“You can’t be in a loving relationship with another person until you first love yourself.”
This is advice single people often hear, a message that gets cranked up several notches each Valentine’s Day. On its face, it makes sense: How could you possibly convince another person to fall madly in love with you if you don’t first think you’re worthy of this affection? The suggested remedy also sounds pretty good: Raise your self-esteem. To do this, many experts advise standing in front of a mirror and reciting affirmations like:
“I am a beautiful person.”
“I have great relationships with everyone in my life.”
“I love my body.”
“I am a winner.”
But there is a problem with positive affirmations: They very frequently don’t work. As journalist Oliver Burkeman notes in The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, a study by psychologist Joanne Wood found that people with low-self esteem actually felt worse about themselves after reciting positive affirmations that they didn’t believe. It makes sense. If you don’t, if fact, love your body, telling yourself you do is just … lying.
Fortunately, high self-esteem is not a requirement for finding a good relationship—let’s all do a quick tally of all the happily coupled people we know who nevertheless have body issues or a fear of public speaking. Here’s more good news: You don’t have to think highly of yourself in order to “love yourself.” All you have to do is be kind to yourself, and that’s quite easy:
1) Talk to Yourself the Way You Would a Good Friend
Think about the last time your best friend had a confidence meltdown—when she lost her job, or was blown off by some dude. Did you grill her about what she did wrong? Did you tell her it’s no wonder she got rejected, since she’s so fat and stupid?
Of course, you didn’t. And yet, many of us say horrible things like this to ourselves. Instead of beating yourself up–or pumping yourself up–University of Texas at Austin psychologist Kristin Neff suggests saying something to yourself that is both true and kind. For example: “I’m sorry you’re feeling low right now, but don’t worry about it too much—it’s just a feeling, and it will pass. Everyone feels bad about themselves sometimes. You’re not alone. You may not be perfect, but you still deserve love.”
2) Be Okay with Ordinary
When we do self-esteem mantras, we’re often trying to convince ourselves that we’re exceptional—beautiful, confident, and utterly unphased by those who disagree. After all, if you want to be someone’s “someone special” then being extraordinary seems like Step One.
But inflating yourself like a balloon is tough—you need to keep pumping air in to keep it afloat. When you opt for self-compassion instead, then you get to relax. Instead of telling yourself “I’m great! I’m the best!” you can instead say. “I’m about average, and that’s fine.” In her book, Self-Compassion, Neff found that self-compassion provides a much more effective way to bounce back from life’s indignities—breakups, bad dates, lonely Sundays—than self-esteem. As Neff points, out, “You can’t always think highly of yourself, but you can always be kind to yourself.”
What tactics do you use to help feel better about yourself?