Marina Daif, RP (Qualifying) #11207 is a Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying) at MyLife Counselling in Guelph. She works with couples and adults through relationships, anxiety, depression, addictions, grief & loss, self-esteem, self-criticism, and self-confidence issues. Learn more about Marina here.

Your Self-Relationship: The Foundation of Happiness

We are often taught from a young age the importance of being kind to others, and we know the value of nurturing our relationships. However, learning about the importance of the “self-relationship” is not as common. Oftentimes, self-compassion is mistaken for self-pity and self-love is mistaken for vanity. Self-care is mistaken for selfishness and, consequently, our sense of self-worth often becomes tied to what we can do for others even when it’s at our own expense. Even more alarming is when that somehow becomes okay or normal. How many times do you catch your inner self-critic saying negative things that you wouldn’t ever say to someone else? Why is it okay to mistreat yourself when you know it’s not okay to mistreat others? In the end, we are all equally human.

Your relationship with yourself is a very important relationship because it acts as a foundation on which everything else in your life is built.

What exactly does it mean to have a positive relationship with yourself, though? Think about what a positive relationship with someone might look like. A positive relationship is one based on love, care, fondness, respect, trust, commitment, and kindness. When you value someone, you show interest in them. You give them your time and attention, and you put effort into your relationship with them. You also want to support them through their rough times. Now, imagine if you applied that same energy and mentality towards yourself. What would change? Would your life be any different? Would you be doing anything differently?

Below are some “ingredients” that I’ve gathered for what constitutes a healthy self-relationship recipe.

Cherish progress, not perfection

It is worth noting that we are all a constant work-in-progress. There will always be room for improvement because perfection simply does not exist. However, societal pressures or experiences from our upbringing can sometimes lead us to hyper-focus on an aspect of ourselves that we end up trying to perfect. Even though we may rationally know that perfection does not exist, we somehow still find ourselves always chasing after it, and always feeling disappointed and unworthy when we cannot attain it. For instance, many women repeatedly chase after attaining the “perfect” and socially desirable body, but never seem to feel convinced they have attained it no matter what. For a lot of these women, this chase leads not only to poor self-image and low self-worth, but to unhealthy behaviours such as disordered eating.

The moment we give in to perceived pressures of perfection is the moment we get ourselves stuck in a negative feedback loop. We get caught up in ongoing self-judgment and fear of being negatively judged by others for never being “good enough.”

In that case, having a positive self-relationship becomes virtually impossible.

On the other hand, cherishing progress allows us to appreciate that we are an ongoing project with endless potential. Rather than focusing on attaining the “perfect” body, as mentioned above, taking a more holistic health perspective would allow us to take better care of ourselves. This means less fixating on physical appearance and instead giving equal amounts of attention towards our health overall (i.e., by regularly nurturing our bodies with healthy food and exercising to reduce our chances of developing preventable diseases). Taking this approach helps us realize that achieving our ideal physical health is a complex journey rather than a particular destination.

Acknowledge and nurture the different aspects of who you are

You are not defined by just one aspect, but as discussed above, the inner self-critic can have a very narrow perception. For instance, one person may feel negatively about themselves because they view themselves as physically unattractive while another person might base their self-worth on their practical achievements. The truth is, we are very complex beings with many layers, and we tend to be happiest when we feel balanced across the various aspects that make us who we are:

  • Physical (e.g., healthy eating, exercising, attending regular health checkups), emotional/mental (e.g., talking about feelings, reducing burnout),
  • Cognitive/intellectual (e.g., reading, learning a new skill),
  • Social/interpersonal (e.g., staying in touch with our loved ones, spreading kindness),
  • Spiritual (e.g., prayer, meditation, connecting with nature),
  • Financial/professional (e.g., taking courses for our professional development, budgeting for our expenses), and
  • Recreational (e.g., pursuing our hobbies, attending events that interest us).

Each of these aspects requires attention, and the more we can tend to ourselves in a holistic way, the more we can appreciate our complexity and view ourselves more constructively and reasonably.

Know your values

Knowing what is most important to you, and living in accordance with that, is key to having a positive self-relationship. On the other hand, if your life and your values do not align, this creates dissonance and unrest. What comes up for you when you hear the word “values”? Values can be anything from love to stability to travel to charity. The list goes on. As you explore your values, think about why each value is important to you. What do your values mean to you? And, if you are not currently living in accordance with some of these values, it may be worthwhile to check in with yourself about that. What are the barriers that may be standing in your way, and how will you address these barriers? Are you selling yourself short or settling for less? Have you convinced yourself that you are not capable of achieving certain things or living your ideal life?

