I think one of the biggest obstacles to creating healthy self-care habits is to breakdown our own resistance to the process. For whatever reason, even the words "self-care" and “self-love” can feel hokey or disingenuous. But, we all crave quality relationships with other people and that can be really hard to find when we haven't yet set a precedence of love within. The poet Rumi famously said, "Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it."
Learning to establish and nurture an honest and loving relationship with oneself is a process, full of its own hardships. Nobody is without these challenges. This can be especially challenging for those battling depression, anxiety, or other forms of mental disorder. In fact, I just read about the tragic passing of one of the most articulate Buddhist scholars of our time, Michael Stone, who lost his battle with Bipolar Disorder. This was a great reminder that self-care is not just a hokey self-help industry catchphrase; it is a necessary tool for survival in a chaotic and complicated world.
There are so many considerations in the process of developing an effective self-care practice, but you can begin by noticing the tendency to always put others first. The desire to be of service is a noble one, but just imagine how much more you can give when you draw from a well of energy that is constantly being replenished with small acts of self-care. It is unreasonable to expect anybody to have the capacity to selflessly serve others without also receiving the personal care and support that all humans require.
The area of research that has really highlighted the value of establishing a healthy relationship with the self comes from Dr. Kristin Neff's work on self-compassion. This research finds that self-compassion practice is linked with increased happiness, optimism, curiosity and connectedness, as well as decreased anxiety, depression, rumination and fear of failure . The benefits of this practice are not entirely self-serving. In fact, this practice has been shown to increase motivation and mastery of learning , and it is linked with maturity and emotional intelligence .
It's important to note that this practice goes beyond just boosting self-esteem. Self-compassion isn’t just about always feeling “good” or having unwavering confidence. Self-compassion is a matter of recognizing and accepting ourselves fully, allowing for imperfections and mistakes as inherent in all humans, and practicing mindful awareness of our needs.
Self-love, in the sense that I refer to it, incorporates the practices and principles of self-compassion, while celebrating what Eastern philosophers refer to as the "basic goodness" of all human beings (thereby making everyone worthy of loving kindness). Without falling into the ego trap of narcissism and obsession with self-esteem, can we manage to savor and revel in that which makes us good? Can we inspire others around us to embrace their true selves and shine brighter by embodying a deeper quality of confidence? I believe we can.
How can you begin to take Self more seriously? I’ve listed some basic principles to put into action below. I also wanted to invite you all to join me this month on my social media channels. Every day of this month I will highlight one small, easy, and free act of self-love that you can complete on your own.
You can use these basic self-care principles and actions to implement in your life:
• Make time. There is so much talk about work/life balance, but in reality it ends up feeling more like we have to choose one. Sometimes, we might not even feel like we have a choice. I mean, we all have to work to survive, right? But, it doesn’t have to be that way. Why is it that when it comes to scheduling and managing time, most of us find it easiest to cut out the portion of the day when we were planning to do something good for ourselves (e.g., getting exercise, visiting a friend, getting rest, cooking a home-cooked meal)? How can we expect to feel centered and balanced without ever having time to recharge? It doesn't have to take that long, but we should all have at least 15-20 mins a day for self-care (the website Statista states that Americans spend an average of 135 minutes a day just browsing social media). You have to make time, and stick to it. Sit with your schedule and see if you can give yourself at least 15 minutes every day to do something good for yourself. I like to color code my daily activities in my planner so that I can see the percentage of my day I spend working, showing up for social commitments, and taking care of myself. If I see multiple days in a row without any self-care practices, I make it my priority to find a way to make it happen, even if it means cancelling or moving something else on the books. It’s possible, I promise. You just have to decide that it’s important enough to you to make it happen.
• Say “No, thank you” when you mean it. How many times have you agreed to attend an event or take on a new project that you were not feeling truly excited about or interested in because you didn’t want to disappoint others? So many people are in the practice of ignoring their gut feelings and saying yes because it’s what they think they “should” do. So many of my college students spend years trying to pursue the degrees and careers their parents want them to. So many of my friends stay in jobs or relationships that make them really unhappy just because they feel guilty walking away. There are countless examples of the plague of indifference! But learning how to respectfully decline an invitation or walk away from situations that do not align with your best interest is a way to develop the voice of authentic desire.
• Practice self-compassion. Thanks to the work of Dr. Kristin Neff and colleagues, there are so many resources available to those looking to develop a self-compassion practice.
Self-compassion is comprised of three parts:
1) Self-kindness: (as opposed to self-judgment or criticism). This means giving yourself grace when you fall short of your goals or ideals. Responding to ourselves in the same way that we would respond to a dear friend. 2) Common humanity: recognizing that all humans are imperfect, make mistakes, and experience suffering, therefore you do not need to feel alone or different because of your imperfections. Rather, this can become an opportunity for empathy and better connection in how we relate to others. 3) Mindfulness: learning to acknowledge our feelings (like pain or sadness) without pushing them away but also without getting stuck in them. Acknowledging the ever-changing tides of experiencing the present moment, we witness our thoughts and experience shift constantly, and maintain a loving awareness of what is taking place at all times.
I would love to hear about your process! Where are you on this journey of the Self?
1. Neff, K. D. (2009). The role of self-compassion in development: A healthier way to relate to oneself. Human Development, 52(4), 211-214.
2. Neff, K. D., Hsieh, Y. P., & Dejitterat, K. (2005). Self-compassion, achievement goals, and coping with academic failure. Self and Identity, 4(3), 263-287.
3. Neff, K. D., & Vonk, R. (2009). Self-compassion versus global self-esteem: Two different ways of relating to oneself. Journal of Personality, 77(1), 23-50.