I know I have.
The start of another year exudes newness and possibility. We eagerly write goals on a fresh piece of notebook paper and promise ourselves that we will accomplish various things, such as beginning a devotional, sticking with a workout routine, or finally finishing that project.
But what happens when we inevitably miss a day of devotional reading? Skip out on a workout class? Postpone the next step of the project?
If you’re anything like me, you may beat yourself up and tear yourself down. We tell ourselves we should be better. We accuse ourselves and say things like, “I’m a failure,” “I’m a loser,” “I’m fat,” “I’ll never get over this.” We expect ourselves to be a machine in the realm of productivity, an Olympic athlete in the gym, or maintain the appearance of a photo-shopped model. We expect perfection.
The world’s idea of perfection consists of making no mistakes while flawlessly accomplishing goals. In a culture that values high personal achievement, success, and productivity, the pressure to relentlessly strive and set unrealistic expectations for ourselves is quite high. Correspondingly, so is the tendency to criticize ourselves when we don’t reach that level of “perfection.”
The world sees perfection in one way, but I propose another way. Perfection consists not in personal achievement but in LOVE.
Although you may have already written down a goal or two for the new year, I suggest we set another goal, one that holds greater importance than all the rest: that we strive to love ourselves. To love ourselves does NOT mean over-indulging in unhealthy food, neglecting our daily duties, or making excuses for bad behavior. This idea of self-love leads to selfishness, isolation, and ultimately unhappiness. In the eyes of the Church, however, a genuine love of self leads to communion and joy.[i] It means recognizing our profound dignity as sons and daughters of God and treating ourselves with kindness and gentleness despite our weaknesses and failures.
As we begin this journey of loving ourselves, let us look to psychological research and wisdom from the saints to help us grow in the ways of love.
LOVE AND SELF-COMPASSION: WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS
In the world of psychology, researchers refer to the practice of “loving ourselves” as self-compassion. Dr. Kristin Neff, one of the leading experts on self-compassion, first coined the term and has conducted much research on this topic. Instead of treating yourself harshly and critically during a time of difficulty, pain, or failure, she says, self-compassion means being kind and understanding toward yourself—despite how you may feel.[ii]
Researchers additionally refer to the practice of loving yourself as self-acceptance. One study looked at the habits most predictive of a person’s overall level of happiness. Among the 5,000 participants surveyed, the researchers found self-acceptance as the highest of the ten habits most strongly associated with happiness. The survey revealed, however, that acceptance was the least-practiced habit, generating the lowest average score among all of the participants. After answering the question, “How often are you kind to yourself and think you’re fine as you are?” the participants averaged a measly 5.6 out of 10 on the acceptance scale. Only 5% gave themselves a 10, and almost half (46%) rated themselves a 5 or less.[iii]
Another study conducted at the University of Texas in 2009 assessed a group of college students and found that those students who accepted themselves in the midst of stress despite feeling academically inadequate had greater levels of well-being.[iv] An additional study assessed the levels of four health-promoting areas of diet, exercise, sleep, and stress among 3,000 participants of all ages. Those who practiced self-compassion received higher results in the four above areas.[v] When we love ourselves, we excel in all areas of our life!
Among the many behaviors associated with self-compassion includes positive self-talk. This is the internal dialogue a person has with him or herself that is kind, gentle, optimistic, and affirmative. Studies have shown that engaging in positive self-talk is significantly associated with positive mental health outcomes such as less depression, less anxiety, and greater life satisfaction.[vi] Positive self-talk can also lead to greater confidence.[vii] The next time you feel like you’re a “failure” or a “loser,” try telling yourself, “I am more than capable” or “My identity does not lie in my accomplishments.” There are so many variations of positive self-talk, so be creative!
HOW TO LOVE: WHAT SCRIPTURE & THE SAINTS SAY
The fifth chapter of Second Corinthians perfectly captures the hopefulness of a new year. Saint Paul writes, “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (v. 17).[viii] Our old selves may have engaged in destructive self-talk, but Christ yearns to make us new!
Jesus wants us to remember that we are temples of His Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), [ix] and that this is our true identity. As temples, Jesus desires that we treat ourselves with the utmost goodness, patience, and respect. Christ only speaks in gentleness and love, not in accusations and condemnations. He wants us to treat ourselves the way He treats us. Since He never, ever speaks in the mean ways we so often speak to ourselves, then why do we?
