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Millions of people in our culture have low self-esteem, and most of them are women. This is the result of systematic disempowerment that begins in infancy and childhood. Those of us who have been raised to feel like second-class citizens often feel victimized as well. What is under discussion here is a matter less of discrimination against minority groups and women and more a matter of our society's emphasis on evaluation. White middle-class males may feel it too even when they are presidents of corporations because early learning follows us into adulthood. And no matter how successful we become, if our early experience taught us that we could never measure up to the expectations of our parents, no amount of success in the outside world can mitigate that aspect of our self-image unless we engage in some deep self-examination and/or therapy to change the way we perceive ourselves.
There may even be a direct correlation between this problem and the excessive focus on consumerism and materialism in this country. But most likely it is an offshoot of patriarchy with its emphasis on judgment and hierarchy. All of these factors contribute to development of a mindset that engages in almost constant comparison of what we are and what we have with that of other people and their possessions or status. It is so engrained that we are mostly unaware of it although it pervades nearly everything we do or think on a daily basis.
"Melinda, you can't go out until you clean your room. Why can't you be neat like your sister?" "I'm sorry we don't give rewards for good grades. We expect you to make all A's." "All of our friend's children go to Ivy League schools." "Of course, you will become a doctor or lawyer." "Anyone in this country can be president." "Go tell your father it's time for supper." The latter does not mean that it is time for father to cook supper. And the direction is probably addressed to a small girl rather than a boy who would probably not be in the kitchen unless he was hungry.
This kind of conditioning begins in infancy when parents dress their girls in pink and the boys in blue, just so no one makes any mistakes about gender. There is a great deal of psychological research that shows differential treatment of boys and girls by both fathers and mothers in infancy and later on. Girls are trained to take care of men, and boys are trained to excel in whatever they attempt to achieve.
We have already seen how self-valuation begins at around age three and is marked by the appearance of adjectives in children's speech. This is very serious, my friends. For it is here that the foundations are laid down around what kind of person we are. Good girl/boy, bad girl/boy; fast runner or slow runner; winner or loser; pretty or ugly; clean or dirty; helpful or selfish; etc. etc. etc. Not only are children compared to the parents' standards of behavior but to their own siblings or to other children, fairy tale or TV characters and sometimes other adults. It would be hard to say which is the most potent offender: fairy tales or TV. Fairy tales are subtle. TV is loud and persistent. But they both teach children what kinds of behavior are expected of them and what role they must assume in the hierarchy.
The first contact with authority figures is with the parents. Children are usually forced, in one way or the other, to obey their parents; and this sets them up for unquestioning obedience to subsequent authority figures. Therefore, the first experience we have with hierarchies is in the family. This is followed closely by schools which add additional authority figures to the child's circumscribed world. All of this happens, I remind you, before a child is big enough and powerful enough to resist successfully. Nor are children mentally developed enough to understand that what is occurring is not necessary. Most of us do not gain insight into how we have been brainwashed until sometime in adolescence, by which time it is usually too late to do anything about it. In fact, by the time a child goes to school, it is already too late to quiet the voice of the inner critic because it has already been internalized. We call it the conscience or the superego, but it is far more than just an inner voice that tells us what is right and wrong - which we do need in order to get along in society. It is a personality aspect that demands perfection, both in ourselves and in others.
The second level of the power hierarchy is encountered at school. Here we meet principals, teachers, bullies, upperclassmen, initiations into peer groups, dating and popularity demands and sports that require competitiveness, comparisons, judging and evaluation. Grades become an important focus in our lives, and we must make a decision about whether to compete for those as well. Children who refuse to compete for grades or positions or various teams or popularity are judged to be mal-adapted and may find themselves in counseling or psychotherapy. There is very little acceptance of behavior that is not "motivated" toward achievement of some kind. Nowadays we even see children engaged in all sorts of formal after-school activities such as scouts, karate, ballet, little league, etc. to the point that they actually may not have any time to themselves for informal play. Are adults afraid they may become social mavericks that can think for themselves?
