How to Combat Self-Hatred and Flagellate your Inner Cosmic Archer
Deep Fix №20
Deep Fix is a newsletter by Alex Olshonsky exploring mental and spiritual health, addiction, work, and philosophy. Thanks for being here. If you were forwarded this email, get your own:
On an early morning in the spring of 2019, back when this nascent writing project was known as “Fridays on the oLo,” I nearly pulled my hair out after sending my seventh newsletter.
My perfectionism was far worse then. That morning, I read through the essay at least ten times, scanning for grammatical mistakes and typos. Convinced the piece was passable, I clicked “publish,” giddy like a schoolboy. A few seconds later, it arrived in my inbox.
Typically, the first thing I do after receiving my own newsie—in a haunting act of masochism—is read through it, yet again, searching for blunders now out in the wild.
But on this Friday, I didn’t even need to open the email to start hating myself. My ineptitude, imbecility, and imposter-ness were glaringly evident in the subject line: it read “Draft – Fridays on the oLo #7.” Fuck me.
Around that time, my newsletter subscribers were only close friends, colleagues, family, and a couple former lovers (bless their support). I was still learning how to do the weekly email interloper thing, and I was, by all accounts, a noob.
Despite this knowledge, I still didn’t cut myself any slack. Instead, I pulled my (thinning...) hair in frustration. Then, I beat my desk and cussed as if someone had just defiled me in the most inhumane way possible. Like a hippie with dreadlocks and a psychedelic tank top just swiped a burrito from my hands and spat in my face.
Next, I imagined a very specific newsletter subscriber. A former Twitter colleague, someone I was not close with, but whose wit I respected. I visualized him receiving my email and thinking Ha! What a fucking fledgling this Olo is. He can’t even send a newsletter. I always knew he was a pot-smoking loser.
There’s a famous teaching from the Buddha applicable to this self-directed ridiculousness—the Sullatha Sutta, also known as “The Arrow.” The Buddha says that any time we suffer misfortune, two arrows fly our way.
The first arrow that strikes us is the actual incident, what happens to the human animal. We cannot control it, and it is painful. The second arrow is the one we shoot at ourselves. We can control it, which makes it far more painful than the first. The second arrow is self-directed hate, rage, and sorrow. And it’s the self-blame and self-aversion we harbor towards the first arrow, wondering what we did wrong to allow it to happen in the first place.
I don’t know about you, but I typically don’t stop at the second arrow. Those fist bangs and delusions of my former colleague mocking me were more like the third, fourth, and maybe fifth. Even if, rationally, I understand that shooting arrows at myself is optional and represents a less than optimal way of handling existence—I still let ‘em fly, nonetheless.
That brings me to another well-known Buddhist teaching, one involving His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In 1990, meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg was at a small conference in India when she asked him:
Your holiness, what do you think about self-hatred?
His brow furrowed and he looked at his translators, confused.
What’s that? he asked.
Salzberg then explained feelings of self-judgment, guilt, inadequacy, and harmful thought patterns. How she, like many Americans, experiences them daily.
Oh no! This is a mistake! the Lama said.
The Dalai Lama was bewildered to learn of the pervasiveness of self-hatred in the West. It turns out, Tibetans don’t quite have language that captures self-hatred into a condensed pocket of energy, as we do.
This story has always perplexed me. Surely His Holiness is familiar with The Arrow parable, right? How can this man, the 74th reincarnation of a lineage that can be traced back to a Brahmin boy who lived with the Buddha himself, not understand self-hatred, and simply declare it a mistake? WTF?
My suspicion is that the preponderance of self-hatred in the West is directly correlated to our obsession with work, which also includes our mania with individualism, self-actualization, wealth generation, status, you get the picture. In my case, the most biting arrows always come from my work “failures.” I’ve noticed this in others as well, from my clients to my partner, Grace.
Grace is one of the most effortless, engaging public speakers I’ve witnessed. She has no interest in giving Ted Talks or posting YouTube videos (thank god, one person playing the Online Game per relationship is enough…). But still, I’m always awed by the organicity of her speaking skills. The other week, she gave a big presentation to her therapy cohort, and despite getting affirming feedback, couldn’t help but feel like she botched it. Over the next several days, she disregarded her colleagues’ positive reactions and instead, carried with her self-inflicted arrow wounds.
