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.