Life Without Self-Love – Part 1

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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.

Body Image

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.

When I first started therapy, I talked to my psychologist over the phone and I said that I was an obese person and he should expect a fat person when we meet.

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.

I only looked at the negative side of a situation, and never the good. Because I expected the worst, when there were no negatives I would manufacture one. Gifts always came with a catch, a complement had a hidden meaning that usually was an insult, and anything good that a person did to or for me was explained that they just wanted something from me.

Everything in life was bad, and when something good happened it was a fluke, easily dismissed, or the bad was waiting to happen.

Losing Perspective

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.

My anxiety disorder caused little incidents to become massive life altering events in my mind, and I took every negative action in life as a personal attack.

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.

When you have anxiety, over time feeling anxious becomes normal and the only thing that changed was the amount of anxiety that I felt. I started to view anything that caused my anxiety to increase as bad. New, changing, or uncomfortable situations caused anxiety, so if I avoided them then my anxiety reduced. In my mind new/change came to be seen as bad.

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.

With my heart racing all the time due to perceived threats, my blood pressure was always elevated. I couldn’t relax even if I wanted to. My mind was always racing, and this led to insomnia as I just couldn’t stop thinking when going to bed. I would keep thinking random thoughts which would lead me to worry and cause my heart to continue racing.

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.

Hopelessness

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.

I cannot describe the feeling of despair that I woke up to each morning. It was a battle to get out of bed and get to work as I felt to the core of my being that it was totally and completely meaningless to do anything, including work. All personal items and duties seemed equally meaningless. Why clean the house when it would just get dirty again? Why do anything at all in life when in the end, you’re going to die and be forgotten? Yes, I was depressed and only those who have suffered from depression know of the hopelessness and despair that you feel.

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.

This one is the most destructive of them all. Life seemed to have no meaning, so when I found something that I thought made me happy, I held on to it like a dog with a bone. For some, it’s gambling, or work (workaholics), but for me, it was video games. I played games as if my life depended on it. To me, video games WERE my life. They gave me meaning, tasks to accomplish, and recognition for completing a game

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.

Making Choices

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.”

Decision making was hard because I was so scared of making the wrong decision that I would freeze mentally and not make a decision. Every decision that I made felt like the fate of the universe was hanging in the balance and that a wrong decision would be the end of the world. The reason for this was that I would ruminate on every wrong decision that I made, and most seemed wrong as I only looked at the negative side, and mentally beat myself up over it.

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.

The Breakdown of Self-Love

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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.

Issues with self-love usually originate in childhood. I’m a parent, and I’ll admit that although we usually have the best of intentions we rarely have any idea what we are doing. We make mistakes, and can inadvertently harm the very people we care the most about.

Sometimes it’s not showing children sufficient affection, berating them for their faults or continually comparing them to others (why can’t you be more like…). Sometimes it’s because we don’t love ourselves, and without a strong model of love this issue is perpetuated from parent to child.

Although each person is different, there are often commonalities across situations. My buddy didn’t just struggle with self-love, he hated himself.

Trying to understand this, I asked him if he had any idea where this self-loathing originated. From reading on Attachment Theory, my guess was it had something to do with avoidance and anxiety at these traits are closely linked to chronic unhappiness.

Here was his response:

Yes, I know exactly how my self-loathing occurred, and you are correct that there is a relationship between anxiety, attachment, and avoidance. For me to understand, I had to work backwards as I started at the end of the list and uncovered the different steps along the way. Here is how it happened for me:

Stage 1 – Hyper-active arousal

This is the stress arousal, or fear response, that everybody is born with. In about 20% of all babies, this stress reaction is hyper-sensitive and everything causes a stress, or fear, response.

This is how I started. Even as a baby I was fearful. I don’t have memories of this, so I heard this from my mom. But I was hyper-sensitive to any new or novel stimulation (person, place, toy, etc.)

Stage 2 – Poor attachment

For a child where the entire world is scary, you need a place where you feel safe, loved. Parents provide this through unconditional love, and lots of touching, of all things. Touching calms the stress response, provides comfort to the child, and signals that they have a safe haven to explore from.

Without this “safe haven”, the world remains scary, home and parents provide no comfort, and the child is actually more stressed at home than away. It’s ironic that the environment where a child should feel most safe and secure ends up being where the child feels most stressed and scared.

I was never “loved” as a child, and I can’t recall my parents ever hugging me or comforting me. My dad would sit in front of the TV all evening and my mom would make the meals, and clean the house. They were very hands off and fend for yourself parents. I ended up being the teacher’s pet as that was my only outlet for attention and affection. But this did damage as well, as I ended up linking my self-esteem to my school work.

Stage 3 – Anxiety

From here, everything is now scary and induces a stress response that the child cannot control. Going to school is a daily ordeal of stress and fear. Activities are not fun, sports are difficult as the child cannot coordinate themselves properly as they are paralyzed with fear, and making friends is difficult as you are tongue tied and stumble, or stutter, words in the conversation.

The fear response is triggered from new/novel situations and people, and without a “safe haven” to start from, the child does not learn how to control this reaction. This is now full-blown anxiety.

