The Self Love Series Part I: Learning to Love Ourselves
Hi everyone and welcome to what will be a new series focusing on my favourite subject... recovery! Or more specifically, the role of self compassion, self love, self acceptance and self-care in recovery. I've spoken openly many times in the past about how my work in these areas has been, and still is, the foundation of my recovery work. I have no idea how I'm going to cover such a huge area, and all these subjects interlock with each other, but I plan on writing and writing and writing until I've covered everything I can think of. I'll include examples of my own recovery work and give links to helpful resources and further reading etc.
Like always I'm going to set the scene a little. I do this because although I don't want it to be a triggering and miserable read, I do want to be clear just how difficult things were for me at times because I feel it better highlights just how possible recovery is, even if you don't feel too great right now. Again, please don't feel you have to read this part, if you've read any of my previous posts you probably know it all already but here we go, just briefly. If you want to skip please jump down to Compassionate Letters and for those who want to read this next section too, let's travel back a little to the days of my very NON-compassionate self image.
When I say I used to be hard on myself, I mean I actually used to mentally rip myself to shreds. I remember sitting in a CBT session once listing as many of my biggest failures as I could to my therapist. My reason? To make her realise just how bad a person she was dealing with. For about half an hour I listed things I’d barely admitted to myself - let alone anyone else - as a way of letting her know ‘the truth’ about me and to stop clinging on to this OCD diagnosis. In my mind there was no way what I was going through was OCD (it had done quite a number on me) and I thought it was pretty clear that I needed to be locked up. I felt this way for three reasons:
1) I was living with severe perinatal OCD which caused me to have terrifying harm obsessions about my son.
2) a major part of my compulsions were mental rituals where I reviewed the times I'd royally screwed up in the past. I'd analyse these events all day, every day, as a way of assessing whether I actually was the sort of person who would harm him. Invariably, I didn't like the answers such rumination came up with.
3) although not necessarily an OCD related thing I'd just lost my parents and was grief stricken, it was effecting my thinking and to me, in my current state of thinking, this seemed to count as evidence that I'd do something stupid because I was feeling so low and helpless.
So there we go. My self-esteem was at rock bottom, I hated myself for causing my family to worry and thought they would be better off without me. I questioned my role as a wife, mother, person and felt completely worthless.
I remember finishing this verbal assassination of myself in my CBT session and feeling completely numb and detached, although I was present enough to realise that the questions that followed were aimed at assessing my risk of potential self-harm and suicide. I was provided with all the crises numbers and protocols for various emergencies. That session scared the life out of me.
But that was then. 😊
Over the next few sessions, I took my very first baby steps towards building a compassionate self image, it started with writing a compassionate letter to myself which saw the start of a huge shift for me. I'll talk about this first before going on to many of the other things I've done to help me boost my self esteem and start believing in myself again.
Are we ready folks?
'Cause here we go!
Okay, so the first time I tried to write myself a compassionate letter I cried.... quite a bit. It was tough and totally new ground for me. Here it is.
It won't win any prizes for literature, but for me it was worth so much more than that. It shocked both me and my therapist. This letter was to let me know it was okay to be overwhelmed, it was a demonstration that I could be kind to myself, and it was an example of the kindness I deserved and so desperately needed.
Sitting down to write this letter allowed the understanding of the importance of self compassion to sink in. It forced me to take the time to really think about how I was currently treating myself and the way I hoped it would be in the future. It was an amazing, and very moving, exercise. It also made a great resources because if I started being hard on myself, I had a whole letter’s worth of compassionate points that I could read and absorb.
An unexpected benefit of writing that letter too was that I was so amazed I'd actually done it, I reread and reread it until I could repeat it from memory. This was incredibly helpful as I could use it when self- soothing and when challenging my negative thoughts when out and about - it started to come naturally and without the need for pen and paper.
Another great thing about compassionate letters is that you can alter the subject too, so I began using the framework of my letter to change the theme of my thought-challenging depending on whether I was thinking about the state of my house, not going for a run, eating that second (read third) slice of cake, etc!
As an add on, I'll just squeeze in here too that one of the most helpful letters I've ever written to myself was one for when I was experiencing a panic attack. Did the letter stop the attacks happening? NO! But did it give me a boost and remind me to be compassionate and not feel like a failure for having a panic attack? Yes!
