What It Really Means to Love Yourself: 3 Aspects of a Deeper Self-Care
By John Amodeo, PhD
~ 3 min read
We often hear that it’s important to love yourself. Sounds good, right? But what does it actually mean to love and care for yourself?
For some people, self-love might mean taking a warm bath or pampering themselves with a massage or manicure, which might help us. Yet, the elusive self-love that we seek requires something deeper.
Self-love means finding peace within ourselves — resting comfortably within the depths of our being. We might find temporary respite by doingsomething to nurture ourselves. But a deeper inner peace requires cultivating a certain way ofbeing with ourselves — a warm and nurturing attitude toward what we experience in life.
The suggestions that follow are derived from Focusing, developed by Dr. Eugene Gendlin. Sometimes called the Focusing Attitude, this is simply a way of being nonjudgmentally kind, present, and mindful toward whatever we happen to be experiencing.
Gendlin has stated, “The client’s attitudes and responses to the felt sense need to be those of a client-centered therapist.” In other words, we need to have empathy and unconditional positive regard for whatever we are experiencing inside.
Being Gentle with Ourselves
It’s often easier to be kind and gentle toward others than toward ourselves. Judgmental voices from the past may have left a hidden residue of toxic shame, which blocks us from honoring — or even noticing– what we’re really feeling.
Being gentle with ourselves means being kind and friendly toward the feelings that arise within us. It is very human to feel sad, hurt, and afraid sometimes. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to become mindful of these feelings and allow a friendly space for them.
When challenging feelings come up for clients, I often ask, “Is it okay to be with that feeling right now? Can you be with it in a gentle, caring way?” I might help them find some distance from painful feelings so that they are not so overwhelmed by them.
An attitude of gentleness toward feelings is one way to find some distance from them. We can “be with” our emotions rather than merge with them or be overwhelmed by them.
Psychotherapist Laury Rappaport offers some gentle inquiries into our feelings in her book, Focusing-Oriented Art Therapy:
Can you be friendly with that (felt sense)
Can you say hello to that (felt sense) inside?
Imagine sitting down next to it…Can you keep it company much the way you would keep a vulnerable child company?
This gentle way of being with ourselves is an antidote to shame. Rather than battling ourselves or trying to fix or change ourselves. we find more inner peace by simply being with our experience as it unfolds.
Allowing Our Experience to Be as it Is
When I invite clients to notice their feelings, they sometimes reply, “Why would I want to feel that?” I explain that when we push feelings away, they often come roaring back. Or they get acted out in ways that are destructive to ourselves or others, such as by drinking alcohol or through other ways of numbing out or transferring our pain to others (such as by raging or blaming).
Loving ourselves means allowing ourselves to experience our feelings just as they are. Often we push away unpleasant experiences and try to cling to pleasant ones. But as Buddhist psychology suggests, we create more suffering for ourselves when we try to cling to pleasant things and maintain an aversion toward painful feelings.
A subtle sense of fear and shame may prevent us from allowing our experience to have its life inside us. For example, if we feel (or show) sadness, hurt, or anxiety, we might think we’re weak; or perhaps we were given messages not to feel. We’re afraid that others might judge us.
Embracing the Wisdom of Not-Knowing
As we explore personal concerns, we might recognize that we’re not clear what we’re feeling. Our experience inside is often vague and fuzzy. If we can allow ourselves to pause and make room for ambiguity and patiently welcome our blurry, vague feelings, they may gradually come into clearer focus (thus the term “Focusing”).
For example, we might notice anger toward a partner, but something deeper might lurk below. We’re aware of the tip of the iceberg, but in order to see what lies beneath, we need to look more closely.
Our society values knowledge and decisiveness. But often we’re unclear about what we’re experiencing. Politicians who don’t mouth strong opinions about everything often are seen as wishy-washy. It actually takes strength and wisdom to say, “I’m not sure about that. Let me think about it.”
Human feelings are gifts to be welcomed. But we need to find a way to be with them so that they become allies, not enemies. Emotions such as grief allow us to release pain so that we might move forward in our lives. Other feelings may be more fuzzy, such as a clutching in our stomach or a tightness around our chest. As we bring an attitude of gentleness toward it, we might begin to have a sense of how it relates to something important — perhaps how we’re not honoring ourselves or have a fear of looking foolish.
Feelings may contain wise messages, if we can only decipher what they’re trying to tell us. If we can cultivate a warm and friendly attitude toward our feelings, they’re more likely to become friendly allies on our life journey. New meanings, insights, and openings arise and our lives move forward in a more fulfilling way.
Self-Compassion vs. Self-Criticism
By Odelya Gertel Kraybill, Ph.D.