The more you introspect, the more you can discover about yourself and your potential, and get closer to taking action for self-improvement.

For instance, if you value stability, it is important to first define what stability means for you and how it looks like on a practical level. Do you value stability in your finances? Relationships? Living situation? Next, ask yourself if your everyday habits and behaviours encourage this stability. Are you paying your bills on time and saving your money according to plan? The more your lifestyle reflects your values, the more fulfilled you will feel.

Respect your boundaries

This comes with knowing what you want and do not want. It also involves you being confident and comfortable with your beliefs and actions. It is hard to maintain boundaries that you have not fully sold yourself on. So, before setting your boundaries, understand the function and purpose of those boundaries. What are you hoping to achieve by setting those boundaries? Will those boundaries make you better in some way? Will they help you achieve more happiness and balance in your life? The more you can respect your healthy boundaries, the more satisfied and fulfilled you can feel. There are different kinds of boundaries you can set:

  • Physical boundaries (e.g., resting when you’re exhausted, vocalizing your comfortability level with touch),
  • Mental/emotional boundaries (e.g., accepting that you cannot control other people’s actions, removing yourself when you’re feeling uncomfortable),
  • Time boundaries (e.g., being punctual out of respect for your own time and others’ time, managing your time effectively to avoid procrastination),
  • Financial/material boundaries (e.g., sticking to your saving/spending budget),
  • Sexual boundaries (e.g., how you prefer to be touched or seen, your comfortability level with touching others), and
  • Interpersonal boundaries (e.g., helping others while also ensuring your needs are being met, what you choose to share with others).

Boundaries can also allow you to protect your values. For instance, if your family is number one on your priority list, you may want to set up more firm time boundaries around your work schedule so that you can ensure you have regular quality time with your family members. This might mean not taking work home with you or not staying late at work if you don’t have to. That said, healthy boundaries are flexible, which means that sometimes you may need to pay extra attention to your work depending on the demands you’re being met with.

The idea is to ensure you are applying balance as much as possible while still honouring the things that are most important to you. This can help reduce your chances of feeling burnout or disappointment in yourself.

Be diplomatic with your inner negative voices

Oftentimes, we get frustrated with ourselves when we think negatively. Even though a part of us may know that a lot of our anxieties and fears have no real basis in reality, our inner negative voices can sometimes be powerful enough to threaten us emotionally. As humans, we generally do not like to feel pain or sit with discomfort, so we tell ourselves to just get a grip or we may try to distract ourselves from negative thinking.

When our thoughts and feelings are not constructive, we may handle ourselves with further judgment and criticism. Or, we may choose denial as a self-protective measure.

However, what if instead we embraced the internal chatter? Everyone has internal chatter that consists of both negative and positive voices. Sometimes, the negative voices are particularly loud and steal the show. When we try to dismiss these voices or tell them to go away, they typically get louder. Think of the white bear problem, also known as ironic process theory. This theory posits that efforts to suppress thoughts actually serves to strengthen them. Therefore, it is more effective to befriend your inner critic. If you approach the “worst parts” of yourself with love, understanding and compassion, you learn to foster a healthier and more holistic relationship with yourself, all the while disempowering the negative voices. Instead of approaching these negative parts with judgment and criticism, try approaching them with curiosity and openness by asking them why they are there and what they need.

Sometimes, our inner critic needs to be understood and validated. However, keep in mind that validating is not the same as agreeing.

Validating can sound like “it makes sense you would feel this way because…” while agreeing sounds more like “you are right, without question.” Validating a negative voice involves empathizing with it before you can guide it through a more constructive perspective while agreeing with a negative voice involves you subscribing to it as the only truth. Think of a time when someone else showed you validation and empathy, even when they had a different perspective than yours. Think about a time you went to vent to someone else about your struggles and worries. Did you want that person to respond with frustration, judgment and criticism? Typically, we seek comfort from others when we are at our lowest points, but we somehow miss the memo when it comes to extending that same compassion to ourselves during tough times. Befriending yourself during your low points increases your self-compassion and self-love, allowing you to have a more positive self-relationship.

As Diane Von Furstenberg once said, “you’re always with yourself, so you might as well enjoy your company.”

Marina Daif, RP (Qualifying) #11207 is a Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying) at MyLife Counselling in Guelph. She works with couples and adults through relationships, anxiety, depression, addictions, grief & loss, self-esteem, self-criticism, and self-confidence issues. Learn more about Marina here.

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