In Part 1 of this series, we talked about putting your own needs first in a relationship as well as the need for self-compassion. This post aims to explore exactly how we can begin to love and honor ourselves, with all of our imperfections.
Mother Teresa will be canonized as a saint in 2016. What makes her worthy of this title? It's her profound unconditional love to children and others in need, thought to be miraculous.
Here is a theme I noticed with many of my single clients. They pick one situation, or one self-perceived flaw, zero in on it, and ask themselves, “who is going to want to be with me when”:
- I am a single parent”
- I am a caregiver for a sick parent”
- “I am 10 pounds overweight”
- “I only make X amount of money”.
I have also had clients who cannot attribute their feeling on diminished self-value to any one personal flaw other than the feeling of feeling unloved deep down in their core. When the feeling of being unloved is combined with the impression that they are somehow deeply flawed, it can be a lethal cocktail for one's concept of self.
Recognizing these negative core beliefs can be important in getting to the recovery stage. If you are seeking love outside of yourself, don’t be discouraged by the common adage “you have to love yourself first before you can truly love others.” It’s just plain wrong. You can build up your inner strengths and feelings of worth and at the same time, actively date and pursue love in a partner and yourself.
Learning to love yourself can take many years of intentional effort, therapy, and practiced mindfulness. But it also might occur when you find the person who, when you look into their eyes, you see back a reflection of love.
I am unlovable
“I am unlovable” is an example of a core belief, meaning you developed this idea of yourself in early childhood through messages you heard and accepted as true. Our parents and caregivers have the most influential role to play in shaping the thoughts we develop about ourselves. Other important people in our lives, such as teachers, siblings and coaches, also play a role in shaping our beliefs of ourselves and the world around us.
These core beliefs are not something we are typically aware of. They manifest themselves every day in your choices and behaviors, and also through an inner dialogue we replay in our minds. It is apparent in thoughts like, “why bother, she’s never going to go for someone like me” or “there’s a reason why I’m 45 and still single, I may as well just give up”.
I am unworthy
Some people’s inner critics work overtime, constantly reinforcing the core belief that “I am unworthy”. People with perfectionist tendencies tend to fall victim to this trap, because they hold themselves up to impossible and unrealistic standards in all areas of their lives. People with core beliefs of unworthiness, often strive to achieve, driven by a belief that their value lies with their accomplishments, appearance, status, and the objects they surround themselves with, the Rolex on the wrist and the BMW 7 Series in the garage. These are all artifices that do not reflect the core of who we are. This cycle of acquisition and striving to achieve unreachable goals heighten their feelings of unworthiness.
If you grew up in a household where there was abuse or neglect, or love was withheld, then knowing how to love yourself at your core will require intentional focus and work.
There is no magic formula to but there are a few questions you should ask yourself about your early childhood:
- When you think back to your childhood, do you recall feelings of being nurtured, valued, and loved?
- Do you recall what you believed about yourself and the world?
If these questions resonate with you, you should understand that blame and resentment towards parents, exes, and others often interferes with healing and growth. It’s important not to blame your family or others for everything that might be wrong in our lives, but rather to examine these relationships. Why do they make us feel this way? How does their attitude and behavior reflect on who I am as a person?
When we are dating, which is often a time of uncertainty and vulnerability, we internalize the messages we receive. Usually we remember the most negative ones, and completely disregard the positive. If you have core beliefs of unworthiness, then you are more likely to file these away as accepted truths, rather than see it as that person’s projection, often stemming from their own self-esteem issues. People who degrade and abuse others are likely struggling with these same beliefs of that they aren’t worthy of love. They bring others down to feel better about themselves, through behaviors that are destructive to themselves and everyone that surrounds them.
When you can see this clearly and understand the impact negative messages have had on your life, you can distance yourself from the harmful behaviors and destructive habits they evoke. With clarity around the contributing factors that evoke feelings of low self-worth, we can proactively work towards positive change.
How do I learn to love myself?
You absolutely can challenge your inner critic. You know, the one that recycles and reinforces all the negative messages you internalized about yourself over the years. We can strive to develop unconditional love in ourselves, the kind that doesn’t waver after a bad day or a big disappointment. Here are some methods I love using with clients to help them feel this love:
Ask yourself, how can I develop self-compassion? The idea of self-compassion is about objectively viewing yourself through the lens of your positive qualities as well as your shortcomings. It is an awareness that we are part of a shared human experience, with all its strengths and flaws, and that we are all connected. When we take a minute to feel our pain, it is helpful to also recognize other’s pain, because we all have it. This can also help encourage and reinforce our own feelings of self-worth. We can build our self-compassion by understanding our place in the universe when we feel pain and suffering.
The practice of compassion is as simple as complimenting a friend on an accomplishment, saying you’re sorry when you bump into someone, smiling at a stranger, or looking a homeless person in the eyes and saying good morning. This outward expression of compassion comes a lot more easily to most people than self-compassion. The next step is to then ask yourself, this compassion I feel for X’s pain, can I develop that for myself?
In his groundbreaking meditation book, “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” Jon Kabbat Zinn recalls a story of the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama was perplexed about the concept of “self-esteem” when he heard a Western psychologist speak of it at a talk in 1990. After asking for the concept to be explained to him several times, he was sad to learn that so many in the Western World suffered from feelings of self-loathing and inadequacy. What is it about our Western way of life and our expectations that make low self-esteem such an epidemic? It may have to do with the way we chase happiness outside of us. We are destined to feel inadequate when we constantly compare ourselves to others, and measure our worth by what we have or don’t have.
Clarify your values
Who are you, at your core? Make a list of your values and your characteristics. Strip away the ones that concern your appearance, status, personal achievements, and mistakes. Do you value kindness, justice, and humility? Do you value loyalty, curiosity, forgiveness, or humor? Have some of the hardships you have experienced made you stronger? How so? Ask yourself- what makes me feel the most beautiful? Which of my qualities make me feel capable and strong?
Challenge your thinking
In times of distress, we can develop some pretty negative thoughts. These thoughts occur automatically, and usually we don’t even realizing they are occurring. These patterns of thought can take over and distort our vision of the world. Click here for a List of these common thinking patterns. If you have ready examples, try the following:
1.) Identify your automatic thought. i.e. I feel so rejected. He hates me. She has ruined my life. I’ll never find someone as smart, funny, or who “gets” me as much.
2.) Identify the unhelpful thinking pattern (i.e. are you mind reading, predicting, emotionally reasoning)?
3.) Think of a more balanced and reasonable response. i.e. No one can ruin my life. I will recover from this and look forward to new opportunities.
Even though…. Nevertheless (Be like the Dalai Lama)
According to the principles of self-compassion, to achieve a balanced view we must accept the good with the bad. To do this, we must also stop making sweeping judgments about ourselves and our appearance, skills, or social standing. Like the Dalai Lama, we must avoid the trap of social comparison, a game that no one ever truly wins at.
Try it yourself: Even though (external event that has happened) Nevertheless, (some statement of worth).
I hope this helps the courageous part of you kick your fear to the curb, where it belongs. Love is a feeling, and it evolves and grows over time. Consider these practices and commit daily to loving yourself and you will start to see opportunities for more love out there in the world for you. You are strong and you are loved.
Stay tuned for the next post in this series, which will be about how to know whether to hang on or walk away from a relationship.
Kerrie Thompson, LCSW is a psychotherapist in downtown Manhattan. Contact her here for a complimentary 15 minute consultation.