John was born on Thanksgiving Day, 1954, but for him, life wasn’t much to be thankful for.
A birth defect made him wear painful leg braces, and his first-grade teacher told his parents that he would never read or write, or amount to anything in life. Dyslexia and speech impediments weren’t well understood in the ’50s.
Accepting that he was worthless, at age 14 John dropped out of school and moved to Hawaii to live in a tent. But after a near-death experience, fate brought John an enigmatic, 93-year-old mentor whose single statement changed John’s life: “Each of us, no matter how seemingly worthless, have genius within us.”
John’s self-image radically improved and he broke through his dyslexia. He began to read voraciously, putting himself through college where he graduated magna cum laude.
Today, Dr. John Demartini is one of the world’s top human behavioral specialists, a sought-after speaker and the author of more than 40 books.
Fear and Loathing in the Modern World
“I tell you, my man, this is the American dream in action!” —Hunter S. Thompson
Most of us born in the West had a much easier start to life than Dr. Demartini, but laugh to think we have genius in us. In fact, most of us suffer from poor self-esteem.
When I attended a personal development seminar in 2016, one speaker asked, “How many of you feel like you’re not enough as human beings?”
In a stadium packed with successful business people and professionals, 95 percent of the audience raised a hand. What a relief… I’m normal.
Epidemics of depression, anxiety, addiction and social isolation have broken out in our so-called developed nations.
In a society that idolizes celebrities, athletes and experts, why are we having so much trouble appreciating the most important person—ourselves?
Related: 3 Ways to Improve Your Self-Image
How to Spot Low Self-Esteem
“A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval.” —Mark Twain
Poor self-esteem is subtle; people don’t generally interrupt your morning coffee to tell you how much they suck. We don’t often notice it in ourselves.
Unhealthy self-opinions manifest in sneaky ways:
- Depression, anxiety and body image issues: At times the symptoms are overt, and at others you would have no idea that a successful person is fighting a life-and-death battle with their demons.
- Perfectionism is not synonymous with having high standards; it stems from wanting the approval of others. The fatal failing of this strategy is that, in striving to be flawless, you’ll always fall short.
- Constant anger masks pain. If you’re angry, you don’t need to deal with your shame, hurt or guilt. It’s a losing strategy, a way to pretend the opinions of others don’t actually affect you.
- People pleasing: A genuine desire to serve others is commendable, but people pleasing goes beyond service, becoming a desperate attempt to get from others the love and respect we’re not giving ourselves.
- Addiction: Our society says moderate drug and alcohol use is harmless fun. But too often these are the doors we use to escape from a reality in which we don’t like ourselves very much.
- Narcissism: Know a person who is reeeal big on himself? This self-promotion is likely covering up a deep sense of inadequacy. People who are genuinely confident don’t need to tweet about it.
Once you spot one or more of these traits in yourself, you can work to remove them. But what’s the point? Doesn’t achievement require a little suffering?
What’s Self-Love Got to Do With It?
“Love of one’s neighbor is not possible without love of oneself.” —Hermann Hesse
I see you over there, rolling your eyes. I know you… never missed a credit card payment, still has that new car smell after five years, and gets too few back-pats from the boss for staying late. Well give yourself a hand, civilization needs you to function.
To you, work and accomplishment is the ultimate success. Oh yes, you love your family, too, but you take it for granted that the best way to serve them is to bring home the bacon.
It speaks volumes, then, that so many millennials, whose immigrant parents worked 17 jobs to pay for their medical degree at Harvard, are opting out of 40 years of 100-hour weeks in order to enjoy life more.
It’s not that kids don’t appreciate their parents’ toil, but they see the insanity of the game.
Our failure to be kind to ourselves has created all the world’s problems: the rampant overconsumption that is now threatening the survival of our species; the disposable income that we blow on consumer junk in hopes to fill the void that we should fill with genuine self-love.
Accomplishment is noble, but empty without fulfillment. Self-love is not an optional frill, it’s the core of life. And there are two key habits for appreciating yourself: words and deeds.
