By Hannah McGrath, MA, M.Div
Clients often ask, “why is it so much harder for me to be kind to myself than it is to be kind to other people?” I relate to this frustrating question, and it makes me reflect on my own path to becoming kinder toward myself. Your journey might look different from mine, and that’s okay. But, I’d like to share what worked for me. I hope it will help you start thinking about how your own self-love journey might unfold.
The big shift in my relationship with myself happened in college. I had previously been to therapy but had never recognized (or been called out for) how hard I was on myself. I started working with an amazing therapist who helped me see the connection between self-criticism, feelings of guilt, and self-destructive behaviors. She recommended I read “Intuitive Eating,” which has continued to transform my relationship with food, my body, and myself.
The idea (learned from the Intuitive Eating book) that perhaps I could treat myself with the same care and compassion that I would show my loved ones blew my mind. Intuitive eating itself is a topic for a different post, but this book was a key step in recognizing how guilt and shame had no place in my path toward healing. In fact, curiosity and kindness toward oneself are much more powerful!
This was a major shift for me because I previously had thought that being kind to myself was “selfish”. But the irony is that being kinder to myself allowed me to be more patient and authentic with the people in my life. Often, people fear that being gentler and kinder toward themselves would mean being “lazy” or “lowering their standards”. In actuality, we tend to learn more from a place of love and safety rather than from shame and judgment.
Being kind to yourself doesn’t mean not holding yourself accountable, it means holding yourself accountable from a place of goodness and respect instead of beating yourself up. How do you feel about developing a more loving relationship with yourself? Does it seem like a worthwhile endeavor? If not, why not? It’s okay and normal to have mixed feelings about making a change like this.
Before actually making any changes, I had to start with becoming aware of how I spoke to myself. I couldn’t make any changes if I didn’t recognize my critical inner voice (who loves to use language like “should” and “shouldn’t”). One tool that helped me increase awareness around self-talk was journaling. Journaling also gave me a place to reflect on my experiences and validate my own feelings while working out new and loving ways of talking to myself. Journaling has allowed me to better notice what brings me joy and what I can practice expressing gratitude for. When I look back on old journal entries, it can also help me notice ways I’ve grown and allows me to feel proud. I know journaling without judgment toward yourself can feel challenging, but I highly suggest giving it a try.
TRY THIS: It’s helpful to remember that journaling can take so many different forms: drawing, writing full sentences, writing bullets, using specific prompts, writing it as a letter to yourself or someone else, etc.
Around the same time I began my self-love journey, one of my close friends was going through a difficult time, and I wanted to do something uplifting for her. I decided to make her a quote jar, full of encouraging and inspiring affirmations (honestly, all sourced from various Pinterest posts). I spent hours making this gift and ultimately noticed a huge shift in my own mood and mindset in the process. I went on to make the same gift for other friends, and even for myself. This was my first real experience with what it means to rewire one’s brain. Which brings me to the next step in my journey…
Learning to be intentional about the words I use with myself. SELF-TALK IS A BIG DEAL, Y’ALL. This involved catching myself when I would speak or think in a way that was putting myself down or beating myself up, and starting to use kinder and gentler wording. Practicing kind self-talk might feel a little silly at first if you haven’t tried it before. You may notice your inner critic jump in and try to shut it down. But remind yourself that most skills take time and consistent effort to develop. Allow yourself to build the skill of kind self-talk! If you’re not sure where to even start, think of how a loving friend or relative usually talks to you, or the way you talk to someone you really care about. Use these words with yourself too. Or you can find a mantra that resonates with you, like “You are enough” or “You can do hard things”.
TRY THIS: If you use a planner, write encouraging messages to yourself on random future days.
Finally, allowing myself to let go of people who don’t encourage me to love myself and who don’t enhance my growth was huge. When I say “let go of”, I don’t necessarily mean cutting people out or not caring about them anymore–it just means not allowing their opinions to carry so much weight. In order to let go, you don’t have to blame or shame anyone. You can wish them the best and also not expect yourself to stay well-connected to them.
TRY THIS: Notice how you feel about the relationships in your life. Which relationships consistently bring up feelings of anger, exhaustion, or anxiety for you? Do you feel responsible for how the other person feels? You can be a sensitive and caring person while not carrying other people’s emotional luggage, so to speak.
All of this self-love work is the foundation for unlearning unhelpful beliefs throughout life. Our beliefs and worldviews are not set in stone–they are developed and reinforced over time. They can absolutely change, although that kind of change takes time, effort and intention. I hope you become curious about your own core beliefs and how/why they originated, as well as start recognizing ways these beliefs might have felt helpful in the past, but are no longer. There are a multitude of ways to view the world– allow yourself to explore beliefs that are more supportive of your growth. Consistently practicing kind self-talk eventually turns into unconscious self-support and confidence.
Finally, have patience with yourself! Self-love is an ongoing journey. Creating a healthy relationship with yourself–just as in creating a great relationship with anyone else in your life–is not a one-time thing. What is one small step you can take today toward creating a more loving and supportive relationship with yourself?
I hope you remember that you are a person who is worthy and deserving of kindness and compassion–from others, and also from yourself.