Many of my clients know the need to move towards “self-love”.
Self-love and compassion correlates with higher mental health, positive body image, emotional intelligence as well as motivation, and resilience when coping with stress. It is also frustratingly vague and impossible-seeming to many people.
No wonder they have no clue how to get there.
Approximately 70 percent of unprompted human thoughts are dedicated to criticizing our own inferiority. Self-criticism is an evolutionary trait to optimize survival probabilities, developed for error-correction. Excessive amounts contribute to a range of psychopathologies, for example depression. So, what do we when the brain is programmed this way?
The answer sounds simple, and we hear it all the time: love yourself. But actually practicing self-love is tough. That’s because the brain is comfortable in its usual pathways of behavior and applying something new means challenging patterns of well-established neural firing. By the age of four, the brain has developed 90 percent of adult neural structures, for example.
Luckily, the brain is malleable. Neural pathways are not set for life and can be rewired. Learning to love yourself is a neural rewiring process, requiring time and reflection of the thoughts your brain has and choosing different actions.
The benefits of self-love include feeling present, empowered and comfortable in your body, making wiser decisions that support not deplete you, experiencing a sense of meaning in who you are and what you do; moving towards it has a host of positive benefits, including enriching relationships and feeling an increase in creativity and motivation.
These mechanisms are thought to be based on a system of neurotransmitters and hormones in the hypothalamus referred to the oxytocin opiate and arginine vasopressin system which, among other things, is associated with social interaction. Empathy, sexual stimulation, nursing and stress are said to be activating stimuli. Alternating activation of the pathways has been shown in ape and mouse models, with animals displaying behavior associated with self-compassion producing more oxytocin and arginine vasopressin.
Below are some tools I employ to teach my clients the why and how of “self-love”.
The “self” may be defined as a combination of conscious and unconscious memories of past experiences and future intentions. We create the “self” by self-related processe, such as looking in the mirror or assessing our personality. These are regulated by various parts of the brain: the cortical midline structures of our brains, the medial prefrontal cortex and the precuneus/posterior cingulate cortex, as well as the temporoparietal junction and the temporal pole.
This is facilitated by the right hemisphere, which distinguishes between us and others.
A sense of ‘self’ is the first thing that is imperative for learning how to actually love yourself. And the best way to do this is to spend time getting to know yourself, right now, and to check in to see if you may have changed your mind about who that is. Many people make the mistake of following society’s formula for a happy life and neglecting to make their own choices. Do you want that career? Still? Do you enjoy going to brunch every Sunday?
So step back, draw a distinguishing line between yourself and others, examine your own narrative — and wants, and desires — and embrace it. The self-love rewiring begins with connecting to those cortical midline structures, and you do that by knowing more of yourself.
Next in the toolbox is self-compassion, and that involves viewing yourself and your shortcomings while abstaining from harsh criticism. This is a balanced approach to assessing yourself, and it is self-love in action.
When I am working with clients, I use the “three Rs”: Refrain, redirect and replace.
Although it’s a habit, refrain from harsh judgement and overcriticizing mistakes and deficiencies. I ask clients to choose simple words such as “next” or “change” to speak out loud when they notice they are over analyzing or speaking harshly to themselves, which works to redirect the brain. Finally, replace the negative self-monologue with kinder thoughts or words. Another tactic is to think of and engage in kind actions for others, and to be more empathetic. Self-reporting and MRI data have shown that self-compassionate individuals tend to put themselves in other people’s shoes, and be more compassionate overall, than those who lack the trait.
Some final practical tips:
• Try positive self-talk, which correlates with success and also activates the prefrontal regions of the centromedian nucleus and assists in mindful awareness.
• Keeping a self-talk-diary is a scientifically proven method to monitor your inner chatter
• Compassion for what your old self has been through; It can be hard to overcome past setbacks, but if the memories are not too traumatic to relive, they can be fertile training for self-compassion. Recalling past events that made you feel badly about yourself and writing down words you would like to hear, you can help you practice self-compassion, resolve past issues and give your brain an alternative ending that feels good.
• Perform acts of self-care. With my clients I outline that self-care means all activities that restore or improve your mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being. Although society counts buying something as self-care, most acts of materialism have shown to negatively correlate with self-love and more likely to relate to emotions such as guilt. Self-care is about going to the effort to take thoughtful actions, or refrain from other actions simply because we care about ourselves.
Finally, know that loving yourself is not pathological or selfish. It is a selfless act. Consider these two rationales; when you have peace, feel more fulfilled and are looking after your health, your loved ones can relax knowing you are ok. You are giving them a gift. And, when you practice self love on yourself, you create the capacity within yourself for extending a healthy love and care to others.
Parisa has a neuroscience degree and is a counsellor of Integrated Psychotherapy, works in psychological and physical trauma rehabilitation with a speciality in acquired brain injuries and autism and is currently working on her PhD on the therapeutic implications of indoor skydiving on the brain, specifically cerebral palsy and ADHD.. She's also a personal trainer, yoga and barre instructor and lives on a boat in Abu Dhabi.