Our relationship with ourselves is the most important relationship. It is the beginning. It is the foundation. Everything starts and sprouts from here. Which is why focusing on this relationship, prioritizing it, is vital. It is essential.
“Your relationship with yourself affects every other relationship in your life,” said Lea Seigen Shinraku, MFT, a therapist in private practice in San Francisco. For instance, if you’re regularly berating yourself, you might assume that others are berating you, too. Which can lead you to feel defensive or inferior, she said.
Self-criticism also activates our body’s stress-response system — fight/flight/freeze — making it harder to think clearly and respond to what’s actually happening in the moment, she said.
Plus, “if you don’t know how to relate to the various aspects of yourself or you’re afraid to be alone, you will look to others to take care of you.” Of course, relying on others is not inherently problematic. It becomes problematic when our perspective is that we are inherently wrong or broken or damaged. And it can “cause us to stay in relationships that aren’t serving us,” Shinraku added.
“We have to live with ourselves every day; why wouldn’t we want to deepen a profound connection with ourselves?” said Kelly Hendricks, MA, a couple and family therapist in San Diego specializing in helping couples intimately bond and supporting women to find their Mr. Right and empower themselves with confidence.
What does a profound connection with ourselves look like? It is everything from knowing who we are to nourishing our needs. Below, Shinraku and Hendricks shared five specific ways you can do just that — and more.
Explore what makes you you. Hendricks suggested writing down your traits and strengths and asking questions such as: “What sets you apart from others? What makes you similar to others? What do you know to be true about yourself that others don’t see? What do you wish others knew about you?”
Focus on self-compassion. Shinraku, founder of The San Francisco Center for Self-Compassion, stressed the importance of cultivating a self-compassionate relationship. She teaches a Mindful Self-Compassion course created by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer. It includes a journaling exercise called “How would I treat a friend?” which helps individuals understand what a compassionate relationship with themselves can look, feel and sound like.
According to Shinraku, to start, think about a time a loved one was struggling. Write about how you related to them, including your tone of voice, the words you used and your body language. Next, think about a time when you were struggling, and explore how you related to yourself. Then, examine the differences between how you treated your loved one and how you treated yourself. Most of us treat others much, much better than we treat ourselves. What would happen if you treated yourself with the same kindness, love and patience?
Ask yourself the big questions. A deeper relationship with ourselves includes exploring important questions and fully listening to the answers. Hendricks suggested pondering these questions: “What do you want for yourself mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually? What do you want out of life? What kind of relationships do you want with friends or romantic partners? What are the things you just won’t stand for? What do you want to accomplish before the end of your life? What is most important to you? What do you value?”
Pen your own story. Think of your life as a story you’re writing, as filling the blank pages of a book. In your story, what do you say, think, do or not do? Hendricks said. Who are the supporting characters? What are the settings, scenes, adventures and daily tasks? she said. What else do you want to include in your life story?
For instance, Hendricks’s clients have included these elements in their stories: “I will speak up for myself with friends, even when it’s difficult, because I’d rather stand up for myself than suffer in silence,” and “I won’t let fear hold me back from doing the things I really want to do in my life, such as getting a college degree and being more vulnerable in my romantic relationships.”
When you identify your own elements, the specifics in your own story, “make your best effort to live [them] out every day.”
Look for yeses. As you go about your day, notice what you say “yes!” to, Shinraku said. These are activities and needs that will deeply nourish you. Then listen to yourself, and act on these yeses. Shinraku shared these examples: “Yes, I’m going to go out with friends rather than work late (like I do most nights); yes, I want to take that class that is interesting to me that I think I don’t have time for; yes, I want to take care of my finances so I’m going to call my student loan servicer; yes, I want to be more mindful in my relationships so I’m going to reflect on what I want to say in response to a challenging email.”
Cultivating a sincere, self-compassionate relationship with ourselves is critical. It determines our decisions. It determines whether and how we pursue our dreams and tend to our needs. It determines the quality of our other relationships. And, thankfully, it’s something we can start right now.