The No BS Guide to Self Love and Self Compassion part 1: the foundations
Two quick notes before we get started: this is a long article. If you’re purely looking for action steps that you can take now jump down to the last section titled “Putting it all together: summary and action steps” here. Also, this is the first in a three part series on learning to love yourself. The second part can be found here and the third, here. If you’d like to receive email notifications when these posts go live, please jump onto my mailing list here.
Ok, onto the main event….
October 2013: something has gone wrong. I’m in the green room and the stage manager just gave me the two-minute warning. I nod, signaling I’m good to go. I turn off the music, take out my ear buds, and let the energy of the waiting audience wash over me. I glance in the mirror to make sure that I look presentable.
When I make eye contact with myself a wave of nausea sweeps over me. Not pre-speech nervousness nausea – I’m used to that – this is a, “Hey your life is moving in the wrong direction kid” nausea that I’ve never felt before.
But I don’t have time to focus on that. I’ve just been introduced. I switch on my mic and step into the lights…
November 2013: I’m home after a three-month speaking tour and never have I been more broken. I thought the formula was simple. Achieve “success” and I’ll suddenly and effortlessly be happy.
And yet, that’s not what happened. Instead, I keep asking myself, “Where did I go wrong? I’ve gotten everything I thought I wanted, and I’m still not happy? I’m not even close to being happy. Honestly, I’m miserable.”
December 2013: I’m still in a funk, still depressed, still not sure what the hell is missing in my life.
One morning, shortly after waking up, it hit me like a lightening strike: I haven’t learned to love myself.
My relationship to myself was like the relationships I have with my close friends who live far away. I’m viscerally aware of what’s happening in their lives. I’m present with them for the big moments. I talk to them on the phone from time to time. But ultimately, I don’t keep close tabs on them and just sort of assume that they are doing well and will be ok.
I realized that if I really wanted to be happy I had to learn to love myself from the inside out, and that no amount of “success” in the external world would bring true happiness or contentment. It was down to me.
What I didn’t realize until much later is that my ability to form deeper relationships with other people was being governed by my ability to form a deeper relationship with myself. Phrased a bit differently: we only let other people love us as much as we love ourselves.
So I set out to figure it out. I tried a lot of things to learn to love myself. Some were crazy like staring in the mirror and repeating, “I love myself, I love myself, I love myself” for five minutes a day. Others were more grounded like taking time off of work and eliminating alcohol.
What I learned is that loving yourself takes place on two planes. In the big picture, you have to be well aligned with yourself and honest about who you are. In the day to day, you have to learn to enjoy the ride and prioritize your mental and physical health.
I was failing in both planes.
I’ve worked with many “successful” people who appear to be on top of the world, but privately confided that they aren’t happy. They suffer from the same problem that I suffered from: they don’t truly love themselves.
Success at the expense of self isn’t worth it. The challenging truth is that success wont make you happy on it’s own. Believing that it will is a sophisticated form of self-loathing.
The reality is that when you take good care of yourself, you will be far better equipped to achieve success, and you’ll enjoy the ride along the way.
I’m going to share the strategies that worked for me. More importantly, they’ve worked for the friends, family, and clients that I’ve shared them with.
As a very pleasant side effect of taking on the challenge of loving myself, virtually every sphere of my life is running better. You can expect the same results.
The Four Foundations of Self Love
Foundation 1: Connect to your inner reality
To truly love yourself, you have to know at a deep deep level who you are. That seems simple, right?
In my experience, it’s not. Throughout my life people have asked seemingly innocuous questions like, “What are you most passionate about?” or, “What would your dream business look like?” and I haven’t been able to fully answer them.
When I got off tour in November, I had no clue what I wanted from life. I just knew that I didn’t want the life I had and needed to make some serious course corrections.
The reality that most people live in is a reality filled with static and white noise. It’s a reality of emails and deadlines and text messages and happy hours and friends and family and advertisements and coworkers and projects and school and work and travel and sleep and exercise and TV and parties and shopping and meetings and dates and networking, and on and on and on…
With so many demands on our attention we lack focused time to for our inner reality of thoughts, feelings and desires. This is a problem. To truly love yourself you have to know yourself from the inside out.
In a society where we place significant value on the external (busyness, appearance, material goods, etc.) connecting to your inner reality isn’t intuitive. You have to be intentional about it.
The best approach is to turn the volume down on the outside world so that you can clearly hear the sounds coming from your inner world.
The most efficient way to do this is to interview yourself. Put together a list of high leverage questions like, “What do I want my life to look like when I’m 90?” and “If I had $100,000,000, what would I be working on right now?” and find a quiet place to reflect answer these questions.
