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 last few posts I have been 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.
Over the last few posts I have talked about where my buddy’s lack of self love came from, and then how it affected him in day to day life. He was in a bad place emotionally and mentally, and had a number of negative and self-defeating mindsets.
Hopefully other people in a similar boat can learn from his situation and learn to love themselves either again or for the first time.
Facing the Mirror
One of the hardest parts of learning to love yourself is taking ownership of your issues. It’s very easy to blame other people or situations, and it’s easy to rationalize behavior. And when someone doesn’t love themselves, self-defeating mindsets are frequently the norm. It can be very difficult to turn things around, so I asked my buddy what his secret was.
That is an easy answer in theory, but DAMN difficult to put into practice. Simply put, I had to realize:
- there was a problem, and more importantly
- *I* was the problem.
Once you realize *you* are the problem, you now have nobody to blame but yourself. All the excuses, all the lies, all the daydreams and fantasies you comfort yourself with, the avoidance and coping mechanisms, all of it no longer works. And that is when you start on the path to recovery.
Hmmm, so no real shortcuts then?
I want to clarify one item, and that is why I didn’t realize *I* was the problem. For me, I have always felt the hyper-active arousal and the anxiety that comes with it, so I thought that this is how I should normally feel and this is how other people feel too. After all, I’ve never felt anything else other than this, so I didn’t have a different state to compare it to. I didn’t know how I should really feel and I didn’t know what normal was, except that this was normal for me. So the connection between my behaviors and my anxiety never occurred to me until I was forced to confront these destructive behaviors and solve the root cause instead of using my coping mechanisms.
Sounds a lot like my buddy with sleep apnea, who is always exhausted but insists he is fine and that he isn’t tired (even while he’s nodding off when he’s supposed to be navigating). His point of reference is so messed up that he doesn’t know what it’s like to not be tired.
Yeah, it’s exactly like that. Being anxious had become my norm, so I didn’t realize how much damage I was doing to myself and the people around me that I cared about.
So your “secret” to getting better was to have all of your coping mechanisms fail? You’re saying you had to hit rock bottom before you would accept that you were your own problem, and it’s not until then that you stopped blaming your issues on others? You know, as secrets go, that kind of sucks.
Originally, I thought that I had lost everything when I got to this point, but that is not correct. That was the effect of what happened, not the cause. Being forced to abandon your comfort zone and forced to deal with reality on your own with no possibility of retreat caused me to confront the problem head on. I could no longer deny the problem; pretend it did not exist, or lie to myself thinking that it was somebody else’s fault. In essence, the coping mechanisms failed and I had to deal with the root cause.
Until this point, I had thought that it was everybody else’s problem rather than mine. This was a very logical conclusion because:
- hyper-arousal was normal for me
- I was scared of anything new
- I was self-centered (Narcissistic)
- I had a negative viewpoint of life
To me, I expected others to conform to my wishes and desires without having to conform to theirs. Yes, this is where entitlement came for me. I don’t know exactly where it came in, but eventually, I just had this mindset that others should conform to me instead of the other way around.
Because I was so scared of the real world, I ended up in my own fantasy world which I built up to be a comfort zone from reality. I won’t go into the details, as that’s irrelevant to the topic, but the point that I want to make is that this retreat into a fantasy world is normal for anxiety sufferers. The inability to deal with reality causes this retreat. For me, my retreat was into videogames.
I don’t advocate the use of coping mechanisms as I think they hurt more than help. This includes not only games and fantasies, but smoking and alcohol as well. Both have been shown to reduce anxiety temporarily, but the underlying root issues are still there, and the person hasn’t learned how to deal and confront them. It just prolongs the suffering, as games did for me.
Once you accept that change is needed, and that it is in fact “you” that needs to change, the question becomes WHAT? What is it that needs to change?
Alright, remember how I said that there’s no secret to getting better? Well that’s not entirely true. Here’s the real secret:
Loving yourself is not about your weight, clothes, fitness level, job, relationship, or anything like that.
