For some time now, in my writings and in my work, I have tried to help others learn to love themselves. I have noted that just about all the major world religions include some form of the words “Love your neighbor as yourself”. I have pointed out that Jesus said “as”, not “then”. We are called to love ourselves and our neighbors in equal measure.
Some of the behavioral aspects of love of self are straight-forward. Taking time for prayer and meditation. Allowing yourself to experience those things that give you joy. Taking good care of your body. But for me personally as well as others, the toughest part of learning to love myself has to do with quieting self-judgment.
We all have within us a negative dictatorial voice that constantly criticizes. Perhaps that dictator criticizes our actions with whispers such as ‘That was stupid” or “You don’t know what you’re doing”. Perhaps that voice judges our bodies with words such as “You’re so fat” or “You’re as skinny as a string bean” or “Who would ever love that body?” The capacity that most of us have to criticize ourselves is sobering and disturbing.
Self-judgment can sometimes take the form of its cousin self-pity. I can think of no better example than a man I talked to some years ago. He was very self-critical and one day it took this turn: “I am the opposite of King Midas. Everything I touch turns into shit!”
Cognitive behavioral therapy would encourage us to challenge such thoughts and to look at the evidence. This is useful. The dictator can be challenged by looking at the facts. But that dictator is persistent and often shifts to a different focus such as ‘Well, yes, your weight is normal but look at how big your nose is!” or “Well, yes, you stay busy at work but look at that person you didn’t help last week.”
It can help to give oneself credit for certain things. Perhaps you helped someone today. Perhaps you made someone laugh. Perhaps you baked a good loaf of bread. Perhaps you helped your child with his/her homework.
What I would suggest as an even more powerful antidote to self-judgment is gratitude. If I express gratitude for the good things in my life, at some level I affirm myself. If I am grateful for the people that love me, that suggests that I am lovable. Somehow that is easier to consider than if I just try to tell myself that outright. I remember one man struggling with self-judgment. I asked him for what he was grateful. He said “My wife. She seems to love me a lot.” I then asked “Well, is she insane?” He laughed and said “No she’s not!” He had to consider that perhaps she had found something lovable about him.
On bad days where the self-judgment is rampant, it can also help to reflect on what I am grateful for on this day and this moment. In my own case, for example, I can be grateful that my lungs are clear this morning with no sign of asthma. I can be grateful for a good cup of coffee. I can be grateful for a beautiful El Paso morning.
When I am grateful, I am not necessarily claiming that the good things are my doing. But I am accepting that they have come my way. I may not feel that I deserve the blessings but I can certainly acknowledge and celebrate them.
Lent is upon us and, as usual, I will give up sweets and cussing this year. (Guess which sacrifice causes me the most trouble?) But it occurs to me that perhaps this year I can work on self-criticism by pausing each day for a moment of gratitude. In that way, perhaps I will better honor the commandment to love myself.
Here then is a wonderful reflection on gratitude from the play Our Town Act III. The character Emily had been giving a chance to relive one day from her life but finds it too painful because she sees how much we take for granted. (And, yes, that’s Paul Newman as the Stage Manager!)
REFLECTION: Do you battle self-judgment? What do you find helpful in counteracting it?