When Self-Love Turns Toxic

Self Love with Sigrid Tasies — Jodi Plumbley - Bespoke Boudoir + Portrait  Photographer

Ever since I began my “self-improvement journey” I’ve struggled with toxic self-love. I’ve heard this term used to describe a few different things, and it seems counterintuitive at first, so let me just start by defining what I mean. For me, toxic self-love is when my best intentions become new ways for me to criticize and cut myself down.

Here is an example: I’ve been practicing yoga for years now. I started with just seven minutes a day and for a while I was doing 30-60 minutes. However, recently I’ve found myself being too busy to do more than 15 minutes of yoga on my lunch break at work. Yoga is about self care, self love, self exploration, mindfulness. It’s not about a rigorous, unbending routine. Nevertheless, I’ve been super hard on myself about doing less than I once did. It’s ironic, actually. In the end, what’s worse for my mental health, missing 15 minutes of yoga or berating myself for it for the rest of the day?

Often the very routines I cultivated to manage my anxiety become sources of stress instead. I’ve always had a hard time avoiding that “all or nothing” mentality. If I don’t do an hour of yoga and meditation every day, than I might as well have done nothing. If I don’t eat with perfect mindfulness, then I might as well scarf down my food as fast as I can. This kind of black and white thinking has the potential to be more detrimental than if you had never started the practice at all. It seems like when I do manage to find time for a 60 minute yoga flow, I don’t give myself any credit. I think, “Well of course, I don’t get a pat on the back for doing what I’m supposed to do.” However, if I only have time for 5 minutes one day, I agonize over what I failure I am.

This is toxic self-love. It isn’t loving at all. Self-love doesn’t mean I’ll love myself when I’m perfect. Self-love means I’ll love myself where I am right now. I’ll love my flaws and imperfections. I’ll love myself when I don’t feel like getting out of bed in the morning. I’ll love myself when I gain 5 pounds. I’ll love myself when I’ve made a big mistake. Self-love is unconditional. Toxic self-love says: meet these standards first.

This pressure we put on ourselves to perform and keep up with all our positive habits every single day without exception, ends up making us forget why we began these habits in the first place. Was my goal to check a box, to be unwaveringly consistent? Or was my goal to be happy and to take better care of myself? Regularly reminding ourselves of our intention is so important, so that we don’t become sidetracked while going through the motions.

It’s also important for us to pay attention to the way we talk to ourselves. What kind of language are you using inside your own head? One of my worst mental habits is saying “I have to.” This is probably one of my most repeated phrases each day. I have to workout. I have to do yoga. I have to meditate. I have to eat healthy, mindfully. I have to go to work. Honestly this phrase probably comes before most of my thoughts. It’s no wonder I always feel so stressed and exhausted.

My entire life might be completely transformed by gently correcting myself when I notice this phrase coming up. I don’t have to, I get to. It’s even a more accurate and truthful statement. I genuinely don’t have to do any of the things I do. I choose to do them, because I enjoy doing them. It’s only after months and years of repeating to myself that I have to that I lose sight of the fact that I want to. When I give myself permission to not do the thing, that’s when I finally allow my natural desire to bubble to the surface.

Sometimes I even catch myself thinking that I don’t deserve to feel calm and content, because I didn’t do a certain thing. I feel my anxiety welling up and think, “Good. That’s what you get for fucking up today.” How sick is that? I am purposefully withholding happiness from myself as a punishment. It’s wild to realize the “self-love” I practice is so harsh and domineering. Often I’ll even beat myself up for beating myself up! It’s madness!

True self-love is gentle, kind, forgiving. It’s recognizing how far you’ve come. It’s acknowledging the things you’re still struggling with and being okay with that. Even though I still have things to work on, I am proud of myself for all the progress I’ve made. Before I wouldn’t have even had the mental clarity to recognize the ways I’m being too hard on myself. Instead of perpetuating that cycle with more self-criticism, I am excited to use all of the tools I’ve gathered over the years to show myself more loving kindness. When I notice a negative thought arise, instead of seeing it as a cue to become upset with myself, I can see it as a cue to be proud of myself for even noticing it at all. It’s a beautiful opportunity to practice softening, to practice opening my heart even wider. I am so grateful for the chance to keep growing in my journey toward peace, happiness, forgiveness, and love. I sincerely hope you will try to offer yourself that same grace on your own journey.

