Help! low self-esteem

Question & Answer With A Buddhist Nun

Dear Ayye,

Any Buddhist way of dealing with inferiority complex / low self esteem / constant negative and pessimistic thought generation in the mind?

Thank you very much,

S. [In earlier correspondence S. also mentioned fear of failing university exams, despite her record of excelling.]

Dear S.,

You cannot easily overcome these things by working wholly on the mental level.  “Actions speak louder than words,” especially to oneself.  Take action.  Do things differently.  Act as if you matter.  Act as if you care about you.  You may want to imagine a beloved younger version of yourself, and get her to do everything you would lovingly want to see this girl do — good exercise, good sleep, dump the guy who is a user, turn down late-night parties, eat a hearty breakfast…  Make her take care of herself.  That is, adopt this 3rd-person approach to get the perspective needed to advise yourself well on what to do, then follow through on your own good advice.  You probably already know most of what to do, but there is just some obstacle inside temporarily preventing you from tapping into your own wisdom.

Also, what comforting words would you say to a beloved younger high-achieving girl who stresses out over her next exam?  Write these words down in a free-association style, and see what you come up with.  Then edit & post that message on your wall or mirror to see every day.

Buddhism is mostly about action.  The Buddha’s 8-fold path to Freedom is broken into 3 parts:

A. Panna/Wisdom:

(1) Right (or Harmonious or Skillful) Understanding –understanding suffering, its being inherent to Samsara & that it doesn’t relent so long as you keep feeding its causes (desires & grasping);
(2) Right Intention/Thinking –i.e., letting go, making peace, being kind, being gentle & compassionate.

B. Sila/Virtue:

(3) Right Speech;
(4) Right Action –being gentle to life/not killing; not grasping after other people’s things/not stealing; not harming others’ relationships with selfish sexual behavior;
(5) Right Livelihood –passing up any seriously harmful livelihood.

C. Samadhi/Stillness:

(6) Right Effort –effort to replace unwholesome mental habits with wholesome ones;
(7) Right Mindfulness;
(8) Right Stillness/Concentration.

After you’ve done most of the work in changing your lifestyle and habits (Steps 3-5) based on the insights & direction gained from the first steps (Steps 1-2), then you have cleared the path to make Step 6 a breeze.  Well, easier at least.  Here is a quote of the Buddha’s description of Right Effort:

-Effort to prevent unarisen unwholesome evil states of mind from arising by making effort, stirring up energy and exerting mind.

-Effort to abandon unwholesome evil states of mind that have already arisen by making effort, stirring up energy and exerting mind;

-Effort to develop wholesome mental states that have not yet arisen by making effort, stirring up energy and exerting mind.
-Effort to maintain & perfect wholesome mental states already arisen and not to allow them to disappear, but to bring them to growth, to maturity and to the full perfection of development by making effort, stirring up energy and exerting mind.

In other words, deliberately choose beautiful wholesome mental states, such as kindness, serenity, bliss, joy, happiness, generosity, determination, loving-kindness, energy, patience, compassion, calm, and many more, over unwholesome mental states (which include any miserable negative mental states such as anger, jealousy, anxiety, dishonesty, laziness, self-aversion, pride, cruelty).

Every waking moment, stay alert to what mental states you are cultivating right now, and seek to thwart the nasty ones in favor of the delightful ones.  Pay attention to which efforts do or do not work to pull you into the wholesome states; experiment with yourself like a scientist, taking good note of what works, and make a habit of whatever works — thereby making a habit of the resulting good pleasant mental states.

Just try to make a little progress in this every day.  “Don’t say that goodness will never come to me; Drop by drop is the water-pot filled.”

Right Mindfulness & Right Stillness (Steps 7 & 8) call for you to take time apart from the bustle of everyday life, to sit comfortably upright and let your mind settle down, become calm and clear.  You can let your attention fall to your breath, just casually flowing along with its gentle movements.  (Rein in any straying thoughts with the same kind of amused patience with which you would bring back a baby that randomly crawls off the blanket you placed for her on the floor.)

Amazing how much can change in your day, even in your overall life, simply due to ten minutes of doing nothing. Give it a try for a little while each day.

Also, I want to mention loving-kindness practice known as “metta”.  Try to fill your own mind & body with loving friendly feelings, then radiate these good feelings towards others.

If you can truly love yourself, questions of success & failure become irrelevant.  If you truly deeply love yourself, then so-called failure is not so big, in fact becomes meaningless.  I’d go so far as to say that the only real failure is the failure to be loving, particularly towards oneself.

If there are any circumstances out there in which you would choose to deny yourself a sense of well-being, a sense of comfort, a sense of being okay, a sense of being worthy of love & respect, then that is indeed scary.  If you decide to give yourself kindness and respect and so forth no matter what , then you can take each step of your life without fear.

Also, what other people think won’t matter so much.

With metta,

Ayya Sudhamma

Have a question about Buddhism, ethics or life in general? Write to DearAyye [~at~] gmail [~dot~] com. 


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