It didn’t start out that I was scared of everything right away. I tried to make friends, and I tried to be involved in school activities, but without a supportive adult helping you, it’s difficult. At first I tried, but eventually, I stopped trying all the time and that’s when I started to avoid life, which is the next stage.

Stage 4 – Avoidance

Avoidance is when you stop doing things. I would think “If I just avoid doing this activity, then I won’t feel stressed”. The issue is eventually you apply it to everything in life, including life itself.

It becomes a natural response to any situation. You don’t explore, take chances, engage with other people, or do activities as all of these are new (and therefore scary). Just avoiding everything that causes discomfort, stress, annoyance, and anxiety become so easy and was the solution to all of my problems. Or so I thought. What I didn’t realize is that I disengaged from life. I was there, existing, but not really living.

Avoidance is the most common coping mechanism for dealing with things, and becomes part of your personality. But there are others. For me, computers and games became that “safe haven” for me where I felt loved, accepted for who I am, and safe. The problem with coping mechanisms is they prevent you from getting at the root cause of the problem and dealing with it.

Stage 5 – Negative thinking, Narcissism, and Self-Loathing

I have lumped these together as they occurred together for me and are linked.

Negative thinking directly comes from the avoidance coping mechanism. As I avoided people and situations, I started to think that I wasn’t good or that I can’t do it, but what I really was doing was rationalizing why I was avoiding people and situation. If I convinced myself I couldn’t do something, then I wasn’t avoiding it out of fear. I built up this negative persona of myself to protect me from my anxiety and to rationalize my avoidance. However from a mental health perspective, this is horrible.

Narcissism is an ironic effect from anxiety and not one most people think is part of it. Anxiety sufferers become hyper-vigilant to try and avoid any conflict as they don’t know how to deal with it. So they constantly scan the environment, including people, for signs of danger or trouble. This means anxiety sufferers are constantly scanning others for signs of anger/unhappiness/sadness/disappointment and evaluating if this will “hurt or affect me”.

This leads to what one book called “Nice Guy Syndrome”. I would try to please everybody all the time and pretend to be happy so nobody would be upset or angry around me. I did this by being hyper-vigilant to the people around me and trying to please them instead of myself. My thinking was that if I did this nobody would have any cause to be upset or angry at me allowing me to avoid conflict. On the outside, it look altruistic, but the motivation is completely self-centered.

As I avoided what I wanted to do and suppressed myself due to Narcissism, I started to hate myself, and I don’t mean just a part, but my entire core being. I really can’t describe how this self-loathing feels, other than to say that

I felt trapped in a prison that I had both designed and built. The worst part is that I knew I did this to myself, but I didn’t know how to get out of it.

Every time I suppressed myself to accommodate somebody else, I hated myself a bit more, but I didn’t connect this to my anxiety. It just became a coping mechanism for avoiding conflict.

Stage 6 – Behaviours

There are three behaviors that come out of Stage 5: Routines, Passive-Aggressiveness, Learned Helplessness, and Depression.

Routines became a way to minimize new situations in life. After all, if you’ve done something before and it didn’t hurt you, then it’s fine. Like an obsessive compulsive I would ensure that I stuck to my set routine every day as much as possible, and any deviation from my routine was met with anger, resistance, and childlike whining or tantrums.

Passive-aggressiveness was my only way to deal with conflict. I won’t say too much here as the article you wrote sums it up well, but I do want to say is that its roots are in avoidance. Passive-aggressive behavior is the mechanism that anxiety sufferers use to avoid conflict. When an argument can’t be avoided, then I would just avoid communicating to avoid further conflict.

Another part to passive-aggressive behavior is a belief on how other people should treat you. From my routines, I developed very strict and ridged rules on how people should interact and please me, but I never communicated them to other people. Instead of asking for what I wanted I would drop hints, like, “I really enjoy X”, which meant I wanted someone to got get or do X for me. I never clearly stated what I wanted, but if I didn’t get it I would still be upset with someone for a short time and then carry on like nothing happened.

Learned Helplessness became a way of life for me. The more I avoided, the more helpless I became. Eventually, it became my default behavior as I would say, “I can’t do it. Here, you do it.” I actually would not do anything new unless I was with somebody else to be there with me.

Eventually depression set in. The more you suppress, the more you loath yourself, the more I avoided, the more I deferred to others as I thought I was helpless, eventually leads to hopelessness. This hopelessness caused the depression. I saw all my dreams disappearing one by one as I did nothing to pursue them because I was helpless to do anything. Life became meaningless and all I did was go through the motions of my daily routine.

As a kid I had linked my self-worth to my school work. As an adult it was my job. My core self-worth and self-esteem was completely dependent and linked to my academic and career performance. Without being in school or in a meaningful job, my depression deepened as there was nothing to fill the emptiness inside. I was looking for external validation for my existence and self-worth, when it can only come from inside. The end result was a hopelessness and despair that I can’t explain. My life had no meaning, and there was no point to anything.

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Stage 7 – Acceptance

This step means that you have accepted the anxiety as a part of your core being. This is the final stage in the process. I really can’t say much of this stage as I didn’t reach this stage, but I’ve seen it in other people, and the result is that the person stops trying to fight the previous six stages, and gives up. They become set in their ways, and won’t, or can’t change.


