Of all the things you can do, loving yourself is perhaps the most important. It is probably THE key to happiness, affecting both personal happiness and happiness in a relationship. Unfortunately we don’t all love ourselves.
Over the next few posts I will be examining a lack of self-love, anxiety and depression with the help of my buddy Gandalf who has been down the rabbit hole of anxiety, depression and self-loathing. He struggled for years with self-love, and found that anxiety was central to his problem (as anxiety disorders break down the very fabric of what is needed for loving both yourself and those around you).
One important note about my buddy’s situation is that at the time he didn’t know he had a problem. For him, this was just how he was, how he behaved and how he viewed the world. It was horribly broken and unhealthy, but it wasn’t until he hit rock bottom and was able to get better that he was able to look back and see how much damage he was doing to both himself and those around him.
In my last post I talked about how self-love can break down. Today’s focus is on how it impacts day to day life. It may not be the same for everyone, but I suspect my buddy’s experiences are not uncommon. In this post I’ll introduce different areas, with Gandalf’s insights in blue.
One of the biggest ways not loving yourself manifests is in body image. You may be able to build up mechanisms to hide the emotions or deadness that you are feeling inside. But you can never escape yourself.
For people who love themselves, when you look in a mirror you see yourself fairly objectively. Yeah, you may have flaws (we all do), and as you age there may be more grey/wrinkles/sagging skin/whatever then there used to be, but that’s just part of you. For someone who doesn’t love themselves, often when they look in a mirror they don’t see the good. All they see are the flaws, and worse, those flaws are magnified in an unrealistic way.
To put this into context, I had been exercising for several years, so I was a healthy weight at the time. When we met, he was surprised to see me because he thought I was in good shape, which I was. The problem was that I couldn’t see myself like that because I loathed who I was. That self-loathing not only affects your mental self, but your physical self too.
Now, when I show my girlfriend pictures from when I was really fat, she says, “you don’t look fat at all. You look great”. Part of it is because she loves me, but part is because I really wasn’t that fat, just a bit over weight. She can see me in a more realistic light than I can.
Even now, I’m in better shape and some days I have to fight the thoughts that I’m fat or over weight. But it hasn’t happened since I started doing my mindfulness exercises twice a day.
Similarly I was also camera shy as I thought I’d ruin a picture if I was in it, so I tried to avoid photos. Now, I’ll gladly pose for a picture and be in a photo, either by myself or with others.
A Negative Outlook
One of the main characteristics of people who don’t love themselves is a negative approach to the world, which leads to taking things personally.
We have all been around “negative people” and you can usually tell who they are in a short period of time after meeting them. Negative people often have a negative energy around them that can bring others down.
But not all people are overtly negative. When I met my buddy, I had no idea that he had a negative outlook. He projected a fairly placid exterior, while inside him there was considerable emotional turmoil.
Everything in life was bad, and when something good happened it was a fluke, easily dismissed, or the bad was waiting to happen.
In addition to the negative outlook there is a tendency to blow things out of proportion, and turn little things into big issues. Events are misinterpreted through a broken lens, so offense is taken even when none was intended.
If the bus started driving away from the stop I arrived, I would think that the bus driver hates me and is laughing at me. If my line at the store is slower than the others, the clerk and customers in front were slowing down the line on purpose just to spite and annoy me.
In my mind the entire universe was out to get me and make my existence miserable every single day.
Avoidance and Blaming
I talked a bit about avoidance in my last post, but it warrants looking at again as it’s one of the key components. Avoidance leads to a refusal to acknowledge and deal the real problems, as it’s easier to blame something else.
Sure, you may not be happy – but it’s because of this, or because of that. If you could only change those things then everything would be better. There is a tendency to look for magic wand solutions to life, or a belief that if you wait things out then problems will magically get better.
Any discussion of issues caused my anxiety to rise so I would deflect the conversation to something else instead of the real problem. I came to believe that the events in my life were the problem, and think “If only these events weren’t happening then I wouldn’t be stressed or anxious.” My coping mechanism was to try to avoid a problem (any problem) instead of confronting it.
Anything that I couldn’t avoid, I’d just endure. But I would never take action to reduce my anxiety or improve my situation. I’d just wait, do nothing, and hope it would go away.
Putting in effort either meant something was new or changing, and to me that led to more anxiety. Contributing to my own anxiety was like inflicting pain on myself, and I tried to avoid that at all costs. So I did nothing.
However the real issue was never the event or problem, it was my ability to handle the stress these events caused.
Physiological Impacts and Insomnia
Beyond the negative self-image, there can also be actual physiological effects. People may be more prone to headaches, or constipation. But the most difficult part is hypersensitivity to the world around them. There is a constant state of “alert” which leads the body to be in a constant state of stress, often leading to muscle tension.
Incidentally it is this stress state that often leads to clinical depression, as constant stress can lead to biochemical imbalances.
I was so nervous going to bed that my heart was still racing even after going to bed. After about one to two hours, my body would calm down just enough to fall asleep.
The best description that I have is driving a car at 60 km/h then jamming the transmission into Park. That’s what going to bed and trying to sleep was for me.
Weekends were my only reprieve as I was able to sleep until noon, which was 9 to 11 hours of sleep. Every night, sleep was a battle.
Another common characteristic of people who don’t love themselves is a pervasive sense of hopelessness. This is something often associated with depression, and self-loathing and anxiety commonly lead to depression. But the sense of hopelessness comes first.
Compulsion and Numbing Behaviors
Compulsion and Numbing behaviors are similar in that they both are forms of “escape”. The difference is people turn to compulsions because they provide a positive feeling, or a temporary relief from the sense of hopelessness and self-loathing; while numbing behaviors allow someone to dull the pain, and not feel anything at all.
These behaviors sometimes appear benign or even healthy, such as working out, watching TV or reading books. Or they can be things like turning to alcohol, drugs, gambling, overeating or even sex.
Other than drugs, none of these things are inherently bad (yeah, I consider drugs bad – you’re welcome to disagree). But any behaviors are indicative of a problem when they become compulsive.
I didn’t realize that it was a problem, but in hindsight it was. I couldn’t stay away from video games. I would constantly be thinking of games and wishing that I was playing them. It was my entire life, I felt that my existence was validated when playing, and I couldn’t stop.
I mentioned I had a negative self-image. That led to exercise becoming another compulsion for me. When I was exercising compulsively I remember how I’d get when life interrupted it. I would get *mad* and immediately think that I’d get fatter if I missed just one exercise session, as exercise was linked to my self-image, which was negative at the time.
Now, I’m fine with missing a day or two as I know it won’t cause me to get fat.
Anxiety goes hand in hand with avoidance. Avoidance has a number of negative side effects, but one of the ways it manifests itself is in decision making. Decision making becomes HARD. And often, it’s easier just to not make a decision and force someone else to make the decision for you. That way you don’t have to make it, and you aren’t responsible for it if things don’t work out.
In addition, there is a tendency to second guess decisions that you have made and focus on the past. “What if I had just done this or that differently? Maybe then things would be different today.”
As you can see, the impacts are wide and varied, but they all add up to an individual with an unhealthy outlook on the world, themselves, and those around them. Next I’ll be looking at how a lack of self-love impacts relationships.