Self-love – treating the self with care and respect – is one sure-fire way to improve serenity and peace of mind. But any time we move toward self-care, we must watch out for that enemy of serenity – self-hate.
Not only that, we face a cultural paradigm that values self-sacrifice and caretaking of others. Taking care of one’s own needs first has been stigmatized as selfish, and self-love branded as self-indulgent.
Yet self-care is simply common sense. When we ensure our own needs are met, we then have the energy to care for others – without strings attached. We want to help our family, our friends, and even complete strangers. When we give from excess rather than essence, we feel joyful and never drained.
But even if we accept this reasoning, making the shift from an old mindset to a new one is never easy. Engrained habits die hard. Especially when those habits send us self-defeating messages like:
- I can’t
- I’m not worthy
- It’s too hard
Getting over these messages and achieving self-love isn’t a simple matter of snapping our fingers. This negative thinking is the symptom of a deeper problem.
Many of us suffer from self-hatred.
Self-hatred is a little-recognized but virally powerful mindset. It underlies almost all emotional dysfunction and robs us of self-esteem. It starts with societal pressure to “fit in” and continues into denial and repression of our feelings – the inner guidance system we are born with. As we ignore our thoughts and feelings, we turn to outside guides – society, family, peers – to tell us how to be, how to think, how to feel, and how to act. Thus, we lose touch with our natural integrity and instead rely on the responses of other people to tell us right from wrong.
As we look outside for answers, we actually begin to turn on ourselves. We bury self-love deeper and deeper below the surface and develop symptoms of self-hatred:
- Addictive behavior – Using substances or “processes” (eating, working, buying, etc.) in a compulsive way to avoid pain and difficulties
- Codependence – Letting other people’s feelings determine our own – happy if others are happy, sad or upset if others are upset
- Depression – Defending ourselves from pain by avoiding our feelings, numbing ourselves
- Insecurity – Measuring our worth by comparison to others rather than by internal definition
- Obsessive thinking – Focusing on problems, people, or situations rather than looking at ourselves
- People pleasing – Doing things to make other people happy even when it means denying ourselves something we want or need
- Self-flagellation – Endlessly beating ourselves up for our mistakes, real or perceived
- Any other self-destructive pattern – Fill in the blank
These behaviors start out as survival skills, helping us navigate a world we don’t understand and must adapt to. In time, they become deeply entrenched habits. Though they inevitably lead to pain, chronic or acute, they are also the only reliable crutches we have for getting us through life.
So, how, given all these barriers, do we get to self-love and serenity?
The good news is, the self-love we had, our natural self-esteem, is still there. It’s just buried under the surface of our habitual negative behaviors.
To get to self-love, we need to address our self-hating behaviors. The following threefold approach – looking at our past, our future, and our present – tackles the insidious self-defeating attitudes and actions that keep us from loving ourselves.
1. Let Go of the Past: Understand and Release Self-hatred
For emotional freedom, we must let go of the self-hatred that masks self-love. Some people have the gift of spontaneous release of old resentments and habits. Most of us must work much harder to let go of the patterns that got us this far.
To truly release self-hatred, we must understand its source. What particular circumstances and responses brought us to the set of survival skills we are so attached to? Can we begin to process and release the need for these habits?
For example, I need my physical environment to be neat and orderly in order to feel secure, and freak out when those I live with don’t meet my high standards. But can I use those overreactions to recognize a legitimate need – in this case, for security? I can dig into my past to understand why I overreact today: perhaps as a child I lived with chaos, and I found some measure of safety by hiding in my room where I had some control over the environment. Today’s overreaction is from this old, irrational source even though I may rationally know that having immaculate surroundings is not the true source of my security in the world. Only when I recognize the source of my suffering am I able to release it.
2. Look to the Future: Practice Healthier Behaviors
Concurrently with releasing the past, we must build new responses – practice new patterns of behavior. We need to replace the negative with something more positive. So before we decide to “people please” someone, with the ulterior motive of gaining their admiration, love, help, or gratitude, we consider our needs first. When we are taken care of and comfortable, we can more easily give to others and not require emotional validation from them.
There are as many methods for changing behavior as there are people. Find what works for you and be consistent in applying something new whenever your old behaviors come up.
Here are a few ideas that have worked for me:
- Brainstorm new options for old situations – list them out, keep them in your mind so that you have a new repertoire to choose from when you’re tempted to go into the old behavior
- Find some rote phrases that embody new thinking/positive ideas and run them through your head on a regular basis, to replace old thinking with new
- Constantly seek out new sources of information on your particular problem – how have other people addressed it and what can you take from their experience to try?
- Don’t give up – if something doesn’t work, try something else
For my problem with controlling my immediate surroundings, I can brainstorm new ways to deal with my need for security. Examples might include compromising with my housemates for order and cleanliness or developing my inner security so that no “outside condition” (like a dirty house) can trigger my fear.
3. Stay Present: Notice Distractions and Use the Moment
While we try to balance releasing our past and building a new future of different behavior patterns, it’s important to be as present in the moment as possible. Use the present to notice what’s happening with the change process and become aware of distractions that pull us into the past or future.
For me, obsessive thinking (aka, worry, anxiety, fear-based thinking) has been an overwhelming symptom of self-hate. It has me projecting horrors into the future and dredging up terrible feelings from my past. The only immediate antidote I’ve found (while working over time on #1 and #2 above) is getting present. Focusing on what’s happening right here, right now brings me right back and helps me shake off that obsessive thinking.
Here are some ideas to help refocus on the present:
- Remind yourself, “Keep your head where your feet are.”
- Ask, “What’s the next thing that needs doing?” Go do it (whether it’s writing a work email, washing the dishes, or picking up the baby from daycare). And while doing it, keep your mind on the task, not the past and not the future.
- Pray or meditate.
- Use your senses – what are you seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, right now?
- Be mindful – notice what’s happening within you and outside you in this moment. Allow and don’t judge yourself or others.
Self-love is worth working toward. Using the multipronged approach of tackling past, present, and future helps us root out self-destructive patterns and replace them with new, more self-caring habits. Like Dorothy’s yellow brick road, the path is strewn with dangers and revelations – full of true adventure for the courageous of heart.
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