I’m not sure I agree that it’s ever too late, but all of these stages led to a chronic unhappiness and a sense of self-loathing. Next I will look at the broken thinking patterns and toxic behaviors that arose from this, and how they impacted his life and relationships.

Do You Love Yourself?

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Do you love yourself?

As I’ve learned more about interpersonal dynamics and relationships, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three things which significantly impact a persons ability to have a happy relationship.

  1. Your mindset. This is whether you believe your base traits and characteristics are largely fixed, or whether you believe they can change over time. I’ve touched on this in the past (and will deal with it in more depth in the future), but essentially EVERYTHING can change and everything can improve over time. When you don’t believe it can, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  2. Your ability to let your partner in. I recently wrote on this in a post on Emotional Walls. When we wall ourselves off from our partners, we create barriers to the intimacy or closeness we can have. Without closeness relationships suffer.
  3. How much you love yourself. This is about self-acceptance, and a sense of self-worth.

Of these, the ability to love ourselves is THE most important. And I suspect it’s related to the other two. If you don’t love yourself, you are less inclined to let your partner in. After all, if you don’t like you, and your partner were to see you as you see yourself, then perhaps they wouldn’t accept you or love you either. So why would you let them in? Instead people build facades and present the version of themself they believe their partner wants.

The problem is, when they do this they aren’t being authentic or true to themselves, and over time this will invariably lead to unhappiness (and potentially resentment).

Loving Yourself

What exactly does it mean to say you “love yourself”? At it’s core, I think self-love is about acceptance. You accept yourself for who you are. That doesn’t mean you can’t change, and can’t improve. You definitely can. It simply means that you don’t believe you have to as you are fine the way you are. Self-love means you believe in yourself and the person you are. You have self-confidence, and a positive self-image.

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This is not to be mistaken with arrogance, of being cocky. It also is not “self-love” in a narcissistic way. Loving yourself is healthy. Being in love with yourself of being full of yourself is not healthy.

Allow me to let you in on a little secret. The people who seem to love themselves most are often the ones who love themselves the least. When someone seems to love them-self it is because they are adept at self-promotion. They draw attention to themselves because they need external validation.

Self-love doesn’t require external validation, as it comes from within.

A Point of Reference

So I’ll ask again, do you love yourself? This can be a difficult question to answer.

A few years ago I went on a trip with a buddy and we shared a hotel room. Going in I knew he snored, but I had no idea how bad it was. His snoring kept me up at night, but worse than the snoring was the fact that it was broken up by long stretches where it seemed like he stopped breathing. After seconds (that felt like minutes) there were large gasps for air, and he would start snoring again.

I’m no doctor, but it was pretty alarming. I told my buddy that he should get it checked out and he insisted he was fine. I asked him if he always found himself tired or rundown, and he said no (even though he fell asleep when he was supposed to be navigating for me on the trip. Very helpful). To him, he was perfectly fine.

A while later I related this story to a co-worker who has sleep apnea, and he told me that it sounded familiar. When I mentioned that the guy insisted he was fine, my co-worker laughed and said that’s because it’s his normal state. He’s always tired, he’s always exhausted. And because of that he doesn’t understand how it feels to be rested.

He believes he’s not tired because he has no point of reference to compare himself to.

I see self-love as being similar. It’s not something you “know”. Sometimes people believe that they love themselves when they really don’t. We can’t get into other people’s heads, so if you have negative thoughts about yourself then you might think it’s normal. After all, it’s what you know.

Incidentally it’s been almost two years since that trip, and my buddy STILL hasn’t seen a doctor (and of course insists he’s fine). He’s not. Sadly the people who need the most help are often the last ones to see it as to them it’s just “the way they are”.

Signs You Don’t Love Yourself

To help understand self-love, let’s start with a looks at some signs and characteristics of people who don’t love themselves.

  • You are critical of yourself. This is one of the big ones. You second guess your decisions (or believe you made the wrong ones), your behavior, and you are unhappy with your body.
  • You spend a lot of time in the past thinking “what if…”. What if I had done this differently, or what if I had done that differently.
  • You become angry at yourself when you make mistakes
  • You don’t have dreams, or your dreams feel out of reach and you don’t see a way to make them happen.
  • You commonly operate out of guilt, or shame.
  • You worry about how you are perceived, or “what others will think”.
  • You believe things would be better or you would be happier if “X” were to happen. Maybe if you lost 10 lbs, got a better job, found a different relationship, etc…
  • You procrastinate.

It’s normal to feel all of these things occasionally. But when they are a pattern of thinking for you, then they are signs that you may not love yourself.

Signs You Do Love Yourself

So what do people who DO love themselves look like? The easy answer is, the opposite of the above characteristics. But as I mentioned earlier, if someone truly loves themselves (and has self acceptance) then it’s not easy to see.

One characteristic is that they tend to have a sense of calm. They are comfortable with who they are, and in their own skin.

They aren’t perfect, and they both know and accept that. They are also able to handle criticism fairly well, as they realize it’s not a reflection on them.

