"You can't pour from an empty pot."
"What if you simply devoted this year to loving yourself more?"
"You can't love others without truly loving yourself first."
What's the common theme of these popular adages? Self love.
As someone who painfully struggled for years with body image insecurities and feelings of inadequacy, I really understand why many have turned to the idea of self-love as a solution to body-image issues.
But I'm also concerned because I am increasingly seeing "self love" become a Band-Aid answer to the complex and multi-layered wound of body-image issues.
I run Free To Be Talks, a non-profit that promotes positive body image through research-based curriculum to boys and girls across North America. During our Free To Be program which helps kids to develop a positive body image, I have increasingly come across students creating new "self-love" Instagram accounts or making "self-love" inspo-quotes or stickers to pass out to others as part of a project they create on how to nurture a positive body image in others.
These positive affirmations might sound helpful in theory, but in reality when the students are pressed how this might help someone, they find it difficult to say how they can be a practical a solution to a very real problem. In fact, I am increasingly certain that the popular antidote to disliking aspects of yourself actually isn't "self love" — this concept is too abstract (especially for tweens), shirks responsibility of meaningfully encouraging others, and negates the fact that pathology doesn't occur in a vacuum (and neither does healing).
I believe such a focus on "self love" can be misguided and in fact harmful, possibly leading to more pathology instead of a thriving life.
First, I must acknowledge that I believe each person is intrinsically valuable and worthy of respect. Moreover, as a therapist, I have heard and been moved by the painful stories of my clients, who have deeply embedded narratives of feeling shame and inadequacy in their lives. And let's not forget how these feelings are further preyed upon in sophisticated and complex advertising and marketing campaigns to create the ideal consumer.
For these reasons, I understand how the concept of "self love" is appealing — if others aren't going to respect and value me for my intrinsic and inherent worth as a person, then I will recognize myself as a person worthy of respect, dignity and health.
Yet, I believe such a focus on "self love" can be misguided and in fact harmful, possibly leading to more pathology instead of a thriving life. Here is why:
1. Negative self-image does not develop in isolation, and neither does healing
No one wakes up one day and decides they don't like certain aspects of themselves. Rather, from infancy onward, messages we receive from parents, caregivers, peers, teachers, colleagues and social environments influence our beliefs about everything: Is the world a safe place where my basic needs are met? Can I feel free to take up space? Does my voice matter?
It is only through painful experiences with these other people that we develop ideas of being "too much" or "not enough."
Humans are fundamentally social creatures and we are neurologically wired to be connected with other people. As a result, the threat of being disconnected (and therefore ultimately devalued as a person) is a highly motivating factor for us to change who we are. For example, if I perceive to be excluded from social situations because of how I look, or what I weigh, then it's simpler to expect me, one person, to change, instead of a group of people.
A healing process that is going to rewrite these deeply held narratives of shame or inadequacy must therefore include experiences in which others teach "you are enough," "you are safe" and "you matter."
2. Sometimes we need help from an "external brain and being"
On a related note, suffering is an inevitable reality of living life and one of the best ways to ameliorate such pain is by having other people shoulder the burden. This happens in two important ways.
First, we have neural structuring built right into our brains for the purpose of connecting with others. For example, if I am crying and highly distressed about an idea (e.g. I'm such a screw up and no one is going to like me) and you stay calm, attuned and close to me, your calm mirror neurons will activate my distressed mirror neurons. As a result, I will actually start to calm down and feel less distressed, so that we have a better chance of having an intelligent and productive conversation about my (unhelpful and erroneous) ideas.
Second, I have limited knowledge, and am prone to getting caught up in unhelpful thinking traps. You can see and understand things that I can't because I might be too mired in my thoughts or just do not have all the facts about an issue. You'll have ideas that I never thought of, and you will have knowledge that I don't have and can offer a (hopefully) intelligent different perspective.
A truly meaningful and healthy relationship (or social context) means we can support each other through painful times.
3. 'Self love' is abstract and can shirk responsibility
How do we actually learn to love ourselves?
Given I have limited self-knowledge and awareness, what is the first step that needs to be taken? And what about those parts of me that need to change?
It seems evident to me that many people who endorse "self love" have done a lot of work (often in a therapeutic context) on confronting parts of themselves that were destructive and unhealthy. Again, their healing was not done in isolation, as "self love" suggests, but in a social context; lifestyle changes were made, unhealthy friendships were pruned, and healthy friends and supports were sought after and cultivated.
A truly meaningful and healthy relationship (or social context) means we can support each other through painful times. It also means we can't negate our responsibility to tell those we care about when they need to change. We're only human, and that means we must support one another when we don't choose the best path for us.
In addition to being affirmed as an inherently valuable person, I also need to be held accountable for my character flaws or unhealthy choices. There are parts of myself I shouldn't be aiming to love, but rather working to transform them into healthier components of my life. A true friend is going to want the best for me even when I don't it, and will do the often painful job of helping set me straight.
More from HuffPost Canada:
How our body image develops is highly complex because it involves many variables that are out of our control. The personality I was born with will predispose me to see myself and the world a certain way; what values my family has instilled into me as an infant onward will shape me; whether I have experienced any traumatic life events will impact how I view the world; and, of course, all the implicit and explicit beliefs of my culture will be reinforced on multiple levels.
Adopting the stance that "self love" will mitigate the complex nature of body image issues is insufficient.
By showing through our actions and words that our friends are not alone, we are committed to helping each other make our lives better, and no matter what, each person matters; we can best support kids and youth, and those who are struggling now with body image issues.
It is time we acknowledge the profound healing and transformation that occurs when we actively participate in each other's lives.
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