When the glaring reality of stress shows up in your life in the form of anxiety, exhaustion, or irritability, I bet love is the last thing on your mind.
However, considering that our relationship with stress defines every other relationship in our life, I want to tell you a little secret about a special stress-reducing kind of love: The love you have for yourself.
In this article, I want to share with you why cultivating self-love is a gateway to effective stress-reduction as well as the ultimate path to the gifts of optimal health, performance, and happiness.
Why is self-love so critical?
If you are skeptical about the stress-reducing properties of cultivating self-love, let me share with you some data from scientific literature.
The most vulnerable populations for compassion fatigue and burnout are:
- Highly-dedicated individuals –the best and the brightest (Killian, 2008; Meyers & Fine, 2003),
- Drivers and high-achievers (Shanafalt et.al., 2012),
- Individuals with high expectations of self (Figley, 2012).
Although on first glance you may think that the above individuals’ dedication indicates a great degree of love for one’s self, I invite you to reconsider. Could their dedication be driven more by perfectionism than by self-love? An endless striving for perfection harbors a great degree of self-judgment and a loud inner critic, rather that self-love. Which would explain the high vulnerability of these individuals to compassion fatigue and burnout.
In fact, Dr. Brene Brown’s robust research on vulnerability has uncovered that perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval. Most of us who have a hard time saying no, who push ourselves to the limit and sacrifice self-care and work-life balance for success, know all too well the cost of perfectionism. It is linked to depression, anxiety, addictions, eating disorders, digestive issues, and so much more.
When I found myself falling from my top performer pedestal to the tight grip of burnout and illness, I had an invaluable epiphany: The endless chase of perfectionism and the adverse effects of stress may have meant that I had forgotten to love and honor one important person—myself.
How do you know when you don’t love yourself enough?
Until we love ourselves whole-heartedly, we are stuck in this never-ending chase for love, approval, and security from external sources.
I call this state the “bottomless pit.” You know you are in that state when nothing ever seems good enough and you are your own worst critic. Regardless of how much you accomplish, you are never fully satisfied. Perhaps this is because of the way accomplishments were rewarded in your early life. You may have established an identity that is derived from your achievements if you got “love” from others for your performance. You then forget all about your well-being or what makes your heart sing. You begin living your life to meet other people’s expectations, judgments, and perceptions of you.
How stress shows up when we don’t love ourselves enough
Stress is a state characterized by all the changes our body makes to meet the demands from our environment. However, although it is considered to be the epidemic of the century, stress is essentially what summons our resources to rise to the occasion as needed in different aspects of life.
In fact, up to a certain level, stress is defined as eustress (good stress) and it is what gives us the superpowers to ace a presentation, pass an exam, get through a family Thanksgiving dinner, or solve a complicated problem.
There is nothing wrong with being committed to performance excellence, but there is a big problem when our efforts are driven by the fear of not measuring up to others’ expectations. When we push ourselves to the limit to get approval, safety, and security from others, we are running away from this fear instead of going after something we value.
Giving control of how much is enough to others will push us past the good level of stress into the bad level of stress, called distress.
It is well documented in scientific literature that operating too long at the level of distress, compromises every aspect of ourselves. Our body systems malfunction and we enter a state of mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual impairment.
It is at that point that we experience exhaustion, irritability, ineffectiveness, and so many other symptoms of stress-coping mechanisms.
And as I learned all too well from my personal experience of burning-out and suffering a musculoskeletal disorder, this can lead to extensive damage in organs and body tissues, broadly described by the term allostasis.
How self-love transforms our relationship with stress
One of the most important lessons I learned from burnout is that meeting the demands of life from a place of worthiness and love for ourselves is a game-changer. It took a serious illness for me to discover self-love and to know how amazing being on my own side feels, but I am grateful for all I have experienced and the new direction of my life’s purpose: To translate all the lessons I learned from science and my healing journey into guideposts and strategies on how we can actually be successful without burning out.
Here are some examples of what living from a place of self-love can look like:
We may stay up late to meet a deadline, but we do so from a space of deep satisfaction, which re-charges our batteries with ample energy to conquer the world the next day.
We charge toward a goal that is aligned with our innermost sense of purpose and values.
We feel self-sufficient in being our own source of love, approval, safety, and security. And from that beautiful, calm, balanced state our relationships transform at work and at home. We no longer cling to people, situations, and things, relating to them in a dysfunctional way that is rooted in fear. We trust that people, jobs, and all good things in life will be available to us as long as the energy exchange remains balanced and healthy. We also have the courage to step away from energy drainers. We don’t think it is the end of the world to give up a larger paycheck to work for an amazing leader or a company that lives their values. We appreciate everything with a healthy dose of gratitude and we don’t play the martyr. We don’t take things personally, and we establish healthy parameters of giving and receiving while making appropriate adjustments when necessary. We have no reservations about setting healthy boundaries and we are proud to be a role model of work-life balance. We are able to follow the advice of Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Stress is an inevitable part of our modern life that none of us gets a free pass from.
However, the quality of love and trust we cultivate with ourselves greatly determines how resilient we are and the impact that stress will ultimately have on our well-being.
Until we become the source of love, trust, and safety for ourselves, our relationship with stress will continue to be problematic.
Our efforts will be tainted by an endless pursuit for approval and a hidden sense of fear.
We will then engage in dysfunctional patterns of being and relating, which often lead to reducing our optimal performance. Then we experience the adverse consequences of stress.
However, when we choose to cultivate a different quality of love for ourselves, we begin to do things that are aligned with our values. Then the magic begins to happen.
No matter what curve balls we have to deal with in life, we are able to trust in our ability to set our own parameters to deal with these difficulties. We do this with a sense of purpose and equanimity while growing inner strengths along the way.
Although you may be skeptical of the stress-reducing properties of increasing love and kindness for yourself, there is so much science that proves it!
But don’t take my word for it. Regardless of where you are in life, if you are not where you want to be, you can begin the only love affair that can change that.
I will share science-based strategies on how to cultivate more kindness and love for your self in my next article. If you would like to be notified when it will be published and begin to tap into the transformative power of Self-love, Join my loving community: bit.ly/JoinMyndZen