People who loves themselves tend to have a sense of personal accountability and a belief that they have control over their own lives.

They also can look at themselves naked in the mirror without thinking *too many* negative thoughts (regardless of body type).

Filling a Hole

One of the big problems with self-love is that it has to come from within. However, for people who don’t love themselves they often don’t see that. They know there is something wrong, but they can’t identify what it is. Because they don’t understand (or won’t accept) that the issues comes from within they start looking outside of themselves.

When acceptance and self-worth doesn’t come from within, they start looking for external validation. The problem is, validation from outside will never be enough.

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Everyone enjoys being complimented – it feels good to know that someone finds you attractive, or thinks you are good at something. But for people who stuggle with self love, often compliments are needed. But all the compliments in the world won’t help. If someone doesn’t believe it themselves that self-doubt shows through, and there is a continuous need for external validation.

This can result in all sorts of messed up behavior.

The Explanatory Gap

I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t understand what it’s like to not love yourself. I’ve tried, but I can’t. Loving myself is just part of who I am. See, I like me. I don’t think I’m cocky or arrogant, but I am confident in myself. Most importantly, I know I’m in control of my own life. Things don’t always work out, but they often do. And when things don’t I can always adjust accordingly and find a new path. I make decisions, and they may not always be the right ones. But that’s fine, because they seemed right at the time. When I screw up I try to use it as a learning experience, and a way to do better “next time”.

Understanding what it’s like to not love yourself is as foreign to me as it is to understand what it’s like to be a woman on her period. As a guy, it’s impossible for me to understand that. Yeah, I know the biology – the lining of the uterine wall has thickened in preparation of a fertilized egg, it doesn’t happen so the extra stuff (pretty sure that’s the scientific term) breaks down and is released. It’s accompanied by hormonal changes that can impact mood and how someone feels. Intellectually I get it (kind of). But I don’t understand, and I never will.

This lack of understanding is often referred to as an explanatory gap. Understanding the mechanics of something doesn’t mean I can understand how it feels. In the case of a menstrual cycle, I’m fairly confident I will never understand that. Likewise for self-love.

So to help me understand this a bit better and start to close that explanatory gap I turned to a buddy who has lived this. Someone who has been through the fires, and come out a stronger person for it. We’ll call him Gandalf (as his experiences have made him quite wise).

Because I believe self-love is an important component of happy relationships I had the idea that he could help me understand the mindset a bit better.

When I first approached him on the idea the exchange went something like this:

Me: I’m thinking about writing on self-love, and thought you might be able to help me with a post.
Gandalf: Errr, me? Self-love? Umm, how do you know… (starts blushing and looking at his feet)
Me: Huh? Oooohhh. Dude, I’m talking about self-love, as in “do you love yourself”. Not self-pleasuring!!!
*Awkward silence *
Gandalf: So, how about that ball game last night…

Alright, that never happened. Well in my head it did, and it make me laugh. And since it’s a fairly serious topic I figured it would be good to start with at least a smile.

My buddy Gandalf was unhappy for a longtime and he spent years blaming his unhappiness on everything around him, pushing away the people who loved him the most in the process. He eventually had a breakdown that led to him being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder that led to him falling into clinical depression.

Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental disorder, and there is a strong correlation between anxiety and a lack of self-love. In the grips of anxiety, my buddy hated himself and it almost destroyed his life. But instead of accepting that this was just “the way he was” and allowing his anxiety to control him, my buddy decided to educate himself, learn as much as he could about it and try to regain control of his life.

Over the next few posts I will be doing something a little different. He will be my co-author, sharing his story. I think his story is at once fascinating and inspiring. Whether you love yourself or not, his experiences are ones that I believe we can all learn from.

You Only Live Once

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When we are young we tend to think of ourselves as invincible. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say we have no concept of mortality. Eventually however, this changes.

There can be any number of triggers. Midlife (and the realization that we are statistically closer to death than birth), serious injury or illness, or perhaps the death of a loved one. Anything can happen to make you realize that your time on this earth is limited.

YOLO

One of the relatively recent catch phrases/acronyms (whatever you want to call it) is YOLO, or “you only live once”. This has become a mantra for a whole generation, and it carries with it the following connotations:

  • Do what you want
  • Do whatever makes you happy
  • Live for today
  • Don’t worry about the future
  • Don’t care what others think about you, live the way you want

Do you notice a trend in those? Kind of like my post What’s in it for Me?, it’s all about you. It’s all about your own pleasure, happiness, and instant gratification.

Often when you hear people use the term YOLO it’s in response to behavior that most would consider immature. Calling in sick for work because you were out drinking with buddies during the week? YOLO. Cheating on your partner because a “better opportunity came along”? YOLO. Going into debt to live a lifestyle you can’t afford? YOLO.

In fact Urban Dictionary refers to YOLO as “The dumbass’s excuse for something stupid that they did”. That description seems a bit harsh, but when you see the way YOLO is used it’s actually a fairly accurate definition. The way many people use YOLO, it has become an excuse for a lack of personal responsibility.

What is Freedom?

In the YOLO mindset, freedom is the unstated goal. The freedom to do what you want, when you want, with who you want and how you want. “Responsibility” is treated as a bad thing, because it is viewed as the antithesis of “freedom”.

