But they’re also necessary.
Does the thought of loving yourself make your skin crawl? Does the idea of having compassion for yourself sound weak and pathetic?
If it does, you’re not alone. Being uncomfortable with self-love and self-compassion seems to be the default for humans.
The most common concern with self-love and self-compassion is that they lead to stagnation and, worse, narcissism. If you love yourself, why would you seek to improve? If you have compassion for yourself, why would you ever try? Wouldn’t you already think you’re perfect?
To avoid these supposed pitfalls, we lean hard into self-hatred. I mean, who doesn’t love a good hit of self-directed ridicule? Or, a healthy dose of self-flagellation?
It feels good to hate yourself, doesn’t it? Don’t you get a sickening satisfaction out of it? After all, you deserve it. You screwed up that presentation at work. You made a fool of yourself on a first date with some cute prospect. You bombed an important job interview. The dinner you made for your in-laws tasted like an overcooked rat.
In the end, you screwed up and you deserve to feel like shit about it. Isn’t that how it works? If you didn’t make yourself feel like shit and force yourself to relive it over and over, how would you ever prevent it from happening again? How would you ever improve?
I mean, wouldn’t you treat a friend or a child who’s made a mistake with the same kind of viciousness?
No, probably not. Most of us don’t treat anyone else as cruelly as we treat ourselves. We wouldn’t because we’re not psychopaths, but also because we know it wouldn’t help. We know that beating someone down is not how we build them up.
So, why would we think we’re any different?
But if self-hatred isn’t the approach we should take toward ourselves, how can self-love and self-compassion, ideas most of us would rather not touch with a 10-foot pole, help us?
A little bit about self-hatred
Self-hate often stems from a desire to be perfect or feeling undeserving of love. But, no one is perfect. I mean, I have flaws falling out of my pockets as I walk down the street. If you’re demanding perfection, you’re fighting a losing battle.
You might think, one day, when I’ve achieved everything I’ve ever wanted, then I’ll be happy. But, you’re wrong. Why? Because you’ll have spent a lifetime honing your mind’s ability to find flaws and imperfections. This habit of mind won’t suddenly cease once you’ve attained your goals. Your mind will continue to act how you’ve trained it to act — to seek out what’s missing and make you feel like a worthless sack of shit about it.
No one really believes that self-hate ultimately leads to happiness, but it does keep us moving and distracted — running toward the promise of a better tomorrow, fuelled by the misery of today.
This is not to say that self-hate and other “negative” emotions, like shame, have absolutely no use. Maybe every once in a while they motivate you to do something productive. But experts on the matter don’t recommend using them. They recommend something else.
What’s love got to do with it?
Earlier, I mentioned that a common concern we have with self-love and self-compassion is that they lead to stagnation. We’ve been taught to equate them with perfection or narcissism, so it’s no wonder why we don’t want to touch them. But, you only need to think about this for a moment to realize our intuitions are backward.
Bring to mind someone you love dearly, like a child. Don’t you want the best for them? Don’t you want them to reach their potential? Don’t you want them to be happy? Don’t you want their deepest wishes in this life to be realized?
And, you don’t love them because they’re “perfect”, do you? Don’t you love them unconditionally?
We tend to perceive love and compassion as soft and squishy and comforting, but that’s not the whole story. The truth about love and compassion is that they aren’t deterrents to change and growth — they are what nourish it.
If you have self-love, you don’t allow yourself to stagnate because stagnation will make you miserable. If you have self-love, you won’t ignore your goals because striving toward them is important to you. If you have self-love, you won’t take shit from your family or coworkers because you know you deserve better.
What we seem to be blind to is how much strength self-love and self-compassion can give us. So, instead, we hate ourselves for failing to achieve our goals or for failing to stand up for ourselves. When nothing changes we dial up the hatred, thinking that more hatred is the answer. It’s not.
As corny as it sounds, love and compassion are the answers. They are what will motivate you to improve your life. And they’ll allow you to like yourself while you do it.
How to cultivate self-love and self-compassion
Cultivating these powerful emotions is pretty simple. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy.
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to increase compassion. I’d highly recommend using an app like Headspace or Waking Up to get started. I find guided meditations help to keep me focussed.
Another way to increase compassion, in particular self-compassion, is loving-kindness meditation. Terrible name aside, the point of this type of meditation is to focus on wishing others, and yourself, well. To get started, think of someone you care about and repeat phrases like, may you be happy, may you be free from pain, and may your wishes for this life be satisfied. You might find it beneficial to create your own phrases. Then, you can turn the focus of this practice onto you by wishing yourself well.
To your surprise, you will find that you do wish the best for yourself.
I know that meditation seems hokey and cheesy, but science is increasingly showing its benefits. You have much to gain from cultivating self-love and self-compassion, including a truly rich and satisfying life, so I hope you give it a try.
Because, ultimately, you must choose between these two options: either you are not enough and never will be, or you are enough and always will be.
Thanks for reading!
If you want to learn more about the science behind how self-compassion and self-love can improve your life, check out this podcast.