Not so long ago, I had a charming, intelligent client who had been struggling with self-hatred and anxiety for years. He was incredibly proactive, participating in therapy diligently and making significant progress, until one day he turned to me in a session and said, ‘You speak so often of self-love, but I genuinely don’t know what that means. I can understand it intellectually, but it is such an alien feeling. It sounds selfish and I have no idea how to love myself’.
his client is far from alone. In addition, I have heard many people express two main concerns:
1. Self-love is selfish — they feel guilty practicing it as if they had no right to love themselves.
2. If you are open to it, how do you love yourself?
As children, many of us were indirectly or directly taught that loving ourselves is a selfish act. We were taught that we must always put others first, and as a result many of us feel guilty for thinking of ourselves. It sounds counter-intuitive but when you are loving and kind towards yourself you are naturally to others.
An example of this is a busy mum who makes ‘me-time’ a priority and is hence more patient and kinder to her children when they are tired and need extra attention. It is a win-win situation. Happy parent, happy child.
Unfortunately, I often see the opposite, beautiful, kind-hearted people being terribly hard on themselves and as a result, becoming more irritable with their loved ones.
When we shout at our families, we often feel guilty afterwards, this guilt intensifies low self-esteem, and an unfortunate and unconscious habit is created. The idea of self-compassion is an alien one to many and the habit of self-criticism is much more familiar. This is clearly a lose-lose for everyone involved.
You already know how to love and care for other people and it is now time to practise the same skill towards yourself. How to love yourself lies in the subtle art of turning this innate caring tendency internally so that you can sustain it externally.
Most of us need to work on the all-important skill of acceptance. Although you know how to love your family and friends, you may struggle to accept them exactly as they are and not how you wish them to be.
You may unintentionally use control as a mechanism to protect those you love and in doing so create disharmony. For example, wishing a partner was more considerate and less negative.
When you see someone you love struggling emotionally or mentally, your first instinct may be to try to ‘fix’ them or the situation that is causing them to suffer. For example, if your child is feeling lonely and you suspect that he/she is being left out at school, you may want to rush in and complain to the teacher before you understand the situation in its totality.
Your desire to make the child feel better overrides everything else.
Taking the time to get a full picture and being at ease with your child’s loneliness is what will grow their confidence, which is the very thing that will help them to integrate into a group. You love them regardless. This child will be more likely to grow up accepting and loving all the parts of themselves.
To do this, we must first learn to love the parts of ourselves we find difficult. Love your anxiety, anger, frustration, sadness and they will ease. Often the strong negative emotions we feel are there for a good reason, they are there to protect us. When you can hold them in your heart without judgment, you will begin to experience the true energy of self-love. It is a gift you share with the world.
In the last year, many of us have been forced to look more closely at the relationship we have with ourselves. As the world slowed down our minds became faster and for some having more time to think has created internal conflict. Research carried out by Maynooth University at the start of ‘lockdown life’ on 1,000 people illustrated that 41pc reported feeling lonely, 23pc reported clinically meaningful levels of depression, 20pc reported clinically meaningful levels of anxiety, and 18pc reported clinically meaningful levels of post-traumatic stress.
These statistics are stark and yet not surprising. I see people in my work each day who are struggling to stay positive and loving towards themselves as uncertainty continues to be the order of the day. Uncertainty creates anxiety.
I am consistently working both on myself and with my clients to spend this challenging time getting to know and love ourselves more deeply. We are being asked to dig deep and like all relationships when you put the work in, it pays off. You reap the rewards of relaxing in your own company, being at ease with anxiety, and through self-knowledge understanding why you think and feel the way you do. As Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk once said, ‘Understanding is love’s other name’.
Learn the art of self-love: five habits to work at each day
1. Listen to audio daily: A practical thing for people to do is listen to hypnotherapy or guided meditation on a daily basis to reinforce that mental training.
2. Be a friend to yourself: When you hear your inner critic spark up, pause and ask yourself, would you speak like that to a friend? Someone you love?
3. The Daily Promise technique: ‘I promise to accept all the parts of myself today to the best of my ability’. Acceptance is key, if and when you feel anxious, stressed or angry, quickly move to acceptance of the feeling and breathe into it.
4. Do two-minute mirror work: Set the time on your phone for two minutes and connect with yourself by looking into a mirror. Look past the physical and the impulse to search for flaws. As you maintain eye contact a feeling of calmness will emerge.
5. Make sure to hug as often as you can — including yourself: Be sure to hug your loved ones as often as you can for at least 15 seconds. Also, hug yourself — it is incredibly soothing and hugely important we have human touch. Pets are also wonderful. My poor dog has been squeezed many times over the last year.
The Self-Love Habit by Fiona Brennan is published by Gill Books and is available now from bookshops and online, priced at €16.99. Read more about Fiona at thepositivehabit.com