How often do we say that we would love ourselves if only…?
Sure, its easy to conjure up unconditional love for others, our bestie, our children, and our cute little pup. But having unconditional love for ourselves, well, that’s another story. Sure we love ourselves, but how often do we say we would love ourselves more if only we got that promotion or found the man of our dreams or more commonly, if we lost 20 pounds?
Turns out that this is frequently our MO., especially when it comes to our weight. I don’t have to tell you that this kind-of talk is mean and doesn’t feel good but, what if I also told you that this kind-of talk doesn’t serve you and might be the very thing that’s gonna get in the way of losing weight or any other kind of habit change. Unconditional self-love, also known as, positive self-acceptance, is not only our birthright, but it is a key domain of emotional and psychological wellbeing, good mental health and key to successful habit change. This is in contrast to its near cousins, self-confidence and self-esteem. As a society, we pursue self-confidence and self-esteem, but it can be detrimental to our psychological wellbeing and may even impede successful habit change.
Think about it. Self-confidence requires that we actually do something, or achieve something in order to feel good about ourselves. For example, you post a pic of yourself rockin that red dress, score a bunch of flamin’ hot fire emojis and you feel a bit more self-confident. While positive self- acceptance however, is unconditional love for yourself just as you are in this moment, no strings attached. It is not self-accepting to say, “I will love myself when I lose 20 pounds, when I launch my side-gig, when I get on that best-sellers list..” Self-acceptance requires us to meet ourselves where we are at this very moment. When self-acceptance is conditional, then by definition, we are not self-accepting.
Turns out that self-acceptance and more globally self-compassion is an important motivator for habit change. The inability to accept ourselves as we are interferes with our ability to make progress because we are more likely to engage with negative thoughts that sabotage our efforts. How often have you had this experience? You decide to turn over a new leaf, start exercising in hopes to lose a few pounds. You hop on the scale and realise that you have gained 5 pounds, or maybe just 2, and immediately you are up in arms. You say things to yourself you would never say to anyone else and next thing you know you throw in the towel and find yourself eating a donut. What’s the point? you think, “I’m so fat I will never get this weight off!” (I hate the f-word btw). All that negative self-talk has sucked the wind from your sales and now you feel so unmotivated that you just don’t care. Positive self-acceptance, however, fosters the self-compassion and patience that allows for change. In addition, self-compassion has been shown to be protective against poor body image and eating pathology.
Here’s the good news! Positive self-acceptance and self-compassion can be cultivated. Like a muscle that needs to be used in order to be strengthened, self-acceptance can be strengthened as well. The more we view ourselves through the lens of compassion and self-acceptance, the easier it is to practice positive self-acceptance. Building this muscle requires practice and intention, but it can be built.
One strategy that can help is a form of mindfulness by the name of cognitive reappraisal which has been shown to be particularly useful in cultivating positive self-acceptance. This practice teaches us to disengage from negative thoughts and emotions by employing a detached attitude toward them. When we acknowledge negative thoughts but don’t allow ourselves to get entangled with them, we allow them to to be replaced with more positive or benevolent thoughts and feelings. The ability to be nonjudgmental of our thoughts further boosts our ability to regulate our emotions and in turn, to improve our mood as well. Practically speaking this matters, not only in terms of mental and emotional wellbeing, but in terms of habit change specifically as studies have shown self-compassion based mindfulness practices are associated with greater weight loss and weight maintenance.
So next time you are seeking weight loss or any habit change, consider this. When we are unable to accept ourselves as we are, we get in our own way. Positive self-acceptance however, will pave the way for you to continue to be your very best self.