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June 2, 2015 full moon

Lady's Slippers

Insecurity, Self-Criticism, and Impermanence

By Paul R. Fulton

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.

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A Conversation with Marie Heim

April 4, 2015
Cultivating Bodhicitta: Wisdom and Compassion in Śāntideva’s Introduction to the Awakened Life
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March 5, 2015
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February 3, 2015
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A Conversation with John Peacock

January 4, 2015
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December 6, 2014
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A presentation by Andrew Olendzki

November 6, 2014
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A conversation with Sayadaw U Jagara

October 8, 2014
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September 8, 2014
Some (mostly secular) thoughts on Emptiness
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August 10, 2014
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July 12, 2014
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June 13, 2014
Awareness of Thinking: Recollective Awareness Practice
Talking with Jason Siff

May 14, 2014
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Talking with Shaila Catherine

April 15, 2014
Natural Buddhism
By Gil Fronsdal

March 16, 2014
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By Ken McLeod

February 14, 2014
Buddhist Roots & Ethics
Talking with Lynn Monteiro & Frank Musten

January 15, 2014
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By Guo Gu

December 17, 2013
New Horizons: Talking with Andrew Olendzki

November 17, 2013
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Robert Chodo Campbell and Koshin Paley Ellison

October 18, 2013
Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening
a conversation with Joseph Goldstein

September 19, 2013
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a conversation with Rajesh Kashturirangan

August 20, 2013
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July 22, 2013
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June 23, 2013
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May 25, 2013
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By Jason Siff

April 25, 2013
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By Chris Talbott

March 27, 2013
Wheels of Fire: The Buddha’s Radical Teaching on Process
By Kate Lila Wheeler

February 25, 2013
True & False: Dharma After the Western Enlightenment
Talking with Rita Gross

January 26, 2013
Honoring a Life & Legacy in the Dhamma
Talking with Mirka Knaster about Munindra

See Archive page for some older editions.