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Addiction starts and ends with a lack of self-love. Why would we destroy ourselves if there was not a part of ourselves that did not love us?
Recovery starts and ends with self-love. If we truly loved ourselves completely, would we do anything to harm ourselves? The healing of recovery thus includes a transition from self-hatred to self-love.
Many of us are hard on ourselves, even cruel to ourselves. Many of us hate ourselves down deep. This is especially true if we grew up with harsh, critical, or otherwise abusive or neglectful parents, if we were bullied in school, or if we suffered some other sort of trauma. Trauma and neglect breed self-hatred.
Why do we beat ourselves up? Because we believe we deserve it and that somehow punishing ourselves will make us do better or be better.
The problem is, self-abuse only makes things worse. In self-criticism, we are both the attacker and the attacked. This releases cortisol, creates stress, and leads to depression or addiction. People lose faith in themselves and give up on themselves. Self-hatred sometimes even leads to suicide.
The way to motivate and inspire ourselves is to care for ourselves, to be kind to ourselves, and to accept ourselves with our many shortcomings. We need to practice loving ourselves the way we may have never been loved before. This allows us to grow, to improve, and to reach our full potential. This also helps us to stay sober.
Part of self-love includes showing ourselves compassion when we are suffering. Compassion means to suffer with. When we show ourselves compassion, we literally suffer with ourselves, giving ourselves the kindness and care we need to heal and feel better. We need to treat ourselves with the same kindness, care, and concern that we would treat someone we love. Too often we cut ourselves out of the circle of our compassion.
Loving ourselves has many benefits. Loving ourselves enhances our well-being and happiness. When we give ourselves compassion, the brain may release oxytocin and endorphins that help us feel safe, connected and soothed. When we love ourselves, we ask, “What can I do to help myself to feel better? This optimizes our vitality. When we are vital, we are more motivated to get out and live life to the fullest. We feel more connected to others, and thus have better relationships. Self-love enhances a positive outlook on ourselves, which counters negativity. Less negativity results in less suffering, and thus less of a drive to addict to soothe ourselves.
When we love ourselves, we are kind to ourselves when we mess up. Rather than beating ourselves up, we focus on how we can learn from our difficult experiences. We forgive ourselves and let go of the need to be perfect, because we are good stuff just as we are. No better or worse than anyone else, just another beautiful bozo on the bus.
People who love themselves take very good care of themselves, because they experience their sacredness. Out of reverence for themselves and others, they cherish themselves and others. Not only do they not addict, they also exercise, eat healthy, get plenty of rest, have fun, spend time with others, engage in a daily spiritual practice, and work every day to develop their fullest capacities. They live this precious gift of life to the fullest.
Self-love is linked to greater personal accountability, because we can own our behavior without beating ourselves up. When we can name and claim our behavior without shaming ourselves, then we can correct our mistakes and make things right. This reduces the conflict and stress in our lives.
Self-love also enhances coping and resilience. Self-compassion helps us cope with difficult times and endure stress. Loving ourselves helps us to get through the difficult times in life.
Self-love strongly predicts positive relationships. When we love ourselves, we are more caring, intimate, less critical and less controlling with others. When we can give ourselves the caring and support we need, we have more of ourselves to give to others. Since we can forgive ourselves and radically accept ourselves with all our mistakes, imperfections, and flaws, we can also more easily forgive others and take their perspective. Since we let go of toxic judgments or ourselves, we are also less judgmental and more acceptant of others. What applies to us applies to others. Just as we are sacred, imperfect beings with streaks of destructiveness, so are others. Just as we forgive and accept ourselves while lovingly holding ourselves accountable for our actions, so we forgive and accept others while lovingly holding them accountable for their actions. Our tolerance and even reverence for ourselves extends to others, leading to less burnout and compassion fatigue, and more satisfaction when caring for others. When we keep our hearts open to ourselves, we can keep our hearts open to others.
There can be a difference between self-love and self-esteem. Self-esteem is a global evaluation of our self-worth, which can be problematic when it is not unconditionally based upon the mere fact of our existence. Self-esteem is a problem when we have to be special and above average—when it is not ok to just be average. Then we must look for ways to build ourselves up and put others down. This leads to having unrealistic, inflated images of ourselves in order to feel OK about ourselves. Performance-based or attribute-based esteem has led to an epidemic of narcissism in our culture. This type of self-esteem also fuels bullying, prejudice, and contempt for those less fortunate or less gifted than we. It creates hard-heartedness. When self-esteem is conditional, it leads to a lack of accountability; if we make a mistake, we need to blame others for our bad behavior to salvage our self-esteem.
Self-love offers the benefits of unconditional self-esteem without the pitfalls of conditional self-esteem. With self-love, you don’t have to be better than others. You can see yourself realistically and honestly, warts and all. Your self-worth is unconditional and stable under all circumstances.