Every hierarchy requires evaluation and is based on evaluation. Those at the top are better at whatever the criteria are than those at the bottom. And they enjoy a greater proportion of power. We justify these positions, and the power, by saying that those in such positions worked harder to get where they are. This is probably true, but it does not negate the fact of evaluation and the corresponding fact that the multitudes of people who did not make it to the top may feel like failures because they did not. Everyone involved who feels anything about their position in the hierarchy is guilty of self-judgment or it would not matter.
Think back over your elementary and high school years and select a traumatic event you remember that centered on your performance or behavior regardless of whether it was in an academic or social setting. Allow yourself to relive this event in your imagination before you read the following questions, so they do not bias your experience.
Who was involved? What did they want from you? What were you doing? As you moved into the encounter, what did you do? Were you alone or in a group? How did the group react, if there was a group? Was there an authority figure? If so, was it an adult or a peer? What did that person(s) do or say? How did you react? What was the outcome? How did you feel? What about the incident causes you to remember it? Do you still experience the feelings you had then? Has what you learned from the event generalized to other life experiences? What impact did the event have on your self-esteem? On your self-image?
Write a short paper about this experience. Then reflect on what you may have learned about yourself from this exercise and add that to your paper. Are there any implications for the future?
We can see how this early training toward perfection carries over into every aspect of life. To get a job, we may have to present our school transcripts that evaluated our intellectual performance and social skills as well as several references that will speak to how well we get along with others and management. Once on the job, most of us compete for status, recognition and enough money to buy the possessions that are a mark of social and economic status. Social and economic status are related, of course. We run into social hierarchies when we try to join a country club, run for office or to volunteer for a local charity. Hierarchies in the corporate, medical and political worlds are notorious.
Exercise: Managing with heart
Read chapter 10 in Emotional Intelligence. Think about the connections Goleman makes between hierarchies and emotions. What is the difference between criticism and feedback? How can one give feedback without hurting the other? What is an artful critique and how does one go about giving one? How does the author recommend we deal with prejudice? What alternatives does he suggest to a hierarchial structure of power?
That the media supports these evaluations goes without saying. Nearly every ad you will see on television or in newspapers and magazines evokes either sex or power drives. These approaches would not work if everyone was satisfied with their level of power or their sexual experiences. What this means is that advertising creates a need or desire, or calls our attention to one that has already been created by our life experiences, and then exploits it to sell merchandise or services. The inner critic colludes with this maneuver because it has already helped to create and maintain a sense of unworthiness.
The techniques work precisely because they are subliminal. You are probably saying that none of this applies to you. That you have a good sense of self-esteem. You don't feel unworthy. You are successful in your life. You aren't intimidated by authority figures. Yet, I think, if you are honest with yourself as you are dropping off to sleep at night, you will have to admit that you long for something else and may feel that it is inaccessible to you. Beneath such longing is the need to be accepted for who you truly are - by someone who really knows who you are. And the person you truly are is not the persona you may present to others in the world especially to those whose evaluations of you are most important to you. It follows, then, that if someone else loves our personas, we know they do not truly love the person inside but only the mask we are showing them. Why do we hide our true selves? Because we judge ourselves to be unworthy.
Keep a notepad next to the chair you sit in to watch TV or read the newspaper or magazines. As you are exposed to advertising, make a list of all the different types of self-evaluations on which they are based. And note which type of goal they are promoting. For example, insurance ads exploit our fears around being unable to protect ourselves or our families, or our powerlessness, and the ads offer something to promote feelings of control over the environment or empowerment. Ads for makeup exploit our probably low self-evaluations of our beauty and sexual appeal and promote sexual conquest, love and fulfillment. Ads for power equipment exploit our underlying feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy and promote a sense of competency, control and power. The themes of power and sex are evident in all of these. The role of low self-esteem or unworthiness that is based on self-evaluation is not presented overtly, but it is assumed. For who would pay any attention to such advertising if all was well in those departments?
You might want to take a look into your closets, garages, basements and cabinets to see which kinds of advertising have hooked you in the past, and use what you find out as a guide to self-investigation. "Judging" by the amount of garbage we produce and the items available in flea markets, as well as America's international reputation for wastefulness, there is probably no one in our culture who is immune to self-judgment and the siren's lure of advertising that is based on it. Can't you just imagine an advertising committee sitting around a table free associating about the ways in which we judge ourselves to be inadequate? It is grist for their mills.
