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.
I still can’t look at myself properly in a mirror. Infact I really don’t like mirrors.
I been shattered repeatedly into million bits. I been lied about with great precision by my adult child. How can your own flesh & blood cause so much pain? I have seen a councilor & was told ” she is in a dark place & until she does not reach for help you can not do anything.” People who know her have said ” she is sick or a pathological lier” No one cares for her as much as we do…. Lier or not, parents are the only one who care for you. Why do mental ill people lie about family that love them? She had lied about family & friends when she does not need them. She goes on how happy she is, has lots of confidence always reaching out for NEW friends to cheering her.
I wore my St. Therese medal all weekend because I have been having a particularly difficult time managing “me” lately and figured she could have a go at driving for a few days.
When I received this email this morning, it had everything in it that I needed to hear / remember.
I know St. Therese brought me to you 3 years ago, and I have no doubt continues to do so.
I took her name as my confirmation name as a teenager, but never knew what that would mean until now.
Thank you, very simply, for being in my world. You have saved my more times than you will ever know.
You have me in tears. Thank you. St. Therese is a powerful advocator. Hold on to that medal. It will give you peace. Thanks, Therese
I struggle with this too. One of the things that always helps, is a banner I have. It says, ” I’m OK. God doesn’t make junk.
Therese….thank you, thank you, thank you. This sure did speak to me. I am having a very difficutl time with depression…right now, and much of it is dealing with regrets, self loathing, and guilt. Your voice here helps a lot. And, I am one who depends upon God for His healing and mercy. I am glad you spoke of that.
This is interesting and quite helpful, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve come across variations of number 3 “Talk to yourself as a friend”. The idea of if I talked to a friend the way I talk to myself, the friendship would have ended years ago. Sure. But my dirty little secret is that although I don’t say outwardly to friends the things I’m thinking, I sure do think them! My only caveat is that I’m much more self-critical than I am of others!
I try not to make excuses for myself, because that’s mostly all they are, excuses. How do you judge what is a genuine need to ‘lower expectations’ and what’s just procrastination. For example me coming to this post of yours via Facebook, where I’ve been wasting time when I’ve committed to do some work?
Hello Therese, I too struggle with an unrelenting inner critic…it has been so much a part of me, and so indelibly imprinted on my heart, that I have despaired of even the Love of God to silence it. The image of your “whole” self was so similar to an image I have posted here at my desk…at the time I didn’t know who it was…it was just who I wished I could be. She is also holding a pink rose to her heart, but her apparel is white with a blue cape. One of the reasons I was drawn to the Catholic faith (among others) was the recognition that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was considered to be our Mother as well, and I deeply needed a mother different than what my harsh earthly mother had been to me.
It is so, so difficult for we who have never known “unconditional love” to grasp that God could love us like that…despite our mistakes, imperfections and brokenness. I am hoping that by some miracle I might know the love of the blessed Mother, who, I am told is the path to the heart of Jesus…and in this way reveal this Love of God that I so long to know.
Thank you for posting what has helped you “like” yourself over time. Your suggestions give me a place to begin. Perhaps I can also grow to like myself…because the idea of loving myself feels alien to me…even selfish or wrong. Thank you for helping others whose suffering you share and understand….
Thank you so much for this blog. I found it through some article where you were mentioned, and I have your book “Beyond Blue” on order. This has really helped me to read stuff on my illness that is not sugar coated, yet not doom and gloom. Thank you so much.
Therese, sos una fuente de inspiración para mí. Te admiro. Todos los días rezo por vos en la Misa!! GENIA!!! Mariano (Argentina),
Your article on 8 steps to love yourself (more) is truly inspiring. Like you I have given up my corporate job and being a part time teacher so that I could put more focus on the kids. Initially, I stressed myself off with getting more teaching jobs so that I could at least earned 50% of my corporate pay but ended up disastrous . So, the articles do give the motivation to do things at a slower pace but in return for a better satisfaction. Thanks for the article!