For many people, the concept of self-love might conjure images of tree-hugging hippies or cheesy self-help books. But, as many psychology studies attest, self-love and -compassion are key for mental health and well-being, keeping depression and anxiety at bay. Below, we take a look at some of the things that you can do to nurture this core feeling.
“Why is self-love important?” you might ask. For many of us, self-love might sound like a luxury rather than a necessity — or a new-age fad for those with too much time on their hands.
Ironically, however, self-care and -compassion might actually be needed most by those of us who work too hard and who are constantly striving to surpass ourselves and grasp the shape-shifting phantasm of perfection.
Most of the time, when we’re being too hard on ourselves, we do it because we’re driven by a desire to excel and do everything right, all the time. This entails a lot of self-criticism, and that persecutory inner voice that constantly tells us how we could’ve done things better is a hallmark of perfectionism.
Studies have shown that perfectionists are at a higher risk of several illnesses, both physical and mental, and that self-compassion might free us from its grip. Therefore, perfectionism and self-compassion are inextricably linked.
This article will look at ways to dial down the former and boost the latter, with the conviction that doing so will help you to lead a happier, more fulfilled life.
The ills of perfectionism
Most of us in the Western world have been raised to believe that perfectionism is a great quality to have. After all, being obsessed with perfect details leads to perfect work, and this personality trait gives us the opportunity to humblebrag during job interviews.
In reality, however, perfectionism is bad for you. Not just “not ideal” or “harmful when excessive,” but actively bad. Like cigarettes or obesity.
A shorter lifespan, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, eating disorders, depression, and suicidal tendencies are only a few of the adverse health effects that have been linked with perfectionism.
Moving away from perfectionism
So what can we do to move away from perfectionism? First off, acknowledge that it’s bad for you; beating yourself up over every little error gradually chips away at your sense of self-worth and makes you less happy. And you deserve better than this.
In the words of Kristin Neff — a professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin — “Love, connection, and acceptance are your birthright.”
In other words, happiness is something that you’re entitled to, not something that you need to earn. Even the United Nations adopted a resolution recognizing that the “pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal.”
Also, you should try to resist the temptation to beat yourself up for beating yourself up. Paul Hewitt — a clinical psychologist in Vancouver, Canada, and author of the book Perfectionism: A Relational Approach to Conceptualization, Assessment, and Treatment — likens the inner critic harbored by perfectionists to “a nasty adult beating the crap out of a tiny child.”
When you’ve spent years cultivating this inner bully, you develop an unconscious reflex to put yourself down for every minor thing, no matter how ridiculous or absurd.
From missing a deadline to dropping a teaspoon on the floor, perfectionists will constantly give themselves a hard time over the most unexpected things — so criticizing yourself for criticizing yourself is not uncommon.
Thirdly, you can start cultivating some much-needed self-compassion. You might think that self-love is a case of “you either have it or you don’t,” but luckily, psychologists insist that it is something you can learn.
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion and self-love are largely used interchangeably in specialized literature. Researchshows that having more self-compassion builds resilience in the face of adversity, helping people to recover more quickly from trauma or romantic separation. It also helps us to better cope with failure or embarrassment.
But what is it, exactly? Drawing on the work of Prof. Neff, Sbarra and colleagues define self-compassion as a construct that encompasses three components:
- “self-kindness (i.e., treating oneself with understanding and forgiveness),
- recognition of one’s place in shared humanity (i.e., acknowledgment that people are not perfect and that personal experiences are part of the larger human experience),
- and mindfulness (i.e., emotional equanimity and avoidance of overidentification with painful emotions).”
“Self-kindness entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than flagellating ourselves with self-criticism,” write Profs. Neff and Germer.
Easier said than done? You might think so, but luckily, the same researchers who worked hard to study and define the feeling have also come up with a few useful tips for enhancing it.
Mindfully trained self-compassion
By combining mindfulness with self-compassion, Profs. Neff and Germer — who works at Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA — have developed a technique called “Mindful Self-Compassion […] Training,” which they have tested in clinical trials with heartening results.
In the words of the researchers, “Self-compassion says, ‘Be kind to yourself in the midst of suffering and it will change.’ Mindfulness says, ‘Open to suffering with spacious awareness and it will change.'”
Published Friday 23 March 2018
By Ana Sandoiu
Fact checked by Jasmin Collier