~ 2 min read
Recently I wrote about the “The Stress and Trauma Loop.” I described my struggle with a stressful transition. I pointed out that stress responses feel a lot like trauma responses and that therefore, those of us with accumulated trauma in our life history can be easily tricked by stress into feeling that we are back in the days of trauma again.
Many of you asked – so what can be done in times and situations when it is difficult or impossible to do self-care on a regular basis?
Recognize and Lower the Volume of Self-Criticism
A common response when we go into distress is criticism of self: “I should have done this,” “I shouldn’t have done that,” etc. “Shoulda’, woulda’, coulda’” is an early sign of distress that often results in getting stuck in withdrawal.
Joeng & Turner (2015) found “an undeniable link between self-criticism and depression….The more people criticized themselves, the more they got depressed. Self-criticism adds an internal burden to the external challenges that are stressing us. The result is a feeling that we are squeezed from all sides, all doors to change are closed and that we are forever stuck.
Neff (2003) describes self-compassion as “an emotionally positive self attitude that [can] protect against the negative consequences of self-judgment, isolation, and rumination (such as depression)” (p. 85).
He suggests a three-fold strategy to activate self compassion:
- self-kindness—being kind toward oneself instead of self-judging, 2. focusing on common humanity—perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than as separating and isolating, and 3.mindfulness—holding painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness rather than over-identifying with them (Neff, 2003. p. 85).
My Own Self-Compassion
I learned about self-compassion as a concept in my early twenties. A nice idea, I thought. But truthfully, I wasn’t able to practice it effectively at that time.
Years later, in the safety of a good trainer – using psychodrama role-reversal, I experienced the power of self compassion. It was very different than self-pity and was the beginning of my journey to identify and work on mindful expansion.
In times of high stress, when predictability and day-to-day comforts are not accessible, self-compassion remains the one thing I keep on practicing when it is too difficult to maintain my day-to-day self care regime.
I remind myself over and over again that I do the best that I can at every given moment. Most of the time, I find, that within minutes, I feel reconnected to my inner resources and able to manage whatever I am facing, including painful thoughts and feelings.
When I introduce clients to self-compassion enhancement activities, I often use psychodrama. There are wonderful techniques to speak to different inner voices, connect to selected moments in the past, and examine self-judgment using imaginal space (surplus reality).
Usually, we try to identify where the self-judgmental internalized voices come from and then begin to explore how the client responds to messages of self-compassion.
Rephrase your inner messages
Like many other therapists, I consider an on-going self-care plan essential following trauma. A key part of this plan is examination of one’s inner messages. I work with clients to identify and rephrase the messages that seem to work best for them, using their inner sense of expansion/contraction as a guide.
Three steps to enhance your self-compassion now:
- Write down on several post-i’s: I do/did the best that I can/could at every given moment. Post them in places you will see them often.
- Write down your ‘should, could and would’ sentences and rephrase them in a self-compassionate manner.
- Use the expansion/contraction exercise to evaluate the impact of one or two above or something else you use to enhance self-compassion. Your goal: to strengthen your ability to notice what builds self-compassion and what does not.
Joeng, J. R., & Turner, S. L. (2015). Mediators Between Self-Criticism and Depression: Fear of Compassion, Self-Compassion, and Importance to Others. Journal Of Counseling Psychology, doi:10.1037/cou0000071
Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and identity, 2(2), 85-101.
I like this post by Marc Chernoff:
Truth be told, happiness is not the absence of problems, but the ability to deal with them. Imagine all the wondrous things your mind might embrace if it weren’t wrapped so tightly around your struggles. Always look at what you have, instead of what you have lost. Because it’s not what the world takes away from you that counts; it’s what you do with what you have left.
Here are a few reminders to help motivate you when you need it most.
1. Pain is part of growing.
Sometimes life closes doors because it’s time to move forward. And that’s a good thing because we often won’t move unless circumstances force us to. When times are tough, remind yourself that no pain comes without a purpose. Move on from what hurt you, but never forget what it taught you. Just because you’restruggling doesn’t mean you’re failing. Every great success requires some type of worthy struggle to get there. Good things take time. Stay patient and stay positive. Everything is going to come together; maybe not immediately, but eventually.
Remember that there are two kinds of pain: pain that hurts and pain that changes you. When you roll with life, instead of resisting it, both kinds help you grow.
2. Everything in life is temporary.
Every time it rains, it stops raining. Every time you get hurt, you heal. After darkness there is always light – you are reminded of this every morning, but still you often forget, and instead choose to believe that the night will last forever. It won’t. Nothing lasts forever.
So if things are good right now, enjoy it. It won’t last forever. If things are bad, don’t worry because it won’t last forever either. Just because life isn’t easy at the moment, doesn’t mean you can’t laugh. Just because something is bothering you, doesn’t mean you can’t smile. Every moment gives you a new beginning and a new ending. You get a second chance, every second. You just have to take it and make the best of it.
