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Article by Michael Pietrzak

John was born on Thanksgiving Day in 1954, but for him, life wasn’t much to be thankful for. A birth defect caused John to wear painful leg braces, and his first-grade teacher told his parents he would never read, write, or amount to anything in life. (Dyslexia and speech impediments, both of which John had, weren’t well understood in the ’50s.)

Accepting that he was worthless, John dropped out of school at age 14 and moved to Hawaii to live in a tent. After a near-death experience, fate brought John an enigmatic 93-year-old mentor who changed his life with a single statement: “Each of us, no matter how seemingly worthless, has genius within us.”

John’s self-image radically improved. He began to read voraciously. He put himself through college, where he graduated magna cum laude. Today, Dr. John Demartini is one of the world’s top human behavioral specialists, a sought-after speaker, and the author of more than 40 books.

Fear and Loathing in the Modern World

“I tell you, my man, this is the American Dream in action!” — Hunter S. Thompson

Most of us born in the West had a much easier start in life than Dr. Demartini, but we still laugh to think we have genius within ourselves. In fact, many of us suffer from low self-esteem.

At a personal development seminar I attended in 2016, one speaker asked the crowd, “How many of you feel like you’re not enough as human beings?” In a stadium packed with successful professionals, 95 percent of the audience raised a hand.

Epidemics of depression, anxiety, addiction, and social isolation are spreading. In a society that idolizes celebrities, athletes, and experts, why do we have so much trouble appreciating the most important people: ourselves?

How to Spot Low Self-Esteem

“A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval.” — Mark Twain

Poor self-esteem is subtle. People don’t generally interrupt your morning coffee to tell you how much they suck, nor do we often notice it in ourselves. Instead, unhealthy self-opinions manifest in sneaky ways:

• Depression, anxiety, and body image issues: At times the symptoms are overt, but sometimes you would have no idea a successful person was battling inner demons.
• Perfectionism: Perfectionism doesn’t stem from having high standards, but from wanting the approval of others. The fatal failing of this behavior is that, in striving to be flawless, you’ll always fall short.
• Constant anger: People often use anger to mask their pain. If you’re angry, you don’t need to deal with your shame, hurt, or guilt. It’s a way to pretend the opinions of others don’t actually affect you.
• People-pleasing: A genuine desire to serve others is commendable, but people-pleasing goes beyond service. It becomes a desperate attempt to get from others the love and respect we’re not giving ourselves.
• Addiction: Our society says moderate drug and alcohol use is harmless fun, but these behaviors can be the doors we use to escape from a reality in which we don’t like ourselves very much.
 Narcissism: Know people who are reeeal big on themselves? This self-promotion likely serves to cover up a deep sense of inadequacy. People who are genuinely confident don’t need to tweet about it.

Once you spot one or more of these traits in yourself, you can work to remove them. But then again, what’s the point? Doesn’t achievement require a little suffering?

What’s Self-Love Got to Do With It?

“[L]ove of one’s neighbor is not possible without love of oneself.” — Hermann Hesse

I see you over there, rolling your eyes. I know you. You’ve never missed a credit card payment, your ride still has that new-car smell after five years, and you get too few back-pats from the boss for staying late. Give yourself a hand, because civilization needs you to function.

To you, work and accomplishment are the ultimate successes. Yes, you love your family, but you believe the best way to serve them is to bring home the bacon.

It speaks volumes, then, that so many millennials whose immigrant parents worked 17 jobs to pay for their medical degrees at Harvard are opting out of 40 years of 100-hour weeks in order to enjoy life more. It’s not that they don’t appreciate their parents’ toil, but that they see the insanity of the game.

Our failure to be kind to ourselves has created all the world’s problems: the rampant overconsumption that now threatens the survival of our species, the consumer junk we blow all our disposable income on hoping to fill the void we should fill with genuine self-love.

Accomplishment is noble but empty without fulfillment. Self-love is not an optional frill, it’s the core of life. When it comes to appreciating yourself more, there are two key habits to adopt: words and deeds.

Habit No. 1: Self-Talk

“Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.” — Don Miguel Ruiz

“Honey, I love you, but you just don’t measure up to my expectations, you embarrass me in public, and you’re not making enough money.”

You wouldn’t talk to your partner this way, yet I bet you don’t hesitate to say such things to yourself. If you want to appreciate yourself, you need to start with the way you talk to yourself. Your mindset determines how you experience life.

Thought creates reality. When your self-talk is healthy, life will seem beautiful. Conversely, negative thoughts cause negative emotions and make life hell.

According to psychologist Dr. David Burns, negative self-talk manifests in distorted thoughts. Some common examples include:

• All-or-nothing thinking happens when we evaluate events as black and white. Example: I lost the sale; my career is over.
• Overgeneralization is a belief that one instance of failure means you will always fail. Example: I asked a woman out and she said no; I’ll be forever alone.
• Mental filters cause us to focus on a single failure and ignore our many successes. Example: I missed that one free throw; I’m not cut out for basketball.
• Disqualifying the positive happens when we turn a good thing into a bad thing. Example: You receive a compliment and think, “They’re patronizing me.”
• Mind reading happens when you pretend to know what someone else is thinking. Example: My audience looks tired. I must be boring!
• The fortune-teller error takes place when you convince yourself that you just know something will go wrong. Example: I’m definitely going to fail this exam.

Low self-esteem always starts with negative self-talk. Pull this thinking up by the weeds and you’ll eliminate negative moods.

A word of caution: In your quest for a healthy self-image, avoid taking a wrong turn down the road to narcissism. Healthy self-esteem does not require that you feel superior to others. All players lose that zero-sum game. Don’t confuse loving yourself with loving your ego.

