12 Keys To A Great Self-Relationship, Starting Now

Being a great friend to yourself unlocks long-term happiness.

Posted May 25, 2017

eldar nurkovic/Shutterstock
Source: eldar nurkovic/Shutterstock

Your relationship with yourself is arguably the most important relationship in life. Self-relationship is the foundation of everything else — even altruism. It's easy to identify pathological aspects of self-relatedness — negative narcissism, overwhelming shame about ourselves, overly solipsistic perspectives, an inability to relate to and empathize with others, and so on. It is likewise easy to identify traits which we associate with others being in a good place, having their act together, showing good interpersonal skills, appearing successful by conventional definitions, and so on. It's easy to take things for granted — even being able to focus on oneself in such a way is a marker of being very fortunate in the first place.

One's relationship with oneself is crucial to proper development. It's about healthy self-love. We learn so much from key figures — parents, siblings, family, peers, and other adults — about how to relate with oneself. What is good, and what is bad — what pleases them, and what they clearly don't like. Early in development, relationships with others shape the relationship with oneself. There are intrinsic tendencies about the relationship with oneself as well. As we grow up, the way we are treated by others, and the way those others deal with themselves, serve as important factors influencing how we address ourselves as adults.

They say that, if we have parents who find a good enough balance for how they meet their own needs with the demands of their children, then presumably the kids will have a better chance of growing up to have a similarly healthy balance. Neither will they overly sacrifice their own aspirations and energy to child-rearing, nor will they fall into the trap of being neglectful as a result of pursuing their own activities. Further, the way that parents balance these self-other needs in coordination with one another is a key model for kids, who see if they share the responsibilities well, given their individual proclivities — or whether there is negative conflict from feelings about one person not being around enough, and the other person getting stuck with all the work to the point where they don't have enough time or headspace for themselves.

Going beyond self-care

However, I believe in spite of all the talk about self-care and self-compassion, mindfulness meditation, self-help, and related familiar subjects, it has been hard to pin down what it really means, and what it really takes, to develop and sustain a really good relationship with yourself. Having a really good relationship with myself means that, while I know that I need other people in many ways, by adulthood my relationship with myself has become crucial in making the most of my remaining years. I want to move toward a secure self-attachment.

For me, what it means to have a good relationship with myself is to aim for being a very good friend to myself (not my "best friend," though it sounds nice to say "Be Your Own Best Friend"). In addition to being very good friends, which I see as primary (though others may have a different set of priorities, or it may shift), I think we serve in many roles to ourselves — parent, sibling, child, mentor, and in more intimate ways. Without thinking especially of sexual intimacy, it is fair to say that one's relationship with oneself is the most intimate relationship a person ever has.

After all, of all the seven-plus billion people on the planet, I am the only person about whom I have first-hand experience and any chance of direct access to my inner world. Sure, we can be so close to other people as to practically know what they are thinking — which is great — but we are unique to ourselves among all other human beings in this one respect. And on top of it, we know the same thing is true for all other people (and any other sentient beings we may encounter).

It's funny — if we get married, we usually vow to provide for the other person in all the important ways. It's a formal, legally binding contract. But do we ever take such a vow with ourselves, to promise to take care of ourselves to the best of our ability, no matter what?

How can I have a good relationship with myself?

This is a list of what I've come up with at this point in time. A lot of it will be familiar, and a lot of it bears repeating. It can be easy to drop repetitive things, even when they are good for us, because it gets hum-drum. Hopefully some of this is a new perspective in an important way.

1. Set intention and cultivate awareness. Set the overarching goal, over a span of years, to keep moving toward a good relationship with yourself, with the understanding that what this entails will change over the years.

2. Plan for the short, middle, and long term. As part of being thoughtful regarding cultivating a great relationship with oneself, it is important to set priorities for different time frames. Having realistic goals, and setting milestones and steps for each goal, are proven ways to stay on the right track. Realize that motivation in the short term is often based on reward (for example, feeling great you started a new class you've always wanted to take), but over the longer haul, motivation becomes less exciting, and more about maintaining habits and avoiding dropping new behaviors. Therefore, blending novelty with long-term satisfaction is a good general recipe. The long-term rewards are an investment which comes due down the road — often just when you need them — but it can be easy to focus too much on immediate gratification.

3. Adopt an attitude of curiosity and acceptance. Recognize that change is inevitable, and generally good to embrace without excess fear. Only over time do we come to see areas which are truly stable and may define who we are to ourselves and others. Be wary of making changes, however, which have not been fully explored, or making decisions which don't seem or feel right in some ways, or getting stuck in indecision.

4. Prioritize basic self-care. Sleep, nutrition, activity, rest, recreation, and mental habits are the foundations of sustainable self-care. These are the very basic behavioral building blocks which constitute having a good relationship with oneself. Being connected with one's body and providing for the body as a good custodian as well as holistically are crucial, and on top of that, the proper care of one's physical needs makes everything else work better, and shows us on an ongoing basis that we actually care about ourselves. This builds trust in oneself over time, rather than feelings of betrayal. Mental habits are a kind of behavior, and can take a while to shift, but are equally important and easy to overlook — and harder to maintain when hungry, poorly fit, sleep deprived, or not experiencing enough play, affection, or rest in one's life when by oneself or with others.

