As originally appeared in Smart Woman Magazine, May/June 2007
Relationships make up a huge part of most women’s lives. Whether it’s with their partners, their parents, their children, their friends or their colleagues, most women spend a large portion of their time and energy thinking about and taking care of relationships.
But what about your relationship with yourself? That’s a relationship, too. Do you take care of that relationship as well? How is that relationship going?
Of course, most of us have heard that we “should” be more accepting and forgiving of ourselves. The trouble is, rarely does anybody ever explain how to do it. The other problem is that deep down we believe that if we actually do treat ourselves in a kinder, friendlier, more accepting way, we’ll really go to pot – we’ll spend the rest of our lives binge-watching Netflix while eating very large quantities of chocolate (and not the dark anti-oxidant kind either).
After working with thousands of women and men over the past 25 years, I haven’t found that to be true. In fact, I’ve found that the army boot camp approach of ordering ourselves to straighten up and do right almost never results in lasting positive changes.
Harsh judgments and criticisms, whether you receive them from other people or from yourself, only result in hurt, defensiveness and stress (and reaching for more chocolate). The best way both to feel better and to make the changes you want to make is to give yourself the kind of encouragement, caring and support you probably already know how to give to the people you love.
Here are some ideas on how to nurture your relationship with the person you live with all the time – the one who looks back at you from the mirror.
Your Larger Self
To begin with, there’s more to you than the “self” you’re usually in touch with. Normal life is full of highs and lows and ups and downs. But you’ve been growing and developing for decades. You’ve known better and worse times, and you are far more than any temporary state of being. Even a period of low mood or depression that has lasted for weeks or months is not the real “you,” any more than a spell of wet weather means that the sun has ceased to exist.
It’s this larger “you” – what I call the Larger Self – that can extend a more caring and compassionate attitude to the daily struggles you may be going through. When you notice you’re attacking yourself, cataloguing your flaws and thinking thoughts like “How can I be so stupid?” or “What’s wrong with me?” switch to this larger perspective of yourself and say things like “I’m doing the best I can,” “I’ve really come a long way,” “I’m not bad, I’m just going through a hard time right now, and I’ll get through it.” Going easy on yourself – being gentle to (rather than hard on) yourself – reduces the release of stress hormones and helps you regain your balance and move forward again when the going gets tough.
Self-Listening is Key
Every meaningful relationship depends on listening. Listening is to a relationship what oxygen is to a flame. Good listening – the act of truly hearing, understanding and accepting what the other person says and feels – makes a relationship, and the people within it, shine brighter. Without it, the relationship grows weak, flickers and dies.
In the same way, your relationship with yourself depends on truly listening to and hearing yourself – paying attention to what you think, feel and want, and believing that it’s at least as important as the feelings and desires of all the other people in your life.
Most of us spend a great deal of time denying or dismissing our thoughts, feelings and desires. Think of the times in your day when you tell yourself that you “shouldn’t” feel the way you do, or that it “doesn’t matter” what you think and feel, because “it won’t change anything anyway.” At those moments you are dismissing and denying yourself.
The way to listen to yourself is to acknowledge and validate your feelings and desires. Acknowledging means taking a step back and accepting how you think and feel, or what you want, exactly the way it is, without judgment. And when you validate yourself, you tell yourself that you have the right to your thoughts, feelings and desires – that they are right and true for you.
Of course, you may not be able to easily get what you want once you validate it. But the more you pay respectful attention to your feelings and desires, the stronger you’ll become in standing up for what you feel and want in your life.
What Do You Need to Bloom?
Part of any good relationship is getting to know and respect the other person’s needs and preferences, rather than rejecting them and wishing they were different. Yet too often, women ignore or overlook their own needs and preferences. They put themselves into situations that are all wrong for them, and then get angry at themselves for being miserable! The more you can make your daily life into one that is in harmony with your own nature, the happier you’ll be.
Each of us is unique, with a unique combination of needs and preferences. In the plant world, every species is designed to thrive in its own particular environment. An African violet, which has very particular requirements of sun, water and temperature, doesn’t sit around thinking, “I’m too high maintenance.” In fact, whenever you buy a plant from a greenhouse, it comes with a tag that tells you exactly what it needs to bloom. I say, write your own plant tag about what you need to bloom. Why should you have any less specific needs than a plant?
Befriending Your “Parts”
All of us have aspects of ourselves that we don’t think are good. In fact, we tend to divide ourselves into “good” and “bad” parts, and think that we should reward what is good in us and ignore or punish what is bad. Yet each part of us has a reason for being there, and a story to tell. Every part of us has strengths that contribute to the whole.
Think of the parts of you that you don’t like as parts of you that have been left out in the cold. Chances are they received very little love and care from anyone your entire life. Wouldn’t you think they deserve more, not less, kindness and compassion? Who knows what might happen if you treated your weaknesses and flaws with a little kindness and attention instead of judgment. They might improve. They might even turn into strengths.
Loving What’s Imperfect
We live in a society that surrounds us with images of perfection. Turn on a TV or open a magazine and all you see are perfectly beautiful people living in perfectly beautiful houses. Then add to this Facebook and Instagram and all of the “friends” you know who are incessantly “curating” their “brand.” You can easily get the impression that half the people you know have figured out how to live much better than you have.
But the older I get, the more I realize that nobody’s perfect, no relationship is perfect, and life, no matter how smart you’ve tried to be, often doesn’t work out quite the way you planned. This is just the nature of life. Trust me — as a therapist, I can assure you that the vast majority of the people who look like they’ve got perfect lives are faking it.
It’s great to work on goals. It’s great to work on getting more fit or sharpening your career skills or becoming more mindful. But remember: Even as you strive to improve things about yourself, ultimately, the best relationship to have with yourself is the same one you have with a dear friend: remembering that the good qualities in you, whatever they are, far outweigh your flaws.