Mindfulness is ". . moment-to-moment non-judgmental awareness." - Jon Kabat-Zinn (Lee, 1997)
So we come to the main theme: judgment and what we do with it.
Everything we complain about is based on judgment. This is true because we must have some standard against which we are comparing what is happening in order to have a complaint. There has to be a more desirable state of affairs. This is the standard. The elevator is slow, so I complain that the management is inefficient. The standard is that the elevator should be there when I want to get on it. I complain about the noise and confusion of traffic. The standard is that very few people should be out on that road because I need to get somewhere in a hurry. I complain about my neighbor's dogs because they should be confined by a fence. The standard is a leash law plus I think they should obey it. We have a great many laws which supports our predilection to make judgments.
A key word in making judgments is "should." Whenever you use that word, you are making a judgment. "Mary should get a perm. She looks so doudy." "That guy shouldn't drive so fast. It's dangerous." Two judgments here. "Jeremy should cut his grass." "Jack should try harder for promotions." "The government should outlaw sex in the movies." "Spiritual guidance should be free to everyone." All of these judgments imply another way that is better, i.e., a comparison to a standard has occurred.
Class structures, prejudice, scapegoating, put downs, snobbery, discrimination and a host of other similar behaviors that hurt others or put them in a position below the person making the judgment are all based on evaluation. The thing we fail to see is that, in order to judge another or something that is happening, we must put ourselves in a higher ranked position above those others or the events in question. So there is a superiority issue here. Or is the so-called superiority a defense against true feelings of inferiority? Who are we to demand perfection of others?
Probably the most damaging form of judgment is that which we do to ourselves. The inner critic constantly monitors everything we do and evaluates it in terms of those standards set up so many long years ago. And the critic is either disinterested in or unable to reevaluate the situation to see if its purposes are still legitimate. It just goes on "doing its thing" in a rather automatic way that does not take into consideration any of the current factors in a given situation. Competition is not always a good thing. Comparing ourselves to a standard of perfection is an exercise in futility mainly because the inner critic raises the standard whenever it is met. Also, most people are not and do not really wish to be perfect. They want to be loved for who they are right now.
Because the internal standards are of perfection, when we judge ourselves against them, we are bound to feel unworthy, guilty, shamed, oppressed, dispirited, discouraged or powerless. This is, in part, what drives people to become workaholics, alcoholics, and addicts. We either buy into the program and struggle to meet the standards accepting the accompanying stress, or we take up addictions to help us forget our imperfections.
When we judge ourselves, we reflect how we were judged in childhood. Ask yourself the next time you are punishing yourself for not being perfect whose voice it is in your head that is demanding it? You will probably know immediately. Consider what Freud said about identifying with the aggressor. Children in a family tend to try to imitate and identify with the person who has the most power whether that is the mother or the father. In identifying with that person, one becomes more like that person and therefore risks less punishment and pain. It is a defense mechanism that ultimately becomes the critic. So if it was my father who had the power in the family, it will be his voice I hear when the critic is speaking. And make no mistake. Children know who has the power. So did you. So do you.
Criticism as Projection
Judgment results in criticism more often than not. It is possible to make a judgment, but not to act on it. However, most of the time we do probably because it makes us uncomfortable, and we want it out of our systems. Criticism is the form judgment takes when it is projected outward toward another person or situation. And there is a very interesting twist on this action. If the critic is taking the parental role of superior power that enables a judgment, then we must be projecting our child self onto the other person who is being criticized. That action makes assumptions such as that person is immature, unable to handle his/her own life, is in need of correction, that I know more than they do, etc. To the extent to which all of this is true, when we criticize someone, we are doing violence to their self-esteem and self-image - as well as to our own which is being projected onto them. So we do double damage. There is a sense in which, whenever we criticize someone, we are acting out our own childhood experiences of devaluation.
Taking this to a higher level, we also do harm to the Divine One of whom we are all a part. Criticism shows lack of respect, lack of compassion, lack of ahimsa and lack of love. No wonder it is considered to be one of the five poisons of relationship. (The others are suspicion, withdrawal, contempt and defensiveness. Incidently, these factors are reliable predictors of divorce.)
Get a small notebook you can carry around with you and a pencil or pen. Then do the following, not necessarily all at once, but in some manner that you can keep track of.
