I’ve been focused on personal growth quite intensely now for many years, I’ve read countless books, taken various courses, spent years in therapy, worked with a number of coaches and the number one thing that I learnt from it all is this:
If you don’t love yourself deeply and completely, then you can’t ever be truly happy.
Whilst on the one hand this has been a blessing to realise, at times it has also felt like a curse. Why? Because showing yourself real, true and deep love just so happens to be one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do in life. It takes not only determined and focused effort but also courage.
The reason for this is because very few people truly and fundamentally love themselves. We live in a world where people are raised to compare themselves, to criticise themselves and to feel less than good enough at every turn. Every magazine, every advert, every billboard presents a picture of an unrealistic and manufactured perfection that we simply cannot live up to. Not just that but we are taught from an early age that love and acceptance live outside of us, in other people, in our accomplishments and in the things we can afford to buy.
And so it follows that we spend a lifetime looking for love in other people, by achieving more and buying more.
When we look to other people, places or things as our only or main source of love, it is impossible to find deep and sustainable happiness but when we look within and prioritize the relationship we have to self, then what happens can seem nothing less than miraculous. It begins with enhanced self-esteem and self-worth, more self-confidence and greater self-respect and when we have those things a funny thing happens, everyone starts to treat us better than they did when we were putting them first. Sort of ironic right?
#1 Become your own best friend
Have you ever noticed that when someone you love dearly comes to you feeling bad because of a mistake they’ve made or because of a problem they are struggling to solve, that your instinct is to help build them up, to encourage and support them and to remind them of their positives rather than collaborate with their self-criticism? I mean why wouldn’t you? When you love someone and you see them beating themselves up, you know that they are being too hard on themselves and in that moment need reminding from a good friend of their positives. That’s what friends are for right?
But have you also noticed that when you yourself make a mistake or find it difficult to make progress on something, that your instinct is to criticise yourself? Go over and over all of your previous mistakes and dwell on the parts of yourself that you see as negatives? Imagine if you could become your own best friend and do for yourself what you naturally do for your loved ones.
We all have an inner critic, an internal voice that develops when we are young and often echoes the voice of a critical parent or care-giver but here’s the thing. We can acknowledge that voice, even listen to what it has to say but we don’t have to believe it. When you can be your own best friend and remind yourself that what your inner critic is saying simply isn’t true, you’ll not only feel better on a daily basis, but you’ll start to achieve things that you never before believed possible. Fact.
#2 Communicate your needs clearly and honestly
This seems pretty straightforward enough but it’s actually something that many people struggle with. First of all many of us aren’t even able to identify what we really need, let alone articulate those needs in a loving and healthy way to those around us. If you sometimes find yourself getting frustrated or angry at the people around you, the chances are that you have needs that are not being met and this is leaving you feeling frustrated and upset.
It’s easy to blame other people when they don’t do the things that we would like them to do for us, but if you are finding yourself feeling disrespected, taken for granted, misunderstood, leaned on heavily on by those around you, the chances are that you have not let people in your life know what you need and you haven’t set boundaries that show what you will and will not tolerate.
When we need something in life, the first step is to identify it. If you are feeling angry or irritated, try asking yourself this simple question.
What is it that I need right now?
It might be as simple as a hug, a nap, some food, a break, a chat but if we don’t look within ourselves to work out what we need, then we’ve little chance that those around us are going to put in the time to work it out for us.
Once we’ve identified what we need, we can see if it’s something that we can give to ourselves. More often that not this will be the case, but perhaps we need something from a friend, partner or parent, in which case we can ask for it but we must do so without expectation. Why? Because when we expect someone to meet our needs and they don’t, we feel resentful and frustrated and besides it’s not anyone else’s job to meet your needs.
Don’t get me wrong, if your partner consistently fails to meet your articulated need for intimacy or a friend never meets your stated need to be treated respectfully then these are probably relationships worth letting go of (see #4). Staying in a situation and resenting someone for not meeting your needs makes no sense at all, loving yourself courageously enough to walk away does.
#3 Set and maintain healthy boundaries
This is especially important in relationships that feel difficult (see #4) but is also vital to the health of all our relationships. When I first began to learn about setting healthy boundaries, it felt scary and difficult, but with a lot of time and practice, I’ve become pretty comfortable setting and maintaining boundaries whenever I need to.
“Boundaries are the borders that tell us and tell other people where our edges are. They are where we stop and they begin, they define where we need space, energy, respect and personal power.” ~ Martha Beck
I remember having a conversation with a friend some months ago about his schedule for the coming weekend and he mentioned an event he was planning to go to and then said “I don’t want to go but I feel like I should, you know?” I shook my head, I didn’t know and went on to explain that I don’t use the word “should” anymore and because my time is precious to me, I never spend it on things I feel obliged to do rather than things I want or need to do, nor do I expect anyone else to do that for me. When I go to something out of obligation to another person, I’m doing a disservice to myself and the other person, now when I attend an event, it’s because I want to be there and I’m ready to give my best self and energy to the people around me.
This is one example of setting and maintaining a boundary. Others might include clocking off work when your hours are over rather than consistently staying late for no reward or telling a friend that you can chat tomorrow when you are less busy rather than dropping everything in your life to help her out of her latest crisis.
Guilt can be a common feeling when you first start setting boundaries. It may feel selfish to put your own needs first, but the consequences of consistently de-prioritising your needs will only ever lead to resentment, frustration and ultimately exhaustion. This doesn’t benefit you or anyone else.
➳ Further reading: How to Set Healthy Boundaries: 3 Crucial First Steps
#4 Walk away from toxic relationships
I want you to take a moment to look at your life and the people and relationships within it. By this I mean all relationships, from work colleagues to family members, including both friendships and acquaintances and ask yourself one simple question.
Do any of these relationships leave you feeling bad or have a negative impact on your life?
Perhaps in some relationships you feel criticised, unappreciated or taken for granted and at an even more extreme level you might feel bullied or physically or emotionally abused.
If you answered yes to this question, I want you to explore what it would feel like if your life was free from these relationships. How would you feel? What would you feel free to do or not do? In what ways would your life be improved?
Often with relationships, we feel like we can’t remove ourselves from, end or make demands of them. Perhaps because you don’t want to make a fuss or rock the boat, perhaps you feel scared of hurting or offending the other person or you feel nervous of triggering a confrontation. It could even be that so many of your relationships feel like this and to walk away from all of them would leave you feeling lonely.
When we feel like this, it’s important to know that we don’t have to do anything too drastic. We don’t have to wake up one morning and declare these relationships over. Instead we can learn to protect ourselves better and minimise the power we give away to these people. Ultimately this might mean ending the relationship, but in the short-term, simply explore what it would look like to spend less time with these people and share less of yourself in these relationships. Practice also stating your needs and setting and maintaining boundaries.
#5 Practice self-care
If we consistently fail to look after ourselves, we can’t expect to have others treat us well. Practicing self-care takes a multitude of forms from eating healthily to finding time to rest and recover when we need it. Self-care activities can include all of the points above as well as time alone, nourishing food, a good night’s sleep, meditation, doing something fun, putting ourselves first and so much more.
When we care about ourselves and our own well-being, we obviously benefit but what we’re also doing is sending a message to those around us about how we want to be treated. People are less likely to treat you badly when they see how much you love, value and care for yourself.
➳ Further reading:
If after reading this post, you are still finding it a challenge to show yourself the love you truly deserve or you’re struggling to make progress on any of these points, then please feel free to get in touch.