“Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.” Kahlil Gibran
Ah, February. The month of love. Hearts, flowers and valentine cards. I’m actually not a big fan of Valentine’s Day, but I am a big fan of self-love. Before you judge me as narcissistic, remember that mindfulness is non-judgmental.
It really has nothing to do with narcissism and everything to do with much of what’s wrong in the world. Many of us do not love ourselves. Most are uncomfortable even thinking too much about it. But you cannot genuinely love another until you learn to love yourself. How can you? If you don’t love yourself, that means you’ve got lots of critical, judgmental thoughts running around in your head about you. And anything that bothers us or upsets us or that we have an issue about, relating to ourselves, we tend to project back out onto others. If we judge ourselves harshly, we tend to judge others harshly.
So how do you make the world a kinder, gentler place? By loving yourself as much as possible! Then you can spread that love outwards. But what does self-love look like?
It starts with liking yourself. What are your positive traits? Are you funny, intelligent, serene, generous, good-natured? If you were someone else, would you like hanging around with you? Do you like hanging out with you? How much time can you really spend alone before you start seeking distractions?
If you like yourself, it’s pretty easy to begin practicing self-compassion, which is the heart of loving yourself. How do you treat yourself when you mess something up? When you do or say something embarrassing? How about when you stand in front of a mirror? What thoughts and feelings arise in any of those situations?
You may be shocked when you start to realize how hard you are on yourself. It’s sad to say, but it’s not unusual by any means. Many of us pay no attention to how we treat ourselves, or we only focus on taking care of ourselves physically.
Self-love is not something you can typically accomplish overnight. And as with any change, we’re usually more successful if we start with tiny steps instead of making one or two giant leaps.
Let’s first start with a couple of exercises to identify where we are on the scale of self-love, with self-loathing being at one end of the spectrum and magnificent being at the other.
A couple of simple exercises that might elicit an emotional response if you’re not on the “magnificent” side of the scale yet include looking in the mirror and saying, “I love you.” If you can say it and feel good, your meter’s pointing more toward magnificent. If you can’t say it, or you say it but feel an emotional surge of sadness or angst, you may need to be kinder to yourself.
Another method is to say, “I am magnificent!” Say it with gusto. See if you smile or cry. Or see if you can even say it at all. Another big clue can come from saying “I deserve to feel joyful.” Any resistance to that statement? Remember, this is in no way a self-judgment, but to help you see that it’s time to show yourself some compassion, and to start changing your neural network to better support you.
There is a very real physiological response to self-criticism. Our brains interpret criticism as a threat and this triggers the brain to release hormones into our body in response, like adrenaline and cortisol. This increases our stress levels and we know that chronic negative stress causes anxiety and can lead to depression. Not to mention other unfortunate side effects, like increased belly fat from too much cortisol.
Think about that last one. If you have consistent thoughts about hating your body, saying you’re fat or disgusting, the brain is releasing cortisol each time in response to this “threat,” which in turn packs on fat to your mid-body in order to protect your vital organs. Are you thoughts making you fatter? Just something to consider…
Conversely, when we nurture ourselves, we’re turning on the parasympathetic system, which includes the mammalian care system that we naturally have to take care of our young. This causes the brain to release feel-good chemicals which are relaxing and comforting, like dopamine and oxytocin.
We know that our neural pathways can be changed through mindfulness and meditation, so we can start changing our automatic negative thinking about ourselves through meditation, and simply by self-correcting when we hear these non-nurturing thoughts pop into our heads.
Consider these non-nurturing thoughts:
No one loves me.
I will never lose weight, so why try?
I am stupid.
I’m too old.
Things always go wrong for me.
Keep in mind, these aren’t even necessarily self-hate thoughts. These are common thoughts that many of us think, without thinking about it. Add any other self-negative thoughts that you frequently hear in your mind. Just make a short list and see what comes up.
We want to replace these negative non-compassionate thoughts with nurturing thoughts:
I love myself and I am loveable.
I love and accept myself as I am right now.
I am smart and have multiple intelligences.
My experiences in life have made me wise.
My life has its ups and downs, just like everyone else.
If you came up with additional negative thoughts you have, write down some nurturing thoughts now to replace them with as they occur.
Another excellent practice for noticing and correcting a lack of self-compassion is to ask yourself if you would say what you’re thinking to a friend. If a friend called you upset because they’d made a big mistake at work and their boss was upset with them, would you say, “Well, you’re really not very good at your job. You’re just not that smart, so I’m not sure why you try to hang on to it. You’re never going to get ahead there. You should look for a simpler job. Maybe even one where it doesn’t matter how you look, now that you’ve gained so much weight.”
You would NEVER say that to a friend! But I’ll bet you’ve said something similar to yourself when you’ve made a mistake. So as you’re monitoring your thoughts, when you hear the self-criticism creep in, simply pause and ask yourself, would you speak like that to a friend or someone you cared about? That will help you rephrase your thoughts. What would you say to a friend in your situation in the moment? What words of encouragement would you share? How would you show your friend that you love and care about him or her? Do that for yourself!
If the idea alone of loving yourself doesn’t motivate you to make some changes, consider just a few of the results from studies on the health benefits of self-compassion.
Individuals who are self-compassionate tend to have greater happiness, life satisfaction and motivation, than those who are not.
They have better relationships.
The have better physical health and less anxiety and depression.
They have increased resilience needed to cope with stressful life events.
Adults over 65 who practiced self-compassion tended to be less anxious and depressed, and felt a greater sense of well-being, than those who didn’t, indicating that self-compassion can lessen the negative emotional and physical effects of aging. The sooner you start, the better off you’ll be later!
Self-compassion isn’t about trying to mask pain. It’s about understanding and accepting that we’re human beings, which means we make a lot of mistakes, we have a lot of imperfections, and we have a lot to deal with in life. We can mindfully observe our pain without exaggerating it, and with a broader perspective, such as recognizing that everyone feels like this at some point.
When you find yourself in the middle of a pity party or berating yourself for some mistake you’ve made, try pausing those thoughts and asking, “What do I need right now?” Do you need kindness or a pint of Ben and Jerry’s? Do you need understanding or a bottle of wine? By focusing on what your real needs are, you not only help rewire your brain, but you stop a lot of habitual responses that are used to mask pain, like emotional eating or drinking.
Starting today, when something goes wrong, instead of berating yourself, give yourself some love. Tell yourself that you’re so sorry this has happened and that you’re going to be okay. Tell yourself how much you appreciate you. It sounds a little crazy, but your brain is listening. Stimulate it with compassion instead of threat-inducing self-criticism.
As for Valentine’s Day, give yourself a card or gift. You deserve it and it’s a great first step toward shifting your attitude about the importance of self-love. Remember, you are MAGNIFICENT! Remind yourself as much as possible!
Be mindful and be kind to yourself,
For the podcast version of this post, listen here.