To many, self-love may seem like a luxury rather than a necessity but psychology studies indicate it is a key contributor for mental health and well-being. Here, I share my learnings and evolution of this nurturing practice in my life.
Initially, the concept of self-love reminded me of the sometimes patronising tone in self-help books that made me want to do the complete opposite or something a yoga teacher only talked about in class. It took me quite some years to understand this concept and apply it in practice. One of the things I learned is that self-love and self-compassion both go hand in hand; when we are kinder to ourselves, we are able to cultivate and direct love inwards. If you think back on your year, how much love and compassion have you fostered towards yourself?
Everyone is different, but I believe this nourishing practice of self-love becomes easier as you gain more life experience. It took patience and compassion towards myself to appreciate what self-love truly means. I grew up with many responsibilities and what felt like the burden of the world on my shoulders. Thinking about myself was an indulgence I did not think I had. In the last several years, I have taken ownership of being kinder to myself because I now know I can only share love with others if I am first able to create this love for myself. The saying, ‘charity begins at home’, rings true here.
With all due respect to my loving family, I was given a large sense of duty towards my parents since a young age. In Indian culture, there is an idea of debt towards your parents for bringing you into the world and raising you. There’s even a Sanskrit excerpt from Hindu scriptures that closely translates to ‘if you were to shed your skin and present it to your parents, it would still not suffice for what they have done for you’. So, between this and working a high-powered stressful job in NYC, there was always someone or something that came before me and I did not create space in my life for self-love or listening to myself.
When I moved away from my parents’ home seven years ago, I quickly realised I never really spent much time on my own let alone did much for myself, apart from the time I would spend practicing yoga and meditation. In my early 30s, I started to change my lifestyle and I embarked on the journey of getting to know myself more. I started to do things for myself without feeling guilty for it or thinking it to be selfish. Life became bit more about me rather than others and I came to understand better what I wanted for myself and…love me. Here, I share a few of my learnings over the years and some practices that help me cultivate self-love.
It was quite easy to be hard on myself, especially in the busy lifestyle that I was leading. I wanted to excel in everything I did, strived for perfection and I became driven by this. So when things did not go as planned, this often ended up with self-criticism and the accusatory inner voice telling me how things could have gone better. Studies have shown that people who endeavour to this idea of perfection are at a higher risk of illness, both physical and mental, including shorter life spans, anxiety, eating disorders and depression to name a few. For me, it was anxiety.
I noticed I would beat myself up over things, cultivating my inner bully, the unconscious reflex to put myself down. This is not uncommon behaviour and let’s get real, we all have done it in some way, shape or form. I recognised I had the choice to feed this bully or calm it through self-compassion. Ways of nurturing self-love and compassion are numerous but I started with something as simple as being kind to myself and saw that it can go a long way. Self-kindness entails being understanding and sympathetic towards ourselves especially when we fail, suffer or feel inadequate instead of thrashing ourselves with self-criticism. When things did not go as planned, I stepped back from the situation and told myself, “Palka, it’s not the end of the world…don’t be so hard on yourself”.
Acknowledging that no one is perfect and our own personal experiences are part of a larger human experience helped me recognize my place in shared humanity. Knowing that I was not alone and that there are others who may share these feelings helped me see the bigger picture of life. The fact that we are a tiny instrument in a large orchestra of the world actually was quite humbling for me. Even though they did feel that way at the time, my problems were not the biggest or the only ones in the world!
Practicing mindfulness has been a great way for me to create self-compassion. It helped to create emotional equanimity and assisted me in pushing away overidentification with painful emotions. Some mindfulness exercises I use to develop self-compassion are breath awareness, soothing touch, mindful walking and writing caring letters to myself. Becoming reacquainted with pleasure is an essential element of self-kindness and mindfulness has helped me relearn taking pleasure in everyday things. Bringing mindfulness to my yoga practice encourages me to develop connection with my bodily energy and regain a sense of pleasure from it.
I started to observe the inner voice and how I was talking to myself. In 2013, I attended a leadership event where I underwent a 360 feedback which meant I was evaluated by myself, my mentors and my staff. After analysing the result of this feedback, I came to the conclusion that I am my harshest critic. It is much easier to be harsher on ourselves than we would be to others. This feedback helped me become more aware of my inner voice and work towards softening it. In times of emotional distress, when I needed to ask myself “what do I need?”, I have been able to listen mindfully because I have trained this voice to be more forgiving.
One of the things that I often want to do now is spend time with myself and not a day goes by without doing so. Not to sound arrogant, but I absolutely love spending time with me. As much as I love to be with my amazing friends and loving family, it took me years to work out that I actually love my own company as well and I can only share love with others if I am able to love myself. Applying self-love in my life has taught me many things about myself and it is an ongoing, ever-evolving practice. It creates healthy boundaries in my relationships, encourages me do things I want to do and it’s the best thing I have ever prescribed myself.
I would love to hear from you about how you practice self-love so please do share your stories and experiences with me!