We’ve been thinking a lot about self-respect and self-love at ACEBE in the past few months, particularly since I quit my last job, and I won’t lie, I’m a bit concerned about what I’m observing. For a while now, I’ve seen how many of the women I love the most (including myself) struggle with their self-image, skills, careers, life choices, and/or emotions because of a deficit in self-respect, self-confidence, and self-love –and this is regardless of age, cultural background, or location.
Most of these women are extremely talented, loving, well-educated, smart, beautiful, and generous women, which makes it even harder for one to understand where the actual issue comes from. But somehow, they still feel lacking in some regard or another, unable to measure up to whatever the standard prevalent around them. And I get it. I can really relate. It really ain’t easy to be a woman nowadays –but, then again, has it ever?
Seeing so many women I know and others I don’t struggling with self-care, self-respect, self-confidence, or self-love has made me realize that the underlying issue here is not just one of needing to amp our own love-game for ourselves –which, of course, could only but help– but, rather, one of learning to first dismantle and then cultivate healthier inner voices, inner conversations, and thoughts. Because, it is the stories we tell ourselves about the world, others, and our ‘Selves,’ as well as the thoughts we welcome and generate through them, what truly has the ability to change our world.
So, I got to thinking about how this could best be done; and, I will be frank, whatever advice I’m offering below is self-made and thus, at best, tentative. If anyone has a better strategy, please share! But I think it all begins with being a little more systematic: with systematic self-study and self-story-work. I won’t say that you need to go ahead and record yourself speaking about your life, what you believe in, who you are, your emotions, and what you long for as if you were telling it to a friend and then watch it a few days later –though I’m quite sure that doing something like that would already give you lots of insight into your inner world. At the end of the day, we want to get to the core of our own Self and its emotions and beliefs and become our own ‘therapist.’ So, if recording yourself is a thing you’re willing to try, you have my blessing! But for those of us not so keen on using any electronics, I’d say there are other ways to start doing something about changing the way we voice our inner thoughts and eventually build the narrative that is ourselves.
From the inside-out: watch your inner monologue
Perhaps one of the toughest things to do, especially at the beginning, is to switch habitual patterns of thought and ingrained beliefs from the get-go. In fact, for some of us, it’s not even self-evident what our actual beliefs and thoughts about things really are. Furthermore, we all have a tendency to lie to ourselves a lot or avoid thinking about ‘complicated stuff.’ So, one way to get over this initial hiccup is to begin listening to our inner talk about ourselves and others as we do normal, everyday stuff.
Almost every woman I know has a very developed and highly (self-)critical inner voice. Let’s not get here into a discussion of the type of cultural and sociological (gendered) motivations for this, and instead focus on the actual function and practicality of fostering that type of predominantly negative inner talk. What’s the goal of it? Does it help us to think that way? What’s the overall function that this type of inner chit-chat serves? These are all questions that require a bit of distance and, in order to gain such distance, we need to become more accustomed to paying attention to ourselves.
Developing a nicer ‘inner voice’
In my own experience, our inner voice, though a very practical ally most of the time, can often take over and become our worst enemy; and what’s worse about it is that it can switch on to ‘NEGATIVE MODE’ almost automatically, without any type of control or willingness on our part. Becoming overly identified with the emotions this type of inner monologue triggers is almost inevitable, and thus, we are left at its mercy, which is not a fun place to be at. Hence, our inner voice can easily take over and begin talking to us in ways we don’t always appreciate –subjecting us to ‘a negative (self-)criticism trip’ of sorts, for example, involving a lot of belittling and negative comparisons with everyone and everything we encounter.
A lot of this has to do with a very subtle, yet quite common process of enculturation or education, whereby we have been taught since a very young age to police our bodies and behavior, dismissing any weaknesses or soft-spots. This is particularly strident in the case of women. Most of us have grown up in societies that teach us to try to ‘be the best,’ ‘try our hardest,’ ‘succeed,’ ‘go for perfect.’ Such apparently naive slogans can even be positively empowering at times, instilling in us the drive to try things out, given them our all, and aim for great. They give us hope that ‘anything is possible, if we work hard enough for it.’ But growing up with so much emphasis on ‘trying our best,’ ‘being the best,’ and ‘excelling’ at whatever it is we do, can often also trigger quite the opposite reaction. And so, many of us often grow up set up for disenchantment, feeling like we are never good enough, ready enough, smart enough, pretty enough, strong enough, happy enough, likeable enough, reliable enough… the list is as varied as it is large!