3. Worrying and complaining changes nothing.
Those who complain the most, accomplish the least. It’s always better to attempt to do something great and fail than to attempt to do nothing and succeed. It’s not over if you’ve lost; it’s over when you do nothing but complain about it. If you believe in something, keep trying. Don’t let the shadows of the past darken the doorstep of your future. Spending today complaining about yesterday won’t make tomorrow any brighter. Take action instead. Let what you’ve learned improve how you live. Make a change and never look back.
And regardless of what happens in the long run, remember that true happiness begins to arrive only when you stop complaining about your problems and you start being grateful for all the problems you don’t have.
4. Your scars are symbols of your strength.
Don’t ever be ashamed of the scars life has left you with. A scar means the hurt is over and the wound is closed. It means you conquered the pain, learned a lesson, grew stronger, and moved forward. A scar is the tattoo of a triumph to be proud of. Don’t allow your scars to hold you hostage. Don’t allow them to make you live your life in fear. You can’t make the scars in your life disappear, but you can change the way you see them. You can start seeing your scars as a sign of strength and not pain.
Rumi once said, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” Nothing could be closer to the truth. Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most powerful characters in this great world are seared with scars. See your scars as a sign of “YES! I MADE IT! I survived and I have my scars to prove it! And now I have a chance to grow even stronger.”
5. Every little struggle is a step forward.
In life, patience is not about waiting; it’s the ability to keep a good attitude while working hard on your dreams, knowing that the work is worth it. So if you’re going to try, put in the time and go all the way. Otherwise, there’s no point in starting. This could mean losing stability and comfort for a while, and maybe even your mind on occasion. It could mean not eating what, or sleeping where, you’re used to, for weeks on end. It could mean stretching your comfort zone so thin it gives you a nonstop case of the chills. It could mean sacrificing relationships and all that’s familiar. It could mean accepting ridicule from your peers. It could mean lots of time alone in solitude. Solitude, though, is the gift that makes great things possible. It gives you the space you need. Everything else is a test of your determination, of how much you really want it.
And if you want it, you’ll do it, despite failure and rejection and the odds. And every step will feel better than anything else you can imagine. You will realize that the struggle is not found on the path, it is the path. And it’s worth it. So if you’re going to try, go all the way. There’s no better feeling in the world… there’s no better feeling than knowing what it means to be ALIVE.
6. Other people’s negativity is not your problem.
Be positive when negativity surrounds you. Smile when others try to bring you down. It’s an easy way to maintain your enthusiasm and focus. When other people treat you poorly, keep being you. Don’t ever let someone else’s bitterness change the person you are. You can’t take things too personally, even if it seems personal. Rarely do people do things because of you. They do things because of them.
Above all, don’t ever change just to impress someone who says you’re not good enough. Change because it makes you a better person and leads you to a brighter future. People are going to talk regardless of what you do or how well you do it. So worry about yourself before you worry about what others think. If you believe strongly in something, don’t be afraid to fight for it. Great strength comes from overcoming what others think is impossible.
All jokes aside, your life only comes around once. This is IT. So do what makes you happy and be with whoever makes you smile, often.
7. What’s meant to be will eventually, BE.
True strength comes when you have so much to cry and complain about, but you prefer to smile and appreciate your life instead. There are blessings hidden in every struggle you face, but you have to be willing to open your heart and mind to see them. You can’t force things to happen. You can only drive yourself crazy trying. At some point you have to let go and let what’s meant to be, BE.
In the end, loving your life is about trusting your intuition, taking chances, losing and finding happiness, cherishing the memories, and learning through experience. It’s a long-term journey. You have to stop worrying, wondering, and doubting every step of the way. Laugh at the confusion, live consciously in the moment, and enjoy your life as it unfolds. You might not end up exactly where you intended to go, but you will eventually arrive precisely where you need to be.
8. The best thing you can do is to keep going.
Don’t be afraid to get back up – to try again, to love again, to live again, and to dream again. Don’t let a hard lesson harden your heart. Life’s best lessons are often learned at the worst times and from the worst mistakes. There will be times when it seems like everything that could possibly go wrong is going wrong. And you might feel like you will be stuck in this rut forever, but you won’t. When you feel like quitting, remember that sometimes things have to go very wrong before they can be right. Sometimes you have to go through the worst, to arrive at your best.
Yes, life is tough, but you are tougher. Find the strength to laugh every day. Find the courage to feel different, yet beautiful. Find it in your heart to make others smile too. Don’t stress over things you can’t change. Live simply. Love generously. Speak truthfully. Work diligently. And even if you fall short, keep going. Keep growing.
Awake every morning and do your best to follow this daily TO-DO list:
1. Think positively.
2. Eat healthy.
3. Exercise today.
4. Worry less.
5. Work hard.
6. Laugh often.
7. Sleep well.