Who finds it difficult to understand how to “love myself”?
It’s not that it’s a bad idea… it’s a wonderful idea! And it’s everywhere –
a friend suggests it, or a podcast about self-love is recommended, or maybe it’s one of the 20 inspiring Instagram quotes that come up on your feed.
We all nod our heads and think “mmm, yes, very good”.
But let’s be honest… the doing leaves me stumped. We know we need to, but how do you DO it? Especially on the days where we actually don’t really like ourselves very much?
Do you just think: “love yourself, (insert name here)!” ??
Does that ever really work?
“Whenever I try that, it rings out with a hollow sound and I feel nothing close to love. I feel a bit silly, actually. This has a lot to do with my struggles with self-worth, of course. Without boring you with the details or diagnostic labels, I can sum it up as one thing, really; perfectionism. I know a lot of people struggle with this, and it’s not surprising considering we live in a society that’s largely driven by ideals of constant improvement and productivity. Perfectionism might even seem like a virtuous quality to a lot of people, rather than a hindrance.” Clare H
Turns out that perfectionism can actually be getting in the way of loving yourself – which makes no sense, because aiming for perfection IS loving yourself right?
Let’s try to understand what perfectionism really is and why believing you can be flawless is so damn addictive – which makes it a very unloving space.
Here’s how research psychologist Brene Brown breaks it down:
1. “Perfectionism is a Self Destructive and Addictive belief system that fuels a primary thought: If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of blame, judgement and shame.”
It may seem that enacting behaviours that avoid feeling bad about yourself is a good way to love yourself. Many people who have a history of or an active eating disorder will relate to this one. What people often misunderstand about Eating Disorders is that they’re not a superficial fixation with appearance where you hate the way you look, and you should just learn to love your body, but are often about trying to avoid having uncomfortable feelings (amongst many other things). The problem is that even actual weight loss doesn’t lead to self love, because the concrete thing you have defined as the reason why you aren’t happy with yourself is usually NOT the reason you don’t love yourself.
2. “Perfectionism is an unattainable goal. It’s more about perception than internal motivation and there’s no way to control perception, no matter how much time and energy is spent trying.”
This one is a bit of a minefield… Hands up if your default mode is to try and please other people all the time? Are you a helper/fixer/saver? Where you justify one of two things – you don’t have time to love yourself, because you are loving everyone else… or you show love to yourself by helping others because that’s what makes you feel good about yourself!
But being “easy going! I go with the flow! I defer to others! I do the right thing for everyone else all the time!” may not be as altruistic or loving as you’d like to think. Are you actually trying to make other people tell you how great you are for being so good to them? Trying to make people like you- which would indicate you might be perfect because otherwise why would they like you… because you can’t convince yourself you are great on your own (wait a minute, does that sound a little bit unhealthy?)
The hard part is that being all things to all people often does lead to positive feedback and connection, and this justifies that it works. But, when you end up in relationships, friendships or work collaborations with people who you desperately want approval from, but who don’t actually know the real you, or people who are only really comfortable with someone who gives them what they want all the time, these partnerships can end up filled with resentment or worse, complete paranoia… An extreme fear that if you ever let your ‘real’ self show, they’d hate you. Whether they would or not, that doesn’t sound like you’ve created an environment that is loving towards you.
3. Perfectionism is addictive. We invariably experience shame, judgement or blame, and we often believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough rather than questioning the faulty logic of perfectionism, becoming more entrenched in our quest to look and do everything ‘just right’.
Using our brain to try and unpick what the same brain is thinking is very difficult. Hard to clap with one hand. This is the reason why one way to love yourself is to have a therapist (or trusted other). It’s not about indulging in making someone listen to you because you are so important. It’s because of the huge value that a conversation out loud provides – to hear the words, maybe catch yourself out speaking to ingrained presumptions and unhealthy attitudes, and get that bit of objectivity.
And it may be a buzz word, but meditation genuinely can slow down your thoughts and allow you to step away from “the thought wolves” every once in a while. A great example is when you are experiencing tricky emotions. Meditation can give you the space to not judge them and yourselves as being broken, but in fact, realise that they could be quite helpful if you can approach them with an open mind. And turning an emotion into something useful to you is definitely loving yourself!
4. “Perfectionism is not the key to success. In fact, research shows that perfectionism hampers achievement and is correlated with depression, anxiety, addiction and life paralysis, or missed opportunities. The fear of failing, making mistakes, not meeting people’s expectations and being criticised keeps us outside the arena where healthy competition, striving and connection happens.”
Thinking that working towards perfectionism as a sign of looking after yourself is a trick; it promises a whole lot of things like connection, approval, and success and then actively prevents any of those things from genuinely occurring. Vulnerability, authenticity, and courage are the things that ultimately determine the kinds of success we have in our lives and relationships, but to a perfectionist, those things can seem like a threat.
So, why don’t we all just denounce perfectionism in favour of trying to respect our authentic values, beliefs, and preferences, and get into a loving vibe?
Because the perfectionism switch in our brain, set as the default, starts saying
“Ok, in that case we’re going to love ourselves perfectly! I’m going to get an A+ in loving myself! Every time I do something perfectionistic, I’m going to beat myself up about it. Every time I fall into my trap of trying to please other people, I have failed. If I don’t immediately accept who I am, I have failed. When I’m not confident that I’m going to be great at loving myself, I’ll have failed…” and it all goes downhill from there.
So how do we start to love ourselves – if we can’t just think our way through it?
The first step is to start to treat ourselves differently – the DO-ing.
Imagine your inner six year old. If they came up to you and said “I’m sad, ugly, stupid, unlovable, and selfish”, how would you look after them? A hug, a discussion, evidence to prove otherwise, a distraction, playing their favourite song, removing the thing that made them believe that… the list is pretty long, if you really think about it.
Loving yourself starts as a set of behaviours rather than a state of mind. It’s not very exciting; it’s a set of boring habits, actually. You can show up for your inner child by accepting their feelings, making sure they brush their teeth, making sure they get enough sleep, get enough nourishing and yummy food, do things that bring them joy as well as things that will make them uncomfortable sometimes, like disagreeing with others and putting themselves first when they need to, and then being there to debrief about it afterwards.
The key thing is to understand that there is NO such thing as loving yourself perfectly – it is the act of trying to DO it that defines success, not the outcome. Because, believe it or not, you can’t control your feelings, and if you are needing some loving, your feelings are definitely not going to be following the rules. But that’s okay, cos you can love that about yourself too.