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Practicing Self-Love (and working with the inner critic)

I had a client recently tell me she was really good at loving.

“I find it easy to love,” she said.

“Great,” I responded. “Then love yourself.”

“Oh, I can’t do that!"

It’s a common dilemma, isn’t it? We know that love is a powerful force, and not just spiritually. When we experience love, our bodies respond positively, releasing hormones which reduce fear, anxiety and stress. Masaru Emoto, in his beautiful experiments with water, demonstrated that even writing the words “love and gratitude” were enough to create physical change in water molecules.

So what stops us? Why do we hesitate when asked to love the person looking back at us from the mirror? How can we change that?

Those are the questions I’ve been wrestling with lately…for myself and for the clients I work with, and I wanted to share what I’ve been discovering.

Practicing self-love doesn’t require you to change anything about yourself.

Here’s an experiment, if you want proof of that statement. Think of someone you love. Think of all the reasons why you love them. Write down all the things you like about that person. Maybe they’re kind or thoughtful. Maybe they make you laugh. Try to be as specific as possible, and keep writing until you can’t think of anything else.

OK, now be honest. Is that person only loveable because they’re perfect and have it all figured out? Or do they have places they’re stuck in old patterns? Maybe they have shadow-aspects or vulnerabilities that sometimes get the better of them. Do they make mistakes? Have a less-than-perfect body? Say stupid or mean things sometimes?

Do you still love them? Maybe even because of those vulnerabilities?

We don’t analyze whether someone is loveable before loving them. We accept that people are imperfect, and that imperfection doesn’t make them unlovable. In fact, sometimes it’s the expression of vulnerability that makes us love someone more.

The same is true about you. There’s nothing you need to change about yourself in order to become loveable. You - with all of your flaws, fears and missteps - are just as loveable as anyone else. You don’t need to have it all figured out. You don’t need to have a perfect body. We’re all just works-in-progress. You don’t need to change anything to practice self-love.

Paradoxically, self-love will change you. It will make you a better person.

Most of us use self-love in a carrot-and-stick fashion. We repeatedly tell ourselves, aloud or otherwise, “I will love you when….” We stick all kinds of things after that “when,” but the effect is that we’re constantly telling ourselves we’re not good enough. And even when we achieve one of those arbitrary milestones, we barely take the time to congratulate ourselves before we make a new mark on the measuring stick.

The curious thing about this behavior is that it does the exact opposite of what we intend. Holding back love isn’t motivating. If anything, it just keeps us locked in all the things we don’t like about ourselves. When we feel loved and appreciated, we’re more motivated.

Have you ever had a teacher or a counselor who saw something great in you and told you so? Or did you ever have someone tell you they were proud of you? Feels good, right? Not only does it feel good, but you were probably more motivated than ever to keep doing that great thing.

That’s why self-love is a powerful tool for self-transformation. When you pause to give yourself a pat on the back for a job well-done, you’re putting a support in place. It’s like laying a foundation. The more often you do it, the stronger the foundation becomes.

Even on the worst of days, you probably did something right. Even if you fell short of your ultimate goal, acknowledge a step you took in the right direction. This is a great practice for right before you go to bed each night. Take a few minutes when you’re brushing your teeth. Look yourself in the eye in the mirror, and acknowledge one small, great thing you did or one small, great quality you already have.

Build on that foundation.

Once you get good at acknowledging your positive traits or accomplishments, see if you can stretch a little. See if you can love yourself in one of your imperfect of those moments when you’re most likely to get down on yourself. Maybe you disappointed yourself or someone else. Maybe you did something you never wanted to do again. Or got sucked into some emotional drama. Maybe you’re just having a bad day.

Life is just a series of moments in which we’re evolving. In some of those moments, you’re going to feel like you have it all figured out. You’ll be riding high. Those are the moments to lay the foundation. In some of those moments, you’ll be scraping the bottom of the barrel. These are the times when you need self-love the most! The last thing you need when you’re struggling is to feel attacked and judged. It makes everything harder and keeps you stuck in the struggle. Just remember my first point…you don’t need to change anything to practice self-love.

For me, practicing self-love in one of my imperfect moments means acknowledging where I currently am, without judgement, and then doing something that feels supportive. I’ll say something like, “OK, so I see that you’re having a really hard time with this. No worries. I love you anyway. What can I do to help you get through this?”

If I’m clear in my intention to practice better self-love, the answer to that question is usually clear. Maybe I need to take a nap and let my body rest, go for a walk, or cook myself a healthy meal. If the answer isn’t clear, then I love myself through the not-knowing and impatience.

Oftentimes, simply acknowledging my struggle in a non-judgmental way is enough. Just reminding myself that I’m still loveable and that I don’t need to have it figured out or push to solve or change something is enough to shift things. I can just let it be and love myself through it in the best way I know how. It’s like bringing my unique light – my love – into a place that desperately needs it. I personally believe this changes not just me, but the world for the better.

Self-love is a practice.

Like anything worthwhile, self-love takes some practice. Most of us weren’t taught as children to love ourselves. It’s like we don’t have that file in our operating system. Most of our parents didn’t have the file either and simply weren’t able to model the behavior. That means the messages we received around self-care and self-love were probably confusing, at best. Maybe you were taught to take care of your body by brushing your teeth and eating your vegetables, but that it was selfish to take care of yourself emotionally or spiritually. Maybe the message you heard was that honoring yourself in a challenging moment was a sign of weakness, and something to be avoided at all costs, or that doing so seemed to upset the people around you.

Whatever the messaging, it’s all just old programming. It’s a habit, and habits can be broken.

The easiest way to start is to just pay attention to the way you speak to yourself. We all have many voices...the critic, the wise-woman/man, the teacher, the tyrant. They’re like guests at a party, and they’re all competing for your attention. In every moment, you’re making a choice about whose advice you’re going to listen to. It’s your right to listen and accept only what feels supportive and kind. Even if the critic jumps in first, you always have the option to seek a second opinion.

When you catch yourself in an unloving or imperfect moment, try connecting with a different voice and see what it has to say. Here’s a few of my personal favorites for times of trouble:

  • Your rational self – always happy to offer evidence against the criticism. It’ll point to all the things you’ve done right (basically, it’ll go over all those stones you’ve been laying each night in your foundation). It’s great for those moments when it feels like the sky is falling, it’ll never get better, and you’re never, ever going to get things right. Your rational self knows that’s ridiculous and is happy to tell you so.

  • Your sweet, old grandmother - firmly believes you’re better than sliced bread. All she wants to do is make you something nice to eat and snuggle with you on the couch. She’s usually happy to tell you a story about something nice.

  • Your patient guru – knows you’re on a journey, that you’re always evolving, and that every moment is perfect. It’s great for pointing out what you’re learning in every situation, and how you can practice loving kindness in any moment.

Remember, it’s your right to choose what you think. After checking in, if you find you still want to listen to the inner critic, then love yourself for that choice. It's just a reflection of where you are in the moment, and it's OK!

Every time you choose a more loving thought or accept where you are in the moment without judgement, you’re reprogramming those old patterns. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. Just keep practicing. Before you know it, all those mean girls and frenemies that have been tormenting you will either get the message or be transformed by your acceptance. Perhaps, they'll even evolve into new voices, like "your inner motivator" or "your practical counselor." In any event, you'll be hanging around with a better crowd, and it’ll get easier and easier to practice self-love in the moments when you need it most.


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