Most of us treat other people with more respect, more empathy, and more kindness than we show ourselves. We live with constant, daily criticism... from ourselves! Think of someone that you love -- perhaps a beloved child, or a very dear friend. Now imagine making the following comments to that person. You are so fat. You totally screwed that up. You are such a jerk. You look terrible. Everyone thinks you're an idiot. You will never be able to do that. You'll never change.
Unimaginable, right? So why do so many of us freely give ourselves those kinds of messages, daily? Why do so many of us walk around with a loop of negative messages playing inside our heads, starting first thing in the morning? We look in the mirror as we get dressed for the day, and tell ourselves that we look awful, old, puffy, and unattractive. We assess our performance, and find it utterly lacking. We give no points to ourselves for effort, or for intent. We examine our perceived flaws with a magnifying glass: a thick waist, big thighs, thinning hair, a bad relationship, or lack of financial success; and we mercilessly rip ourselves to shreds, confirming that we are unworthy of a well ordered life filled with friends, love and happiness.
Would you talk that way to your child who was being bullied at school? Would you speak that way to a dear friend, who was going through a rough time? Would you even speak that way to your dog? If, in a fit of temper, you did say something unkind, it's likely that you would be remorseful; you'd apologize and try to make amends. Yet we are relentlessly and unapologetically critical of ourselves.
Life is tough enough without making it worse by beating ourselves up. So here is a new rule for how to live your life: Treat yourself at least as well as you treat your dog. It makes sense, doesn't it?
Where does all the negative self-talk come from? For many of us, negative self-perceptions were built into our self-concept over years, very often starting in early childhood. For some, self-criticism echoes the judgment of critical parents, for whom we could never measure up. For others, it was our childish interpretation of our parents' judgments -we were too young to understand the turmoil in our parents' lives that may have prevented them from telling us they loved us, from letting us know that we were fine, just as we were. Perhaps it was the jeering contempt of siblings, the cruelty of childhood friends; daily disrespect from an employer; or years of emotional abuse from a spouse; that now cause us to view ourselves with an overly critical eye. We have absorbed someone else's pain; whatever caused that parent, or friend, or spouse to be cruel, we internalize their negative assessment, and we make it our own. We decide that we do not deserve to be loved.
If this is true of you, then you are in need of a friend. You need that friend to be you. You need to look at yourself with a kind of understanding. You need to understand that no one is perfect; that in fact no one needs to be perfect in order to be good, or loved. Look around you. Are your friends perfect? Is your child perfect? If you look with an honest eye, you know that they are not. Now look at yourself with that same honest eye. And take note, when you looked at a loved one, your eye was honest and loving; you looked with compassion and understanding. You saw the struggles of that person; you saw their hopes and dreams. Turn that same eye, filled with understanding, filled with kindness, on yourself.
How do you begin to be a friend to yourself? How do you unlearn years of self-criticism? Start by noticing the messages that run through your head. Don't judge the messages, don't make this another opportunity to knock yourself, just notice them. Once you start noticing every time you feed yourself a negative message, then you are ready to start negating those messages. It may be hard at first. You are going to break what is likely a lifetime habit of running yourself down. Start with humor if it makes it easier for you. If you hear your inner voice saying I look terrible; simply smile at your reflection and say 'Actually, I look pretty damn good, for an old broad'.
Realize that you do not need to be perfect. This is difficult, a huge step. We know it's true for people around us, but when applied to ourselves, we don't believe it. How many of us feel that until we lose weight, get a better job, get married/into a relationship, or get divorced, our lives are not really worth living? Self-acceptance is very difficult, but you must try. Practice every day. Tell yourself that you are fine now, just as you are. Tell yourself that it is okay not to be perfect. Tell yourself that you are a work in progress. Reject the idea that you need to be thin, blonde, rich, or installed in the corner office to be worthy of love.
Instead, notice the kinds of things that you appreciate in your friends, or in your children. Praise yourself when you have done a good job. Notice the effort you put into accomplishing something, and pat yourself on the back. When you have worked hard, tell yourself that you deserve to rest. When you are tired, ill, or sad, be especially careful of yourself. Treat yourself as carefully as you would a sick child. Allow yourself some weaknesses. Encourage yourself to try again. Support your own dreams. Begin to believe in yourself again, or believe in yourself for the first time if you never have before. Forget about being too old. If you are still breathing, you are not too old to be kind, to be a good person, to love someone, or to be loved.
Being kind to yourself is not an act of selfishness, it is a habit of good health and wellbeing. Like all habits, it will start with small choices, like choosing to reject the thought that you are not good enough. It will gather momentum and energy, and then you will find that it will begin to shape your life for the better.
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