1. Make a list of television or other ads that make comparisons and judgments. 2. Watch and make note of others' criticisms and judgments. Note how you feel when those criticisms are directed at you. Observe people shopping in stores. Tally your results. 3. Watch yourself or get someone in your family or a friend to track you to see when you criticize. When you get a list from them, process it either with someone else or by yourself. 4. Attend to your inner critic. Whose voice is it? What kind of self-judgments does it make? Is there a running commentary of self-evaluation going on all the time or part of the time? If part time, what triggers it? What do you need to do about it? 5. Write a reflective paper on criticism, projection and disempowerment. How do these factors work in you? What do you do, or what did you do, with your power?
Guilt and Shame
These two feelings were not discussed in the unit on ego because they are primarily responses to the inner crititc. Guilt and shame are the two weapons used by the critic to keep us in line.
Guilt comes as the result of being punished - initially. I feel guilty about something because I have already been punished for that behavior. Or I feel guilty because I have done something the critic judges to be wrong. We have a whole bagful of behaviors that are considered to be wrong by our society and our religions. Many, if not most, of them are things that are disruptive to the social fabric and to our abilities to live peacefully together in community. Murder, for instance. However, aside from those behaviors that are universally considered wrong, are many which are peculiar to our current society. Then there is a whole class of behaviors that simply annoyed our parents or teachers or that alienated us from our peers. These were punished in one way or another, so we feel guilty if we commit them or even think of doing them. And there may be some that were not wrong, but we misunderstood the situation and assumed our pain was a punishment for what we did when it really was not. An example of this is the case where a small child feels guilty of a parent's death because s/he had misbehaved just prior to the death.
Guilt keeps us all in line, most of the time. Those who are unable to experience guilt are said to be sociopathic or psychopathic. If their pasts are examined, we usually find a lack of adequate parenting or excessive trauma. We need to discriminate legitimate guilt (from doing something wrong) from neurotic guilt which is not grounded in wrongdoing. Neurotic guilt is a defense against an excessively punishing inner critic.
Shaming is a direct attack on the person's ego and self-esteem. Someone tells us we are ugly, unwanted, unloved, bad or unwelcome because of something we did or even because just our presence annoyed some authority figure. If this happens often enough, the critic takes on that job as well when it is internalized. So we carry around a generalized sense of shame. This can make us feel like we do not deserve our space in the world or that we are unworthy of anything good in life. We may feel like no one could possibly love us or that God could not love us. We want to hide, to weep, to crawl into a hole and die.
Self-justification may be one way in which people try to cope with internalized shame. It is an attempt to convince someone else or ourselves that we are, indeed, OK. It is one of ego's defenses against devaluation.
Children are particularly vulnerable to shaming. Because their identities are so immature and fragile, they are likely to accept the valuation of others without discrimination. As adults, we no longer need to do that but can test it out for ourselves whenever we become aware of the need to do so.
Exercise: Healing Judgment
1. Read chapters 9-10 in Emergence of the Divine Child. Does the connection Phillips makes between separation and judgment work for you? If so, how? What does he say about the relationship with your Higher Self and how that relates to judgment? Make notes in your journal about the steps in the healing process offered by the Higher Self on pages 116-122.
2. Read verse 76 in Tao Te Ching. What do you see as the relationship between judging and criticism, and flexibility or inflexibility?
3. Read verse 13 in Tao Te Ching. How does Lao Tsu's admonition to accept disgrace and misfortune willingly and to surrender humbly fit with the teachings here to value oneself more highly and avoid judgmentalism? How can we have a good sense of self-esteem and still be humble? This is a very important paradox to resolve.
Both psychology and the eastern traditions offer ideas about how we can heal the ravages of the critic. Unfortunately, western religions tend to support and foster the workings of the critic which is probably why it is such a problem formost of us. People who have been raised in the Catholic or Jewish religions seem to have the most trouble dealing with punishing consciences. The concept of eternal damnation for commiting a sin has generated untold pain, guilt, shame and grief, and it propagates an image of the Divine One as a punishing, unmerciful, wrathful, jealous god, one to be feared and avoided. This is the epitomy of patriarchial seizure of the power over others.
