Self-love isn't what we always need.
A large number of us don’t like ourselves much.
I know this because our self-dislike fuels quite a few industries:
- Millions are spent on weight loss programs to change our bodies (over $165,000,000 per day in the US!).
- Thousands more are spent buying self-development books and courses to change our undesirable inner selves.
- Then there’s the makeup and beauty industry — I’m sure you’ve heard how well that’s going.
We’re hyper-focused on what we dislike about ourselves. Does that mean I’m going to tell you to “just love yourself” or other some simple but hard to implement task?
No. Self-love isn’t necessarily what we need.
It can go too far and become vanity, smugness, or — at the extreme end— narcissism. We don’t need to slide all the way along the spectrum to find an alternative to self-dislike.
A nice middle ground is being curious and amused about ourselves.
“I am convinced that self-amusement is a discipline that can be learned; it can be practiced even by people (such as myself) who have at times a strong self-dislike or at least mistrust” Phillip Lopate, Essayist
Flawed is human not horrible
I’m willing to bet right now that you’re not a career criminal of any kind. In fact, you’re probably far more decent than you think. Some of us imagine that we’re worse than others because we know our own secrets.
We know all the things that go through our heads. We see the worst in us— the bitchy, bizarre, and boastful thoughts that pop up. The ones that make us say:
“If they really knew what I was thinking they wouldn’t like me either.”
We know how boring we really are. How insecure. How anxious and obsessive.
Everyone has thoughts like that. Are they any more weird than anyone else’s? It’s unlikely. Are you any different from anyone else — yes, of course you are, but not as different as you think.
We’re all weird underneath, or boring.
I always secretly thought of myself as unremarkable, average, a bit dull and I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to prove otherwise — prove I’m not “Generic Kelly”.
We all think we’re not quite right in one way or another. But if we all feel flawed, doesn’t that make us all normal?
Our flaws don’t make us bad people. Flaws are normal.
We know this theoretically. We need that theory to move from our heads down to our hearts. That’s where curiosity comes in.
“I am convinced that self-amusement is a discipline that can be learned; it can be practiced even by people (such as myself) who have at times a strong self-dislike or at least mistrust.”
Becoming curious about ourselves
Essayist Phillip Lopate talks about this in his book Writing Creative Nonfiction. He says that self-dislike often damages our performance:
it “keeps many would-be practitioners from developing into full-fledged professionals.”
He’s talking about writers of course, but I would argue the same applies to other fields. Self-dislike holds us back in our work, love lives, friendships, and health.
Lopate suggests we look at ourselves in a different way — a more distant, detached, and curious one.
He says, “I am convinced that self-amusement is a discipline that can be learned; it can be practiced even by people (such as myself) who have at times a strong self-dislike or at least mistrust.”
How do we become curious and amused about ourselves?
For a start, we need to take ourselves less seriously. Okay, we’re weird or boring — so what. Our quirks are pretty funny. Learning to step back and laugh at yourself takes a bit of practice.
“You don’t grow up until you have your first good laugh at yourself.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
Laughing at yourself means accepting your weaknesses, mistakes, and the silly things you do, and then being able to distance yourself from them, according to laughter researcher Paul McGhee.
He says as individuals we need to actively work on “lightening up” and being amused by our weaknesses, and desensitize ourselves to any “sensitive areas.”
Our appearance is often a sensitive area.
How can we laugh about how we look without putting ourselves down? Some studies suggest that the more importance we put on an area the more difficult it is for us to laugh at it.
Our society says appearance is very important. How much do you believe that to be true? Could it be possible that appearance is less important than we think? Could we even laugh at it?
3 Steps to Self-Amusement
1. Make a list
McGhee says the act of making a list of your flaws — writing down all the parts of yourself you don’t like — is the first step toward being curious about yourself.
“Putting them up-front in your consciousness and admitting to yourself that you’re sensitive about them actually takes you that first step down the road toward being able to lighten up about them,” he says.
2. Share with someone
For a few weeks, tell someone you trust one item from your list. You could tell a therapist if you don’t feel comfortable talking to a family member or friend.
“Don’t try to make it funny,” says McGhee, “just tell people that it’s a sensitive topic for you, and that you’re trying to learn to lighten up about it.”
This desensitizes you to the area and helps you get an outside perspective. You’re not looking for false validation here.
If you’re sensitive about your weight for example, you don’t want someone to say, “no you’re fine!” The important thing is just admitting that you’re sensitive about an area and want to feel less sensitive.
Lightening up about an area also doesn’t mean you won’t or shouldn’t make changes.
Where self-dislike holds us back from effective change, curiosity makes change more likely. It makes us take a step back and wonder about ways we can change without being too emotionally involved.
With less emotion in the way (making us feel like binge eating on ice-cream, for example) our changes are more likely to be positive ones.
3. Think of ways you’re amusing
McGhee suggests learning a joke about your flaws, but if that’s not really your thing (I can’t tell a joke to save myself) another way is to turn yourself into a character.
Phillip Lopate finds writing about himself a good way to find distance and amusement. He says, “I may be tired of myself in everyday life, but once I start narrating a situation or set of ideas on the page, I begin to see my “I” in a comic light.”
According to McGhee, laughing about yourself is really good for you.
It leads to amusement and liberation, helps you cope with difficult or stressful situations, and makes it easier to overcome mishaps and deal with your weaknesses in a constructive way.
Whether you learn a joke, write about yourself, or tell a friend your flaws, moving past self-dislike to self-amusement and curiosity has a huge impact on your life.
You’re not really all that bad. I’d probably really like you. Do you?