Sure, making improvements in all of those areas may help, but at their core those are all external items.
It’s like the saying about putting lipstick on a pig – changing those things may make someone feel better temporarily, but it doesn’t change the underlying issue. The temporary high will fade, and you won’t be any happier.
Real change needs to begin within.
A lack of self-love if normally accompanied by a number of negative mindsets, and it is those that need to change. Some of the most common are avoidance, all or nothing thinking and rumination (dwelling on the past):
For my buddy Gandalf, learning to love himself was all about changing mindsets.
Once I started seeing a psychologist we worked on three items simultaneously – self-esteem, anxiety, and negativity. Working on all three simultaneously really helped as each one is interlinked and I couldn’t just work on one and not the others.
When I worked on my self-esteem, I had to look at myself with my view, and then from other people’s view. After several sessions, it started to dawn on me that my negativity led to a distorted view of who I was. It also lead to the discovery of “The Critic”, or the little voice in my head that was always telling me that I was no good, or bad, or awful in everything that I tried to do. Once you discover that, you can now start to silence that voice and eventually, eliminate it.
I worked on negativity by writing down the first thought that came into my head about a situation and then examining why I thought like that. These are the automatic thoughts an anxiety suffer has. For example, when I sent an email, I’d expect to receive a reply within 15 minutes, and if I didn’t, I’d get anxious. I found out I had an automatic thought that if I didn’t get an email within 15 minutes, then the other person didn’t like me. What I didn’t realize at first is that this is only the first automatic thought in a series of thoughts that cascade down. I would then think that if that other person didn’t like me, then nobody likes me and that I will never be liked by anybody. This is the “All or nothing” cognitive distortion that anxiety suffers have.
There are others as well, and getting to the heart of them is like peeling the layer off of an onion. To deal with these cognitive distortions, I had to analyze each one and logically determine why it was not true. Once I did this, the automatic thoughts became less frequent and eventually stopped altogether. This also helped with silencing “The Critic” and with my anxiety.
Anxiety was the easiest and most difficult, to deal with. The cure is simple, I just had to face my fears. The problem was *everything* was scary. My psychologist had me expose myself to something I found scary, but not *that* scary. We made a list and evaluated items from 1 to 10 as to how scary it was to me and we started off at the low end of the scale (1 and 2) and then work my way up to the 9s and 10s. Every week I had to go and do at least one of them. The next week, we would talk about why I was scared and if my fears matched reality. It was this talking that helped reduce and eliminate the anxiety, because it lead to the method of logically analyzing and assessing how scared I should be in situations, and the same process used for negativity was used here too as the same automatic thoughts came up again.
There are situations I should still be scared of (like a bear chasing me), but most situations I shouldn’t be (like thinking about being chased by a bear in an upcoming camping trip). The realization that anxiety is all about future items that usually won’t come to pass significant diminished the power anxiety had over me.
One item needed for this is dedication. Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to see this through and continuously try to improve every week. I needed to put lots of effort into getting better, which is where hitting rock bottom helped. I knew the problem was me, and only I could make myself better.
I learned strategies to combat my anxiety instead of just coping with it. I needed to get to the root of my anxiety and fight it instead of cope with it by avoiding or controlling it.
Everything else fell into place after learning these simple strategies, like dominoes. The rest became easy, but still took effort. Things like exercising, eating healthy, sleeping for 7 to 8 hours a night, being more assertive, outgoing, and empathic to others was easier to accomplish once the foundation was built.
One last item is that mindfulness really helped quite the thoughts in my head, and it was the last piece of the puzzle. With that, I can now quiet the thoughts in my mind and relax almost on demand, which I thought was impossible just a short time ago.
So there you have it. The “secret” to love yourself you have to start to learn which behaviors and thinking patterns are toxic to you, so that you can recognize them and start to fight back against them. But secret doesn’t mean shortcut, and none of these things are easy. But they ARE worth it. No matter who you are, YOU are worth it.