If you’d like additional guidance with the process of interviewing yourself, as well as 10 great questions, please subscribe to my free newsletter here. Subscribers are automatically sent an exclusive article on how to form a deep connection with yourself as a thank you for joining the list.
Other methods of quieting the external world so that you can more carefully get in touch with yourself that work well:
Do less: it’s hard to see who you are if you’re constantly busy. Get in the habit of saying, “No” more often so that you can create time in your schedule just to be by yourself.
Long walks, journaling, and a quiet cup of coffee work well to stimulate reflection.
Personally, I try to spend at least a few hours every Sunday journaling in a coffee shop without my phone or computer.
Protip: if the idea of being alone terrifies you, you need alone time.
Meditate: I find it helps to focus on my breathing. Don’t worry if you can’t focus on your breath – most of the time, I can’t either. It’s ok. You’ll notice that thoughts drift through your head. Observe the thoughts, and then release them.
From time to time you’ll have profound insights into yourself and the human experience. Most of the time you wont. Or at least most of the time, I don’t. That’s ok. It’s cool to start small. I started at 2 minutes a day.
Travel: traveling will expose you to different aspects of yourself and the world. It will open your eyes to possibility and new perspectives, and thrust you outside of your comfort zone.
My recommendation is to go as far off the beaten path as possible. The most eye-opening place for me was a small village in rural Thailand.
A lot of people want to travel but feel as though they can’t afford it. Try this:
- Set a date one year into the future when you’ll start your trip
- Put aside a bit of money each week
- Save up your time off
- Open an airline credit card that offers frequent flier miles as rewards and use that card for everything (but make sure you pay it off in full each month).
One year from now you’ll have enough points for a free ticket, a bit of cash saved up, and a bank of unused time off.
I try to take one trip a year to a new country and while I’m there I spend at least a few days with my phone and computer off so I can explore, be present, and reflect. My favorite places for reflection are Prague, and the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.
The way to get to know yourself is to be intentional about it. Carve out good time for you, be selective about the inputs you’re exposing yourself to, and reflect.
Reflection is easier when you can structure your thinking, which is why I suggest you start with interviewing yourself.
Once you have a clearer picture of your internal reality, you can then begin bringing it to life, by aligning your internal and external realities.
Foundation 2: align your internal and external reality
We all experience two realities:
1) The internal reality of thoughts, feelings, and desires
2) The external reality of behaviors, environments and actions.
Alignment is bringing those two realities closer and closer together so that they eventually overlap. The more closely you align your internal and external realities together, the easier it will be for you to love yourself.
In other words, if you are a lawyer and you spend your weekends going out with your friends, but you actually wish you were a novelist who spent the weekends rock climbing, you are poorly aligned.
You’ll struggle to love yourself because your external reality betrays your internal reality. You’re subtly saying to yourself and the world, “The real me isn’t good enough to show you, so I’ll show you a fake version of instead.”
In situations like this, it’s seductive to make bold changes, to storm into your boss’s office, quit, break up with your friends, and move to Montana so you can write and climb.
I would advise against impulsive behavior. It’s extremely jarring to the individual and often requires more sacrifice than it’s worth.
Instead, craft a plan that will help you slowly align your realities.
Start by spending one or two evenings a week working on your novel. Next weekend, go to the climbing gym even if you have to go alone. Keep doing this for a few weeks.
Make friends at the gym. Join a writers group. Scale your lifestyle down (smaller apartment, fewer meals out, etc.) and start saving money so that you can walk away from your job more easily.
Over time you’ll have a new set of friends you’ve made at the gym, a financial runway that enables you to smoothly leave your job, and a draft of a novel.
The important part is to start now. Make the small changes that will help to bring your inner reality and your outer reality closer together.
I realized that one of the ways I was misaligned was that I really wanted to have a great home life so I could spend good time with my people, but I was giving 50 speeches a year around the world and had no free time at all for the people I love. Huge disconnect.
So I finished all of the speaking engagements I had booked (I didn’t want to let my clients or audiences down) and decided that moving forward I would only do 10-15 speaking engagements a year. This would enable me to serve my clients, but also still have a life.
Force alignment by owning and sharing your story (an exercise for the bold):
In spring of 2011 my life collapsed and I became deeply disconnected from myself. Over the span of 10 weeks:
- My girlfriend, P*, who I was madly in love with, broke up with me
- A close friend told me he never wanted to speak to me again
- A different close friend, M*, took his own life
- I completed a five week international speaking tour that lost money
When I got home from the speaking tour, I was completely broken (note to Jason: there is a pattern here buddy…). I could barely get out of bed. My girlfriend was gone, my friend was mad at me, my other friend was dead, and my business was failing.
