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Christa Smith Psy.D.


Why your relationship with yourself matters

© 2016 Christa Smith
Source: © 2016 Christa Smith

Is your inner voice a little harsh? Do you swing back and forth from self-abuse to self-neglect? You may think that the way you treat yourself is simply a reflection of your high expectations. Or it’s a way to control those parts of yourself that you are afraid will get out of hand—anxiety, irritability, or procrastination. You may think you deserve harsh treatment.

The more I practice as a therapist, the more it seems that the problems we face, whether depression, anxiety, or lack of satisfaction in life, contain a common thread. That thread is a terrible relationship with ourselves. Maybe terrible isn’t strong enough. Perhaps hideous is more appropriate! Think about it, when you feel embarrassed, when you are having a rough day, when you feel you have screwed up an important conversation, what does your inner dialogue sound like?

For many of us, non-constructive criticism is our main operating mode. This is how we attempt to shape and motivate ourselves. We come down hard when a mistake is made or a vulnerability surfaces. There is no self-compassion in these moments. But treating ourselves this way causes anxiety. If you can never feel OK about yourself, how can you ever really feel calm? Something will always feel amiss. If you acknowledge what you see as your inadequacies exclusively, how will you ever feel happy or peaceful?

For some there is another problem. Not only do we criticize ourselves relentlessly, but we are also out of touch. Just like relationships with other people can grow distant, we grow distant with ourselves. We don’t really know who we are, what we want, or how we feel from day to day. How can we be satisfied with life when we are not in tune with ourselves? It’s like eating while being engrossed in your favorite T.V. show. Did you like the food? Was it too salty? Who knows? You never gave yourself the chance to taste it. We do this a lot. We go through the week without tasting our own lives. We forget to taste our jobs or the way we spend our free time. We run on autopilot, which keep us from making the course corrections necessary to live a life that feels meaningful.

If I asked you to rate your relationship with your siblings, your partner, or your kids, I bet you would be able to come up with a quick reply. But what if I asked you about your relationship with yourself? Could you answer?

We are accustomed to contemplating how our relationships with others are going. We read books, we get couples counseling, or seek advice from friends when things aren’t right. We talk to the other person in the relationship about how the relationship is going. We expect that our relationships will need work and if we value the relationship enough we put in the time and energy required to improve it. But how often do we work on our relationships with ourselves?

One simple way to begin to evaluate your relationship with yourself is to ask yourself a few questions. How do I talk to myself? Listen to your inner dialogue, especially when you are under stress or things don’t go right for you. Is the way you talk to yourself similar to the way you would talk to a friend in the same situation? Can you encourage, support, and accept yourself, much of the time? If not, your relationship with yourself may need attention.

There are many ways to let go of the habits of self-abuse and neglect and cultivate something better. One of my favorites is the practice of Mindful Self-Compassion. Mindful Self-Compassion is “The foundation of emotional healing—being aware in the present moment when we're struggling with feelings of inadequacy, despair, confusion, and other forms of stress (mindfulness) and responding with kindness and understanding (self-compassion).”* You can find more about Self Compassion at the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion website.

Just like your relationships with other people, with effort, your relationship with yourself can always change for the better.

*This quotation is taken from the website of Dr. Chris Germer, one of the founders of the Mindful Self-Compassion movement.

© 2016 Christa Smith