An anecdote often retold in meditation circles involves the Dalai Lama meeting with a group of Western Buddhist teachers. One teacher allegedly asked him how to aid students suffering from low self-esteem. Mystified by this term, the Dalai Lama consulted his translator. Finally grasping the meaning of those words and the fact that the abject lack of self-compassion, virtually unknown in his native Tibet, was common in America, the Dalai Lama wept.
Self-hatred is not unique to 21st-century America. Low self-esteem and its diametric opposite, toxic narcissism, can be traced back through history around much of the world.
But both extremes—two sides of the same affliction—flourish here and now. A constellation of conditions has made this place and time a perfect petri dish for crippling self-absorption in its love-me and despise-me versions. Thus it's unsurprising that both candidates and their fanbases in the current presidential campaign lob counterattacks based arguably less on politics than on petty personal details: looks, clothes, spouses, money, hair.
For the pilgrims and later colonists who fled Europe for American shores, this continent symbolized endless opportunity. In their minds, if not in actual truth, it was a blank slate: huge, raw, resource-rich, uncivilized, thus free. This became the core concept of American identity and early politics, again in words if not always in fact: equality, autonomy and choice as primal, incontrovertible rights.
This lovely premise led to many things, but one of them—unforeseen by the Founding Fathers—was the seething desperation that psychologists now call "choice overload."
Faced with apparently infinite options, human beings tend to panic. Which choice will make me happy, healthy and wealthy? Which will make me happier, healthier and wealthier than my neighbors? Which choice guarantees my success, which my doom? Which condemns me to mediocrity, and why?
The downside to ultimate freedom is the prison of comparison, lined with the ball-and-chains of envy and the steel bars of regret. Being promised that we can do, have and be anything we want leads us to brood about what others do, have and are—and to think, perhaps too much, about ourselves.
Not that life in choiceless societies boosts mental health. It spawns agonies all its own. But because modern American culture prioritizes personal satisfaction, when we feel dissatisfied, we seek a cause: Am I not optimally happy, healthy or wealthy because I am stupid, ugly, or lazy? Because I chose the wrong schools, friends, partners, clothes, career? If I grew up being told that I could accomplish anything, that I could be a star—the resonant pronoun was always "I"—then any status short of stardom must be all my fault.
So our freedom is booby-trapped with self-recrimination. The advertising, media, medical and entertainment industries—which in their massive power not only influence, but literally create what much of the world thinks about America—feed on, and fuel, this insecurity.
Which is to say: In yet another way, our self-hatred is neither fact-based nor our fault. We were programmed to hate ourselves through any number of catastrophes: bullying, inept parenting, prejudice, traumas of all kinds—including the soft secret constant trauma that presents itself as culture: in modern America, a culture obsessed with the self at its shallowest and most elusive extremes: the permanently happy, pretty, famous, young, materially wealthy, perfect—or perfected—self.
If we accepted ourselves as we are, if we found joy within—or through simple, sometimes intangible miracles such as music, friendship and fresh air—no one could sell us self-loathing or its alleged cures.
Born into this culture or brought to it, we find ourselves compelled to fixate on ourselves, often on the outermost layers of ourselves. Which celebrity do we most wish we resembled? What does that friend or even that random passing stranger have, or seem to have, which I desire and hate myself for lacking? What—choices, again—can I buy to make myself somewhat less deplorable? Consumerism mixed with the promise of total freedom removes the gauges and filters from desire, which rages like a flood in which we flail, desperate and helplessly propelled. Facing ever more numerous and ever more attractive products, conditioned to validate their existence by judging them, we perform the same practice on ourselves—seeing ourselves as products, judging ourselves as relentlessly and harshly as we judge shoes, cars and reality-TV stars.
But shift the lens: We are the vulnerable moving targets of voracious, would-be-omnipotent industries—which emerged and now flourish, unsurprisingly, within a culture whose hopes, dreams and values they exploit. Lumping us into demographics, they play on—and with—our sensitivities as mercilessly as those playground assholes mocked my orthopedic shoes and justified stealing my lunch by claiming that my ancestors killed Christ. Tricked calculatedly into self-hatred and chronic regret, we've been robbed of the main thing we were promised: freedom.
So let's take it back.