In part I of this series I focused on how we can recognize and change unhelpful ways of thinking. This time I'll describe a powerful way to change negative feelings about ourselves that sits at the intersection of thoughts and behaviors.
As a reminder from last time, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is based on understanding how our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are related to each other.
By changing the way we think and act we can foster well-being and build a life we love.
One of the hardest things to change also seems to be very common: a general sense that in some fundamental way, I am not OK.
This sentiment can show up in different ways:
Telling ourselves terrible things: that we're stupid, inadequate, disgusting, even unlovable.
Constantly berating ourselves for "always screwing up."
A nagging sense that we're "not doing enough."
A constant and inexpressible sense of not liking the person we are.
It shouldn't be surprising that negative thoughts about ourselves often go hand-in-hand with unfriendly ways of treating ourselves.
The mistreatment might come in the form of abuse, which is often verbal and can also be physical: eating poorly, abusing alcohol and other substances, or depriving ourselves of adequate sleep.
More subtle but equally damaging is self neglect. We often don't extend ourselves the same consideration we would automatically extend to others.
It’s hard to see yourself as someone worth knowing and loving if the one person you’re always with (you) treats you badly.
Imagine being in a relationship with someone who never asks how you are (and actually wants to know), never considers your needs, and rarely does anything nice for you—and if s/he does, it’s done begrudgingly and with minimal effort.
How might you feel about yourself if a friend, family member, or romantic partner treated you this way? It’s easy to imagine starting to feel like you’re not worth caring about.
In the same way, we reinforce the idea that I am not a worthwhile person when we abuse and neglect ourselves.
Thus, we can find ourselves in a Catch-22:
Small wonder it's hard to change our negative feelings about ourselves.
How can we break out of this cycle? By starting with behavior. Very rarely have I seen anyone change how they feel about themselves simply by changing their thoughts, which doesn't mean it's not important to catch and correct harsh ways of thinking about ourselves. But changing our thinking without changing our behavior won't get us very far.
When we choose to act—even when we don't feel like it—our feelings often follow. We can treat ourselves as if we love ourselves. We can, in fact, fake it.
Yes, I mean pretend you like yourself. Pretend your happiness matters. Pretend your needs are important. Pretend you’re someone worth making a nice lunch for. Act as though you’re a person of value.
Showing ourselves love might feel pretty uncomfortable at first, especially if it’s a foreign concept. If that's the case, try easing into you. You might start with treating yourself like a friend. Examples include:
Taking time to plan the day in a way that nourishes your sanity
Choosing foods that fuel your mind and body
Considering your needs and doing what you can to meet them
You don’t need to make yourself feel a certain way. After all, you probably didn’t make friends by deliberately making yourself care about the other person. Just treat yourself the way you'd treat someone you’re getting to know—someone you recognize as a whole person, as real as anyone else.
And don't worry—self love doesn't have to be sappy or sentimental. Giving ourselves a friendly kick in the ass to get moving can be an act of love, leading us to greater productivity that fuels our confidence. We can also choose to face our fears—whether of failure or success—as an act of radical kindness toward ourselves.
A Recipe for Narcissism?
Does this kind of self-care turn into narcissistic self-absorption? That type of “overcorrecting” is unlikely, for at least two reasons.
First, it's not easy to overcome chronic self-abuse and -neglect. At best we can hope to improve the way we treat (and see) ourselves. You’ll probably continue to struggle at times with liking yourself.
And second, true self-care includes caring for other people and fostering meaningful relationships. One of the kindest things we can do for ourselves is to look out for the needs of others.
In fact, when we feel loved and cared for, we actually have more to share. Thus self-care can make us more likely to care about others. (We also become less willing to tolerate mistreatment from others when we’re treating ourselves well.)
So many times I’ve heard people say, “I have a hard time loving myself.” Most of the time what they mean is, “It’s hard for me to feel love for myself.” A friend I had in college was fond of saying, “Love is a verb.” So if you’re having a hard time feeling love for yourself, try showing yourself love.
I wish you the best for this week. What can you do to make it a great one?