February 13th is International Self-Love Day. The fact that this day of self-love comes right before Valentine’s Day, the day of showing love to others, conveys an important message to struggling teens and their families: Taking care of yourself first is a prerequisite to showing love to others.
In honor of the day, we’re sharing the most important thing you can do to increase your self-acceptance and self-love.
As psychologists, therapists, and mental health providers, we like using the term self-acceptance more than self-love. Self-acceptance includes identifying your mistakes and being accountable for them, rather than always giving yourself positive self-talk (which is what may come to mind when we talk about ‘self-love’).
If you focus too much on feeling self-love, the pendulum can quickly swing back in the other direction – self-hate. But if you focus on simply accepting yourself, that includes it all: the good and the bad. Your strengths and your weaknesses. We don’t always need to love (or be proud of) who we’ve become, or what we’ve done. But we always need to accept it, without judgment.
So, the number-one thing you can do to work on increasing your self-acceptance (and quieting your voice of self-hate) is… to Focus on the Facts.
Every day, we go through a litany of negative thoughts and judgments about others, and ourselves, that are unhelpful, ineffective, and usually not based on reality. Everything from “she was so rude to me” to “he doesn’t like me” to “she hates me…” The list goes on and on. These are all judgments. Why are “judgments” bad to make? Because first it starts with myriads of judgments about other people…and then it becomes judgments about yourself. It becomes: “I totally messed up” or “I’m so stupid” or “I’m so fat” to “I’m unlovable” and then “I hate myself.” Every time this happens, your self-love levels dip lower and lower, while your self-hate grows larger and larger.
So, to cure this, we need to take a step back and start from the very beginning: Focusing on the Facts.
The first stage of this process is focusing on the facts in your environment. At random points throughout the day, look around and use your five senses to notice things around you. What do you hear, see, smell? Make observatory statements in your head (or aloud) as you go about your day. For example: “Hmm, the sky today is bright blue.” “There’s a blackbird chirping outside the window.” “This cheese in my sandwich feels soft, and tastes sour.” “The school bell just rang.” “The grass is green and smells fresh, like it was just mowed.” “The grey car just honked outside my door.” “That balloon is heart-shaped and red.” “My blanket feels soft and cuddly.” This is part of the Mindfulness skills set in Dialectical Behavior Therapy.
The next stage (which can be done simultaneously) is focusing on the facts when it comes to other people. Start noticing the behaviors—not the constructs—in others. So, for example: “John didn’t text me back for two days.” “Sarah said she couldn’t hang out today.” “Mom raised her voice and sighed when I asked her if I could go to the movies again on Sunday night.” “The cop raised his eyebrows when he asked me for my license.”
All of these statements can be observed, and are thus unequivocally true.
Then, when you start getting good at simply stating the facts in your environment, and observing other people’s behaviors (instead of judging them), you’ll continue this thought process when it comes to yourself. Start making observable statements about yourself throughout the day.
For example: “I woke up after pressing snooze on the alarm once.” “I felt the blood rushing to my face when Alex asked if I wanted to go to the party together.” “I ate two slices of cake.” “I came five minutes late to third period class.” “My heart started beating loudly in my chest when I entered the dark alley.”
Label your emotions throughout the day, too: “I am excited about the movie.” “I am curious about what he is doing.” “I feel overwhelmed about schoolwork.” “I feel sad that she said no.”
And when you catch yourself making an assumption or judgment about yourself, replace your “opinion” with an observable fact. For example, to correspond with the initial “judgmental statements” mentioned earlier, here are some alternatives: “I mumbled a bit towards the end of the interview,” “I got a 69 on my test,” “my BMI is above the published guidelines”, “I feel lonely tonight and wish I could hang out with someone right now”, and “There are things about myself I don’t feel positively about.” If you think about it, these observable “problems” have now become less dramatic, and more easily “manageable,” than the initial ones, even though it may sound strange to think or speak this way, even to ourselves.
Practicing this important skill of Focusing on the Facts helps us get better at recognizing reality, which then helps us ultimately accept, and love, the truth of ourselves.
Vera Appleyard has worked in the adolescent behavioral health field for over twenty years. She has an MFA in Dramatic Writing from New York University.