Notice the word “like.” I’m not going to be so bold as to introduce eight steps that will have you love yourself. Baby steps, right? For some, self-love is a no-brainer. They grew up in homes where LOVE was the predominant four-letter word. Some possess too much, and like Vanity Smurf, are most comfortable with a mirror in hand. These are the loud talkers, who think that everyone 20 feet behind and ahead of them should hear what’s on their mind. I have been working toward self-like for 25 years now and think I have about 25 more to go before I’m truly comfortable in my own skin. I have lots and lots of exercises I use to get me smiling in the mirror instead of growling, gleaned from the bookshelves of self-help books I’ve read over the years and the lessons I take away from therapy sessions. Here are a few of my favorites, some of the steps I’ve taken lately to like myself more. Maybe they will generate some amicable feelings in you, as well.
1. Lower your expectations
It’s easy to hate yourself when you keep falling short of your expectations. Last summer, when I stepped away from my corporate job, I felt as though I should still be able to make at least two-thirds of that salary as a freelance writer crafting mental-health pieces. So I signed on to an unrealistic number of contracts, giving myself approximately 2.5 hours to complete each piece. If I were able to crank out two to three articles a day, I could meet my salary expectation. Two things happened: my writing was horrible, because I didn’t have time to do any research or give much thought to the pieces, and I cried more than I wrote. A friend of mine saw the pressure I was putting on myself and begged me to quit one of my gigs (as a depression expert of all things) … to save my sanity. In the process of patching myself together again after my breakdown at that time, I realized that I needed to give myself realistic goals. I tripled my time allowance for each piece, so now if I get one done in less than 7.5 hours, I walk away with a feeling of accomplishment rather than defeat. I held on to some hourly consulting work—where I can charge a higher rate–to make the numbers work.
2. Read your self-esteem file
My self-esteem file is a manila folder holding lots of warm fuzzies from friends, readers, teachers, and an occasional family member. It was an assignment from my therapist about eight years ago. She wanted me to write a list of my key strengths. I sat down with the piece of paper, and all I could come up with was thick hair, strong fingernails, and a well-proportioned nose. So she made me ask three of my best friends to list 10 characteristics they like about me. I wept when I read their lists and I stuck them into the folder that I labeled, “Self-Esteem File.” After that, any time anyone would compliment me on anything—“You’re a nice person, but we are firing you”–I’d write it down on a post-it (“nice person”), and stick it in there. My therapist told me she would like me to graduate to a place where I don’t need a self-esteem file, but I still don’t know how to generate the warm fuzzies myself, so I’m keeping it.
3. Talk to yourself as a friend
Every once in awhile, I’ll catch myself self-bashing and pose the question, “Is that what I would say to Libby, Mike, Beatriz, or Michelle?” If I talked to them the way I talked to myself, the friendship would have ended years ago. No. I tell Mike, “Go easy on yourself. You’re doing an amazing job!” I tell Beatriz, “You’re under a ton of stress, no wonder why a few things can’t be attended to right now.” I tell Libby to listen to her feelings, and Michelle that she is heroic.
4. Picture yourself
In one outpatient program I participated in for severe depression, we were instructed to visualize ourselves all better. I pictured a very serene woman in a pink sundress holding a rose, which symbolized healing. The expression in her eyes articulated true peace, as if nothing could shake her serenity. Later, in the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) I took last month, we were asked to do the same. Once again, I pictured this woman in pink who wasn’t worried about looking bloated or if she was going to be able to sleep that night or how to deal with the negative intrusive thought of the day. It was as if she was anchored in the moment and held a secret that would make all of my obsessions seem foolish. Sometimes on my run or during my meditations, I will go back to that image, and she brings me peace.
5. Discover yourself
In Anneli Rufus’ delightful book “Unworthy,” she lists ten hidden self-esteem booby traps and how to dismantle them. One such trap, nonidentity, is fixed by figuring out who you are. “Your post-self-loathing self is not some total stranger,” she writes. “He or she is you, the true you, found again.” She then tells the story of a friend of hers who realized one day that all the clothes in her closet didn’t match her personality at all. So she donated most of her wardrobe to charity and started over. This anecdote reminded me of the afternoon my not-yet husband told me we should help each other with our wardrobes.