I struggle to understand how responsibility is a bad thing. Yeah, I’ll admit that it would be nice to not have to worry about a mortgage and bills. But guess what, that’s part of life. Unless you are living as a gypsy and living off the land, you kind of need some form of income.

When you’re 20 it’s fine to live at home with mom and dad. Maybe even when you’re 30 (depending on the situation). But when you’re much older than that, it’s probably a good thing if you are able to handle responsibility and support yourself. I don’t know about you, but I fail to see how living paycheck to paycheck while living with mom and dad, or just living day to day with no plans or direction for the future is a sign of “freedom”.

I would think real freedom comes from having some sort of control over your own life. You may not be able to do things on a whim, but if you set priorities and make plans you are often able to accomplish almost anything. How is that a bad thing? I see that as empowering, not restricting.

Living In The Moment

Another problem with YOLO is that it focuses on instant gratification. All that matters is the here and now. You only worry about the future when it comes. But that sort of short term thinking often means you don’t have a future. Or it means your future is much more limited than the one you hoped for. Impulsive decisions tend to have consequences, and some of those consequences aren’t pleasant.

Oh, I’m pregnant!!! Hey look, an STD!!! Oh snap, I killed someone while driving drunk. Ah well, it’s no big deal, I was living in the moment!!!

Yolo

Balancing the Future and Present

Short term thinking can cause all sorts of issues for people.

From a financial standpoint, it can lead people to spend their money on things they want (not necessarily need), or spend more than they have and go into debt. Credit cards and loans may seem a great way to get something, but they are less appealing when you are struggling to make payments.

It can also damage your future emotionally. This doesn’t always apply, but often affairs happen because someone is looking for something missing in their relationship, and the affair is easier than putting in the work to address the problems in the relationship. Often the thing people are looking for is something they could have had in their relationships, and they are just as guilty as their partner for the breakdown of whatever they feel is missing.

Some people go the opposite route and focus too much on the future at the expense of the present. I’ve been guilty of that, and I recognize it. I’m now making it a point to do enjoy today a bit more, and not worry as much about the future. Neither approach is healthy. You need to balance today with tomorrow.

I get that it’s easy to focus on today. What you need or want now seems immediate, and it is hard to make sacrifices today for a future that may seem out of reach; especially when there are no guarantees of the future. But although the future isn’t guaranteed you still need to prepare for it.

For me, setting goals for the future is something that gives me hope, and gives me something to strive towards. It gives meaning to the grind of the routines of day to day life.

Setting Priorities

Where YOLO does get things right is that it is true that you only get one life. Even if you believe in an afterlife, the life we have and know is finite – once its gone, its gone. But that doesn’t mean you should focus on yourself. I don’t think that’s what life is really about.

A family member was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, and it’s been a reminder of my own mortality. My response has not been to go out and spend all my money on “wants”, or to feel that I need to accomplish all my goals “today”. I haven’t spent my days in a drug and alcohol induced haze and gone off seeking pleasure wherever I can find it.

Rather, I have re-examined my own life and looked at my own priorities and what is important to me. The most important things to me are my wife and my children. My family. The people who matter to me. They are infinitely more important than the car I drive, the house I live in, or what I did last night.

Sure I have goals and dreams. I have things that I want to accomplish in my life. For example, I love travelling. I love seeing new places, trying new foods and experiencing new cultures. There are a number of places in the world that I hope to see during my life. But to me, the experience means more when I share it with someone I love. What is the point of doing any of that if I lose the things that matter to me in the process?

ThinkingAboutPriorities

When I look at YOLO, I have a different approach. To me it means:

  • Do something that matters
  • Live how you want to be remembered
  • Make the most of it

I’m just one person and I have limited influence. But I still hope to leave the world a better place than I found it. The thing I can influence the most is my children, and hopefully raise them to live their lives with integrity. I try to involve myself somewhat in my community. Nothing major, but enough that I feel I have made some sort of mark.

Even this blog. I don’t know who reads it or if my words resonate with anyone. But if I can make one person actually think or give them some sort of hope, then I have accomplished something (though I will likely never know it).

That’s what YOLO is about to me. Its not about doing what I want when I want. Its not about avoiding responsibility. I only have one life, and I want to live it in a way that I can be proud of.

the-concept-of-yolo

Your Last Day

What if today was your last day? What would matter to you?

If today was my last day, I wouldn’t spend it getting drunk, getting high, or looking for a quick thrill.

I would want to spend it surrounded by the people I love, and the people who matter to me. I would want to play with my children, read to them and draw pictures with them.

I would want to spend the day outdoors with my family. I would take the time to enjoy the feel of the grass under my feet, and the warmth of the sun on my skin (well, not if it’s winter. I hate winter. I can’t say I enjoy the feel of my skin freezing).

Maybe I would have a dinner party with my closest friends and family, where we could enjoy a good meal, tell stories and just enjoy good company.

After I would put my kids to bed, and tell them I love them. Then I would spend my last hours with my wife, reminiscing about all the good we have had in our life, and trying to laugh about the times that weren’t so good. I would hold her, tell her that I love her, and we would make love one last time before drifting off to sleep in each other’s arms.

