(This article appears in Elephant Journal)
“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” —Buddha.
I have a confession to make: I am not very kind to myself. In fact, I am downright cruel to myself.
Yes, you read that correctly. I have dedicated my whole life to empowering and teaching others how to love themselves, how to heal their wounds, and how to be comfortable in their own skin, but I struggle with the very concept of self-love and self-compassion. In fact, I would be appalled if I saw someone treating someone else the way that I treat myself.
Ever since I was a child, I have been a perfectionist. If I colored outside of the lines in my coloring book, I wouldn’t even bother finishing that same page and would start over on the next page. I had more unfinished coloring book pages than I had finished ones.
I remember the day I started becoming a perfectionist about my appearance like it was just yesterday. I was in 8th grade and I remember my group of friends at the time teasing me for having thicker eyebrows than everyone else, for not waxing my upper lip, and for not shaving my armpits or legs. As someone who was barely a teenager, grew up a tomboy, and not particularly feminine, I didn’t realize that having hair on your body aside from the top of your head was a no-go for girls at the time. I remember going home upset and crying, telling my mom that I need to buy a razor so that I could start shaving all my non-head hair off. I didn’t know it at the time, but that day was a part of the beginning of the long struggle with insecurity and body shame I would experience, and still do to this very day. (I don’t harbor resentment against these other girls because I don’t know what internal battle(s) they were also facing at the time).
The need to have this “perfect” external appearance only grew as a teenager, among other little things that needed to perfect. I found that my grades had to be perfect, the clothes I wore to school had to be perfectly cool no matter how stupidly expensive they were (adding unnecessary financial stress), and I had to be this “perfect” and flawless human being to everyone else in every way, especially to guys. I defined myself by what others thought of me. If any friend was mad or being standoffish at me for any reason, whether it was justified or not, I would see that as a personal failure and think of myself as a bad person. If I didn’t get a perfect GPA and go to my dream college, I was a failure in achieving any real success.
In college and grad school, the relationship I had with myself was growing to unhealthy levels, and my sense of self-worth and self-esteem were dropping over the years. I started to subconsciously seek out romantic relationships that validated the view I had of myself that I wasn’t deserving and worthy of love and respect. I started to subconsciously practice the art of being a chameleon, of being able to blend in with your environment in order to feel like you’re part of the crowd. While there is nothing wrong with being able to adapt to your environment, it starts becoming unhealthy when you lose aspects of yourself in the process, which I was. I started hiding who I truly was and only let people see what I wanted them to see, and I made sure it was what they would approve of. At the same time, I fell into the all-too-easy-to-fall-into comparison trap, where we constantly look to compare ourselves to others and use these comparisons to set expectations for how we should look and/or be living our life. My self-worth was completely placed in the external world around me, and I didn’t have a stable core of self-love that I could hold on to through the inevitable changes in life that would occur.
It’s really easy for us to start comparing ourselves to supermodels, celebrities, and to the glamorous lifestyle of people we see in social media, reality shows, or movies. We can tell ourselves that if we don’t look the way these people look, then we are less than we should or could be. We start questioning the comfort of our own skin and start wanting to be in the skin of someone else. We start forgetting about what and who we do have in life, and instead we start striving for more and for better than we currently have. We place a lot of self-worth in the external attributes of our life: our career, our relationships, our financial status, our appearance, and it’s a very human thing for us to do. Placing our self-worth in external attributes can come with a price though: these external attributes are always changing. Our appearance inevitably changes, our career and status will change over time, the people who come into our lives may change/come and go, and our financial status could change overnight. Change is the only constant we are guaranteed in life. What’s never going to change is that internal core of who we truly are, and what we deserve in life: love, respect, and kindness from not only others, but from ourselves. We all deserve to be treated with the same respect that we put out into the world. We all deserve to feel that sense of belonging, love, and connection to each other and to the greater world around us. The more we cling to unstable attributes outside of us to define us, the more our identity and self-worth risk never staying stable through the inevitable changes we will have to move through and experience in life.
To this day, I still struggle with body shame and have deep insecurities emotionally, physically, and mentally. I struggle with being vulnerable and showing people who I truly am. I still subconsciously find myself being a chameleon in some social settings. I struggle with forming deep connections with others for the fear of them finding out about my weaknesses, flaws, and less-than-stellar aspects of my personality. I still struggle with having people see me without makeup on, dressed up, or my natural hair texture. I can’t look into a mirror or step on a scale without nitpicking all the things that are wrong with my appearance or weight, and I can’t make any mistakes without finding some way to punish myself for making them in the first place. I outwardly say I don’t place self-worth in external attributes around me, but I do just like every other human being out there.