5. Be kind to yourself. This doesn't mean "letting yourself off the hook" or shirking responsibility, but it does mean working toward appraising yourself without destructively aggressive criticism or blame. People are often blame-dependent regarding self-appraisal and self-correction, and more often then not, excessive blaming leads to less effective change. To the extent it is unavoidable, accept blaming — but work toward being kind and gentle, while also being candid and taking responsibility.

6. Seek others who fit your goals. In addition to being around people who treat you well, it's helpful to have relationships with others who also seek to have a good relationship with themselves, both because they are good models, and also because you can support one another in your efforts. It's impossible to completely avoid toxic people for most of us, so manage those relationships with care.

7. Cultivate realistically optimistic behavior. Perfectionism and all-or-nothing thinking is the enemy of sustainable change. Many people I know want everything to get fixed in a short period of time. This almost always leads to failure and maintains a negative cycle of self-blame, and more "cracking the whip." Much of the time, this crosses into the dark place of self-abuse and punishment, which is not a recipe for healthy change, but people sometimes say it is better than nothing. While it is good to accept one's needs for maladaptive defenses and the survival use they had, it's a bad idea to cling too strongly to them. Some level of frustration with oneself, getting "sick of" how things are or "tired" of being the same way, often precedes change, though. Setting goals we can achieve, and building on them, is a standard and effective alternative. For instance, instead of demanding that I go the gym four days a week for one hour each time and messing that up the first week — I can set a goal of going at least once for half an hour, and after that, everything is gravy. And if I don't meet that goal, it carries over into the next week.

8. Have a personal crisis plan. Sometimes life deals us a really bad hand, or we make a decision which we regret and hate ourselves for. At these times, it's helpful to have a personal crisis plan, because these are times in which we are also most vulnerable to falling back on old habits and justifying self-abuse. The simplest plan is to expect these times may come and be prepared with ways of understanding how we are feeling, which keep us focused on long-term intentions and goals, while dealing with the immediate issue. Writing down our thoughts for this eventuality and referring to them, and having a couple of close people available for such times to help keep things in perspective, can be very effective. If you know you tend to reject help at such times, stay on top of that, because it is the thread which causes everything else to unravel.

9. Maintain meaningful activity. Rather than having a static definition of success, work toward having regular activities which provide satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. Work is important, and not everyone has a job they love, but it is important to find ways to make it meaningful — this may be about changing what you actually do, or focusing on how you work and what it means in your current job. Having a sense of integrity for the quality of one's own work can be a personal standard which lends meaning to a job which is externally not that engaging. Likewise for activities outside of work — hobbies, recreation, and volunteer activities — and meaningful personal and love relationships. Your own mind can be a source of great fascination and entertainment.

10. Establish good habits. Start your day in such a way that you increase the likelihood of having a day which supports your self-relationship goals. Some people find it useful to write down daily goals the night before and review them first thing in the morning. Others hold these ideas in mind and can review them mentally. Regardless, within a short time after waking, remind yourself of your long-term intentions and goals, review key practices you want for that specific day, and rehearse how you want to address problematic activities in your day. Of course, I'm not suggesting that everything be planned out and tightly controlled — spontaneity is critical — but it's good to keep our intentions and goals in mind, so that we can behave in ways which further them.

11. Speak differently with yourself. If you tend to speak harshly to yourself (out loud or in your head), when you notice you are doing that, learn to interrupt the action and take a reflective step back. Notice how you feel — is your heart rate higher, do you feel agitated, are you speaking fast and critically with yourself? Think about slowing down and being kind and gentle with yourself, let yourself calm down, reappraise the situation, and try again. Some people find it helpful to have conversations out loud with themselves — under the right conditions, doing so can be very useful.

12. Avoid the "Selfish Trap." A good number of us are raised to see practically anything to do with taking care of ourselves as bad and, specifically, "selfish." Of course, being overly self-centered is problematic for relationships, and ultimately self-destructive. We may think everything for ourselves is an indulgence and a luxury. Many of the things we see as extras are really necessities. Some actual luxuries are great from time to time, and I feel grateful and lucky to have such opportunities, because they aren't always there.

However, when family and culture/religion teaches that nearly everything to do with looking after one's needs is selfish, there is a problem. A lot of the time, this is coupled with punishment, either psychological ("You're a bad girl, because you were selfish") and/or material (for example, going to bed without dinner, getting hit, or worse). We tend to internalize the same damning moral judgments which we dole out on ourselves. This is reinforced by belief systems with extol the virtues of extreme self-sacrifice, even martyrdom — leading to what classical analysis call "moral masochism." All these factors are roadblocks to a good relationship with oneself, and it is important to recognize and work on them. Recognize that being "self-ish" can be defined in positive and negative ways.

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