In retrospect that would probably be pretty traumatic for her to wake up with me dead, but hey, I’m assuming it’s my last day not hers. But that’s what my last day would look like.

You only live once. So make the most of it.

Unconditional Love

msg-unconditional-love

When talking about love, one of the things you commonly hear of is someone saying that they are looking for unconditional love. What exactly does unconditional love mean though?

Does it mean you love all of them? Does it mean you love every aspect of that person? And conversely, if you find you don’t love “everything” about someone does that mean you don’t love them unconditionally? Does that perhaps mean that you don’t TRULY love them?

All or Nothing

The idea that if you love something you must love all of it, and conversely if a relationship has a problem then it means it is not “true love” is surprisingly common. It often goes hand in hand with the idea that if you find “the one” you should never have to work at things, and you will be able to live happily ever after.

This mindset is often referred to as all or nothing thinking. When this happens at a young age, you can chalk it up to idealism and a lack of experience. But when it persists over time, this is a broken thinking pattern (sometimes referred to as a cognitive distortion) and a sign of emotional immaturity.

Incidentally, this particular thinking pattern is often found in people who have avoidant personality types, are chronically unhappy, or are dealing with depression or some form of mood disorder.

It can cause significant issues in relationships, as it sets an unrealistic bar for people to measure up to. If your partner has to be perfect, they will always disappoint.

It’s Still Poo

All or nothing thinking is a broken approach to looking at relationships, and world in general. A lot of things come down to belief and opinion, but the idea that loving something means you have to love all of it is simply incorrect.

Of all the things in the world, most would agree that a parent will always love their children. There are exceptions I suppose, but even when spousal relationships break apart parents will usually try to do the best for their children. So to see how broken the all or nothing approach to life is, let’s take a look at being a parent.

I love my children and would do almost anything for them. I love being active in their lives, and I try to take enjoyment out of the time I spend with them. Does that mean I love everything about them?

I’m past the diaper days, but thinking back to those days does loving my children mean I had to love changing their diapers? Not a chance. Yes, these were my child’s diapers I was changing. And I’m happy that I changed them as it was one of the many experiences that came with being a father.

I changed diapers because they needed to be changed and I don’t think I complained about it much (though that could be denial on my part). Thinking back to my discussion on responsibility, I wasn’t changing diapers out of shame or obligation. I never resented doing it, I simply saw it as something that had to be done.

Did that mean I loved it? Nope. It may have been my children and an important part of the experience of being a new dad. But at the end of the day, it’s still poo.

Acceptance

So what does this have to do with unconditional love? It seems easy to say that you don’t have to love poo, no matter how cute the posterior that it comes from. But the same can be said for personality traits or behaviors. My kids are little and they aren’t finished products. They still have tantrums, and are still learning to understand and control their emotions. As any parent can attest, those times aren’t always fun. In fact, being a parent can be difficult and frustrating at times. I love my children. Does that mean I need to love all their behaviors? No.

Actually, because I love them it means I should recognize when their behavior is problematic and I should work with them to try and improve that. I want them to be the best people they can and give them the best opportunity for a happy future. Giving into tantrums and allowing them to get away with unacceptable behavior won’t do that, and will actually do harm to them in the long run.

My children are dependent on me, but that’s not why I want the best for them. I want the best for them because I love them, unconditionally. The same rules apply for family, friends, and also our chosen partners.

Loving them unconditionally doesn’t mean you need to love everything about them. There can be things about our partners that we wish were different, and that’s alright. Unconditional love simply means that you accept them as they are, accepting both the good and the bad.

unconditional

I will argue that the “all or nothing” view of love is actually a selfish form of love. If loving someone means you have to love all of them, and any problems means it isn’t true love then you are actually saying you will only love someone when it works for you. You will only love someone when times are good (because if times aren’t good there is a problem, and therefore it was never true love).

Unconditional love involves loving someone even when times are difficult. It means being supportive of the other person, but at the same time being honest with them, even when the truth might not be what they want to hear.

Love vs. Relationships

I believe in love, and I believe love should be unconditional. But what about our romantic relationships? Are they solely based on unconditional love?

Let’s say you meet someone and fall in love with them, but they don’t feel the same way. Is that a relationship? No. You may love them and accept them for who they are. You may think of them all the time and have pictures of them in your house, wallet, at work whatever. But if they don’t feel the same way about you, then that’s just creepy (and probably puts you at risk of a restraining order).

If you believe you are in a relationship but the other person sees you as one of the many people they are dating, sorry, again it’s not a relationships.

It doesn’t become a relationship until they return the love, and there is an acknowledgement that the two of you share something together and you are committed to each other. So although love may be unconditional, relationships aren’t. Relationships do have expectations, and some degree of reciprocity is required.

Lets take this idea one step further….

Let’s say you are in a relationship, and the other person checks out emotionally. They stop doing the little things, they stop showing you that they care. You become two people, effectively living individual lives. If that happens, are you in a relationship? It doesn’t matter if there’s a piece of paper saying you are married, or you are living together. Even if one person still loves the other with all their heart, the relationship has effectively ended. Relationships require reciprocity. They are about intent, and effort.