Why am I telling you all of this? It isn’t to get your pity or sympathy, and it’s not because I want validation from others that I am not what I am saying I am.
It’s because I know that this tendency for us to be hard on ourselves is something every human being experiences, whether or not they are aware of it or choose to acknowledge it. I am telling you all of this because I want you to know that you are not alone in this struggle of learning how to love and be kind to yourself. We are all doing the best we can, and sometimes we get into periods of life when we get into a habit of treating ourselves unkindly. We are all learning to be comfortable in our own skin, and sometimes we forget to be grateful for the body that we are blessed to be in, and for all the amazing things it is capable of doing for us. Sometimes we forget about all of the challenges we have overcome and how strong we truly are, and we instead just focus on the qualities and characteristics that we lack.
So in these moments of self-cruelty, why do we treat ourselves so poorly? There are many reasons why we developed an unhealthy relationship with ourselves: it could be because of how success and self-esteem was defined to us as a young child, or having former experiences of being teased/bullied by our peers in school. It could be the judgment we received from previous and/or current relationships (both romantic and platonic), or our lack of awareness of the subconscious negative mental conversations we constantly have with ourselves. It could be because of trauma we experienced that challenged our view on self-worth. It could be because we may unknowingly place a lot of self-worth in the external around us versus our internal qualities and see ourselves as failures if we don’t measure up to our own expectations, or to those that others place on us. It could be because we define ourselves based on our mistakes and/or what others think of us instead of loving ourselves for who we truly are, flaws and all.
The good news? We can always start a journey of self-love and self-compassion. It’s never too late and we are never too old to decide to start loving all the different versions of ourselves: who we were, who we are, and who we will become. We don’t have to continue having constant negative self-talk and we can learn to treat ourselves with as much kindness as we treat others.
While there is no quick overnight fix to undo all of the learned behaviors, trauma, and beliefs that led to us being critical to ourselves in the first place, there are baby steps we can commit to taking that can help set a strong foundation for creating a loving and lasting relationship with ourselves.
1. Treat yourself, mind and body, the way you would treat a friend.
If a friend called you and was upset about a small mistake they made at work, would you start being cruel to them? No. You would console them and tell them it’s all going to be okay, and that they can learn and grow from their mistakes. You wouldn’t let them define themselves from this situation, but you would treat them with kindness and compassion and remind them that they’re only human and that we all make mistakes.
On another note, what if this same friend called you crying about their insecurity of how they look before going on a first date? Would you start body shaming them, or would you help them cultivate self-love and help them shift their perspective from self-criticism to self-acceptance of the beautiful body they are in?
We have to start treating both our mind and body as if they were our friends. Our mind allows for us to feel, to think, to make decisions, and to process the world around us. It is the part of us that creates perspective from our life experiences, shapes the world around us, and facilitates the conversations we have with ourselves. We need to be kind to our mind and notice when we are talking to ourselves in an unkind way. We can choose to compassionately tell our mind when negative thoughts enter that we choose to not be defined by these thoughts and/or judgments. If we are ruminating over a mistake we made, we can compassionately acknowledge the mistake and see how we can grow from it, instead of letting it define us and choosing to beat ourselves up for being imperfect. Learning from the inevitable mistakes we will make will only help us grow, and they are what make us human.
Along with our mind, our body is our friend and allows for us to do amazing physical things: to breathe, to heal from illness and injury, and to experience many kinds of joys in life. Why should we treat it with disrespect and/or feed it with poison? We should nourish our bodies with food and activities that help it feel loved and healthy. Our body is a sacred temple that is made up of organs that contain multitudes of cells that are working very hard to help us live and be able to enjoy all the moments in life we experience, so let’s make the extra effort to be kind to our body and to be in tune with what it needs to stay healthy.
2. Write a letter to your younger self in an early situation of when your relationship with yourself started becoming unhealthy.
What would you say? Would you comfort your younger self and give him or her a hug, telling them that these negative things they’re saying about themselves are not true? If you have kids, what did you tell them when they were younger (or if they are currently young, what would you tell them) when/if they came to you upset about something? I would give my younger self a big bear hug and would tell her that she is strong, she is beautiful inside and out, and that she is 100% worthy and deserving of all the love, respect, and care in the world. I would tell her that it’s okay to not be perfect, and that she will be loved for who she is no matter what. I would tell her that she is not defined by her mistakes and that she has amazing days ahead of her, and to never give up on herself nor her dreams.
