My day job is clinical psychology. I spend most of my workday listening to depressed and anxious people talking about their depression and anxiety. Often gratifying, sometimes overwhelming. On the whole, probably better than flipping burgers for a living.
One of the things I consistently hear from depressed clients is how much they dislike themselves. Therapists will respond to this sort of comment in a variety of ways, but most responses typically boil down to one of two messages:
1. “You’re okay/don’t be so hard on yourself/you’re beautiful just the way you are/I like you, so you should like yourself too.”
2. “Where did you get the message that you’re unlikable?”
Both of these strategies are attempts to change the client’s experience of not liking him/herself to one of liking him/herself.
My standard response is, “If you don’t like the person you are, what would you like to do differently to become someone you might like better?” I don’t try to change the experience of not-liking the self, I try to change the idea of self that leads to the not-liking. That response is rooted in anatta.
In order to hate yourself, you have to have a self to hate. I don’t believe in myself (or yourself, or his-or-herself) as an enduring, fixed thing. What I mean when I say “myself” is just a collection of things that I’ve said or done in the past and another set of things that I imagine I might do in the future and whatever I’m thinking right now about that.
I think this is what the Heart Sutra is getting at with the bit about all five skandhas in their own being are empty: if you look very closely at yourself, you find that there’s nothing there. No form, no feelings, no perceptions, no impulses, no consciousness, just some stuff that happened and some thoughts about it.
Here’s the part of this that’s liberating: if it’s just a bunch of things that you’ve done and thought, it’s all up for negotiation. Don’t like yourself? Change who you are. How? Do something different. If there’s nothing “real” under all that stuff, it means there’s nothing immutable there. If you hate yourself, don’t be that self any more.
The hard part is that if you do this, you also give up your ability to blame other people for your suffering. That’s a level of responsibility that many people don’t want. It’s a level of responsibility that I have trouble handling myself. I’ve spent enough time depressed to know the paradoxical comfort of helplessness and hopelessness. If I can’t do anything about it, I can at least relax. Pass me another beer and hand me the remote.
My day job is dealing with dukkha. My hobby is dealing with my own.