One Sided Love

Now if unconditional love means you will always love the other person, does it mean you will always be there for them?

I believe very strongly in love and in relationships. I believe many relationships fail unnecessarily, and that with a bit of effort most relationships can be saved. So this is difficult for me to say, but I believe the answer is no. Unconditional love does not always mean you will be there.

I have heard countless stories of people who treat their partners poorly (either through active abuse or simply checking out on them emotionally), and then are surprised when their partner eventually decides to leave the relationship. Often this shock is accompanied by a sense of outrage. How could this person leave me? I thought that they loved me?

Some people think that someone “loving them” gives them a green light to do what they want. They feel safe that the other person is committed to them and they will always be there no matter what.

People-Say-You-Dont-Know-What-Youve-Got-Till-Its-Gone

Loving someone doesn’t mean you will put up with anything. Love has to go both ways. If someone says they love you, but don’t back up that claim with their actions then what do you really have? At that point you have nothing.

It doesn’t matter how strongly you feel about someone, if it’s not reciprocated you don’t have a relationship. People have bad days, and people make mistakes; so I’m not saying that the relationship has ended the first time someone gets angry. People run into issues, and you need to be willing to work on them together.

But if someone is consistently treating you poorly, or the relationship becomes very one sided where your love is not reciprocated, then staying with them is not love. It’s enabling them. It’s telling them that the way they are treating you is alright.

No. Sometimes unconditional love means knowing when to walk away. It doesn’t mean you love them any less, but that’s different from always being there.

Meant to Be

All or nothing thinking is broken, and destructive to relationships. There is no such thing as perfect. There is no such thing as loving all of someone. Everyone has bad days. Everyone has their flaws.

There is no “meant to be”. Life gives us opportunities, and it is up to us to decide what we want to do with them. Some embrace the opportunities life gives them, and others squander them.

meantToBe

If you want a strong relationship, you need to build that strength into it. You build that strength with kindness, caring, affection, and effort. And you need to build it together.

What’s in it for Me?

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Humans are naturally social creatures, both craving and needing relationships of all types. Our relationships are a fundamental part of who we are, yet we get no formal training on them. Instead we learn about them through a combination of observation and trial and error. Unfortunately, there is often a great emphasis on error.

Some of us are able to form healthy attachments and go on to have largely happy romantic relationships. Others form relationship that are toxic to one or both parties, and others end up largely alone. However I think the vast majority of us have relationships that are good, containing a reasonable degree of happiness – but they could be better. So how do we improve them?

People talk about chemistry, and incompatibilities between personalities. But increasingly I am convinced that the success of someone’s personal relationships is more a reflection on them, and how they have learned to form emotional attachments.

In a recent post I talked about how emotional intimacy is built and emotional attachments are formed. Emotional attachment is a funny thing though. Although it is hard wired into our DNA it’s safe to say we don’t all form healthy emotional attachments.

How it Starts

According to Attachment Theory, your ability to form emotional attachments is significantly impacted by your first emotional attachments when you were a baby. From Wikipedia:

The most important tenet of attachment theory is that an infant needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for the child’s successful social and emotional development, and in particular for learning how to effectively regulate their feelings.

Let’s take a look at two diagrams:

unhealthy 1

healthy 2

Attachment starts with need. As infants we have needs that our primary caregiver tries to meet. When they are met we are content. When they are consistently met we start to form trust and attachment. But our needs aren’t always met, and when they aren’t it results in fear, anxiety and stress.

With healthy attachment we learn that our needs not being met doesn’t indicate a lack of care or love. Further, we learn that not all needs will be met, and that’s alright. In unhealthy attachment however, not having our needs met continues to results in stress, anxiety and fear.

Neglecting your child is the fastest path to damaging their ability to make healthy attachments. If their needs are never met, they will not be able to develop trust and care. But attachment theory says it is boundaries that allow a child to develop attachment in a healthy way.

At the other end of the spectrum is spoiling them. If they are used to having their needs always met (or met at an unrealistic level) it can create a sense of expectation and entitlement, also harming their ability to form healthy attachments.

As parents we often want to provide everything for our children. But as this illustrates, when we do too much we risk doing more harm than good. We need to set boundaries, and allow our children to develop independence in order for them to develop in a healthy fashion.

Healthy Attachment

In attachment theory, the two most damaging traits for forming healthy attachments are anxiety and avoidance.

attachment-diagram1

Anxiety is often seen as the fear of the unknown. It is a fear of what “could” happen, and is largely an overreaction of the fear instinct. Anxious people are often expecting the worst case scenario to happen in any situation. Avoidance is keeping away or withdrawing from something, often due to a fear of a perceived negative result.

Both traits are very damaging to relationships. Relationships are based on trust and security, which requires communication. Avoidance leads to poor communication and an inability to address the regular issues that a relationship will face. Anxiety is also very destructive to relationships. For a great summary on how it can impact love check this article. But at a high level anxiety can erode empathy and damage trust.