Self-love doesn’t just happen, especially if we have suffered neglect or trauma. It takes practice—sustained effort over time—to reverse the toxic patterns of self-hatred that arise in our minds. Dr. Kristin Neff talks about these practices in her book, “Self-Compassion” (www.self-compassion.org). There are 3 core practices to developing self-love:
1. The first is to treat ourselves with unconditional kindness and radical acceptance, especially when we mess up. We distinguish between ourselves, the actor, and our actions. While we may judge our actions to be unskillful, we refrain from judging our personhood—that is off limits. The key to healing and growth is to start with kind self-acceptance. We embrace our own suffering with loving compassion for ourselves. This increases positive emotions and reduces negative emotions. This reverses our harsh self- criticism. We intentionally practice being kind, caring and open hearted towards ourselves. We talk to ourselves with kind, caring, gentle, soothing words. We tend to ourselves the way we would an innocent, wounded child. We abstain from harsh self-judgment or self-criticism. We stop “shoulding” on ourselves. We take very good care of ourselves. We don’t addict for short-term relief, knowing this is not an act of self-love. We reach out for love and support from those who care for us.
2. The second practice is to recognize our common humanity. See that we all suffer. We are all imperfect. All our lives are imperfect. Realize that we’re not isolated in our suffering. Self-love is inclusive of all of us. This helps us to not be so self-absorbed. We are all in the same boat. We realize that everyone is having a hard time. Everyone suffers. This helps us to feel more interconnected with others. This reduces our feeling of being isolated from others. Realizing we are all fundamentally the same, we can stop beating ourselves up because we are not perfect. Would we want to be perfect anyway? What if we were all Barbie and Ken dolls? What kind of world would that be? We need to accept and cherish ourselves and everyone as remarkable creatures of beauty, even with our foolishness, our destructiveness, our ignorance, our character flaws and our lack of skill. Everyone is just doing their best to get by, playing the cards they we dealt as best they can. This realization inspires compassion and forgiveness for everyone, including ourselves.
3. Finally, we practice mindfulness. You can’t heal what you can’t feel. We often don’t notice our suffering, especially the pervasive voice of self-criticism. When we are mindful, we notice that we are suffering. We notice when we are beating ourselves up. We practice noting what is in the present moment with a soft, friendly, acceptant, nonjudgmental attitude. In mindfulness, we are aware of being aware. We compassionately see ourselves just as we are, no more, and no less. In mindfulness, we retrieve Awareness from the incessant stream of thoughts in our head. This helps us to not get carried away by our fantasies, imaginations, and projections. With mindfulness, we have the space to ask ourselves if what we are thinking is really true, and how do we know 100% that it is true. Since mindfulness includes the practice of friendly, nonjudgmental acceptance of the Now, we accept the fact that we are suffering. This opens the door for us to give ourselves compassion. We are often not aware of when we are causing ourselves pain through harsh self-criticism. Mindfulness corrects this. We notice that we are suffering due to our self-criticism or for other reasons. Be mindful of the language you use with yourself. Note when you are harsh with yourself. Notice when you judge yourself. Let go of your self-criticism and self-judgment. Mindfulness will enable you to be kind and caring to yourself when you are suffering, the way you would be to someone you love.
We are all human beings worthy of being loved, including by ourselves. Happiness is our birthright. By being open hearted to ourselves, we are able to be open hearted to others. Commit this day forward to be a good friend to yourself.
Self-love is always there when you need it. Start each day with a vow to love and care for yourself as if you were your own child. Renounce self- condemnation or harsh self-criticism. Let them go when you see them arise in your mind. Especially let go of global negative self-judgments. Renounce self-condemnation when you have negative or destructive thoughts or urges—these are just your mind doing what it does. Practice radical self-acceptance, including of your shadow side. Show yourself open-hearted, unconditional warmth, love, care, cherishing, and reverence.
Dr. Neff has several exercises for enhancing self-compassion on her website, www.self-compassion.org. Here are a summary of a few of them:
1. How would I treat a friend? Treat myself as I would treat a friend.
2. Take a self-compassion break when suffering and self-criticism arise:
a. Awareness—I am suffering.
b. Suffering is part of life. We all suffer. I’m not alone.
c. May I be kind to myself. May I accept myself as I am. May I forgive myself.
a. What imperfections make you feel inadequate? What do you judge yourself for?
b. Write a letter to yourself from the perspective of an unconditionally loving friend.
c. Feel your compassion as it soothes and comforts you.
4. Silencing the self-critic. This can be done either with journaling or mindful self-talk.
a. Note your inner critical speech. Note your tone with yourself. Note your global self-judgments and self-condemnations.
b. Thank your critical mind for its thoughts (the mind is just doing what it does) and gently let these negative thoughts go.
c. Reframe the negative criticisms your mind generate as more positive, loving, empathic thoughts. Acknowledge your suffering and your pain. Practice loving acceptance. Imagine what a loving, supportive mother or father would say to soothe and encourage you.
Image from: https://www.drdeborah.com/self-love-a-secret-to-health/.
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