8 key signs that you are lacking in self-love - Life Coach Directory

Practicing Loving Kindness

Most of the time I feel like my own worst enemy. I’m my own task master. It sometimes feels like I am just bullying myself around day in, day out. Only very rarely do I take a moment to pause and actually check in with myself, ask myself how I am doing, how I’m feeling, what I might enjoy doing. Instead my brain is reading off a laundry list of things I have to do and what I need to do next whether I want to or not. I’m constantly planning and preparing for a future that never comes.

For years I’ve told myself that I will be happy once I am different, better, skinnier, more productive, more organized. But not only does being harsh with myself make my goals even more difficult to realize, it also ensures that even once I achieve them, happiness will be as far away as it has always been. The craziest part is that this happiness I’m seeking isn’t some external destination I have to reach. It is already something I harbor inside of myself. I don’t need to change anything about my outer world to experience it. All I’ve got to do is give myself permission to just be, to give my loved ones, and everything around me permission to be exactly as it is.

A lot of the time I feel like the world would run much more smoothly if I were in charge. It’s easy to think I know best. Yet at the same time I see myself making the wrong choices in my own life. Would I really want the responsibility of managing others or this world? It feels much better to have humility, to accept that I don’t always know what’s best for others, the world, or even myself. And that’s okay. I don’t always have to make the right decisions or know all the answers. It’s more than enough to just be here, to witness, to be a part of this wonderous, messy, confusing thing called life.

For once I’d like to focus on simply being kind to myself. Even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard. When I’m already feeling happy and calm, it’s much easier to be soft and loving with myself. However, when I need that loving kindness most, I feel a strong resistance to it. Subconsciously I think I feel like I don’t deserve it in those difficult moments. I get angry and frustrated with myself for how I feel, for not being able to feel differently. In the past I’ve even punished myself instead of trying to make myself feel better. It reminds me of a child throwing a tantrum. Even once the moment has passed and there are opportunities in front of the child that they would normally be happy and excited about, often they’ll stubbornly try to hold on to their bad attitude. It’s fascinating to witness this phenomenon in others as well as in ourselves. It may change as we grow older, but this unwillingness to let go of negative feelings seems to be quite common.

Although I know I definitely need self-love the most when I’m struggling, it may be too great of a challenge to begin my efforts there. Sometimes it’s better to start practicing these types of things when you don’t necessarily need them. This way you can become more comfortable with them. You can form new healthy habits. Then these skills will seem more accessible to you even in your more difficult moments. That’s why I’d like to start by making a list of five ways I can show myself loving kindness:

  1. Say something kind to myself each morning when I wake up & each night before I go to sleep.
  2. Give myself a massage when bored or waiting for something, in traffic, etc.
  3. Make a list of things I like about myself/positive affirmations
  4. Set aside moments throughout the day to pause and take five deep breaths. (before meals, after going to the bathroom, when I get in/out of my car, in the shower)
  5. Smile and/or laugh, even if it’s forced at first.

These are just a few easy things that I can do for myself everyday that I think will make a huge difference. I’ve been trying to be kinder to myself for quite a while now. I’m hoping that writing down some specific ways of doing that will help me form regular self-loving habits. I am so excited to embark on this journey to show myself loving kindness. I’m ready to finally have a healthy relationship with myself so that I am able to allow myself to rest in the inherent joy of my true nature.

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The Weight of Our Actions

I was watching some show the other day and there was a scene depicting a kid being bullied. This led me into a long reverie about when I was younger and all of the cruel acts I witnessed or was the target of in school. I particularly remember being made fun of one day for drawing anime in class. Even though this was a mild mockery and only happened one time, it led me to stop drawing for years. Back then I would have done anything to just not be noticed.

I began pondering the vast difference in experience between the two parties involved in bullying. To the bully, it is pretty meaningless. It seems like just a way to pass the time or have a laugh. It isn’t a significant moment in the bully’s life by any means. However, to the one being bullied, it can be a life-changing experience. It can change them forever. It cuts so deep. It leaves emotional, if not physical, scars. I doubt most bullies ever stop to consider this inequity of experience. While it may mean little to nothing to them if they were to just not pick on someone, the target of this attack could be spared so much anguish.

