, not merely a pointless and random affliction. The way in which we explain our emotional suffering to ourselves is important because it determines what we do to overcome it. For example, if one is heavily burdened, constantly fatigued, and unable to concentrate, one might conclude the cause to be laziness, or one might decide the cause to be clinical depression. Which account one chooses will dramatically shape how one responds.
When we blame ourselves, we often think, “If I could just get it right, it could be overcome” despite perhaps decades of evidence to the contrary. How good or successful must one be to finally deserve self-acceptance? For many, improving self-esteem through self-improvement is a moving and receding target, as the habit of self-judgment outruns all efforts to overcome it.
Perhaps the roots of a sense of inadequacy are not to be found in one’s ostensible failures, nor is the solution necessarily found in striving for perfection.
Is this a clinical problem?
If one concludes that insecurity is a personal problem, one is likely to seek its alleviation through psychotherapy. One clinical perspective (among many) is that unrealistic, self-critical ideas can be challenged as a form of distorted thinking and can be therefore corrected or replaced with more accurate views. Another common psychotherapeutic formulation is that insecurity and low self-esteem are a product of bad parenting at the hands of hypercritical, devaluing, neglectful, or even abusive caregivers. Even lesser parenting crimes may be implicated, such as empathic failures, or an inability to fully see or ‘mirror’ the uniqueness of the child. Such children grow up feeling that acceptance is conditional and dependent on one’s presentation to the world of a ‘false self’ (as described by psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott), which can easily lead to inauthenticity in one’s inner life and result in a sense of inner vulnerability, as the ‘true self’ must be damaged or inadequate and its expression therefore shameful. Psychotherapy conducted from this perspective seeks to identify formerly obscured causes of self-criticism and doubt, which ends up being, for many, a constructive (if incomplete) step. In the ideal, the therapist’s acceptance of the fullness of the patient’s experience of self will help bridge the remaining distance to self-acceptance.
If insecurity and self-criticism are indeed as ubiquitous as I’ve suggested, are we to conclude that nearly everyone had bad parenting? Possibly. From one psychoanalytic perspective, growing up is fundamentally traumatic because the infant—a bundle of instinctual needs and demands—must adjust to a world of limitations and constraints, including the limitations of the child’s own imperfect parents. The process of this adjustment produces a growing frustration, which is then ideally met by a commensurate growing capacity to tolerate it. From this perspective, much of who we are—our personalities—are like accumulated scar tissue incurred from injuries in this precarious developmental obstacle course to which no one is immune.
Is this a cultural construction?
On several well-known occasions, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been asked by Westerners about self-hatred. The concept puzzled him. The experience of self-criticism, insecurity, and low self-esteem are apparently relatively absent among Tibetans. Is this sort of aggression against the self a uniquely Western form of mental affliction? Or is it a human phenomenon that is experienced—and therefore expressed—differently in each culture?
If it is indeed absent in Tibetan culture, then we might conclude that Tibetan children are immunized by virtue of being loved and accepted by their entire community. Or perhaps there is some cultural stress in the West that gives suffering its recurrent and familiar flavor, such as our emphasis on individuality and self-esteem measured through competitive success—that is, finding worth through comparing one’s worldly success to that of others.
It would be too easy to romanticize non-Western cultures for the apparent absence of certain familiar forms of suffering. While there are some genuinely culture-bound forms of mental suffering, no culture can lay claim to being free of suffering. Culture shapes the subjective experience and expression, but according to the Buddha, the universality of suffering is an axiomatic and foundational truth.
There is no single Pali term that precisely describes the experience of self-directed aggression. The word aparadha refers to the sense of responsibility that follows from a transgression or crime. Hiri connotes the inner experience of shame that follows from a moral transgression, and ottappa suggests the fear of blame for doing wrong. Together, hiri-ottappa speaks to the inner and outer dimensions of moral shame and describes the beneficial mechanisms that help prevent us from transgressing. From this perspective, the arising of hiri-ottappa is a mentally healthy response to unethical conduct, as this suffering due to misconduct informs our future behavior. Ideally, once harmful conduct ceases, so should the corresponding moral shame. In the same conversation in which the Dalai Lama was asked about self-hatred, he suggested that if one has not done wrong, the feeling of self-hatred “is just a minor mental irritation. Ignore it and it will go away.”
However, the concept of hiri-ottappa as a form of moral sensitivity does not account for the toxic experience of guilt, shame, and self-criticism that is detached from actual harmful conduct. The latter constellation of emotions is not protective but destructive, egocentric, and often impervious to healing through wholesome conduct. It is, as described by Ajahn Amaro, what happens when “the ego ruthlessly co-opts hiri-ottappa.” Among Western Buddhist practitioners, this experience is often unresponsive to healing through sīla or mindful awareness, leading many to seek more targeted practices such as mindful self-compassion and psychotherapy.
As a psychotherapist, I see many ways in which individuals are predisposed to view dukkha as a personal psychological problem. As a student of Buddhist psychology, I often view the tendency of patients to see their insecurity as a personal problem as an unfortunate error, adding insult to injury. Insecurity is not necessarily evidence of neurosis and personal psychological arrest, but a more or less accurate appraisal of our condition. It may be unsettling, but if we regard it as a personal problem rather than what it is—an existential fact of our experience—a number of problems follow. First, by taking it as evidence of weakness or failure, layering it with guilt, shame, isolation, and judgment, we only multiply our suffering. Second, it may lead to unsuccessful efforts to overcome it through self-punishment, endless rounds of self-help, or psychotherapy. Through an erroneous diagnosis, an opportunity might be missed.
Psychotherapy is a powerful tool for many issues, but it takes discernment to know what can and cannot be addressed in therapy. Analyzing problems innate to being born as a human may be akin to handing a shovel to someone caught in a pit, when what is really needed is a ladder. To recognize insecurity as a fact of human existence—and not evidence of shameful shortcomings—helps relieve ourselves of the unrealistic expectation that it is a problem we should be expected to solve, and allows for a different way of encountering, holding, and opening to this as a reality. This possibility is where our dharma practice begins.