self-criticism and self-love: two sides of the same coin - part I - what is “the self?”

“It is only in the stillness of water that an object can see its authentic reflection.”

- Arun Sardana

What is “the self?”

Before exploring the concepts of self-criticism and self-love, you must ask the question, “What is “the self” that we criticize or we are supposed to love?” Further, what does it really mean to have an identity that you call “the self?” The answers to these questions can be found in philosophy, ancient religion, and contemporary psychology.

Philosopher’s Definition

“Know thyself” was believed to have been inscribed at the entrance of Apollo’s Temple in Delphi, Greece. Socrates used this phrase often to imply that we must all live according to our true nature. Then, and only then, can we see our authentic reflection of “the self.” Ralph Waldo Emerson invoked the same idea in his poem of the same title. Emerson believed that knowing thyself meant knowing the God that exists within each of us.

Religion’s Definition

Sufis used the phrase “be thyself” which was more about living every moment with one’s true authenticity. Spiritual gurus and teachers of mindfulness still teach this concept of “being” instead of “doing.” Even this wise teaching leads us to the same place - to truly understand who we are at our core.

In Sikhism, a predominant religion in North India, the gurus believed that one could achieve communion with God only if “the self” had been fully dissolved through humility and service to others. Their sacred scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, provides a simple recipe for meeting God - “When I am, you are nowhere. When I am not, you are everywhere” which hints at the dissolution of “the self.”

Perhaps these religious concepts arose because it was difficult and even disturbing for most to understand what Gautama Buddha preached over 2500 years ago - the philosophy of anattā or anātman, commonly known as the doctrine of “non-self.” Buddha believed that there was no permanent self or soul - that everything was impermanent and always changing. This philosophy was in stark contrast to other religions who believed in the existence of a soul which, by definition, was also “the self.”

Psychologist’s Definition

Finally, in our more contemporary times, came psychologists like Sigmund Freud who gave “the self” a new name - ego. He theorized that a human’s sense of self actually had three layers - id, ego and super-ego. Id, he argued, is that part of our brain that contains hidden memories, sexual drives and other aggressive behaviors that seek immediate satisfaction. Super-ego is our moral conscience and ego is the realistic self that modulates and balances the desires of id and the moral compass of super-ego.

The Sum Total Of It All

An attempt to understand and unify all these concepts potentially creates one result - a confused state of mind. No wonder you may find it difficult to reach a consistent state where negative self-talk can stop and durable self-love can take hold. There is no shortage of advice online on how to curtail and even completely stop self-criticism and begin the journey of self-love. Evidence-based science has provided some excellent tools to do so. However, you may still find yourself stuck in the morass of self deprecating mental dialogue that brings you down into some really dark corners where you don’t belong. This is not how life was supposed to be. You were destined for happiness. The kind of happiness that you knew in your early childhood. You were meant to be free from the suffering that engulfs you from time to time, more often than you would like. What happened along the way? Where did it all vanish?

Here’s the good news. You can get there. You can rediscover that innocent happiness that you once knew. You can achieve a more durable state of inner peace and true joy using simple yet effective tools that ancient wisdom has espoused for a millennia and evidence-based science is now beginning to understand and endorse.

We will explore some of them in part II of this blog. So, stay tuned!

Happiness lives here. Welcome home.

About the author:

Arun Sardana is the founder of karuna, a social enterprise committed to making this world a happier place by empowering women, youth and children and, in the process, breaking the vicious cycle of poverty and abuse. Learn more at