This lead me to thinking about how this might apply in other areas of life. As I don’t bully people, I wondered how I might still be able to use this insight myself. I started to consider all of the things that my mother would always pester me to do as a kid. Clean the cat’s litter box, put my shoes away, put my clothes in the hamper, wash the dishes. I get so frustrated with my past self for being so obstinate and inconsiderate. It would have taken me only a few minutes to do all of those things. I had plenty of free time. No job, school was always easy. I spent most of my time lounging around watching TV. Yet I couldn’t be bothered to do these tiny little things that would have meant so much to my poor, overworked, under-appreciated mother. I want to kick myself every time I think about it.

At the time, of course, I didn’t consider this at all. I was just thinking about myself. I started to wonder if there were still things like this that I overlook. Are there still tiny things that I could be doing that would mean the world to those around me? The answer is yes. Sometimes it’s just the gesture itself that counts.

Whenever I am at work and I go wash out my coffee mug, I will also wash any other stray dishes in our communal sink. And sometimes my coworkers repay the favor, washing my mug before I get the chance to. I don’t think any of us would be overly burdened by washing our own mug once a day, but it is still touching each time I find it already washed. There are small acts of love and consideration like this waiting for us everywhere.

Perhaps you just got a bonus at work and have extra cash so you leave a generous tip for your waitress even though she was struggling to provide good service because she was new. You might not think twice about this event, but the waitress may be moved to tears. You never can tell what small acts of kindness like this could mean to someone.

I hope to carry this out in my own life in the form of a game. Just a lighthearted excuse to be creative and find new ways that, with minimal effort, I can spread maximum kindness. It might look like cleaning the snow off of my neighbors car in the morning after I do mine. Perhaps it’s giving some undivided attention to my pets when I first get home instead of immediately getting distracted by something else. Maybe it’s making a point to leave positive reviews online when I truly enjoy a place or product. All of these things would be simple enough, and not be burdensome to me by any means. But it could make or break someone else’s day, month, or even year! Imagine what it would be like if we all took the time to find these little opportunities for spreading goodwill in our lives. Let’s all try to do at least one small thing like this every day. It’ll be fun.

Seeking Redemption

Last night I dreamt about possibly the biggest mistake I ever made in my past. I woke up feeling weighed down by all those heavy memories. All morning I have been feeling ashamed and unworthy of redemption. When I think about terrible, selfish things I’ve done there are at least a handful of things that readily come to mind. Yet when I try to think of caring, kind, selfless acts, my mind goes blank. Am I really this awful person that I perceive myself to be? Or is my perception skewed?

I think most people make justifications and excuses for the wrong they’ve done. They allow these rationalizations to comfort their conscience. My mind tries to tell me that everyone makes mistakes, that I was young and naïve, that I would never want to hurt anyone. But I refuse these ideas outright. I feel at my core that I deserve condemnation for my actions, that if anyone knew me like I know myself, they would cast me out, and rightfully so.

Some people argue that altruism doesn’t really exist. Even kind acts are beneficial to the bearer. Yet most people, I imagine, still feel confident in their goodness after performing a good dead. I on the other hand, view the kind things I’ve done as others view their misdeeds. I minimize them. I explain them away. I tell myself that I’ve done these things out of my own self-interest. I deny any altruistic intentions.

What I’m left with is the guilt and blame of all the wrong I’ve done and none of the credit for anything decent in my past. Most people are shocked when they discover that I think so little of myself. “You are a good person,” they tell me, “You are so kind and compassionate!” But I shrink away from these reassurances. They don’t really know me, I tell myself. Then I feel even more guilty for deceiving them. It is a very lonely life, feeling unknown and unknowable.

I suppose there is really no way for me to truly know if the image I hold of myself is accurate. It might all come back to the grey areas I struggle so much with. Perhaps I am a bad, selfish person, but also a caring, loving one. Even so, I desperately want to atone for all the wrong that I have done, even though I am the only one who knows about a lot of it. I want to live a life that I can be proud of. I don’t want to keep lamenting these mistakes. I want to be freed from the sins of my past. I want redemption for myself, from myself.

I am grateful that I have the principles of yoga to guide me. Even though I feel a lot of the Yamas and Niyamas are out of my reach, beyond my capabilities, I still want to try to embody them. I want to become honest and upright, truthful and generous, thoughtful and helpful. I know that happiness lies within these virtues. I must believe that, regardless of my past failings, I am strong enough, I am intelligent enough, to change.

