Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Watch Your Language: On Self-Scolding

Originally posted on January 24, 2011

I was talking with a friend who heard a sermon about taking God’s name in vain, and what this conversation reminded me of is that even if one doesn’t believe in the idea that the god of a hundred billion galaxies and more could have what we could ever begin to know of as a “name,” that wasn’t the point. What occurred to me is that people don’t realize the power of their own speech. “Right speech” is one of the eightfold paths of Buddhism. It has to do with appreciating that overly casual swearing and crudeness is an unconscious form of toughening up, of building a psychic skin of attitude, of not caring. It’s a defensive maneuver, a re-assertion through anger of the power to shock. It works for kids and for immature adults. I used to cuss pretty freely.  It was cool. But there’s spiritual wisdom in realizing that habits of conduct generate certain types of positive or negative energy, and that includes being overly casual or crass in speech, even when you aim it at yourself.

Take the frequent habit of cussing at yourself when you mess up. What a temptation: “Oh that was dumb of me! Idiot!” Uh-oh, negative energy. I know, most people don’t believe in psychic energy. I didn’t until recently—it seemed like superstitious magic, mere taboo. But on reflection, I’ve begun to recognize the power of self-hypnosis. One starts thinking negative things about oneself as a habit, and then it becomes automatic. We’re going far beyond oops, which I talk about in another blog.

If I can only beat myself up enough, maybe I’ll get through. There must be some way to get that careless or clumsy part of me to shape up. It’s the attitude of a mid-childhood mind in dealing with lapses to the early childhood skill level, and this pattern is understandable. I don’t blame it all on harsh parents—even kind, constructive parents will have kids experiment with this magic coping mechanism, because it’s part of a natural repertoire: un-doing (For example, in one’s mind, saying to oneself, “I never did that;” or: “If I make it better with this act, then that act didn’t count;” or compensation: “I did something good so that should offset the bad thing;” and so forth. Self-condemnation, scolding, even smacking oneself to a point of pain all serves this symbolic function, but in fact the actual lesson isn’t learned most of the time. A small percentage of the time, “I did know what I did wrong and scolding seemed to punish it and make it better.” It’s all illusion. But this occasional reinforcement is then applied—since it’s the only response in my limited childish repertoire of coping responses — so some people self-scold even though they’re not at all clear what they did wrong, if anything.

So knowing about this, notice the bad habit of scolding yourself and gradually stop it. Realize that it’s an old habit, the pursuit of an illusion. Substitute for it a kindly inquiry that seeks to find out exactly what the error was and what needs to be done to fix it. Combine this with the habit of actively forgiving yourself. In the longer run, learn to not blame—not yourself, nor anyone else. I heard that this was a deep Buddhist teaching: No Blame.

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