“You go through all my clothes, and put whatever shirts or pants you don’t like into this plastic bag,” he instructed me. “I’ll do the same with yours.”
An hour later, I had one shirt in the bag. He had nearly every article of clothing I owned inside his bag. Most of them were my mom’s. When she quit smoking, she gained 50 pounds and sent me all of her clothes. I was grateful because a) I was cheap and hated to shop, and b) I didn’t have enough self-esteem to think that I deserved my own clothes, skirts that didn’t have to be pulled in at my waist with a safety pin and made with other fabrics than polyester.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that afternoon was profound in that someone loved me enough to convince me that I was a person who was worthy of having her own style.
“We might not find our post-self-loathing selves in magazines, waving to us from fashion spreads,” writes Rufus. “But we can ‘hear’ our true ‘languages’ in books, films, pictures, nature, music, laughter: wherever real or pretend people are. Make it a game—a sacred secret game. What ‘speaks’ to you? Names? Colors? Landscapes? Lines of dialogue? Each is a starting point. Each is a tiny light.”
6. Offer yourself lovingkindness
I am referring here to the kind of lovingkindness meditation that Sharon Salzberg describes in her book, “Real Happiness”:
The practice of lovingkindness meditation is done by silently repeating certain phrases that express kind wishes for ourselves, then for a series of others. The customary phrases are usually variations on May I Be Safe (or May I Be Free From Danger), May I Be Happy, May I Be Healthy, May I Live with Ease—may daily life not be a struggle. The “May I” is not meant to be begging or beseeching but is said in the spirit of generously blessing ourselves and others: May I Be Happy. May You Be Happy.
During the MBSR course I mentioned above, we participated in several lovingkindness meditations. When offering lovingkindness to ourselves, we were instructed to put a hand over our heart if our inner critic was especially loud or if we were stuck in self-judging mode. Although I felt a tad stupid, this gesture did seem to invoke some compassion for myself.
7. Ditch regret
Sometimes our self-hatred is deeply embedded in regret. We just can’t let go of that STUPID thing we did in 2004 or last week. Regret is another of the 10 hidden self-esteem booby traps Rufus lists in “Unworthy.”She asks an important question: “What would it take to not look back?” Then she tells the story of the musician Orpheus, in Greek mythology, who is destroyed by the death of his bride Eurydice. Hades and Persephone, rulers of the Underworld, tell Orpheus that he is allowed to bring Eurydice back to the world of the living if he meets one condition: throughout the whole journey, Orpheus must walk in front of Eurydice and never look back. Even one look will thrust Eurydice back to Hades forever. Rufus writes:
Resist looking back in regret as if your current and future life and the current and future lives of your dearest ones depended on it. Because it does. They do. Like all bad habits, this one can be broken. It might take prayer. It might take conditioning techniques. (As soon as you catch yourself regretting, firmly turn your attention to something else, something positive: a song, pictures of your “happy place,” whatever you would like to learn, real or imaginary tennis games.) … Today. Is the first day. Right here and right now, we must simply say okay. Face forward and walk on. This is the bravest act.
8. Be Held in Prayer
In her book, “Radical Acceptance,” meditation teacher and psychotherapist Tara Brach tells the story of one of her clients, Marian, whose second husband used to lock Marian’s daughters inside their bedroom and demand oral sex. When Marian learned of this, she was crushed with guilt. Afraid she might harm herself, she sought counsel from an elderly Jesuit priest who had been one of her teachers in college. Brach explains:
When she calmed down, he gently took one of her hands and began drawing a circle in the center of her palm. “This,” he said, “is where you are living. It is painful—a place of kicking and screaming and deep, deep hurt. This place cannot be avoided, let it be.”
Then he covered her whole hand with his. “But if you can,” he went on, “try also to remember this. There is a greatness, a wholeness that is the kingdom of God, and in THIS merciful space, your immediate life can unfold. This pain,” and he again touched the center of her palm, “is held always in God’s love. As you know both the pain and the love, your wounds will head.”
I was moved by that story because in those moments in which I’ve hated myself the most—on the brink of taking my own life–I have felt the loving presence of God holding me together. Like Marian, I was able to find the way back to my heart by being held in the infinite compassion of God. If you are uncomfortable with the concept of God, you can reach out to the universe or some other being to hold you in compassion.
Artwork by the talented Anya Getter.
Originally published on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.