Habit No. 2: Self-Care

“A field that has rested gives a beautiful crop.” — Ovid

Practicing healthy self-talk is how you start to appreciate yourself, but it’s not enough on its own. If your boss constantly told you how great you were but forced you to work 18-hour days, the praise would become worthless.

Action needs to follow your words. Think of positive self-talk as the foundation for healthy self-esteem and self-care as the structure you build on top of that foundation. First, you tell yourself you’re worth it; then you prove it.

Self-care is the act of recharging your battery and topping up your tank. Each of us has unique needs, but we all know intuitively what fills us up. There’s no shortage of self-care ideas out there if you need inspiration. Google usually returns a list like: get a massage, eat healthy, or go for a walk.

Rather than write a prescription for you, I’d like to share some strategies to help you create space in your life for self-care. But first, a word of warning.

Adulting Is Not Self-Care

Self-care is not self-maintenance. You know that getting a regular checkup and brushing your teeth will make a better you, but self-care includes only those activities that truly give you joy and recharge your energy — things that simultaneously plant your feet on the ground and lift your soul to the clouds.

In my case, an hour walking alone in the woods takes me out of the fray of an ambitious to-do list and moves my focus to my heart. I re-enter civilization with new ideas and energy, but also with the peace of knowing my biggest challenges are trivial in a 14-billion-year-old universe. If you don’t come away feeling at least half this good, you may be choosing the wrong self-care acts.

Beware: Numbing is also not self-care. The right acts will make you feel more — more alive, more connected, more calm, more excited, and more appreciative. Self-care that numbs you can’t recharge you. Escaping into TV, alcohol, or Instagram can be a welcome break from work stress, but too much escaping is about as wholesome as eating a box of cardboard and can be a quick route to self-loathing. If you’re drawn to this kind of escapism, it may signal a need to change your relaxation habits.

Self-Care Strategies

These practices will help you create space for self-care in your life. Pick whichever works for you.

1. The Artist Date

“If we don’t give some attention to upkeep, our well is apt to become depleted, stagnant, or blocked.” — Julia Cameron

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron teaches two fundamental self-care practices: morning pages (journaling) and the artist date (or “me time,” if you prefer). These work for everyone, not just artists.

Cameron defines the artist date as “an excursion, a play date that you preplan and defend against all interlopers.” Two hours a week is enough for such a date.

What do you do in this time? Anything you want! The only rules are you have to do it alone and it has to be fun. The activity doesn’t need to be edifying (e.g., taking a class or reading), and it works better when you chase your curiosity. In this space, you can start to hear your inner voice again, the one that’s always there, ready to tell you how to be good to yourself.

2. The Deloading Phase

“Music is the silence between the notes.” — Claude Debussy

Top athletes tend to claim they’re always giving 110 percent, but they know results do not come from constantly running at the redline.

All effective training includes a deload phase, usually a week, during which you scale back your efforts. In my own weightlifting, this means loading up with only 50 or 70 percent of my training weight. It feels ridiculous, like throwing around a sack of feathers, and my mind fights it. However, all things have a rhythm, including your body, which needs a lighter week to “prepare … for the increased demand of the next phase.”

Work life guru Tim Ferriss has applied the deloading concept to his professional activities. He batches intense periods of similar tasks (writing blog posts and recording podcasts, for example), which he balances with periods of what he calls “unplugging and f—ing around.”

Like Ferriss, I defend my deload time. By working less, I accomplish more. Build a deload phase into your calendar now (it doesn’t have to be an entire week), and you’ll learn that by slowing down from time to time, you can go faster overall.

3. Just Play More

“[S]eriousness is someone speaking in the context of the possibility of tragedy.” — Alan Watts

Jane McGonigal turned her recovery from a concussion into a game, then a graduate school project, and then a viral TED Talk with 6 million views. Today, she’s the world’s foremost advocate of play.

When we face failures and challenges, we feel overwhelmed, anxious, and maybe depressed, McGonigal says — but “we never have those feelings when we’re playing games.”

In the same way that it’s impossible to experience negative feelings when we’re filled with gratitude, play can help us trade self-flagellation for self-love. When we play games, we experience “eustress,” or positive stress, which makes us feel optimized and energized. On the other hand, the stress caused by real-world problems can dominate our consciousness when we neglect self-care.

Play is a human need, a loving act of self-care that can make our lives feel less like work. Psychologist Dr. Neil Fiore suggests scheduling play before work each week as a prescription for procrastination. It worked for Albert Einstein: It is said that, when stuck on a problem, he would play the violin.

When Guilt Attacks!

“There’s no problem so awful that you can’t add some guilt to it and make it even worse.” — Bill Watterson

For those of us who believe our work equals our worth (all of us), you can bet you’ll feel some guilt when you first adopt a policy of intentionally creating me time. The decision to take the afternoon off to be “selfish” will meet mental resistance at first. For example: “I’m a mother of three kids under 5 who need me all the time! How could I just abandon them to go get a massage?”

You do it by recognizing that self-care is child-care. You cannot pour from an empty cup. Want to be a great mother/father/employee/partner? Then take an artist date to go play during your deload week. The people around you, and your work, will benefit from a happier, more creative, and more effective you.

Appreciating yourself might sound like a luxury you can afford only when all the chores are done, but having compassion for yourself is the most practical, responsible approach to life because it lets you serve at your maximum potential.

A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com.

Michael Pietrzak is a mindset and habits coach to entrepreneurs. He founded So You Want to Write? Inc., which helps writers improve and get published. Michael is passionate about weightlifting, great books, and playing guitar.

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