Some of the ways out of these dilemmas are to do inner work on oneself through systematic self-examination. This can bring freedom eventually from the need for approval from other people. Self-investigation can also put us in touch with the foundations of our own inner critic and thus enable us to bring it down to size, so it does only what we need for it to do. We can do spiritual practices to help us become more self-aware. And we can learn to acknowledge our own self-worth, skills and, most of all, our intrinsic value as a human being. Each of us has a right to our space on earth and to the respect and acknowledgment of other people.
We are all cells in the body of God according to Swami Radha. This means we are part of God. The Divine One encompasses all of us and each part of Its body is equally valuable. So who are we to say, "I am not worthy." If I put myself down, I am also denigrating the Divine One. We are eternally loved, valued and cherished by Spirit who is never absent nor is It critical of us in spite of the Biblical teachings. One of the reasons A Course in Miracles (1985) was given was to correct some of the misinterpretations of God in the Bible. My Spirit guide, Michael, offered the following on judging:
We do not judge you. Judgment, fear, punishment and control are mortal issues that are projected onto the graven images you worship. It is wrong - a fault or an error - to call Us after yourselves. We are Beings of Light and Love and do not traffic in the darkness of human desire. We wish to free you from its power, not to afflict you with it. There is Joy in the Beingness We offer you, not pain. We would join with your essence, not destroy it. Peace is Our way, not punishment. There is no need to fear. Pain is not the way.
We did not believe "God is Love" as Jesus taught us because the voice that told us we were sinners was louder. The group of people who chose the books of the Bible had an agenda which was control over the population. So they chose books that focused on sin as wrongdoing and its redemption rather than on God's love. If you feel you need an antidote to this problem, you might look up The Gospel of Thomas (Iyer, 1983), The Gospel According to Jesus (Mitchell, 1991), The Nag Hammadi Library (Robinson, 1977) which is a compilation of the Gnostic Gospels or Original Blessing (Fox, 1983). The Gospel of Thomas is included in The Nag Hammadi Library.
The inner critic is not real though the voice may be loud and insistent. It is just another personality aspect that is trying to dominate the scene. To disempower it we must identify its source and confront it. The ego may be in cahoots with the critic when it suits its own agenda. For instance, we have seen the mechanism of identification with the aggressor. This is what we are doing when we identify with a patriarchial god.
Rather, think about a God of love. What would that be like? What would we be like if we identified with such a One? Why not project our abilities to love onto God if we must project? Why not own that we are loveable because God loves us. Spirit says, "Come to Me. Be My Love. Be Me." Jesus said, "God is Love," not "God is the Judge."
Think about that.
Exercise: Chanting for healing
Begin a chanting practice of Hari Om. This is a healing mantra addressed to Hari who is a form of the deity Vishnu. The audio tape or CD of Hari Om is available at Timeless Books, 800-251-9273 or email@example.com. The mantra is very beautiful. As you chant imagine that you are releasing all tendencies to self-judgment and criticism and putting yourself into the arms of the loving Spirit. Allow your emotions to emerge and become cleansed. See yourself in the Light, free to be yourself and connected to the whole universe of healing Light. Stay with the practice as long as you like. Keep in mind that the mantra has the power to change your vibrations, so, if you put the critic in the Light and vibrations of this mantra, it must surely release its damaging agendas.
__________ (1985). A course in miracles: Combined volume. Tiburon, CA: Foundation for Inner Peace.
Feng, G. and English, J. (Eds.) (1972). Tao te Ching. New York: Vintage Books.
Fox, M. (1983). Original blessing: A primer in creation spirituality presented in four paths, twenty-six themes, and two questions. Santa Fe: Bear & Co.
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam.
Iyer, R. (Ed.) (1983). The Gospel according to Thomas. New York: Concord Grove Press.
Lee, V. (1997). Moment to moment: An interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn. Common Ground, 147.
Mitchell, S. (1991). The Gospel according to Jesus: A new translation and guide to his essential teachings for believers and unbelievers. New York: HarperCollins.
Phillips, R. (1990). Emergence of the divine child: Healing the emotional body. Santa Fe: Bear and Co. Now republished as Windows to the soul.
Robinson, J. M. (Ed.) (1977). The Nag Hammadi Library. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
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