In my last article, I provided an overview of scientific literature, which supports that self-love plays a foundational role in our well-being.
But how do we begin to do the work of cultivating the quality of love for ourselves that can literally transform our lives?
If being hard on yourself has been “the norm” throughout the course of your life, it may seem impossible to imagine how you can transform the stance from which you typically tackle life.
This may be the case even more if being a drill sergeant to yourself has resulted in “status quo” success. My commitment to excellence, at the cost of my work-life balance, allowed me to synthesize cancer drugs, lead teams from the bottom to the top in performance, and win a myriad of corporate and other awards. It was all great until I fell apart!
The truth is, when I burned out, far from feeling love for myself, I felt like a complete failure. I perceived my burned-out state as a sign of weakness and felt very disappointed in myself. How could a once top performer—someone who synthesized cancer agents and was an athlete— fall apart like I did?
Yet somehow, I allowed my discomfort to become my motivation and discovered the ultimate path to freedom. We can experience amazing joy when our efforts are fueled by self-appreciation and driven by our own values instead of by external approval.
Here are some of the most effective ways, which I learned from prominent researchers, that we can use to tap into cultivating a better relationship with ourselves, flaws and all.
These science-based strategies not only helped me find my way back home to better health, but they also help me now to transform the lives of my clients when they became too burned out to succeed.
If your best friend came to you while facing a challenge, how would you support them? I am certain that you would speak to them kindly, listen to them attentively, perhaps make them a warm cup of tea, and hold their hand through their difficulty. Why can’t we be as compassionate to ourselves? The world’s most prominent researcher in self-compassion, Dr. Kristin Neff, has revealed that when a friend fails it presents no threat to us. However, our own shortcomings present as a real or perceived threat to our self-concept. And any threat short-circuits our thinking brain and activates our stress response, which compromises every part of us, including our compassion for ourselves.
But why not use this knowledge to instead make a commitment to extend the same love and support to ourselves as we would to a best friend? Become your own best friend!
According to Dr. Neff, we can teach ourselves to be our best friend by incorporating the three essential components of self-compassion, which are Mindfulness, Kindness, and Recognizing our Common Humanity.
To illustrate how this might work, let’s pretend you were just passed up for a job promotion. Or you could pick your own example of a current or past difficult situation.
The first step is to bring Mindfulness into the situation, recognizing how difficult the situation is.
You can use any words that are comfortable and natural for you. You could say, “This is really tough,” or “I am feeling rejected,” or “This is a moment of suffering,” or “It is not going to be easy for me to accept this.” The key here is to choose how we relate to the experience without taking it personally, so that we can deal with our emotions from a calm, balanced state. We need to avoid judging either the situation or ourselves. We would never respond with judgement and blame to our best friend, would we?
The second step is to invite Kindness in.
This can be something as simple as setting the intention to be kind and supportive to ourselves. Think of the words and the actions you would use to comfort someone you love if they were going through a similar experience. Include terms of endearment, the warmth of human touch, and soothing vocalizations. For example, you could hold your face in your hands and say something like: “Aww Tzeli, I am so sorry you have to go through this right now, my love. But I am here for you.” Don’t worry about looking silly. No one is watching. Remember, your brain does not know the difference between what you are saying or thinking and what is happening in reality. By role-modeling compassion, your brain registers safety. This keeps all of your body’s organs and functions working at optimal performance levels, which allows you to respond beautifully to difficult life situations.
The third step is recognizing our common humanity.
As we go through the ups and downs of life, we may find it hard to be on our own side. This may be because of the false perception that everybody else is managing life just perfectly and we are alone in our discomfort. The truth is, not a single one of us is perfect and failures, mistakes or moment of self-doubt, are all part of being human. In moments of doubt, it is important to remind your self of our common humanity. You can comfort your self by telling your self something like, “It is normal to feel disappointed, but there are many others going through similar situations,” or “Discomfort is part of life. I am here for you. I’ve got your back.”
Research reveals significant benefits in investing your energy into becoming your own best friend. Some of these benefits are greater resilience in the face of challenges and faster recovery from physical or emotional traumas.
When our never-ending pursuit of happiness is driven by social norms and the wants and needs of others, we lose a really important source of power: The power of our own values!
When we are taking actions and creating things in life that are not aligned with our values, we experience discomfort and difficult emotions. This in turn leads to coping mechanisms that sabotage us. However, when we turn to what is most valuable to us, we can find strength, motivation, and energy to invest in meeting life goals that are rooted in love, rather than fear.
To re-connect with your values, I invite you to run an experiment with yourself for the next seven days.
On the first day of your experiment, set your alarm ten minutes earlier and begin your day with a short, guided meditation. You can use a guided meditation of your choice, or you can receive one in your inbox by joining the Myndzen community- bit.ly/JoinMyndZen
Once your mind is clearer, give yourself few minutes to write a list of single words that represent what you value most in your life in the present moment. For example, some one-word values are adventure, community, love, friendship, integrity, tradition, equality, and so forth. What do you value most? When you have completed your list, review it and choose the three values that make you feel the most joyful, happy, and powerful when you think about them.
