How to Break Through Our Neoliberal Selves

[free version] A Buddhist therapist on how capitalism fractures our psyches, and how we can repair them

Consider this idea for a moment: you are not your thoughts and feelings. This seems false on its surface. Most of us base our identity on what we think and feel, and if we aren’t them, then who are we? One perspective from social psychology is that we are learned, social beings, and the society around us introjects its values and language into our psyches. Our thoughts and feelings and even the very words we use are learned cultural modes of expression. This learned self begins the second we are born. Something as simple as gender expression, and the color pink for girls is not objective in any way but assimilated and absorbed without choice. We are all products of the world around us, and no one is immune to its influence.  

The modern capitalist world has injected its own learned, social self onto us, one with its own set of values, the neoliberal self. The neoliberal self takes its values from free-market capitalism. It sees growth, competition, and consumption as its raison d’etre. Everyone and everything is turned into a commodity. And so our modern selves have become external, marketable selves. More and more we treat our identities as brands. This branding and how much we accumulate and what we consume, become the way we see ourselves, the way we measure our self-worth. 

The consequences of the neoliberal self are difficult to see because they infect every aspect of our lives—the way we choose a house, a career, a partner, or how we view mental health. 

As a practicing psychotherapist and Buddhist, I have become intimately aware of how neoliberalism has done unceasing harm to my patients’ self-worth. My own mental health battles began with my struggles with my neoliberal self.  I grew up in a mixed religious household, my father a Buddhist from Tibet, my mother a Hindu from Nepal. Paintings of Tibetan Thangkas, featuring Buddhist deities, and photographs of the Dalai Lama filled my childhood home. However, It wasn’t until my 20s when my own depression and anxiety became increasingly worse that I turned to Buddhism as a healing path. It has helped me immensely. Because of how helpful Buddhism and therapy were in my own life, I became a therapist as a way to use what I’ve learned to help heal others. In my work, I use traditional Western psychotherapy modalities along with Buddhism and mindfulness practices to help people understand how neoliberalism infects their thoughts and feelings. 

In my sessions, my millennial patients are often very anxious but have no idea why. Most think they are anxious because they are imposters, behind their peers in accomplishments, and fear being left behind in the meritocracy. 

Most don’t realize how they view themselves, how comparisons and social hierarchies are implicit in how they talk about their anxiety, how they’ve internalized neoliberal selfhood. Social media in particular breeds this trap. For most of human existence, all we had to compare ourselves against was our neighbors, friends, and family. Now we measure ourselves against everyone, comparing ourselves to fictionalized, digital projects of beautiful, successful people. And as a result, we feel overwhelmingly anxious that we aren’t living up to our potential. The term “imposter syndrome” is thrown around a lot in my sessions even from very successful people. No matter how much one accomplishes, it seems, our neoliberal self is always aware that there is someone doing better, and that we fail in comparison, that we have to keep working, keep competing with the promise that one day we will feel whole.

The neoliberal self is always about more, more money, more possessions, more experiences, more fame. It only knows itself in comparison to others. This might work for you if you’re “winning” the meritocracy. But for the rest of us, especially people of color and all marginalized communities, the constant competition, the constant comparisons, the constant feeling of helplessness in the face of our increasingly disconnected government, the constant feeling that we are not enough despite doing the best we can, is fucking exhausting. 

There are alternatives, however, from this neoliberal conception of self.

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