I am an extremely skeptical person by nature. When I was younger, this skepticism was mostly directed towards old adages like “broccoli makes you grow” and “carrots help you see.” Now, in no realm am I more skeptical than that of the self-help mantras that seem to be growing along with the mindfulness movement, particularly here in Silicon Valley. While it’s easy to believe in self improvement through tangible things like getting an education, or trying to be more cultured by empathizing with those around you, the less-tangibles like breathing exercises or chants can sometimes seem a little out of reach. Somewhere between meditation and visualization is what I would call the Santa Claus of the self-help philosophy — the one that once you’re all grown up and understand the harsh realities of the world, it seems you have to outgrow: the quest for “self love.” As difficult as it can be to put stock in these kinds of things, though, it seems like this one might be worth a second look.
The key to seeing why this elusive concept is so important lies in understanding what it is. Self love isn’t just some general sense of liking yourself. It’s finding a way to appreciate who you are and what you have to offer by spending less time focusing on what you don’t have or can’t do, and more time on what you do have and can do. In “A Seven Step Prescription to Self Love,” Deborah Khoshabah defines self love as “a state of appreciation for oneself that grows from actions […] that mature us.” In other words, in order to concretely do better on exams, or to find better relationships, or to otherwise improve ourselves, we have to get out of our own way, stop criticizing ourselves and step back to see how best to move forward.
In many ways, the high-stakes, fast-paced environment of places like Stanford aren’t really conducive to this kind of thinking. Being constantly surrounded by competitive people, many of whom can outperform us in academics and extracurriculars, makes us acutely aware of our own shortcomings more often than our strengths. Added to that is the mindset that we can’t improve ourselves without being goal-oriented and self-aware when it comes to our flaws.
In a recent article entitled, “Why Being Self-critical can make you a better founder,” Wendy Torrence actually advocates for introspection through self-criticism in order to find success. She warns that the “illusion of overconfidence” can lead us to “overestimate our abilities” and leave us “unskilled and unaware of it” because we turn a blind eye to our flaws. But self-awareness and self-love aren’t mutually exclusive concepts. They actually go hand in hand.
Bypassing the mirror exercises and self-hugs listed on most articles related to self love, the goals are simple: define yourself, accept it and move forward. As a friend told me recently, “people love people who love themselves.” And that doesn’t mean people love people who are self-absorbed. It means, if you can’t appreciate what you have to offer, how do you expect anyone else to? And more importantly, how can you expect to move forward if you keep yourself tangled up in self-criticism and mulling over past mistakes you can’t change?
At the heart of the argument for self love is the belief that happiness is transient if it’s based in external validation. I know a lot of people, including myself, who tend to determine their self-worth and self love on the basis of accomplishments. We’re only human, and praise seems like a natural motivating factor. But external validation is as fickle as it is craved by people who define themselves by it. And the happiest people I know also happen to be the most successful, usually because other people’s approval isn’t their primary goal.
The cornerstone to happiness is contentment with yourself. But the only way to find that is to figure out who you are, protect it and forgive yourself for mistakes along the way. Khoshaba explains that “people who have more self-love tend to know what they think, feel and want. They are mindful of who they are and act on this knowledge, rather than on what others want for them.” Essentially, define yourself, don’t let others do it for you.
But in order to figure out what you are, you have to have a clear sense of what you aren’t, regardless of your environment. Be an individual, not a chameleon. Having a clear sense of who you are, independent of anyone else, doesn’t isolate you — it liberates you. Without boundaries, it can be very easy to lose yourself by latching onto other people’s hopes and dreams, leaving you chasing things that may not even make you happy.
The final step probably sounds clichéd, but it’s also the most important. Learn to forgive yourself. Forgiving isn’t the same as living with yourself. Forgiveness is figuring out how to accept who you are, or what you’ve done, and taking it in stride as something to learn from, good or bad. Living with it just leaves the weight on your shoulders, and mandates that you move forward in spite of the extra baggage.
Self love isn’t the be all and end all of self improvement. But self love, whether you focus on it or not, is all-pervasive. Its presence or absence can impact everything from our relationships to our performance in our day-to-day lives. As yoga-esque as it might sound, self-criticism and negativity don’t end with you. They have a tendency to spread into the way you interact with other people as well. People love people who love themselves. So, self love might seem like a weird thing to strive for. But much like those vegetables, as strange as it seems, it just might be worth adding into your routine, on the off chance that there is something to it.
Contact Anja Young at ayoung3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.