Then, at any point throughout the course of your day, when you recognize any of your actions causing you frustration or discomfort, pause and challenge yourself to identify what is driving your action. If one of your top three values is not behind your action, this may be the cause of your discomfort. Select a small step you can take to nudge your response to a new action that is more aligned with your values. For example, if your top value is family and you were asked to participate in a weekend work meeting, you could suggest that you participate remotely via an online meeting app instead of physically attending the meeting.
Focusing on the top three values you identified, repeat the process of aligning your actions with these values over the next seven days. You might want to keep a list of your new actions.
By the end of the seven days, you will have a list of different actions you can choose to keep you in sync with your top values. These new choices come from a place of self-trust and self-appreciation as opposed to self-judgment. You will be amazed at how much energy you will free up when you choose actions that are aligned with what you care about the most.
3. Befriend your inner critic.
A part of you will always rise up to sabotage your efforts, especially when you are brave enough to step outside of your comfort zone. For example, you may have decided to improve your work-life balance to support your value of family by working less. Then your boss challenges your commitment to your work because you are not working late as much. At this point, you may hear an inner voice that sounds something like: “Who do you think you are challenging the status quo?” We call that voice our Inner Critic.
We have historically viewed the inner critic as an antiquated parental voice, which we have been advised to ignore. However, newer models of therapy such as Dr. Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems model, suggest there may be a more effective way to relate to our inner critic. Instead of ignoring it, we can befriend and work with our inner critic. If you really think about it, our inner critic, as annoying and frustrating as he/she may be, is only trying to protect us. The voice and the inhibiting actions it tells us to take are attempting to protect parts of ourselves that have been hurt in the past.
For example, if speaking up and standing up for yourself was punished in your early years, you may experience a lot of resistance from your inner critic when you are braving assertiveness. It will criticize you to prevent you from taking any risks that might cause you pain. This causes discomfort and your inner critic may then lead you to numbing actions like eating or drinking alcohol.
To release ourselves from the voice of our inner critic, we can make ourselves less vulnerable to whatever it is that the inner critic thinks we need protection from.
For example, you can find a safe space to practice speaking up with no consequences, like joining a Toastmasters group. Your inner critic will soon learn that you are not in danger or vulnerable when you speak up. You can also begin recognizing your inner critic as a valuable part of you and engage in journaling practices where you can honor it instead of resisting it. You can use this new relationship with your inner critic to learn more about your vulnerable parts. Here are two sample journaling exercises to help you become friends with your inner critic.
Inner Critic journaling Exercise 1
Identify a recent challenging situation. Then take a few moments to talk with your inner critic in your journal about this situation. Let’s pretend that the challenging situation is that you are trying to decide whether or not to apply for a management position. The dialogue might look something like this.
Inner Critic: You can’t be serious about applying for a management position. You aren’t leadership material!
You: Look, I know you are worried about me struggling as a manager. What are you afraid will happen?
Inner Critic: Being a manager will be too much for you. You’ll become anxious and irritable and you will fail.
You: I understand your concerns, but I have grown a lot. I know how to love and take care of myself now. And I am not afraid of failing. Trust me.
Review what you have written. Pay attention to what words your inner critic uses to criticize you. What is she afraid of? What does she want to protect you from? And how does your current self tell her that you are no longer vulnerable or afraid?
Inner Critic journaling Exercise 2
Use Dr Neff’s three components of self-compassion to let your compassionate self approach your inner critic. Remember that the components are Mindfulness, Kindness, and Recognition of Common Humanity. In your journal, write a letter to your inner critic. It might look something like this:
“Dear Inner Critic,
My dear, I understand that you are telling me that I will fail if I take on this new promotion because you are trying to prevent me from make a choice I will regret. But however well-intentioned you may be, you are causing me pain, which is not helpful to me. All of us make choices that sometimes don’t work out. But I am confident that I will be able to determine the best course of action if things don’t go according to plan. Do you want to work together as I pursue this new promotion.”
Working with your inner critic and not beating him or her up is a great way to reinstate a sense of trust in yourself, which is required to break the spell of the past.
I know all too well how hard it is to shift responding to life in ways that honors you and your values first. – Especially if being hard on yourself has been your “lifetime companion.” It was mine too!
However, by becoming your best friend, getting to know your inner critic, and re-connecting with your own values, you can reclaim precious energy that you are currently losing to unnecessary stress.
You can then use that energy to light up the path to a life that is meaningful to you and aligned with your true values and purpose.
And that light, my friend, will not only allow you to live a life free of the cumbersome symptoms of stress, but will also illuminate your relationships, your workplace, and your world.