The Positive Upward Cycle
Much like many others areas of recovery, and the other skills learned to promote good mental health, a positive change led to another positive change. Not only was I beginning to undo the negative cycle of thoughts, I was beginning to travel in a positive cycle. I believed I deserved better treatment and so I treated myself better. It became easier to train my inner voice to be less critical of my choices - especially those that had turned out to be mistakes - and to be more accepting. ‘I’m only human’ or ‘I didn’t set out to deliberately hurt/spoil/break...’ were a couple of favourites of mine for if I could come up with nothing more specific and it usually worked. I'll talk more about acceptance in a later post. It's all part of this same series.
For months I kept a journal that documented the positive things I’d done every day and the positive qualities the act showed I had. This was really helpful as it forced me to concentrate on the positive side of me as a person and my choices. Negative thinking and OCD tried to convince me that I was only doing the things I wrote about so I had something to write in my journal about (you could see it coming couldn’t you?) but I figured that even if that were the case, there were loads of benefits to helping others and noting my positive qualities so who cared about the reason behind it!
Journalling helped me build up my self-esteem and helped me realise I wasn’t the monster I had believed myself to be. Again, it also has the brilliant quality of being a resource that you can dip in and out of when having a bad day - it is literally evidence of how awesome you are so if you find yourself doubting it, and are finding the thought challenging difficult, look in your journal, it's full of all the kinds of wonderful you are.
Here's an example. I've had to choose one from ages ago because I thinks it's the closest you'll get to being able to read my writing.
Encouraging statements and soothing self-talk
When I was lost in a world of negative thinking and frightening intrusive thoughts, I found it extremely difficult to get myself out of it and stop the cycle and so again I used prompts. Just a few sentences, memorised and used often, helped to get me in the habit of helping myself. This also worked as it took out the element of too much choice. I also used written prompts (which is something I still do now) such as quotes on post-its, sentences from books and things I’d thought of myself written up and carried in my purse or stuck up around my home.
And again, the more I practised doing this, the more natural it became, until I found I could break into the cycle far easier, with it becoming close to second nature and even though I have less need for them now, the prompts are still in my therapy folder, where I can look through them if I feel I need an extra bit of support at any time.
I’d just like to point out that I still head towards the negative thoughts first if I make a mistake. It's human nature to head straight to the negative because it's a more successful survival strategy, but I hope with this work I can swing the focus towards the positive a little more (see neuroplasticity - it's a fascinating subject!). Thanks to doing this work I can catch negative thoughts and ruminations before they hurt me too much. It’s often in the form of ‘You know what woman? You deserve so much more than that! How can you reframe that thinking?’
Mirror - time
The boost the compassionate letters, positive self talk and positive journalling gave me allowed be to do something I hadn't managed to do for a long time. It allowed me to look at myself in the mirror. I could use a mirror to do my makeup or my hair, no problem, but I couldn't look myself in the eye. This was mainly because of the shame OCD made me feel and also because I worried I'd see some of what I was carrying reflected back at me, start crying and not stop. Thanks to the compassionate letter and positive self talk, I gradually began to be able to hold my gaze in it. I won’t go so far as to say I was practising speeches and giving myself dramatic pep talks in the mirror, but I did have a few quiet words to myself when overwhelmed or building myself up. They say the truth of the soul lies in the eyes and through the mirror I allowed myself to see the hurt rather than avoid it. This allowed me to accept it and begin to deal with it. It also allowed me to see myself for who I was, I was just me, but I was hurting, and that was okay because I was working on it.
I'm not even going to try explaining what mindfulness is here - this post will become a book - but I will say that employing it has been a huge part of helping me build a self compassionate image. Staying present and not engaging with unhelpful thoughts has changed so much for me. Going back to that inner voice again, mindfulness allows me to get on with what I value and what I want to do even if my brain is whizzing away. A quick google search will tell you all you need to know about mindfulness.
The end of part I...
Ummm, okay.... I've actually outdone myself here and knackered the memory for this post. That's a first for me! I'm going to continue onto a second so be sure to continue reading there. I'll let you know when it's out - watch this space! 😊
Thanks so much for taking the time to read this, I really hope you found it helpful.
Lots of love everyone,