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For many people, the concept of self-love is untouchable. Also, self-love might be associated with images of tree-hugging hippies or cheesy self-help books. Many studies have shown the importance of self-love and compassion, as a key to mental health and well-being, keeping depression and anxiety away.

Here are some things that one can do to cultivate self-love.

“Why is self-love important?” you probably wonder. For some people, self-love sounds more like a luxury than a necessity.

The majority of the time, most people are too hard on themselves, because of a desire to excel and do things right all the time. This creates a lot of criticism and that persecutory inner voice that constantly tells you that you could have done it better. Studies have shown that being a perfectionist puts you at risk for several diseases, both physical and mental, and self-compassion may free you from all the stress. As a result, perfectionism and self-compassion are inextricably linked.


The ills of perfectionism

Most of us have been raised that perfectionism is an awesome quality to have, because, after all, being a perfectionist and obsessed with perfect details leads to achieving a perfect result.
But in reality, perfectionism is actually not good for you. It’s not just “not ideal” or “harmful when excessive,” but truly bad, like smoking.

A shorter lifespan, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, eating disorders, depression, and suicidal tendencies are only a tiny part of the adverse health effects that can be caused by perfectionism.
Also, recovering from a severe disease, like heart disease or cancer is harder for perfectionists, with this trait making survivors, perfectionists being more prone to anxiety and depression.


Letting go of perfectionism

So what can be done to let go of perfectionism? First of all, you have to realize that it’s bad for you. Beating yourself up every single day for every little thing makes you feel less happy and unworthy. You deserve better than this.

In the words of Kristin Neff, a professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin “Love, connection, and acceptance are your birthright.”

To sum up, happiness it’s not something that you need to earn, but rather something you’re entitled to. Even the United Nations adopted a resolution saying that the “pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal.”

Also, you should try to stop beating yourself up for every little thing. Paul Hewitt , a clinical psychologist in Vancouver, Canada, and author of the book Perfectionism: A Relational Approach to Conceptualization, Assessment, and Treatment likens the inner critic harbored by perfectionists to “a nasty adult beating the crap out of a tiny child.”

When you’ve spent years being a bully with yourself, you start to develop a reflex to put yourself down for every inconvenience, no matter how little or absurd it is. This applies for missing a deadline or dropping something on the floor, a perfectionist will continue to punish themselves over the most unexpected things.

Psychologists claim that self-compassion is something that you can learn, it not the case of “you either have it or you don’t.”


What is self-compassion?

Self-compassion and self-love can help to build resilience in the face of adversity, helping people to recover easier from any type of trauma or romantic separation. Also, it helps in coping with failure and embarrassment.

Prof. Neff, Sbarra and colleagues define self-compassion as a construct that encompasses three components:

  • “self-kindness (i.e., treating oneself with understanding and forgiveness),
  • recognition of one’s place in a shared humanity (i.e., an acknowledgment that people are not perfect and that personal experiences are part of the larger human experience),
  • mindfulness (i.e., emotional equanimity and avoidance of overidentification with painful emotions).”

“Self-kindness entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than flagellating ourselves with self-criticism,” write Profs. Neff and Germer.

I know it’s easier to say than to be done, but luckily, the same researchers who gave us the definitions, have also come up with some useful tips to enhance it!

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Mindfully trained self-compassion

By mixing up mindfulness and self-compassion, Profs. Neff and Germer who work at Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA, have developed a technique called “Mindful Self-Compassion Training,” which has been tested in many clinical trials with heartening results.

The exact same words that the researchers used, “Self-compassion says, ‘Be kind to yourself in the midst of suffering and it will change.’ Mindfulness says, ‘Open to suffering from spacious awareness and it will change.’”

Their program comprises several meditations, like “loving-kindness meditation” or “affectionate breathing,” and “informal practices for use in daily life,” such as the “soothing touch,” or the “self-compassionate letter writing,” all being shown in helping the participants to the study develop the habit of self-compassion.

Practicing these techniques for at least 30 minutes every single day for 8 weeks, raised the participants’ levels of self-compassion by 43 percent, according to the researchers.

There are many exercises than one can to achieve self-compassion. One simple exercise consists of repeating the following phrases in times of emotional distress:

“This is a moment of suffering,” “Suffering is a part of life,” and “May I be kind to myself.”

These three phrases correspond to the three elements of self-love that we have talked about earlier.

In her book Self-Compassion, Prof. Neff talks about many other useful mantras and guides the reader to create their own. Also, her website offers a wide range of similar exercises, which can be found for free.

Dr. Helen Weng from the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her fellow colleagues have also created a range of different exercises that can be accessed very easily, and the best part about them is that they’re free.

If you’re still skeptical after reading all these benefits of repeating mantras to yourself, you must know that there are many studies that back them up.
Additionally, mindful exercises have been proven to lower the levels of the cortisol (a stress hormone) and increase heart rate variability (your body’s physiological ability to get over stressful situations).

Learning to listen to yourself

Listening to yourself could be divided into two things. The first one is paying attention to how you’re internally talking to yourself, and it is crucial to learn to cultivate the feeling of self-love.
In her book, Prof. Neff wants her readers to ask themselves, “What type of language do you use with yourself when you notice a flaw or make a mistake? Do you insult yourself or do you take a more kind and understanding tone? If you are highly self-critical, how does that make you feel inside?”

We are much harsher to ourselves than we are to others, or than how we expect to be threatened by others. Start by replacing this harsh voice with a kinder, softer one.

And finally, you can try to rephrase the observations that you have initially made in a harsher manner, with kinder and more forgiving words.

Also, you could try writing yourself a letter, from the perspective of a kind and compassionate friend you have been to others.

Listening to yourself is important especially in those times of emotional distress. As researchers point out, “Simply asking the question is itself an exercise in self-compassion — the cultivation of goodwill toward oneself.”

But it’s also worth keeping in mind that “What do I need?” “Sometimes […] means that an emotionally overwhelmed individual should stop meditating altogether and respond behaviorally to his or her emotional distress, for example, by drinking a cup of tea or petting the dog.”

“Self-kindness is more important than becoming a good meditator.” Prof. Kristin Neff

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