Most people find life a struggle. Unfortunately, many make this struggle even harder by turning into their own worst enemy. Never forget, though you cannot force the world to be kinder to you, you can learn to be kinder to yourself.
The Nature of Self-Love
First, a distinction needs to be made between self-love and narcissism. Raise this subject with a friend and they’ll probably say “ugh, I don’t want to turn into one of those awful narcissists who are only happy when they are boasting about themselves or their children.” In fact, self-love is the opposite of narcissism.
A narcissist is often empty and unfulfilled and is consequently forever in need of praise, admiration and respect – what therapists call “external validation.” But, though a narcissist may hold an inflated, unrealistic view of himself, others rarely share this view, leaving him forever searching and forever dissatisfied. On the other hand, those who treat themselves with loving kindness will be so secure that they can accept their failings and limitations.
Narcissists also tend to lack empathy. The therapist Melody Wilding suggests this may be because narcissists never learn to honor or value their own emotional and physical needs. If you cannot value your own needs, you are unlikely to value other people’s. In fact, narcissists tend to view others as objects to be used rather than individuals with lives of their own. To use an analogy, it is like a mountaineer lost high in the Himalayas: only once he has got warm and put on his own oxygen mask can he take care of his friend. Those who practise self-love have the oxygen mask firmly in place; the narcissist is still gasping for air – so desperately that he ignores those around him. When you are kind to yourself, you are more likely to value yourself and to be comfortable in your own skin. This kindness then becomes a skill you can direct outwards as well as inwards.
How to Be Kinder to Yourself
For many, being kinder to themselves is so alien that they need to learn how. Others have an inbuilt resistance to the very idea, regarding it as selfish or self-indulgent. But it needs to be stressed once again that the kinder you are to yourself the kinder you will be to those around you. And never forget, if you neglect yourself, allowing your physical and mental health to deteriorate, you will literally be unable to care for those you love. The happier and healthier you are, the better placed you will be to support them.
1) Take care of your physical health. Good mental health depends on good physical health. It is an astonishing fact that many people take better care of their motorbike or classic car than they do of their own body. Some, especially macho men, ridicule the very idea, labelling those who take care of themselves as “healthfreaks.” Such an attitude is absurd: so much depends on physical health, from energy levels to physical appearance. A healthy diet and plenty of exercise will also improve your mood.
2) Fight Stress. Too many people accept stress as an inevitable consequence of living in a fast-paced, overcrowded world. But stress isn’t natural – neither is it harmless. Do all you can to reduce stress levels: walk in the countryside, practise mindfulness, eat raw food, and take a course in yoga. You should also consider why you get stressed. Is it your job? Maybe your relationship is making you unhappy. Could you switch careers or find a new partner?
3) Let go of the past. Resist the urge to live in the past. People usually do so for one of two reasons: either they were miserable and cannot let it go, or they were happy and do not want to let it go. In the first case, the individual resembles a wounded animal licking and biting the wound even though it does no good. Let it go. Imagine you are holding a hot saucepan and crying from the pain. One day, a friend says “why not just let it fall to the ground?” But nostalgia can be just as harmful, preventing you from fully engaging with, and enjoying, the present. As the American guru Ram Dass put it, “be here now.”
4) Rid yourself of toxic friends. Ask yourself the following questions, and answer them truthfully: how many of your friends do you like? How many of them make you feel worse? Have you outgrown any of them? Is there a friend whose spite, jealousy or negativity drags you down? People tolerate unpleasant friends for many reasons, most often because they do not realize there is an alternative. Never underestimate the impact toxic friends can have on you. There are people out there whose energy, warmth, love and enthusiasm could transform your life – go and find them.
5) Be careful what you watch, read, and listen to. Try to make it a rule never to watch a film, read a book, or listen to music that lowers your mood or makes you feel worse about life. That is not what art is for; art should thrill, inspire and uplift you. Don’t grit your teeth and slog your way to the end of a classic novel or DVD boxset just because some trendy arts journalist says you should.
6) Become conscious of your interior monologue and change it if necessary. Many people live with a torturer inside their head: a nasty little voice that ridicules and undermines everything they do. People often internalize the voice of a critical parent or school bully and will even picture their face grinning at them when things go wrong. Even if you cannot switch this voice off, at least become conscious of it.
7) Stop putting obstacles in your way. Obviously, it is important to be realistic about your limitations. But be careful not to pile up obstacles in your way. Many people look for these obstacles and then exaggerate their importance. And if they cannot find any, they will invent some. It is extraordinary how much can be achieved through confidence and optimism alone. If you believe things will go wrong, don’t be surprised when they do.
8) Let go of the ‘invisible audience.’ Many people never quite shake the feeling (usually dating from adolescence) that there is some kind of invisible audience watching them and willing them to fail. This is especially true of those who were bullied in early life – either at home or at school. Others live with a subconscious fear that one day they will have to stand before a kind of celestial jury and account for every failing and humiliation.
9) Learn to cope when things go wrong. Cars break down, appointments get missed, dates reject you, and job interviews are disasters – that is true for everyone. The difference between a winner and a loser is that a winner knows this. When something goes wrong, he does not complain that he is “cursed” or indulge the childish fantasy that some higher power is persecuting him.
10) Be kinder to other people. You will get back what you put out there, so be kind to others and they will be kinder to you. This does not mean you should become a creep, neither does it mean you should give on condition that you receive. You must be the change you want to see. If you wish people were more gentle, kind, and polite, be gentle, kind, and polite!
The idea of being kinder to yourself strikes many as selfish, yet it really isn’t. Even Buddhism, the most selfless of religions, encourages self-compassion. Some meditation sessions, for example, begin with the student wishing himself love and happiness before wishing the same to his fellow meditators, then his family, his neighbors and, ultimately, even his enemies – love must flow inward before it can flow outward.