I work with a lot of addicts. In the 25 years since I began my own recovery process one point has become increasingly clear, albeit unpleasant: addicts have low self-esteem. We also have a tendency to flip from one extreme to another. We’re either too big for our britches or lower than toilet paper on a dirty shoe. We’re also “too smart for our own good” and “have a lot of potential.” Even with years of recovery, the shadow voice of self-loathing can still whisper not-so-sweet-somethings into our minds at crucial times – like right in the middle of a job interview or as we’re just about to connect with someone on a date. What does the voice of Self-loathing say and how can we heal from it?
If you’d like to participate in this practice, I suggest a few minutes of quiet breathing meditation first. Sit straight to put your mind straight. Bring your awareness deep into the body with each breath. Just notice. Afterward, you can speak aloud from these voices or write out your own voices. It’s always good to do work like this with a sponsor, therapist or spiritual adviser. As always if you feel uncomfortable, it may be best to take a break. Do what works for you. This is based on my own experience.
I am the voice of self-loathing.
My job is to create doubt in the self. If he starts to get too full of himself I’ll be there. I will undermine him when he least expects it. Since I know him better than he knows himself, all the weak points are on my map. I’ve remembered every nasty, cutting comment that the self’s ever heard — they’re all in my file. I can come out in a multitude of ways, from a gnawing feeling in the pit of his gut to an outright statement.
What are some things I might say when he needs to hear it least?
• Do you really think a girl like that would like you?
• Come on, success is for everyone else but you.
• Who do you think you are applying for a job like this?
• Hey, remember that time in 4th grade when you got beat up for being a wimp? You’re still one.
• You know that look your mom used to give you. Yeah, that one.
Does he listen to me? Of course. If he tries to block me out I’ll make him listen with some physical symptoms. Just about to go on stage to deliver a jazz solo? How about some diarrhea? Studying for that entrance exam? Migraine time my friend. How about some positive thinking exercises?
• He says, “I’m good enough.” I say, “Uhhuh.”
• He says, “I deserve to be happy.” I say, “Do you really think so?”
• He thinks, “I look good in this suit.” I say, “You’re a fake.”
Want more? I’ve got a million of ‘em. Thanks, I’ll be here all week.
In group we often go into depth about how long the voice of self-loathing has been present and, using a method from Genpo Roshi’s work, we examine when the decision was made for this voice to come into play. What happened around that time? How old were you? What color were the walls, what did the room smell like, what shoes were you wearing. This is powerful work. And we have to let the other shoe drop, so to speak. Otherwise the exercise might be depressing!
I am the voice of self-love.
I’ve heard everything self-loathing has to say. It’s OK. Nothing new there. My job is to support the self – no matter how he’s feeling. I’m here, and have always been here. In fact, I was Present before the seed met the egg. When his mother was stressed, didn’t want to be pregnant, smoked cigarettes and got sick, I was here. I’m the real nurturer. In me, the self can always feel safe. I live in the deepest center — right in the middle. Yes, I’m the warm, glowing feeling of teddy bears, kittens, candy apples and warm Cream of Wheat on Saturday morning. I smell like fresh, clean sheets right after a hot bubble bath. I’m the hand that’s there before he reachs out for it. I’m the one who strokes his head while he’s having a bad “fever dream.” I am strength without effort. Gentle knowing. I whisper, “It’s OK,” “You are loved,” “You’re good at that,” and after a setback, “We can come back later and try again. Let’s go get an ice cream.” Whatever the voice of self-loathing says, I say, “I know dear. We’re alright now.” What would I say to the self, if I had his ear?
• You are beauty.
• Trust the mystery.
• Be curious about what is poetic, playful, sensual, erotic, present, confident, and compassionate. It’s who you really are.
• Believe in your inherent worth.
• Honor sadness.
• Cultivate joy.
• Take your time.
• Anticipate kindness.
• Look for me, self-love, in others. When you see self-loathing, give them my love. Offer the nurturing and soothing acceptance that they need and perhaps have never had. Help them find me, self-love in themselves.
What makes Aspects of Self dialogs so powerful with recovering addicts is the unconditional, positive regard each aspect gets from the sangha and the self. As facilitator, my job is to let these aspects know that it’s OK to exist. We all have this as part of our own makeup. Everyone can identify — some stronger than others. Some of us own some aspects more or less than others own their various aspects. But they all get air time and a chance to be. We didn’t go into it in this article, but in the groups we always acknowledge the positive side of the shadow voices too. What’s Zen about it is the effect of awareness on “the problem.” What’s 12-Step about this is that we’re uncovering truths about ourselves, sometimes for the first time. We practice principles of recovery and Dharma to heal suffering for ourselves and others. May it be so.
Special thanks to the sangha and Mary S. in particular for sharing her personal work on this topic. Some of her quotes were reworded for dialog purposes. For more information please see the 12-Step Buddhist book, podcast and website. If you’re an addict interested in Dharma, please join our discussion group on Google. To book a workshop or professional training contact the author directly through http://the12stepbuddhist.com.