Since we are not supposed to ventilate negative feelings and emotions in public –because, that’s not what people who have their act together normally do– most of us keep those feelings and thoughts locked in, maybe sharing some of them with a good friend on occasion, but mostly allowing these repressed emotions to ‘haunt us’ either when we sleep or, of course, through a very (self-)critical inner monologue.
Learning to be your most generous storyteller!
The strategy here must then be three-fold: systematic self-study (or observation), systematic self-analysis (or questioning), and dismantling and subsequent substitution of the inner narrative. We need to become aware of when it is we are doing ‘the thing that makes us feel bad’ and slowly, but steadily, stop doing it. By this, I mean to begin thinking of which are the type of negative thoughts and inner monologues we normally suffer the most from, so that, next time they come about automatically, as they will, we are better able to stop them or at least minimize their impact, then analyze them, inquire after them, and replace our negative inner narrative with a better one.
A good place to start, then, after we identify the inner monologues we tend to suffer from the most, is to apply the questions listed at the beginning of this entry: What’s the goal of this type of thought? What am I trying to achieve by thinking this way? Does it help me to welcome an inner conversation of this sort? How does having thoughts like these make me feel? And, what’s the function that this type of inner chit-chat ultimately serves?
Most of the time, when we engage in our own self-study and self-analysis and actively try to come up with answers to the questions above, we become aware of how certain habitual patterns, thought habits, and go-to reactions are really detrimental to our well-being, easy to see through and dismantle upon closer inspection, and thus, also relatively easy to replace with a bit of steady work and generous self-loving self-storytelling! So this would be ‘approach number one.’
Action and reaction: working from the outside-in
'Approach number two’ would be for those who have a harder time with self-study, are not naturally inclined to devoting time to thinking hard about what’s eventually, very often, tough stuff to face right on, or simply prefer doing something else because, as it is, they already spend a lot of time ‘up there’ caught up in their own heads. For these type of people, me included, self-study and self-story-work can amount to something a bit more dynamic, more unconscious and creative even, allowing for the enjoyment or depth of emotion produced when we practice certain activities, to trigger the progressive dismantling and rewiring of our inner voice.
A few things to consider here, then, could be activities like creative writing –particularly any exercise requiring us to write in a state of flow without reading what we scribble and pushing us to do positive imagining work–, dance impro, abstract painting or even figurative painting that does not encourage attachment to the outcome, singing and, of course, different styles of yoga. So, we can do pretty much any activity that pushes us to use our awareness of feeling, always within a framework that welcomes spontaneity, creativity, multiple attempts, improvisation, and if possible, also play. All of these things can be highly useful and surprisingly effective when it comes to bypassing the build-in defense mechanisms of our heads.
In my case, for example, and precisely because thinking hard about things is my default go-to, I tend to engage in activities like painting, yoga, or dancing to come up with the 'magic recipe.' These are my tools to leave my beloved headspace for a minute and reconnect with the deeper part –the feeling part, before thoughts are either good or bad– of myself. I use their ability to bring me back to the present moment and to my body as a felt experience instead of as an idea(l), to embody many of the thoughts and emotions I’m undergoing at any one point and, thus, allow for potential release.
Others might find that they get to the same type of place through some other form of dynamic/creative/ physical activity. Again, as long as the mindset is one of openness to the experience and not one of clinging or attachment to a particular type of experience, I believe anything can be therapeutic in the right way. The whole thing with working from the outside-in is for whatever the approach we opt for to trigger a positive embodied and felt experience of the activity in our bodies so that our minds will be caught unprepared and be consequently positively affected per extension. We want to work with whatever the raw materials already present in us before we begin rationalizing, critiquing, monologuing, and thus looping in a harmful way as per the usual close-circuit our thoughts move in. With his approach, we learn that there are other ways of experiencing being ourselves in the world that do not involve so much overthinking, nor as much self-deprecating behavior, and this is precisely so because the approach we take in this option is one of non-competitive self-love, self-care, self-enjoyment, and self-respect.
There are, of course, plenty of ‘how-to’ lists out there if you google a little on how to become better friends (even lovers) of ourselves, and I encourage anyone interested to do a bit of reading if they feel so inclined. But the bottom line for any approach we eventually embark on is to avoid overidentifying with any negative chit-chatter and, thus, with the negative fluctuation of emotions that may result from it. We are not our inner voices, thoughts, or feelings, even though it may sometimes feel that way.
So, go ahead and give either (or both) of this options a try if you want, or else, come up with your own recipe to dismantle and rewire your inner voice and then please share! I am always super happy to hear of other people's experiences and strategies to become better lovers, friends, and carers of themselves.