Habit #1: Self-Talk
“Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.” —Don Miguel Ruiz
“Honey, I love you, but you just don’t measure up to my expectations, you embarrass me in public, and you’re not making enough money.”
You wouldn’t talk to your partner this way, yet it’s a common narrative inside our skulls.
If you want to appreciate yourself, you need to start with the way you talk to yourself, because your mindset determines how you experience life. Thought creates reality.
When your self-talk is healthy, life will seem beautiful. But for many of us, the conversation between the ears is far too harsh. Negative thoughts cause negative emotions, and can make life hell.
Psychologist Dr. David Burns knows that this verbal self-abuse is almost always disconnected from reality. His research shows that negative self-talk manifests primarily in these delusional forms:
- All-or-nothing thinking happens when we evaluate events as black and white. Example: I lost the sale; my career is over.
- Overgeneralization is a belief that one instance of failure means it will always be like this. Example: I asked a woman out and she said no; I’ll be forever alone.
- Mental filters cause us to focus on a single failure and ignore our many successes. Example: I missed that one free throw; I’m not cut out for basketball.
- Disqualifying the positive: This happens when we turn good into bad. Example: You receive a compliment and think, They’re patronizing me.
- Mind reading happens when you pretend to know what someone else is thinking. Example: My audience looks tired, I must be boring!
- Fortune Teller Error takes place when you just know something will go wrong. Example: I’m going to fail this exam.
Low self-esteem always starts with negative self-talk. Pull this thinking up by the weeds and you’ll eliminate negative moods.
No Gold Stars
“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” —Ernest Hemingway
In your quest for a healthy self-image, don’t take a wrong turn down the road to narcissism.
At the beginning of the millennium, some well-meaning do-gooders launched a feeling good campaign that meant showering students with gold stars, giving everyone medals, eliminating winners and losers, inflating grades, and generally seeking to make everyone feel that they were above average, ignoring the absurdity of the notion.
Creating healthy self-esteem does not require that you feel superior to others. All players lose the zero-sum game.
Don’t confuse loving yourself with loving your ego.
Habit #2: Self-Care
“A field that has rested gives a beautiful crop.” —Ovid
Practicing healthy self-talk is how you start to appreciate yourself, but it’s not enough.
If your boss constantly told you how great you are, but forced you to work 18-hour days, without visits from family and friends, the praise would become worthless.
Action needs to follow the words.
Think of positive self-talk as the foundation for healthy self-esteem, and self-care as the structure you build on top of it. First, you tell yourself you’re worth it, then you prove it.
Self-care is the act of recharging our batteries, topping up our tanks, filling the well. Each of us has unique needs, but we all know intuitively what fills us up. There’s no shortage of self-care ideas out there if you need inspiration.
Google usually returns a list like: get a massage, eat healthy, go for a walk. Rather than write a prescription for you, let me share some strategies below that will create space in your life to “do” self-care. But first, a warning.
Adulting Is Not Self-Care
“I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.” —Henry David Thoreau
Self-care is not self-maintenance. You know that getting a regular checkup and brushing your teeth will create a better you.
But “adulting” is not self-care. It includes only those activities that truly give us joy and recharge our energy—things that simultaneously plant your feet on the ground and lift your soul to the clouds.
In my case, an hour walking alone in the woods takes me out of the fray of an ambitious to-do list, moves my focus to my heart (subconscious), and I re-enter civilization with new ideas and energy, but also the peace of knowing that my biggest challenges are trivial in a 14-billion-year-old Universe.
If you don’t come away feeling at least half this good, you may be choosing the wrong self-care acts.
Beware: Numbing is also not self-care. The right acts will make you “feel” more—alive, connected, calm, excited, appreciative. Self-care that numbs can’t recharge.
Escaping into TV, alcohol or Instagram can be a welcomed break from work stress, but too much of it is about as wholesome as eating a box of cardboard, and can be a quick route to self-loathing.
