by Kim Childs, CPPC
I’d heard about this exercise from author Louise Hay, who advocates positive self-talk and affirmations for physical and emotional healing. “You have been criticizing yourself for years, and it hasn’t worked,” Hay once wrote. “Try approving of yourself and see what happens.”
And so I did, and that’s when I discovered that my inner critic can be surprisingly alert and vocal at 7 a.m.
In general, I treat myself well, appreciate my abilities and strengths, and practice good self-care as a coach and teacher who aims to walk her talk. A recent year of intense personal challenges grew my self-compassion and self-forgiveness, and my training in Positive Psychology helps me to dispute and transform pessimistic thoughts. Nonetheless, some days I found it surprisingly hard to unconditionally love myself as I faced that mirror.
This was especially true when I focused on wrinkles, recalled regrettable words or actions, or felt inadequate or guilty for not doing more to realize my goals. Some days, “I love you” was followed by such phrases as “and I forgive you…you’re doing the best you can…you can do better today…you have a good heart and good intentions…you’ve helped many people…you do important work in the world…and (fill in the blank) loves you, too.”
While this might recall the ridiculous Stuart Smalley from Saturday Night Live, Stuart (aka actor Al Franken) went on to become a U.S. senator, so perhaps he was doing something right after all.
Some mornings, this practice boosted my mood for the whole day.
“In order to thrive in life we have to find a way to regard ourselves with respect and some consistent positive self-regard,” says Kripalu Center faculty member Maria Sirois. “For many of us, this is challenging, as we have grown into the habit of self-criticism or even self-loathing and it may seem impossible to find a way back to loving and forgiving ourselves for not being perfect.”
Sirois says the journey toward greater positive self-regard is one of small steps, taken each day to actively practice some form of self-love. “It might look like being honest about what we want to do with our free time and who we really want to spend it with,” she says. “It might mean saying no to old habits, such as watching hours of TV each night, and yes to reading, dancing or meditating.”
Having also done the mirror exercise in her 20s, Sirois reports, “That practice became the foundation of learning to put myself in the equation of my own life—not to negate the importance of others, but to include myself in the formula of my days and balance that with care for others.”
Friends who joined my 30-day challenge on Facebook added personalized mantras and affirmations, and drew lipstick hearts on the mirror. A colleague shared that he began a self-love practice several years ago to overcome harsh self-criticism, and it worked. “I did this religiously every night for at least half a year, saying, ‘I appreciate you, I respect you, I love you,’” he recalls. “At some point, I noticed the internal harshness had abated, and it was okay to stop because the result I sought had been achieved.”
When I talk about self-love with students and clients, I often get blank looks, complaints that it’s too hard, or protests that it’s more important to love and care for others. Christine Arylo, co-author of Reform Your Inner Mean Girl, says that we should consider love an inexhaustible resource, whether directed at ourselves or others. “There is an infinite supply of love and, the more you love yourself, the more capable and free you are to unconditionally love others,” she says. “If you are taking care of everyone else’s needs and sacrificing what you need and desire over and over again, you will become resentful, depleted, or angry—the opposites of love.”
To strengthen self-love, Arylo says we can first become aware of where we’re weak or strong in loving ourselves. “For example, you may be strong in self-esteem and weak in self-respect, so you’re a super star at work and a disaster in your love life,” she explains. “Or perhaps you’re strong in self-empowerment but weak in self-care, so you manifest your dreams but you do so at the cost of your health.”
Arylo recommends selecting one aspect of self-love to grow at a time, and making choices that support it. If you choose self-care, do something each day to treat yourself well. If you want to boost self-esteem, take one small risk a day. To grow self-respect, act with integrity.
As for me, I plan to continue this practice of honoring and encouraging myself each morning. I’ll also keep doing my part to ensure that I can rest my head easily on the pillow each night.
Kim Childs is a Certified Positive Psychology Life, Career and Wellness Coach. Click here to learn more and schedule a free initial consultation in person or over the phone.