Saint Francis de Sales once said, “Have patience with all things, but first of all yourself.”[x] Oftentimes we can be patient with others and not with ourselves. We tend to see the strengths in our friends and forget that they have weaknesses too. Loving ourselves means striving to grow in the virtue of patience. This striving takes time, however, and we must guard against discouragement.
Saint Josemaría Escrivá encouraged his readers in his book, Friends of God, to hope amidst difficulty. He wrote, “Personal experience shows, and you have often heard me tell you so, to warn you against discouragement, that our interior life consists in beginning again and again each day…The struggle is never ending… you often experience little setbacks, which at times perhaps may seem to you enormous…But do not lose your peace of mind.”[xi] Let us call upon the help of God and these wonderful saints as we strive to embrace the greatest of all virtues: love.
I KNOW I NEED TO LOVE MYSELF…BUT HOW?
Like anything, learning to speak to ourselves with love will take time. We may have treated ourselves harshly for years. But do not lose heart! Anything worth achieving will take hard work, and this January abounds with hope for you. Take some time to reflect on the unique ways God is calling you to begin to love yourself again. This may look different for each person. Ask the Lord how He is calling you to love yourself, and give Him time to respond. You may find He will give you some unexpected answers! In the meantime, you can refer to this list of ideas to help get you started:
- Start journaling. Don’t worry, this isn’t graded. Write down what you want, whenever you want. Let’s drop the standard that to own a journal means you must write in it every single day. Not true!
- Take a minute break from work and breathe. Look out the window and absorb the sunshine. Treat your body to a stretch.
- Ask yourself, “How would I treat my best friend if he or she were in my situation?”
- Write down some encouraging scripture verses and tape them to a prominent place, like your mirror or refrigerator. (Here are some great ones: Psalm 139, Isaiah 43:4, Song of Songs 4:7, Luke 12:7, and Matthew 10:30-31.)
- Meditate on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 and imagine yourself as the object of love—of Jesus’ love and your own.
- Practice speaking to yourself out-loud in kind and gentle ways. Contrast these responses with the old harsh ways, and see the difference.
- Remind yourself to take care of the caregiver—you. Take a bath, listen to your favorite music, go on a walk, or write a letter to a good friend.
- Remind yourself that you deserve all these things!
Remember, perfection consists not in accomplishing every single one of your goals, gaining success, or being “productive.” Even if you accomplish nothing on your list but strive to love yourself anyway, you gain everything. (1 Cor 13:3). [xii] Let’s reject the world’s idea of perfection and all the self-bashing and remember that LOVE is the “bond of perfection” (Col 3:14). [xiii] Let’s commit to living a life filled with new beginnings each day, and may we have the courage and the humility to embrace a new life of love!
In His Heart,
[i] Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church (1822, 1804).Vatican: Libreria Editrice.Vaticana, 2003.
[ii] Neff, Kristin. “Definition of Self-Compassion.” Self-Compassion. Educational Psychology Department, The University of Texas at Austin, 2016. <http://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/>.
[iii] University of Hertfordshire. "Self-acceptance could be the key to a happier life, yet it's the happy habit many people practice the least." Science Daily, 7 March 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140307111016.htm>.
[iv] Neely, Michelle E., et al. “Self-kindness when facing stress: The role of self-compassion, goal regulation, and support in college students’ well-being.” Motivation and Emotion 33.1 (2009): 88. Web. <http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11031-008-9119-8>.
[v] Oaklander, Mandy. “The Reason You Make Unhappy Choices.” Health, Time Mag., 25 Sept. 2014. Web. <http://time.com/3430670/self-compassion-health/>.
[vi] Neff, Kristin. “The Development and Validation of a Scale to Measure Self-Compassion.” Self and Identity, 2 (2003): 223. Web. <http://self-compassion.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/empirical.article.pdf>.
[vii] Marvelous. “The Importance of Positive Self-Talk.” Examined Existence. 21 Nov. 2013. Web. <http://examinedexistence.com/the-importance-of-positive-self-talk/>.
[viii] New American Bible. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. 2016.
[ix] ---.New American Bible. […]
[x] De Sales, Francis. “Saint Francis de Sales Quotes.” Brainy Quote. 2016. Web. <http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/s/saint_francis_de_sales.html>.
[xi] Escrivá, Josemaría. “Saint Josemaría: Quotations from Saint Josemaría.”Friends of God, 13. Opus Dei Information Office. <http://www.josemariaescriva.info/article/new-year3a-beginning-again-every-day->.
[xii] --- New American Bible. […]
[xiii] --- New American Bible. […]