3. Write down a list of all the internal qualities you like about yourself.
It may be a difficult list to start if you’ve been dealing with constant negative self-talk, but you’ll find that as soon as you start writing down one positive quality, another positive quality will come to mind. You’ll have a snowball effect of remembering all the positive qualities you have, and you’ll be reminded about all the reasons why you should love yourself and why others love you for who you are as well. Keep this list with you so that whenever you have moments of insecurities, you can be reminded of the wonderful parts that make up who you are.
4. Start a gratitude journal and write down 3 things you’re grateful for every day.
We sometimes forget about all that’s going right in our lives and focus on what’s going wrong. If we start a gratitude journal and keep this up practice every night, our mind will automatically start focusing more on what we have versus what we don’t. We’ll start noticing how little we truly need in order to be happy, and we’ll start valuing the people we have in life that support and treat us with love, respect, and kindness.
5. Practice repeating positive self-love affirmations to yourself in the mirror every day.
It can be hard or uncomfortable to look at ourselves in the mirror, especially if we are dealing with insecurities and body shame, but this practice of repeating self-love affirmations can help rewire our subconscious negative beliefs that we hold about ourselves. Examples of self-love affirmations include:
· I love and accept myself for all that I am
· I am worthy of love and joy
· I love my body and am grateful for all that it does for me
· I am beautiful inside and out
· I am strong, courageous, and resilient
Slowly start practicing this in the morning before you head out to work, or perhaps at night before you wind down for bed. You may find that your mind will start manifesting these affirmations into reality, and you’ll slowly be shifting your negative self-talk into positive and encouraging self-talk. You may even start finding that instead of cringing at looking at yourself in the mirror, you’ll look into the mirror with as much love as you have when you look at someone you care deeply about.
6. Start a daily meditation practice.
I know, as much as anyone else, how hard it can be to sit still with your own thoughts. I find myself always making excuses instead of meditating because I don’t want to face any negative thoughts that may come up, but I can tell you that when I do meditate, it is one of the most healing practices I could ever experience. I will save an in-depth discussion about this topic for another blog post, but there are many scientifically-backed studies out there that explain the numerous benefits that meditation has, which includes: decreasing our negative self-talk, increasing our self-awareness, self-compassion, and self-love, and decreasing our stress and anxiety. There are so many more benefits from meditating beyond just these, but I found that through meditation and mindfulness, we learn to become friends with our mind instead of treating it like an enemy.
You can just start out by meditating for 5 minutes a day, and then you can work your way up in duration over time whenever you feel comfortable. Meditation can be incredibly uncomfortable since we all lead busy, and often noisy, lives, but taking small steps to incorporate even just a few minutes of meditation a day can go a long way. If being in silence is more stressful for you than not, you can always download meditation apps on your phone that can help guide your meditation practice.
7. Share your story with others and allow them to help you in your journey of cultivating self-love.
For the longest time, I didn’t want to admit to others that I struggled with deep insecurities, anxiety, and body shame. I wanted to project this image out to the world that I didn’t ever need any help, and I would place myself in the position of constantly being the one that others would go to for support, but I would not let myself seek out the same support from others. It was when I recently told the love of my life and trusted friends about the fears, shame, and self-judgment I struggle with constantly that I learned how healing it was to have a supportive and loving community surrounding me. Being vulnerable and sharing our struggles helps us all not feel alone and helps us to collectively find strength to heal our wounds together. We may sometimes fall into the mindset of thinking that vulnerability makes us weak, but the love and support I’ve received from those in my life have made me realize that being vulnerable is what makes us strong.
It is easy for us to make assumptions about other people based on what we see on the outside. We make judgments and assumptions based on what they look like, what they post on social media, or what we assume their day-to-day life is like, but we don’t really know what internal battles they are fighting. We don’t know that by sharing our story with others, we are giving them the love, support, and connection they need to start their own healing journey, and likely for the very same issues we are struggling with.
We are all human, we are all doing our best to enjoy the life we have, and we are all in this journey of life together. Let’s work to build each other up and remind each other of the love that we are absolutely worthy of and deserve to have, especially the kind of love that starts from within.