If you’re drawn to this kind of escapism, it may signal a need to change your relaxation habits.
These practices will create space for self-care in your life. Pick whichever works for you.
The Artist’s Date
“If we don’t give some attention to upkeep, our well is apt to become depleted, stagnant, or blocked.” —Julia Cameron
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron teaches two fundamental self-care practices: 1. Morning Pages (journaling) and 2. The Artist Date (“me” time, if you prefer). These work for everyone, not just artists.
The Artist’s Date “is an excursion, a play date that you preplan and defend against all interlopers,” she writes. Two hours a week is enough.
What do you do in this time? Anything you want! The only rules: You have to do it alone and it has to be fun. The activity doesn’t need to be edifying (e.g. taking a class or reading)—it works better when you follow your White Rabbits, chasing your curiosity.
In this space, we start to hear our inner voice again, the one that’s always there, ready to tell us how to be good to ourselves.
The De-Loading Phase
“Music is the silence between the notes.” —Claude Debussy
Top athletes tend to claim they’re always giving 110%, but they know that results do not come from constantly running at the redline.
All effective training includes a de-load phase, usually a week, where you scale back your efforts. In my own weightlifting, this means loading up with only 50 or 70% of my training weight. It feels ridiculous, like throwing around a sack of feathers, and my mind fights it.
But universal law states that all things have a rhythm, including your body, which needs a lighter week to “prepare the body for increased demand of the next phase,” says Tim Ferriss.
Ferriss has applied the de-loading concept to his non-physical activities. He batches intense periods of similar tasks (writing blog posts and recording podcasts, for example) and then balances this with “unplugging and ****ing around.” It’s when his muse visits.
Like Tim, I defend my de-load time. By working less, I accomplish more. Build a de-load phase into your calendar now (it doesn’t have to be an entire week) and you’ll learn that by slowing down, you go faster overall.
Just Play More
“Seriousness is someone speaking in the context of the possibility of a tragedy.” —Alan Watts
Jane McGonigal turned her recovery from concussion into a game, then a graduate school project, and then a viral TED talk with 6 million views.
Today she’s the world’s foremost advocate for play.
When we face failure and challenges, we feel overwhelmed, anxious and maybe depressed, she says. But “we never have those feelings when we’re playing games.”
In the same way that it’s impossible to experience negative feelings when we’re filled with gratitude, play can help us trade self-flagellation for self-love.
When we play games, we experience “eustress,” or positive stress. It makes us feel optimized and energized, unlike most real-world problems, which dominate our consciousness when we neglect self-care.
Habits researcher Dr. Neil Fiore suggests scheduling play before work each week as a prescription for procrastination. It worked for Einstein—when stuck on a problem, he would play the violin.
Play is a human need, a loving act of self-care that can make our lives feel less like work.
When Guilt Attacks!
“There’s no problem so awful, that you can’t add some guilt to it and make it even worse.” —Bill Watterson
For those of us raised to believe that our work = our worth (all of us), you can bet that when you first adopt a policy of creating “me time,” your mind will attack with guilt.
A proposal to take the afternoon off to be “selfish” will meet mental resistance at first.
“I’m a mother of three kids under 5 who need me all the time! How could I just abandon them to go get a massage, mister?”
You do it by recognizing that self-care is child-care. You cannot pour from an empty cup.
Want to be a great mother/father/employee/partner? Then take an artist’s date to go play during your de-load week. The people around you, and your work, will benefit from a happier, more creative, and effective you.
Appreciating yourself might sound like a “let’s all get gold stars” luxury that we can afford only when all the chores are done. But having compassion for yourself is the most practical, responsible approach to life because it lets us serve at our maximum potential.
Your to-do list will never be empty, so with Thanksgiving approaching again this year, start loving yourself now. I’m off for a walk.
I’d love to know what you struggle with in the “appreciating yourself” department. Leave me a note in the comments.
Related: The Art of True Confidence
Photo by Andrew Kuttler / Twenty20