Why Self-Love is Not Selfish

I recently saw the documentary on the life and work of Mr. Rogers, the children’s Public TV host and child advocate. After watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor, it’s hard to not feel gratitude for a man who uplifted millions of children with the message, “I like you just the way you are.” He also advocated for racial equality and tolerance for all. Seriously, there was not a dry eye in the theatre by the end of the movie.

The value of Mr. Rogers-style unconditional love for the developing child is backed up by research. Kids who feel unconditional love even when being corrected or guided by their parents are emotionally happier and less anxious as adults, according to a 2013 UCLA study.

Most mothers feel this instinctively, of course. Showering a baby with love and attention is a normal motherly response in most cultures. The trick, of course, is to make a child feel loved even when he or she needs to be disciplined. A mother who corrects her child for approaching a hot stove while still showing her love for the child as a person is successful on both fronts.

So if giving a child unconditional love is a universal instinct for mothers, why then, is it so difficult for those same women to extend the same level love and forgiveness to themselves?

It turns out that women, especially, are prone to self- criticism, no matter what their age. A study published in the Journal of European Education showed that adolescent girls are more self-critical than adolescent boys, in a sampling of 1700 teenagers over a period of six years. And a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Wiebke Bledorn, Ph.D., of the University of California, analyzed data from nearly a million men and women from 48 countries over a period of eight years and found that women’s propensity to self-doubt and self-criticism is universally higher than men’s—across cultures and countries.

Chronic self-doubt and self-criticism can take a toll on women’s motivation and achievement levels in the workplace and ability to rise to top positions. Worse, when it spirals out of control, it can be dangerous for mental and physical health.

How do we know we’ve crossed the line into the dangerous sort of self-criticism that is harmful not only to our productivity but to our health?

Let’s say you make a small error, like stumbling over a colleague’s name while introducing them. If you find yourself lying awake at night “ruminating,” or replaying this small error in your mind over and over, and this happens every time you make a mistake, this kind of obsessive, negative mental chatter can stimulate inflammatory response mechanisms and lead to chronic illness and accelerated aging. And recent research published in the Journal of Psychotherapy Integration found that obsessive self-criticism is correlated with depression, anxiety, negative self-image and even substance abuse.

The Power of Self-Love

Yet when we do the opposite—and treat ourselves with compassion instead of criticismit can actually increase our productivity and chances of success. Even more importantly, research shows that being compassionate with ourselves—giving ourselves a break when we make a mistake—can allow us to be more compassionate with others. When we’re too hard on ourselves, we tend to be too hard on others—including those nearest and dearest.

In other words, if we could direct some of Mr. Rogers’ “I like you just the way you are” toward ourselves, we not only help ourselves to achieve our goals easier, but help our children and family and co-workers to thrive as well.

One way to think about this is that a light bulb can only give out the amount of light that it has within itself. Relationships with others are an extension of who we are in the first place, because it’s impossible to give out love that we don’t have. Our outer life is a reflection of our inner life.

How to Calm the Negative Mind-Chatter

Obviously, anyone who is lying awake in bed thinking negative thoughts would dearly love to turn it off. The question is how?

As a person who was acutely sensitive to the feelings of others while growing up, I certainly spent a huge percentage of my time ruminating about what I could have done differently to avoid situations that I perceived as embarrassing to myself or harmful to others. Either way, in my mind, I was to blame.

What pulled me out of this spiral of self-criticism was learning how to practice the Transcendental Meditation technique at the age of 19. This simple, natural method of transcending the surface level of the mind allowed me to experience a state of deep rest and relaxation, a place of pure consciousness, of infinite joy and inner happiness. You could call it my deep self, my essential self. And as a result, I was able to experience self-love and compassion for myself.

I was incredibly attracted to this experience, so it was easy for me to sit down for 20 minutes twice a day, close my eyes, practice the technique that my TM teacher had taught me, and experience a peaceful state that, fortunately, calmed the incessant inner dialogue.

And just as the research studies on TM predicted, the results of my daily TM practice began to transform my life outside of meditation. I found myself less preoccupied with the idea of being perfect. Instead, I grew in self-confidence and self-esteem, and spontaneously stopped making so many nervous blunders. When I did make a mistake, I could keep things in perspective and perceive them (more accurately) as learning experiences rather than tragic errors that would ruin my life or someone else’s.

And best of all, the negative mental chatter turned to appreciation and tolerance not only for myself, but for others around me. Sleep came easily, without the long hours replaying perceived mistakes.

Where Do Negative Thoughts Go?

I want to make clear that this was not a matter of telling myself to stop thinking negative thoughts about myself or others. After all, in a busy day it’s impossible to evaluate your thoughts every minute, plus when you tell yourself NOT to think something, that’s when the negative thought can get stronger. Also, it’s easy to think positive thoughts when you’re feeling happy and content—but the minute disaster strikes you tend to revert to your natural baseline and all good intentions fly out the window.

Instead, I just went about living my life, and found that love and compassion for myself, and love and compassion for others, developed naturally and spontaneously as a result of my twice-daily TM practice.

And it wasn’t just me, I found out. Over the years, a multitude of research studies published in peer-reviewed journals have shown that self-esteem, self-concept, inner happiness, positive relationships with others, success in the workplace, and many other positive changes take place spontaneously when a person practices the TM technique twice a day.

The key word here is “spontaneous.” Thinking, after all, is based on being, on your deep sense of self. A tree can only be as healthy on the outside as it is on the inside, on the level of the roots.

As I effortlessly settled into my true self—that reservoir of universal love that is inside me and inside everyone—I found myself spontaneously acting in a more loving way to myself and others. That is a skill that every woman needs. And it’s something Mr. Rogers would approve of, for sure.

About the Author

Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki’s Ancient Epic—Complete and Comprehensive, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.

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