“Am I on my own side?” I sometimes encourage clients who are wrestling with their “self-esteem issues” to ask themselves this simple but potent question. By being on your own side I don’t mean being against anyone else. I’m talking about a basic sense of loyalty to your own well-being which expresses itself as a consistent commitment to protect yourself from harm and to do all in your power to thrive.
Many of us aren’t consistently on our own sides in important areas of our lives; in fact we’re actually our own worst enemies. One of the effects of growing up in a competitive and individualistic society such as ours is that almost everyone in our culture seems to have an “inner critic” which relentlessly evaluates our performance in the tasks of life, and consistently finds it deficient. Gay people are perhaps especially vulnerable to being self-critical and feeling that we’re not measuring up, because most of us received, at a very early age, powerful messages from the environment that we were different, wrong, bad, less than, disappointing to our parents, etc.
The human mind has an amazing capacity to turn against itself. When we do this, we lose motivation to overcome our own suffering or protect ourselves from abuse at the hands of others. We may feel that we aren’t worth the effort to try to meet our goals and achieve our dreams. But if being against yourself is learned behavior, it also ought to be possible to learn to be on your own side. There are, in fact, a few simple practices can be very helpful in establishing the habit of being loyal to yourself.
The first practice is just to check in with yourself at various times throughout the day by asking, “Am I on my own side right now?” The purpose is to become more mindful of those situations in which you aren’t loyal to your own well-being. You may find, for instance, that you’re most inclined to turn against yourself when you’re in emotional pain. Many people blame themselves when they’re sad, depressed, or fearful, as if the very fact that they’re suffering is proof that they’re doing something wrong. Or you may find that you turn against yourself when other people are pressuring you to do something you don’t want to do. Many of us are conditioned to regard pleasing others as more important than taking care of ourselves.
When you do find that you aren’t on your own side, the next step is to stop what you’re doing and take three or more deep, slow breaths. You may want to recite silently a positive affirmation at this point. My personal favorite is “May I love and accept myself exactly as I am right now.” It might also be helpful to bring to mind the image of someone who loves you and imagine that you’re seeing yourself through that person’s eyes. Ask yourself how this person would want you to feel toward yourself right now. Another practice is to remember the child you once were. See yourself today as that innocent, helpless child, and inwardly offer yourself the same parental love and protection that every child deserves. To aid in evoking this protective compassion for yourself, you might carry a photograph of yourself as a child and look at it when you’re inclined to be hard on yourself.
When you succeed in evoking self-loving feelings, pay special attention to where you’re feeling them in your body. Notice where you feel the sense of warmth, relaxation, and well-being. As you breathe in, imagine that your awareness is being carried by the breath to the center of these positive sensations. Give them your full attention and let them expand and deepen as much as they want.
If you’re in a situation where you’re confused about what to do, use the “fake it until you make it” method. Ask yourself “What would I do in this situation if I really were a completely self-loving person who always acted in my own best interest?” If you get a clear answer, follow your own advice, even if the behavior feels unfamiliar or strange.
If your mind tells you that you’re being self-indulgent or selfish for doing these practices, see this harsh, judging mind for what it is, and then offer it the same loving compassion you are offering to the rest of yourself. You might also remember these words, which are attributed to the Buddha, “You can search all the realms of existence, and you will never find a being more worthy of your love and kindness than you are.”
Self-hatred, like all experience, is mediated by neural pathways created by past experiences. Every time you deliberately incline your mind toward positive self-regard, you are literally, if slowly, creating new pathways and altering the structure of your brain. The process is slow, like filling a bucket with water one drop at a time. But with patience and consistent practice, your bucket will eventually fill, and you’ll find that being on your own side becomes such a consistent mental habit that it begins to feel like second nature.