I’ve heard the expression thrown around so many times, I’ve used it so many times, that I think I ought to write in further detail about how one goes about ‘loving themselves first’ rather than just regurgitating the cliché time and time again.
Okay, here we go.
1. Look After Yourself
That sounds dead fucking simple but let’s be honest here, most things that sound simple are, in and of themselves, simplistic in nature. It’s in the implementation that people tend to fall down. In this case, I can describe what looking after yourself means. I can list ways that other people manage to look after themselves. I can link to studies showing that certain activities are proven to improve mental well-being. This would all be something that you’ve read before and if just reading about this shit made it all better, well you wouldn’t still be here reading more. It’s only through real intent and action following that intent that anyone ever makes a change in their life.
There’s no one remedy for every individual (life would be boring if our minds could be fixed so easily), but there is a framework we can all use. It exists in our brain and it’s called habit forming.
Chances are that if you are feeling shitty about who you are as a person, it’s not the underlying consciousness that you think is a piece of shit, it’s actually the person you habitually become every day when you wake up. It’s the way you think, the things you do (or the things you don’t do) that you are unhappy with.
The good news is that these things are all changeable. Make a list of the things you do, say or think that make you unhappy with yourself.
Seriously, go do it now. I’ll wait.
2. Change Your Habits
Then the next logical step is to correct your bad habits. Replace the old with the new. If the person you were unhappy with was a bit of a slob who spent every evening staring at a screen from the comfort of a couch, well then you know that the person that will make you happy must spend their evenings in another way.
You can’t just give up a habit and not replace it with something else. Choose something that you love or even that you think you might enjoy and decide to practice that activity instead. Habits are literally etched into the neural pathways in our brain. This is why they’re so hard to break once they become automatic behaviours. To develop a new habit, you have to write that behaviour into your brain as a new neural pathway¹. It’s not quite brain surgery but you can see why it’s so difficult.
This relates to goal setting as well, but it’s important to aim for a lifestyle change rather than a physical change. For example, aim to get some exercise twice a week rather than aiming to lose a stone. Goals with deadlines are great when the work involved has a real deadline but when you’re looking to change your own habits, there is no benefit in setting yourself a finish line.
I find that deadlines in this context only serve to demotivate me in the case that I miss them or allow me to take the foot off the gas when I’ve surpassed them. This is the old habit fighting back, trying to get the mind to slip back into the comfort of the habit it knows. A personal example would be my efforts to refrain from smoking cannabis, “a whole week without smoking? Time to celebrate with a spliff”. You see how dangerous this can be?
Okay I’ve gone on quite a bit about habits but I hope you see the relevance. We don’t love ourselves because of how we feel. We feel how we do as a result of our experiences. We experience what we do because of our habits. Hence, changing our habits will change our experience, in turn changing our feelings towards ourselves.
3. Practice Mindfulness
“Boo! Go away with your bleedin’ mindfulness shite will ya!?”
Sorry but this has to be mentioned. If you do not try to be mindful, you will fail. In order to rewire the brain you have to actively monitor it (be mindful). If you do not monitor your behaviour (be it thoughts or actions), the mind will slip back into its default mode and before you know it, you’ll be back to your old habits once again.
This is where practising mindfulness comes in handy. I’ve spoken in depth about mindfulness before but the underlying concept is simply that of awareness of the present moment. Within the observation of the present moment lies the key to self-love. When you hear your inner voice giving you grief about something, instead of believing it, accept it as a thought (and only that) and then let it go.
Don’t fight against negative thoughts. I’ve read so much bullshit about only paying attention to positives and then you will only feel positive. It’s bullshit. Completely and utterly. Accept the negative and the positive. Resisting thoughts doesn’t solve our problems, it actually creates more because in doing so you not only have the negative emotion to deal with but also the feeling of tension that stems from resistance.
Allow yourself to feel sad. Do not however, dwell on negative thoughts by humouring them. When we focus our attention on something, we give it our energy. We give it power to sustain. That’s okay if it’s thinking about how happy we’ll be when we’re on holidays, but why would we ever want to fuel a negative thought about our body image with more fire?
The main point I wanted to get at here was mindfulness with regard to maintaining habits. The optimal technique for this (in my opinion) is starting a morning meditation ritual. That doesn’t mean setting aside an extra hour every morning, it can be done in 10 minutes or less. You can download an app for guided meditation or if you feel comfortable doing so, just sit for a few minutes in relative silence and focus on your breath. Think about your intent for the day while you meditate.
Another great piece of advice I’ve taken on board in my own self-improvement is to start the day by writing down what I intend to accomplish throughout the day². Putting it onto paper makes it that bit more real. It’s harder to dismiss something real as opposed to ignoring a thought alone. If you do this over an extended period of time and keep it in some sort of organised format, you’ll be able to look back over all you’ve accomplished and feel pretty great about it. Which brings me on to my next point.
And I don’t mean looking at yourself in the mirror. I mean to think carefully and deeply about your progress. As humans we are blessed with the ability to self-reflect. Meta-cognition is one hell of a drug. We have the capacity to exercise introspection and a willingness to learn more about our fundamental nature, purpose and essence (straight from Wikipedia!).
So what I’m saying here is to put that ability to good use. Reflect critically on your progress and also on your failed attempts at progress. This is how we learn what works for us and what doesn’t. It also turns failed attempts into something of value. When you try something out and discover that you don’t like it, you learn a lot about yourself. You know where not to waste time in the future. It’s important to be aware of our own shortcomings so that we can either work on them or try something different.
Think of reflection as a way of fine tuning our technique for self-improvement to suit our specific needs. You’ll make far more progress with a technique that’s specific to yourself than you will a general approach. If you don’t reflect, you won’t know why it’s not working.
Loving yourself is not an easy task for somebody who has developed some bad habits and allowed their mind to build absolute 4 lane motorways of neural pathways for these habits. By focusing on the fact that all we’ve done is build roads in our head, it becomes easier to know that you can tear them down and build new ones.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was an emotionally stable, self-loving, content mind.
- Understanding the physical process taking place in the brain can be helpful in changing habits. Focusing on the fact that we’re fighting against the current state of the mind as opposed to combating the mind itself motivates us. It reaffirms the idea that this is a battle we can win.
- I use a journal (or diary for those that wish to slag me over it), and follow the structure outlined here to track my progress. There are many online tools that provide the same functionality as paper except you know, on a screen.