“You have been criticizing yourself for years, and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.”
– Louise L. Hay
As people close to me know, I’ve been doing a lot of self-reflection since I turned 50 a few months ago. One of the things I’ve been focused on a lot is my longest and most important relationship — the relationship I have with myself.
Someone on Facebook posted something recently about wishing they could be back in the 80s and I responded that I only wish I were as “fat” now as I thought I was back then. It was a joking reference to how many of us go through life so focused on our appearance that we don’t appreciate how good we look until it’s too late. But as I reflected more on that off-hand comment, I became troubled. Clearly somewhere in my mind the 1980s me is better than 2018 me. Or better looking anyway. But why is that? Why would I turn that negativity inward? What if instead I believed I was beautiful then, and beautiful now too? Both can be true.
A teacher from the yoga studio where I practice recently summed up their teaching philosophy like this, “We approach everyone with the belief that they are perfect just as they are. I’m perfect, you’re perfect, just as you are. You don’t need to be fixed.”
This is revolutionary. Seriously revolutionary. I’m perfect just the way I am. And so are you. Think about how different things would be if we all believed that.
There are literally millions of self-improvement books out there, many of which claim that loving yourself means changing yourself. Love yourself thin. Love yourself to heal disease. Love yourself to be get what you want. Love yourself to find a relationship. What do they have in common? The premise that to change yourself is an act of love.
It’s very different from this idea that you should love yourself right now, just the way you are. It’s the opposite of the belief that you should love yourself without the assumption that you are flawed and need to change something in order to move towards perfection.
Lately I’ve been engaging in a Buddhist practice called metta, or lovingkindness. I am no expert in Buddhism and am sure I’m missing the nuances, but the basic idea is that you send love and compassion out to the world, not just to those you already love, but to those you don’t love, and those you don’t know. And you also bring that love and compassion inward and focus it on yourself as well. I’m thinking about this practice often, in meditation, in yoga, and in my daily life and interactions with others.
For me it’s much easier to send love out than to send love inward. It feels like some level of conceit or narcissism to say you love yourself, to say you’re perfect. But it’s so powerful.
As I’ve been consciously sending love and compassion to myself, I’ve been startled by the contrast between lovingkindness towards self and my previous state of mind. And by “startled” I mean shocked and appalled. Honestly I didn’t know how many negative thoughts I had about myself until I started this practice. It’s astounding. If I were to say to others even 1% of the mean things I say to myself on a daily basis I would have no friends. My family would abandon me. Even my dog would hate me. It’s so hardwired in my brain to criticize myself that I wasn’t even aware of this ongoing loop of negativity playing at the edge of my thoughts like some kind of evil elevator music.
A method I’ve found particularly helpful to get this loop of self-criticism is the use of the word “neti”, which is Sanskrit for “not this”. It’s a way to counteract the negative thoughts each of us have every day. Instead of just observing your thoughts, like a lot of meditation techniques teach, you actually counteract them. You push that negative thought away and don’t give it any power or attention.
So when something negative pops in my head, like this morning when I looked down at my legs in yoga class and thought, “Gross, I shouldn’t be wearing shorts, I forgot to shave my legs”, I counteract it by saying firmly in my head, “neti, neti”. When I look at someone and think, “I wish I were as young and thin and beautiful as her” I now say to myself “neti, neti, I’m perfect the way I am.”
Recently I heard someone say “I’m perfect” and another person chuckled, like many would, as if it was a joke. “I’m serious”, the person responded. And she was. Before I embarked on this journey I would have chuckled as well. Instead I thought with admiration, “Good for her. She’s right, she is perfect just as she is. We all are.”
Today I challenge you to do something revolutionary. I challenge you to love yourself. You’re perfect just the way you are. And so am I.
(Photo courtesy of mygirlmurphy. Shirt available at mygirlmurphy.com)