This post is the fourth in a series that accompanies each week in my book, Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks. Week 4 begins on page 104 in the print edition.
This week marks the transition into the second half of this program. So far you’ve set your goals, added engaging activities into your life, and are addressing your thought patterns. It’s definitely a practice to challenge our negative thoughts; it won’t necessarily come easily, but it will improve the more you do it.
In this post I’d like to focus on a powerful way to change negative feelings about ourselves. This approach sits right at the intersection of thoughts and actions. I’ve found that one of the hardest things to change is also extremely common: a general negative feeling about ourselves—the sense that in some fundamental way, I am a not-OK human being.
This feeling can show up in many ways. We might think terrible things about ourselves, like that we’re stupid, inadequate, disgusting, unlovable, even worthless. We might constantly berate ourselves for “not doing enough” or for “always screwing up.” Or maybe we can’t even find words for the negative way we see ourselves, we just have a constant inexpressible sense of not liking the person we are.
Whatever our negative thoughts about ourselves, I’ve found that they often go along with a not very friendly way of treating ourselves. Sometimes the mistreatment is in the form of abuse—often verbal, and sometimes physical as we deprive ourselves of sleep, eat poorly, or abuse alcohol and other drugs.
More subtle but perhaps equally damaging is self neglect. As considerate as we might be toward others, we often don’t extend the same consideration to the person who inhabits our skin.
Do we take the time to plan our day in a way that nourishes our sanity?
Do we choose foods that fuel our minds and bodies?
Do we consider our own needs and do what we can to meet them?
[What Makes You So Special? It’s Time You Found Out on Psychology Today blog]
It’s hard to see yourself as someone of value, a person worth knowing and loving, if the one person you’re always with—yourself—treats you badly.
Imagine a relationship with a person who never asks how you’re doing, never attends to your needs—a person who rarely does anything nice for you, and if s/he does, it’s begrudgingly and with minimal effort.
How might this treatment affect the way you feel about yourself if the person were a friend, or a family member, or a romantic partner? It’s easy to imagine starting to feel like you’re not worth caring about.
In the same way, abusing and neglecting ourselves can reinforce the idea that I am not a worthwhile person. Thus the situation many of us find ourselves in is a Catch-22: I need to see myself as having value in order to treat myself well, and I need to treat myself well in order to see that I have value. No wonder it can be so hard to change our negative sentiments about ourselves!
How can we break out of this cycle? I would suggest that we lead with behavior. It’s really hard to force a certain way of feeling about ourselves simply through the way we think. This is not to underplay the value of catching and correcting the harsh ways we think about ourselves, but thought alone without a change in our behavior is unlikely to get us very far.
And as I wrote about in Week 2, behavior is a great place to start. Even if we don’t feel like doing something, we can choose to act, and the feelings often follow. We can treat ourselves as if we love ourselves. We can, in fact, fake it.
Yes, I mean pretend you like yourself. Pretend you care about your own happiness. Pretend your needs are more than an afterthought. Pretend you’re someone worth making a nice lunch for. Act as though you’re someone who matters.
Self love can feel pretty uncomfortable at first, especially if it’s a foreign concept. If it is, try easing into you. You might start with treating yourself like a friend. Keep in mind that you don’t have to try to feel a certain way. After all, you probably didn’t make friends with others by deliberately making yourself like them. Just treat yourself the way you might treat someone you’re getting to know—someone you recognize as a whole person, as real as anyone else.
Some may be concerned that self-care could turn into narcissistic self-absorption. I think “overcorrecting” in this way is unlikely, for at least a couple of reasons. First, chronic abuse and neglect of ourselves is not easily overcome. At best we can hope to improve the way we treat, and see, ourselves. More than likely you’ll continue to struggle at times with liking yourself.
And second, true self-care includes caring for other people and fostering meaningful relationships. Indeed, one of the kindest things we can do for ourselves is to look out for the needs of others.
In fact, self-care actually makes us more likely to care about others. When we feel loved and cared for, we have more to share. (We also become less willing to tolerate being mistreated by others when we’re treating ourselves well.)
[Presence, Pain, and Compassion on Psychology Today blog]
So many times I’ve heard people say, “I have a hard time loving myself.” Most of the time what they mean is, “It’s hard for me to feel love for myself.” A friend I had in college was fond of saying, “Love is a verb.” So if you’re having a hard time feeling love for yourself, try showing yourself love.
Going through this program is already a powerful act of self-compassion. Up to this point you’ve considered your needs and goals, added rewarding activities into your life, and are carefully examining the thoughts that go through your head. This work is nothing if not self-love.
I wish you the best for this week. Why not make it a great one?
I’ll post the next installment on November 28, 2016.