The Art of Cultivating Self-Love: Lessons in Compassion and Kindness
If you have ever stood in front of a mirror and told your reflection you love them, you might be familiar with the sense of idiocy that washed over me as I faced my bathroom mirror, searching for a scrap of authenticity in the words I had just spoken. If only self-love were that easy.
The words felt contrived, and not at all “me”. I wanted to love myself, but I probably wasn’t going to find it within some cookie-cutter wellbeing exercise. Self-love is perhaps the greatest love of all, but it’s also the hardest.
I have never been good at it. My inadequacies shine bright and, more often than not, I view my achievements as simply what needed to be done. Yes, woe is me. And yet I don’t know many people who can honestly say they haven’t experienced the feeling of not being enough, or even nearly enough.
It’s hardly peer-reviewed data, but sometimes personal experience trumps the numbers; science is great, but it’s not a heart-to-heart with your best girlfriend, it doesn’t know the things you say to yourself just before you drift off to sleep.
In the past, when I have made mistakes, I’ve been quick to chastise and reject myself. I have felt guilt for passing on social occasions, guilt for not being further along in my career, guilt for not providing my daughter with a permanent home, mum guilt — all the guilts, in fact.
Lately though, I have been wondering why I am so hard on myself; who does this serve? There was a time when my high standards proved to be a powerful engine; they got me to where I wanted to go, but self-flagellation only gets you so far. That engine of doubt will inevitably burn out.
Often the stories we tell ourselves become outdated and need to be revised. Mine were longing to have the bonnet pulled up and be inspected. But the idea of self-love, and much of the conversation around it, has always rung a little self-absorbed to me — a way of letting yourself off the hook when you haven’t met the mark.
To me, the kingdom of self-love was just abstract “fluff”, but I was wrong — the science proves it to be anything but insubstantial. Studies have shown that people higher in self-love have greater happiness and resilience and less depression, anxiety and shame. They are also rated as more compassionate and generous by their loved ones.
Researchers from the Australian Catholic University in Sydney found that self-love reduces the link between perfectionism and depression. People who are kinder to themselves have been shown to be more resilient in the face of adversity and recover more easily after trauma. They are also more likely to be successful and productive, and more likely to stick to healthy lifestyle choices than people who shame themselves.
Self-love, then, is a psychological asset not to be sniffed at, even by its most fervent naysayers, like me.
But if it doesn’t come naturally to you, can you cultivate compassion, even tenderness, for yourself? Absolutely, you can. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned so far.
Lesson #1: You don’t have to be perfect to be worthy of love and kindness
Everyone deserves to feel love. Yes, everyone. The people you think don’t deserve it are likely a product of the absence of self-love. You don’t have to be perfect, great or even good to be worthy of love. In fact, the days when you’re not even “good” are when you need to love yourself the most.
Lesson #2: It’s not about letting yourself off the hook
Self-love isn’t about being self-indulgent or lazy, it’s about adopting a growth mindset. What can I learn from this? How can I grow? Imagine your best friend coming to you after a failure. How would you react? What would you say? Your brain might be saying, “But you should be better.” We are much more capable of viewing other people’s “flaws” in an objective light. Try to wedge some distance between yourself and your “failures”. Consider that your shortcomings don’t make you less than, they make you more human. When you frame them in kindness, it’s much easier to find the courage to face the parts of you that make you uncomfortable and, in turn, it becomes much easier to learn and grow. Be on your own team.
Fittingly, “I am on my own team” turned out to be the affirmation that worked for me in those early days of mirror chat. You could also try: “Good morning [name],” or “I am enough”.
Lesson #3: Love is hard, self-love is even harder
If you’ve ever been in love, you will have experienced the feeling of vulnerability it brings; it can make you feel unguarded, stripped bare. Self-love conjures the same vulnerability because it asks you to see yourself as an imperfect whole, and some parts of yourself will be more difficult to look at than others. That’s OK. You don’t have to look at them all at once and you don’t have to love all of your stories, but you should be gentle with yourself. Tread with caution and compassion.
Lesson #4: Remember the science
When we act with self-love, we trigger the release of the love hormone oxytocin, and some of the happy hormones endorphins. Together, these hormones fight stress in your physical body and increase feelings of support. When you treat yourself with kindness, you deactivate your threat-defence system and switch on your capacity for growth.
Likewise, when you shame and berate yourself, you switch to defence mode and shut down the learning centres of the brain. There is no such thing as “tough” love, only compassionate love.
Contrary to popular belief, resilience isn’t learned by experiencing many hardships, but by cultivating a strong growth mindset whenever you face
a challenge. If you want to be strong, first you must be vulnerable.
Lesson #5: Practise, practise and practise again
You don’t arrive in the kingdom of self-love by accident. But self-love can be learned, and the more you practise being gentle with yourself, the more you strengthen the pathways in the brain that control compassion and kindness to yourself and others. Simply being nice to yourself, then, can begin to reverse a lifetime of self-judgement, guilt and shame.