I don’t remember much about those days. And I don’t know where the idea came from, but one morning, I woke up and knew that I needed to own my story.
I spent two days writing. I wrote about what happened with P* and how small it made me feel, admitted that there were serious structural flaws in my business that I could no longer ignore, and connected to the cold, dark, reality that M* was dead.
I held nothing back. I poured all of my vulnerabilities and fears and demons into that document. I cast away all of the white lies I was telling myself and others, and shed light on how broken, depressed, and afraid I was. I owned that I didn’t think I had what it took to be a successful entrepreneur.
I also started laying out a plan to get my life back on track.
All in all, the document was over 30 pages single-spaced. I saved it as a PDF, took a deep breath, and then emailed it to a small group of extremely close friends. For the first time ever, I was showing people exactly who I was. I wasn’t just strategically showing a few rough edges, I was making myself as vulnerable as I could possibly be.
When I did that, a giant weight was lifted off my shoulders. It was no longer possible for me to hide in plain sight, at least not in front of the friends who had that document. They could see exactly who I was and would call me on it if I started trying to hide again.
A few hours later, their responses started coming in. They still loved me. They were there for me. And I’ll be honest, when you show people who you truly are, and they still love you anyways, that is an amazing feeling.
When you’re busy wearing a mask or doing a calculated impersonation of who you think you should be, other people’s love isn’t worth as much because they aren’t loving you, they’re loving a shadow.
You can do this too, though I’ll warn you: it’s not for the faint of heart. Showing your people who you truly are takes guts. Showing yourself who you truly are takes even more guts.
But if you’re so inclined, here is what I suggest you do:
- Carve out a few days where you will do nothing but write
- Pour your heart into this document and be as honest as possible. You can start with the words, “This is who I am…” if you need a prompt. Write freely without concern for structure or word choice. Just let the words flow our out of you.
- Share whatever you think needs to be shared. Stories, anecdotes, fears, triumphs, etc. If you’ve been hiding in public or protecting yourself with white lies, or denying an internal truth, share that.
- You’ll notice that just the act of writing about who you honestly are will cast away a lot of the fog that is preventing you from loving yourself.
- Read through the document a few times. See who you really are.
- Now comes the hard part: share it. You don’t have to share it far and wide, but pick a few people and give them a copy. I emailed it to a small group of close friends. You can share it with me if you’d like, which I actually think would be pretty cool. My email address is: Jason@ignitedleadership.com.
When you show yourself who you are, you foster an amazing connection with yourself. When you put your story out into the wider world of your people, you eliminate all of the hiding spots you used to use and are forced to become authentic.
Is that scary? Oh hell yes. But it also insanely loving. Authenticity is the ultimate act of self-love.
Foundation 3: Shine light on The Imposter Syndrome
Have you ever felt like…
- Your successes are a fluke, and if – or when – they collapse you wont be able to replicate them?
- Everyone but you knows what they’re doing but you’re just stumbling around in the dark trying to fake it until you make it?
- Large parts of your life are an illusion and pretty soon you’re going to be found out?
Yeah, me too. About a year ago one of my friends congratulated me on my “success” as a speaker and I spent a solid five minutes trying to convince her it was all an illusion.
I have amazing news for you: pretty much everyone feels this way, especially if they’ve gone off the beaten path.
This phenomena of struggling to internalize your accomplishments and feeling as though you are somehow unworthy or undeserving of what you’ve achieved is so common that it has a name: The Imposter Syndrome.
The Imposter Syndrome is marked by feeling as though you are an imposter in your own reality and that you don’t deserve the accolades you’ve achieved.
To love yourself you have to cast away The Imposter Syndrome and realize that you really are as great as you appear to be. While there are different techniques for this, here are the ones that I’ve found most effective:
Start talking about it. If you have the audacity to discuss The Imposter Syndrome with the people around you, you’ll notice that many of them are victims of it too. When you realize that pretty much everyone who you think has it figured out suffers from The Imposter Syndrome, you’ll naturally start to overcome it.
Reverse engineers your successes. So often we think that our success happened by some sort of a fluke or coincidence. When you find that thought starting to cross your mind, pause, and reverse engineer your accomplishments.
Figure out how you really got from A to B. In doing so you’ll begin to see that your successes and achievements are a result of your personal agency, and not the coincidences they appears to be at first glance.
Internalize compliments. Most of us have no problem internalizing criticism. In fact if someone tells us ten things they like about our work and one thing they don’t, we’ll obsess over the one thing they don’t like. Or at least I will.
What we need to learn to do is internalize compliments too. The next time you get a compliment, pause, think about what that person just said, and let the good feelings wash over you.