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Forgiveness

Yesterday I mentioned that I was kinda peeved about my sister’s boyfriend drinking all my vodka. Given the hangover I have today from drinking at Christmas dinner, I’m actually glad he did. Otherwise I would have probably gotten even more drunk last night. Either way, I had decided not to hold it against him. He is a pretty cool guy overall. I even ended up supplying him with cigarettes. All of our local shops were closed for the holiday, and he couldn’t buy his own.

Now normally, this would have only soured me to him even more. But it actually felt good to let all that petty nonsense go. It was nice to just enjoy helping someone else out. It feels much better than getting salty about every little thing. So I was able to forgive him for all of his minor transgressions and enjoy sharing my family holiday with him.

However, this morning as I groggily rolled myself out of bed, I was filled with shame and regret. For probably the hundredth time I got WAY too drunk and practically blacked out while spending a holiday with my family, who by the way, don’t really drink. I genuinely don’t even remember getting home or going to bed last night. I feel like shit this morning, though. Physically and mentally. I can’t believe I made the same humiliating mistake once again.

I’ve started thinking about how good it feels to forgive other people though. I really wish it was as easy to be able to forgive myself. I’m sure yesterday wasn’t even a big deal to anyone besides me. I think I’ve always just been afraid to forgive myself. Somewhere along the line that idea of operant conditioning, of punishment and reward, really stuck in my brain. I am always trying to train other people to behave in the ways I want them to. I am always trying to train myself in this way. If I forgive myself, how will I learn?

I can remember implementing this technique far before I ever learned about it in any academic setting. It seems like common sense. If you are punished for doing something you will avoid doing it. If you are rewarded in some way you will try to repeat the behavior in the future. Yet everyday life is not often so straightforward. Real life behaviors are not isolated in a scientific setting.

My relationship with myself cannot be that black and white either. I don’t have to keep punishing myself for my mistakes. I recognize my flaws, and forgiving myself for them is not the same as encouraging them. Besides I’m not really even following the laws of operant conditioning correctly. When was the last time I gave myself a reward for doing something well? Maybe never. The only thing I’ve been “training” myself to do is to be unhappy, to never believe in myself, to think I am not good enough.

Rather than make this cold, hungover Saturday even harder by beating myself up, I am going to be kind to myself today. I deserve kindness. I deserve forgiveness, especially from myself. I don’t have to forbid myself from the happiness and comfort I may find today because of what happened yesterday. That isn’t going to make me a better person. Love and forgiveness isn’t going to make me a worse person. Today I am going to be gentle with myself. I am going to rest and make myself comfortable. I am going to forgive myself.

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Humbling Human Kindness

I’m not very good with people. I wouldn’t consider myself to have a very high level of emotional intelligence or interpersonal communication skills. One of the reasons I love writing so much is because I feel like it gives me the ability to express myself in ways I am unable to verbally. I think I come off completely different on paper than I do in person.

I write about the importance of compassion, kindness, and connection. Yet in my personal life, I am far from living out those ideals. I think a lot of people view me as cold and uncaring. I suppose no one has ever told me this, so I could be wrong. But I would certainly get that impression if I was on the outside looking at myself. I am always so distant. I say I care, but never seem to show it. I have a very hard time showing it.

The twenty-first century phenomenon of ghosting seems like it was made for people like me. Knowing it has a name makes it feel more acceptable somehow, even though I know it’s not. It is so much easier to simply disappear for days, months, years, or even forever instead of having those hard conversations. Sometimes it isn’t even that. I just feel weighed down by the imaginary obligation to be in constant contact with those I consider friends. It is a strange new form of anxiety that I don’t even really understand myself.

Well, that being said, at the beginning of this pandemic, I woke up from a care-free night of drinking with a close male friend. We had been hanging out regularly for over a year and we had become very important people in one another’s lives. For some reason, something just clicked inside of me that hung-over morning, and I proceeded to not talk to him for nearly six months. No explanation besides “needing space”. He tried to check in on me multiple times throughout the beginning of this period, which caused me so much guilt and anxiety that I finally asked him to stop.