Attachment Styles

Attachment Theory has identified a number of attachment styles related to people’s levels of anxiety and avoidance. I’ve seen different versions of the styles, but the following chart outlines a few with some of their characteristics:

attachment-types

Looking at this chart, it’s obvious that secure attachment is the “healthy” form of attachment. As noted however, we don’t all develop in a healthy fashion.

Avoidant Attachment is the most common unhealthy attachment. People with high levels of avoidance tend to have issues with intimacy in close relationships, and do not invest themselves emotionally. Interestingly, they often crave closeness and intimacy, but they need to be in control. Once people start to get too close they start to shut them out.

This often leads to a feeling of instability in relationships. The avoidant person wants closeness, but it makes them feel overwhelmed leading them to withdraw. When they feel more secure they will look for closeness again, but they look for it on their terms.

Ambivalent Attachment is less common. Here people are reluctant to get close to others due to fear that their partner doesn’t feel the same way about them.

It’s important to note that these styles and their tendencies are not absolutes. We all have some level of avoidance and anxiety, and your levels determines where you fall on these spectrums. For example, I would like to think that I have a fairly secure attachment style (wishful thinking perhaps). But while I generally have low anxiety levels, I know I lean slightly towards avoidance when it comes to dealing with conflict.

You may be a certain way, and behavioral psychologists believe that your “go to” style is largely a result of your early years. So if you think you’re a bit messed up and you want to blame your parents? Yeah, it probably is actually their fault.

But one important thing is it is possible to change the mindsets that lead to unhealthy attachment and move more towards secure forms of attachment. Your attachment style CAN change. So even if you do want to blame mommy and daddy for who you are today, it’s up to you who you want to be tomorrow.

Building Empathy

When you look at attachment one of the things that stands out to me is in both healthy and unhealthy emotional attachment, it’s all about you and your needs. What about other people?

Somewhere along the way we have to learn that we aren’t the only ones who matter. We need to learn that the world doesn’t revolve around us. In order to have successful relationships, the needs of the other person also need to matter to us. A world of “me” needs to become a world of “we”. Learning to value the needs of others and place them at a level at or near our own is one of the characteristics of empathy.

When we aren’t being empathetic or we are focusing primarily on ourselves and our needs, we are exhibiting narcissistic behavior.

Lack of empathy is the most notable characteristic of narcissism. Additional characteristics include a sense of entitlement, a focus on how things appear to other people (things need to be perfect) and a need for admiration or external validation.

For narcissists, relationships are vehicles for them and their needs. They will put effort into the relationship as long as their own needs are met, but it is never an equal exchange, and it is never done out of genuine care and concern for the other person.

Noted researcher (and sufferer) on Narcissism Sam Vaknin writes:

I am aware of the fact that others have emotions, needs, preferences, and priorities – but I simply can’t seem to “get it into my mind.” There is an invisible partition behind which I watch the rest of Mankind and through which nothing that is human can permeate.

To me, all people are cardboard cut-outs, sophisticated motor contraptions, ersatz and robotic. I know how I should feel because I am well-read–but I cannot seem to bring myself to emote and to sympathize.

Over the years, I have deciphered the code. I have learned to imitate and emulate expertly the more common affect and expressions of one’s inner landscape. But this veneer is easily breached when I am frustrated or humiliated: the mask slips and the real Me is out: a predator on the prowl.

This is an extreme example. The true narcissistic personality type is rare (occurring in approx 6% of the population). In reality we all have some elements of narcissism within us, and when times are tough it’s common for people to just “look out for themselves”. In periods of stress or personal problems our ability to be empathetic often decreases. But the ability to be empathetic towards our partners on a consistent basis (even when times are tough) is the key characteristic that determines the quality of our interpersonal relationships.

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Empathy is the most important characteristic of any close relationship, and particularly in our romantic relationships. Unfortunately we don’t all learn this, or perhaps it’s better to say we learn it to varying degrees. But no matter what your level of empathy is, it can be improved.

Focusing on Others

In relationships, we all want to be valued. We all want to be loved, desired, and appreciated for who we are. If we want that, it’s safe to assume our partner wants and needs that too.

Is thinking about yourself being selfish? No, not at all. We need to think about ourselves and take care of ourselves. However thinking of yourself to the exclusion of others is a problem.

For our relationships to survive we need to value our partners, and their needs must be important to us. For our relationships to thrive, we need to place our partners needs at the same level as ours (or at least very close). We need to understand that love means compromise. Things won’t always be the way we want, and they won’t always be the way our spouse wants. We need to be willing to work together towards a common good that benefits both.

In nature, when two organisms work together for common benefit it is referred to as a symbiotic relationship. When the benefits are very one sided, it is referred to as a parasitic relationship.

If you are unhappy in your relationship, ask yourself why. Does your relationship add value to your life? Are your needs being met? Now ask yourself if you are adding value to your partners life. Are their needs being met?

All relationships go through ups and downs. But overall your relationship should be something that adds value to both your life and that of your partner.

If it isn’t, take a look at how you approach the relationship. Empathy can be worked on and developed. Remember, it’s not about your needs. It’s about finding the way to best meet the needs of the couple, so that both are feeling valued and fulfilled. Working on improving and sustaining empathy is one of the best ways to improve your relationship and have a happier future.