The second arrow is almost always divorced from reality in this type of way.
I have no idea what my Twitter colleague thought of my email, or whether he even saw it in his inbox. The newsletter then was not my job. But it was “work” far more meaningful to me than my tech occupation. For that seventh newsletter, I had read Carl Jung’s Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle—along with online summaries to bolster my understanding of the material I was attempting to write about. I fucking cared. So much so, that I was unwilling to sit with the pain and mild embarrassment of making an honest beginner’s mistake, and instead created an entire narrative about how I was an imposter-driven failure.
Of course, the second arrow can also apply to non-work things we care about. Anyone who has ever courted a new love can relate. Particularly when it comes to the whole text messaging dance: I knew I shouldn’t have sent the Squinting Face with Tongue emoji. I’m statistically certain it’s why she hasn’t responded!
But work is the cornerstone of Western life, the religion that sits atop the Iron Throne of our values. Personally, I find I’m able to forgive myself for relational woes more quickly, maybe only shooting three arrows back at myself.
Enter work and—fuck, my friend, I’m like a Legolas slanging fire-tipped darts. Since work serves as the singular Source of Meaning for Westerners, it’s the hardest to release. These arrows of self-hatred are almost always related to approval. A deep-seated concern for what other people—colleagues, bosses, newsletter readers, LinkedIn trolls—think of us.
Moreover, I believe The Arrow parable is particularly salient because we are living through global upheaval. Covid, floods, fires, Afghan women, abortion bans, oppressed Uyghurs—pick your existential disaster. When our media streams update us on the day’s latest tragedy, the tender part of our hearts is struck by the first arrow. Then, empathetic (and misguided...) people shoot a second arrow at themselves: Well, hell, I should be doing something about all this! Feelings of guilt and shame ensue, rinse, and repeat.
Guilt is a relatively useless, narcissistic emotion. Unless, of course, you do something about it.
The second arrow can serve a purpose. Namely, if we receive it with a namaste bow of acceptance, learn from it, and move on without calling in the artillery.
For me, that means double-checking my email subject lines before invading a small legion of inboxes around the world. It’s working on an existential problem that I’m personally equipped to solve—addiction and soul-malaise—and not blasting myself for feeling sidelined on the many other causes I cannot impact with the same efficacy.
And I’ll end with this: when I make mistakes, which is often, I do my best to correct them, and then cock-block the flagellating cosmic archer in my mind.
🌇 NYC MEETUP! I’m going to be in NYC for two weeks starting next Wednesday. One of our community members already organized a lunch for those who attend our dialogues while I’m in town. I’m thinking of doing a reader meet-up afterward on Saturday the 25th in Central Park.
This would be for anyone who wants, even if you feel awkward about it, or even if you’re not a typical “Deep Fix” reader. Let me know if you’d like to join, and if there’s enough interest, we’ll make it happen! Reply to this email.
🌎 Dialogue. We meet in two weeks to discuss INTIMACY: What does intimacy mean to you? How can we foster more intimacy between our relationships, communities, and ourselves? Click here to register.
🫀 Discord. Consider joining our little Discord server if you’d like to connect with writers, entrepreneurs, recovering addicts of all varieties, and psychonauts. I’ve been blown away by the quality and honesty of the new arrivals, from around the world. If you’d like to introduce yourself, click here.
💒 Accidental Churches. My mentor from Substack Bridge and fearless writing compadre, JP Brammer, introduces his first essay in what will be a series describing “places where unexpected religiosity seizes me, places where the emptiness is briefly filled, places where my wayward sentiments are arranged into a recognizable shape.” And damn, it’s a good one.
🔱 Recovery meets the Psychedelics Renaissance. I’ve shared Jessica Cadoch before, who is working to bridge the gap between addiction recovery and psychedelic communities, but this conversation between her and my friend Ben Goresky is exceptional.
Thanks for reading Deep Fix.
Until next time …
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