With so many new-age terms being thrown around lately (Generation Z is all about “living their best life” while posting pictures of themselves eating a berry chia pudding on #selfcaresunday), is it any wonder we are a little skeptical of self-help prophecies?
Take the term “self-love”, for instance. For those of us born before 2000, this idea of loving oneself seems a little nonsensical. We were told to be good, work hard, and treat others with kindness, but I can’t recall any teenager in the 90s (myself included) talking to their parents about the benefits of self-love, self-care, self-healing, or self-anything, really. And maybe we’re better for it.
But then again, we didn’t live out our formative years in a time of cyber bullying or when coolness is measured by the labels you wear and everyone is overexposing themselves on social media.
Regardless of when you were born, though, it’s hard to argue with the benefits of self-love – especially once you’ve whittled the concept down to its core.
According to Helen Williams, Mindfulness and Meditation Teacher at MindfulME Dubai, a person who has a good relationship with themselves practices compassion and kindness and places appropriate boundaries. They are less needy of others’ approval, exude greater self-confidence, and are more emotionally stable. “People who have higher personal regard tend to be able to handle life’s challenges with equanimity and acceptance. They treat themselves kindly and create warm and loving relationships.”
Sound too good to be true? Apparently not.
While practicing self-love won’t magically free you of all your issues and insecurities, it could change your mindset, literally. Debbie Hampton, a brain-injury survivor who suffered from years of depression, wrote a blog post entitled ‘The Neuroscience of Changing Your Behavior’ on her website, The Best Brain Possible. In it, she talks about neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the brain to change its physical structure and function based on input from our own experiences, behaviors, emotions and – get this – thoughts. That’s proof that thinking yourself happy isn’t hogwash. Also, thanks to neuroplasticity, the more we perform an action or behave a particular way, the more it gets wired into our brain.
“Essentially, practicing self-love is the practice of being mindful, which is simply the act of slowing down and asking yourself questions such as: What kind of language am I using when thinking about myself? How do I feel? Why am I feeling this way?” says Sherine El Sawaf, a health coach and positive body-image activist based in California. Sherine, who leads a workshop focused on empowering teenage girls through the promotion of body positivity, compassion, and self-love, says that, even if we do want to personally change something in ourselves, we still need to stop and listen to the tone and language we use to describe ourselves.
When someone compliments you on the way you look or something you’ve accomplished, how often have you responded by talking yourself down? Why is it hard to accept a compliment with a simple “thank you”, and leave it at that? It’s like we’re uncomfortable with praise.
According to Williams, low self-esteem is partly to blame and is often a symptom of listening to a steady stream of negative, self-damaging thoughts – and not questioning them. “In my experience, many suffer from the inability to turn off this continuous flow of hurtful, self-bullying, self-negating thinking because it is commonly experienced as the ‘normal’, familiar, daily background noise to our lives. We often assume this is me, that I am all the things my thinking mind tells me, and so it becomes an unquestioned, unexamined sense of self.” In some instances, the culprit is our own critical judgement, according to Williams. We harshly judge our body shape, our intelligence, and our perception of not fitting in, of being incompetent, or of being unlovable. Another instigator of these negative thoughts can be found in our past. Maybe it’s a childhood that lacked emotional nurturing, or a teacher or child that ridiculed us growing up. “If the adults around us are emotionally immature, abusive, or damaging, children tend to blame themselves for the shortfall and it becomes an unquestioned, deeply held belief that ‘there is something wrong with me,’” explains Williams.
So how do we go about developing self-love? For one, we need to start paying attention to our needs, Williams says. That means everything from adequate sleep, exercise, and proper nourishment to nurturing relationships. “It’s about learning to say yes to yourself, which means saying no to others. It’s about spending more time with people who show respect and care. It’s about learning when to walk away and when to take a stand for yourself when values are questioned,” she adds.
For El Sawaf, meditation is her favorite form of self-love practice. Affirmations are another good example. “I would advise someone wanting to practice self-love to find a quiet place, grab a pen and paper, and sit down to really think about the things that make them happy. Start by practicing one thing from that list every few weeks. Practice that one thing every day until it becomes a habit. Then add another thing from that list. The shift in energy when we practice self-love is unbelievably freeing.”
And if you’re going to free fall into love with anyone, why not make it yourself? After all, you’re your longest commitment.