Personally, I keep a list of the different compliments people have given me and read through it from time to time.
Work to overcome The Imposter Syndrome by allowing yourself to internalize compliments.
Foundation 4: Depower your demons
We all have little demons and insecurities resting in the back of our heads that revel in replaying past failures, painting a picture of a bleak future, and generally trying to convince us that we suck.
The specific demons vary from person to person but some of the more common ones are beliefs that:
- I’m stupid
- People don’t like me for some reason
- I’m destined to be alone (a demon I grapple with all the time)
- I’m too fat
- I’m too skinny
- I’m not successful enough (an on-again, off-again demon of mine)
- I’m not capable of achieving my dreams
- I’m somehow fucking my life up
Our demons hold power over us by preventing us from fully loving ourselves, and by extension, from fully loving other people. They stop us from aligning our internal and external realities, and they trick us into believing that we are not worthy of success.
But our demons have a weakness. They can only live in the dark. They gain strength by being unnoticed and operating just below our consciousness. By shining a bright light on your demons you’ll depower them. When you spend time looking at your demons and contemplating them you’ll start to find their flaws. Their logic and their grip will loosen and you’ll gain strength.
How do you shine a light on your demons? Begin by writing them down. Make a list with pen and paper of your insecurities. As you grow more comfortable with your insecurities acknowledge them when they start to plague you.
You can further depower your demons by sharing your list of insecurities with a trusted friend, family member, or mental health professional.
If you respond well to rituals (hint: we all do), you should share your list of insecurities with someone you trust, and then light it on fire and let it burn.
Make note of the time you burnt you insecurities so that when they start to creep back up you can tell yourself, “As of 3:31pm on July 6th, this demon doesn’t have power over me anymore.”
Will this completely eliminate all of your demons? Nope. It’s human to have insecurities. What it will do for you though is remove significant power from your demons and insecurities and lower the barrier to loving yourself.
If your demons are really bad, don’t go it alone. Take the time to find a mental health professional who you click with, and allow them to guide you through the process of overcoming your demons and insecurities. Getting the help you need is a sign of strength, not weakness, more on this in part 2 [Note if you’d like to be notified when part 2 comes out, please sign up for my mailing list here]
Putting it all together: summary and action steps
It took me months and months of experimenting, researching, and interviewing to figure out what the big elements of loving yourself are. I’ve done my best to explain them above.
Before closing out part 1, I want to leave you with the most efficient action steps for putting each of these into practice.
Connect to your internal reality:
Schedule a few hours to interview yourself. Ask yourself big picture questions like, “If I knew I was going to die in six months, how would I spend my remaining time?” to connect to yourself. It may take several sessions for you to get a clear picture of who you are. That’s completely fine. For additional guidance on interviewing yourself, as well as 10 targeted questions, sign up for my mailing list here. As a thank you to my subscribers I’ll send you an exclusive article on the interview process.
Align your internal and external realities
Once you have a clear picture of your internal reality of thoughts, feelings, and desires, it’s time to begin aligning your internal and external realities. The truest path is generally a slow and calculated one. Make small changes each week that will bring you closer and closer to alignment.
For example, if you really want to start your own business, but you are currently an employee, begin by reading books on entrepreneurship. Take a few successful entrepreneurs out for coffee and ask them how they suggest you get started. Slowly piece together a plan and begin acting on it.
Cast light upon The Imposter Syndrome:
Begin by acknowledging The Imposter Syndrome, which is the sensation that you don’t deserve the success you’ve experienced, that you are not successful, or that the good parts of your life are illusions. Talk about it with people you trust. You’ll soon realize you’re not alone, and by extension, not an imposter.
From there, be sure to take the time to internalize the compliments you receive. The next time someone says something nice to you, pause and connect to that. Think about what they just said, and let the good feelings wash over you.
Depower your demons
We all have demons and insecurities that hold us back from fully loving ourselves. The good news? It is fairly easy to remove a lot of their power because demons can only live in the dark. Find a quite place and spend 30 minutes writing and reflecting.
Make a list of your demons and insecurities. The simple act of writing them down will start to loosen their hold over you. When you feel the demons starting to creep in, acknowledge them. Further depower them by taking small steps forward despite their presence. Doing so will transfer strength from the demon to you.
If you focus on any one of the four elements of self-love, your life will improve. There’s no way it wont. If you take the time to focus on all four of them – and you don’t need to do them all at once, one at a time is fine – you will develop a deep seated sense of self love and self compassion.
While the big picture concepts above work remarkably well in the long run, I’ll also share day-to-day strategies for increasing your self love in part 2, which comes out next Tuesday, August 5th.
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“Sunday Morning Still Life” by Pen Wagner
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