A great question from Marcia, of the epic email exchange from not so long ago:
“So my question is, how do you love yourself, what does it mean to love yourself and what are the things that you can really do and practice to love yourself. I am interested to know your personal opinion on what loving yourself truly means. I really respect your work and I believe what you have to share is important and that is why I am reaching out to you. I look forward to your reply. Many thanks and much love and light, Marcia
Hmm… you ask what it means to love oneself and how to do it, as simply as you would ask for a puff pastry at the bakery. No sweat!
I’d like to bring to your attention that you also have an answer, and that your answer as good as mine. More on that later. But instead of trafficking in semantics, I’d like to dive directly into things you can do to make yourself feel better. We start with the simple and go to the more advanced:
1) Give up criticism of self and others.
Everyone has this little bugger inside his head saying stuff like, “Why’d you do that? That was like the dumbest thing everrrrr. I can’t even believe I’m living inside your head, you doofus/dweeb/dumbass. I’m gonna go find a better head to annoy.”
Well, it’s your head, so let’s do something to kick the little bugger out. Why? Because criticizing yourself does not make you a better person. At all. Actually, it makes you kind of annoying. What, you think the world needs extra help in making you miserable? Surely there are better uses for that energy.
Whether it was inculcated in you as a child (all those Southeast Asian tiger moms), part of your ambient culture (Jantelagen in Scandinavia) or inflicted upon you by a partner, this whole idea of habitually putting yourself down has got to go. And if the argument that it’s better for you doesn’t wash because you just don’t care about yourself that much, then consider this: the extent we criticize ourselves determines the extent we criticize others. So if you’re nicer to yourself, you’re bound to be nicer to others.
As Mark Nepo says in his extraordinary Book of Awakening: “In order to be whole, suspend your criticism. For life is not a matter of taste, but of awakening; not a matter of finding things pleasing or disturbing, but of finding things completing; not a matter of liking or disliking, but of opening the geography of one’s soul.”
Great, I’m sold doc. But how do you stop? Let me give you two methods right here right now:
a) The rubber band technique. Stick a rubber band on your wrist. Now every time you have negative self-talk, thwack yourself with the rubber band. Make sure you do it immediately, and make sure it stings. Very rapidly, your mind will make the connection between negative self-talk and ouchie, and the negativity will stop.
b) Advanced NLP razzle-dazzle. It would take too long to write this up, so I’ll just record a little something next week for you that’s easy to follow.
2) Establish a daily self-love practice.
My friend and colleague Kamal Ravikant wrote this neat little book called Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends on It. One thing he recommends is to spend 5 minutes of every day in front of a mirror, looking directly into your own left eye and saying, “I love myself.”
You think that’s kooky and strange? Well, not any kookier than saying to yourself “you suck” all day long, which is what most of us are doing anyway.
You should also make it a habit to do nice things for yourself all the time. You don’t have to buy a new Mercedes S-class every weekend; a little splurge goes a long way.
3) Engage in acts of service.
Psychologists say that it’s difficult to change one’s self-esteem or self-love. But one thing that seems to make a difference is engaging in service. Doing stuff for other people activates the prosocial circuitry of the brain and juices your body up with all kinds of feel-good hormones.
Also, remember that low self-esteem is just another form of narcissism. In order to have low self-esteem, you have to focus on your tiny little self to the exclusion of the rest of the vast universe of beauty and miracles. When you focus your attention and energy on making someone else’s day, the whole idea of self-esteem becomes irrelevant as you become an instrument of joy to the world.
4) Do kundalini yoga.
I started taking kundalini yoga classes two years ago, and I noticed that it had an uplifting quality to it. Something about all that breathing, twisting, dropping and swinging just opens up your energy channels, especially your heart. I can’t explain how it works, but I did talk about it more extensively in another article.
5) Move beyond the self.
One of the central tenets of Buddhism is anatta, or no-self. The idea is simple: everything that seems to have a stable appearance is actually changing constantly, like the flame of a candle. So it wouldn’t make any sense to call a candle flame Seymour, and expect it to stay a certain way, or last forever.
Well, it turns out that it also doesn’t make sense to give humans a fixed name and expect them to stay the same, but we do that all the time. The fact is that, upon close inspection, there is no fixed self to anybody or anything. So why get attached to something nonexistent?
“Okay, doc, so I got rid of my name, and now I’m floating in outer space unattached to anything– what now?” you ask. Excellent question. This is what the Tao Te Ching says:
What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
That arise from thinking of the self.
When we don’t see the self as self,
What do we have to fear?
See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
Then you can care for all things
The point that a lot of Eastern wisdom traditions make is that the feeling of separation is the root of all suffering. I mean, when you look at a fish in the sea, you don’t think it’s separate from the sea, do you? Fish and sea are a unit. And so are you and the air, the food you eat, the people you associate with, the entire ecosystem, solar system and beyond. One unit! One big soup of atomic wavefunctions all tangled together.
This is something that needs to be felt rather than understood by the intellect. A sustained meditation practice may get you there. Metta meditation is particularly good for this. And if you’re up for reading a book, there’s The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself. Seismically powerful stuff.
Now go forth and live the rest of your life like it’s Valentine’s Day every day.
All the best,