As a mental health therapist, I have worked with many people and helped them through various issues. Over the years, I have noticed patterns in people. One pattern that I have observed is this- many people, who have mental health struggles, have poor relationships with themselves. Many don’t like themselves. In fact, some of their relationships with themselves are toxic and quite abusive.
Here are some common examples:
- Being critical and negative towards yourself. Putting yourself down and beating yourself up. This looks like saying things like- “I can’t do anything right,” “I’m not good at anything,” I am so stupid.”
- Overly pressuring yourself, often to achieve an external reward. Having perfectionist tendencies. Some examples are over-involvement in clubs or activities, needing to get all As, constantly trying to prove yourself, and constantly reaching for the next best thing.
- Being unable to find anything positive about yourself. If you do, then it’s often rather painful and your list is rather short. When given a compliment, you do not believe it.
- Feeling that you are less than other people. This can also look like comparing yourself to others, wishing you were more like them or feeling like you are weak because of your mental health struggles.
- Struggling with friends and family, which contributes to you feeling low about yourself, feeling unworthy.
I have not worked with one person to date, where I did not have to explore their relationship with themselves. It’s really the key ingredient in helping the more obvious issues such as depression or anxiety. Let me explain. A person who struggles with depression often has low self-esteem and view their world through a negative lens. This includes their view of themselves. When I explore what’s called their “self-talk” (the talk they have in their head about themselves) it’s often negative, critical, and toxic. This continues to cause feelings of depression. It’s like a vicious cycle.
In order to truly help them heal, I need to guide them on building a stronger self-relationship. The ultimate goal is that they start to like themselves and then work towards loving themselves. Often times, people are unable to easily move from opposite ends of the spectrum, so it’s a process. This is often not a smooth, easy journey. This exploration takes time, strength, and great perseverance. There’s really no magic formula because each person is unique and requires slightly different tuning. However, I want to provide you with some general tips that have helped people I have worked with.
How to Cultivate Self-Love:
- Start with your willingness to explore your relationship with yourself. In order to change, you need to be willing. It needs to be something you want, not something someone else wants for you. It’s perfectly normal to feel afraid and uncomfortable.
- Become very aware of how you talk to yourself. You need to be self-aware in order to change your behavior. When you say something about yourself, notice how it makes you feel. Do you feel happy, joyful, calm OR depressed, anxious, frustrated, disappointed? If you feel “good” then you most likely said something nice about yourself. If you feel “bad” then you most likely said something negative about yourself.
- This part is often challenging– when you say something hurtful about yourself, be willing to change this behavior. Yes, this can be difficult and uncomfortable and yes, it’s absolutely normal to feel this way. Remember that anytime you make changes, it takes time to adjust. Breathe. You got this!
- How do you change this unhealthy behavior? This is where some self-exploration is needed. Let’s say your self-talk was, “I can’t do anything right!” and you felt frustrated and depressed. Look at that thought a bit closer. First of all, is it really true? I’m guessing it’s not true because I have yet to meet someone who can’t do anything right.
- Change the thought to one that feels kinder. Instead of saying, “I can’t do anything right”, you can say to yourself, “Some things I do well and some things are not my strength,” or “I didn’t do well on that one thing, but I did well on these other things.” There are countless possibilities. Pick one that feels right for you.
- Next, say the new thought and notice how you feel. The chances are that you probably feel better. This is because thoughts and feelings are connected. In other words, what you think influences how you feel. For instance, if you think negative thoughts about yourself, then you will feel depressed. On the contrary, if you think positive thoughts of yourself, then you will feel confident. This has been proven by research!
- Try to notice where your feelings about yourself stem from. This is very important. Is your unhealthy relationship with yourself due to family issues you experienced while growing up? Was your family environment unhealthy? Do you possibly have unresolved trauma?
- Do something kind for yourself each day. Nurturing your own needs is a great way to develop self-love. Some ways to nurture yourself are- take a bath, buy flowers, make dinner, go to the beach, get your hair done, etc. This should feel nurturing.
- Improve your personal boundaries with people in your life. This can be incredibly challenging, however, it’s necessary if you want a better relationship with yourself. Take baby steps and move as slow as you need to. Self-love means honoring where you are on your personal journey. Having personal boundaries means speaking your truth in a respectful way. If someone says something that upsets you, tell them. Say “no” when you feel that it is the right choice for you. Listen to your feelings, they are there to guide you. If you feel uncomfortable in your body, tune into that feeling and try to figure out where it’s coming from. When someone crosses your personal boundary, you will feel it. Then the choice is yours to do something about it.
In order to develop healthy relationships with others, you need to start with YOU! Your relationship with yourself is the foundation for all relationships in your life. If you want to attract healthy relationships, then it’s important to love yourself. I mean love yourself unconditionally, especially the parts of yourself that you don’t necessarily like. Sometimes this process can feel incredibly scary, so it’s perfectly OKAY to explore this with a counselor. This can be extremely beneficial because you would have the support you may need. There’s no shame in wanting to feel better. You deserve to heal, transform, and feel empowered! Remember self-love is a process so please be patient with yourself.