I basically knew this friend was in love with me even though I didn’t feel the same, which was one reason I felt the need to vanish. However, I know what it feels like to be ghosted by someone you deeply care about. It sucks. It makes you feel desperate for answers. Desperate to at least be afforded the dignity of an explanation. It makes you feel worthless. And it killed me inside to think I had made anyone, let alone a close friend, feel this way.

A few weeks ago, I finally managed to muster up the courage to at least send him a text apologizing and letting him know that he had done nothing wrong. He said it was okay. I left it at that. I didn’t dare say anything else. I couldn’t image he would want anything to do with me anymore. I just needed him to know he shouldn’t blame himself for what had happened.

Yesterday he sent me another message, asking if we could go back to talking and being friends again now. I was shocked. But so happy. I had been thinking of him so much recently, missing our friendship. I just felt so sure that I didn’t deserve that friendship anymore, nor did I have the right to ask for it after how I had acted. Yet he was still there. Willing to forgive me and accept me with open arms.

Thinking about this earlier nearly brought me to tears. I generally have a pretty bleak view of humanity, but there are times when I am completely humbled by the human ability to forgive and to touch the lives of others. To know that he could find it in his heart to forgive me when I wasn’t even able to forgive myself. What could be more beautiful? Maybe I am not as irredeemable as I thought. Maybe I am worthy of forgiveness, of love, of kindness, despite all of my faults and all of my mistakes.

I don’t have very many close friends in my life. From now on I am going to work harder to be the friend that they deserve and show them how grateful I am for everything that they have given and continue to give to me. I won’t forget this lesson, this feeling, of a deeply humbling moment of undeserved forgiveness.

Feeling Grateful

Welp, it happened once again. I locked myself out of something. Usually my car, this time it was my house. At 11:00PM, no less! What a doosie of a night I’ve had. I won’t go into the details of how this happened because I’ve already recited the chain of events to so many people at this point. Not to mention every time I do so I feel like I’m desperately trying to prove that it wasn’t my fault, just a simple mistake. It could happen to anyone, right? Yet it happens to me SO OFTEN. WHY?! I’m convinced I must be cursed or something.

Anyway… getting to the main point. For some reason, even more so than the other countless times something like this has happened, I felt deeply moved and filled with gratitude by so many of the events that followed.

Firstly, even though I was frustrated, I wasn’t panicked. I knew exactly what I could do. I walked to the first neighbor on my street who still had their lights on and asked to use their phone. (Mine was locked in my house.) Thus initiates my first wave of gratitude. Someone was awake. I was fortunate enough to have a kind, albeit rather strange, neighbor willing to help me even during these crazy pandemic times.

I called my grandmother who luckily lives only a few minutes away from me. Miracle of miracles, she was awake. While she didn’t have a spare key to my house, she did come get me so I wasn’t waiting out in the cold. After she collected me, we called my mother who does have a spare key. She was by some grace of god also awake still. (My family and I are all little old ladies that go to bed extremely early usually, if you haven’t realized that by now.)

I ended up getting the spare key and making it back into my house all within an hour or so. And as I reflect back on that hectic hour, I realize just how much there was packed into it for me to pause and be grateful for.

I am grateful that I take medication for my social anxiety. Otherwise there is no way I would have had the nerve to ask a neighbor I didn’t even know for help in the middle of the night. I would have definitely rather walked over a mile to my grandmother’s house wearing all black in the middle of the night on sketchy back roads in the freezing cold. I know that may sound ridiculous, but that’s how bad my social anxiety was.

I am also grateful that my neighbor was so kind and understanding. In the back of my mind, I was somewhat afraid I would be murdered or raped. Or at the very least, have to deal with an irate person whom I woke up and inconvenienced in the middle of the night. Instead, he was happy to help me, let me sit on his porch and use his phone, and even offered me a ride if I needed it.

And finally, I feel a deep gratitude in the very marrow of my bones for my family. I honestly don’t know what I would do without them. They have done and continue to do more for me than I could possibly deserve or ever repay. I am so lucky to have an incredible family like I do. They mean more to me than I can express. I want to start showing them that more often. I don’t know how much time we have left here together in this world. I want to use that time wisely. I want to visit my mother and grandmother far more frequently. I want to call them on the phone and tell them about my day more, hug them more, check on them more. I want them to feel just how loved they truly are, how precious they are to me, how grateful I am to have them in my life. Nothing could be more important.