Body Love and Body Kindness, Overcoming Self-loathing and Anxiety, Practices for Cultivating Love, Uncategorized

What to Do When We Don’t Like Ourselves and We Want to Change

I can vividly remember several times in my life in which I did not like something about myself, and I wanted desperately to change.

I think this is a common experience most of us have at one point or another.

We look at ourselves and see all our bad habits. Or, we take a long, hard look at who we are, and we don’t like it. Perhaps we feel like we don’t measure up to some standard.

Understanding how to change is important. After all, sometimes we do get stuck in bad patterns or habits, and we need a change.

So how do we change?

One of the most important things to realize about change is that there is a profound difference between fear-driven desires for change and dignity-driven desires for change. When our attempts to change are motivated fear, we often go down dead-end roads.

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Bad Reasons to Change: Fear-Driven Change

Fear-driven desires for change are often unconsciously motivated by self-hate or a poor self-concept. For instance, here are three fear-driven reasons we might want to change.

One: We want to change because we think we must to be worthy of love.

It may be hard to believes sometimes, but we are worthy of unconditional love just as we are. This is because the truest thing about us is our dignity–our love, wisdom, compassion, creativity. I often refer to this dignity as our light or our Wise Self, and it makes us unconditionally worthy.

Unfortunately, instead of believing in our unconditional worth, we often believe we must prove our worth by demonstrating that we are talented enough or sophisticated enough or beautiful enough or thin enough or some other type of “enough”.

When we believe that we are only worthy if we meet external, arbitrary standards, we change out of a fear that we are not good enough.

There is no doubt that this kind of fear can be extremely motivating initially. After all, the desire to be loved is one of our deepest desires, and we are willing to do a lot to achieve it.

However, the process of change takes a lot of inner strength, perseverance, and trust in ourselves. When we try to change out of a fear that we are unworthy, we deplete the very internal resources we need to make change, and it is hard to sustain this change.

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Two: We want to change in an attempt to achieve the perfect life.

Another reason we want to change sometimes is because we believe that if we change, we can achieve the perfect life, and all our problems will go away. For instance, we might think that if we change and achieve the perfect life, we will never feel lonely or sad or scared or suffer relationship difficulties or self-image problems.

This idea is continually perpetuated by the media. Consider how often you see media images of very thin, attractive people with the perfect possessions and perfect hair, and they look as though they are completely carefree. No one ever suffers in a Mountain Dew commercial.

Images like this can reinforce the belief that if we change and make our lives more like these perfect media people, we won’t have to suffer either.

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The human experience is beautiful, but it is also marked by suffering. We all experience loss and heartache and aging and death. Changing things about our body or appearance or personality, for example, will not take away all our suffering.

When we try to change out of a desire to control our lives and avoid all types of suffering, this is also fear-based change. Changed based on fear of suffering will eventually undermine itself, too, because we will inevitably remember that we cannot escape suffering. (By the way, because we cannot escape all suffering, learning the art of compassion is important. You can read more about that here.)

Three:  We want to change in an attempt to please others

Sometimes we want to change because our loved ones or other important people in our life communicate to us that they cannot love us unless we change somehow. For example, maybe we feel like if we gain weight, lose weight, have a better job, are a better Christian, are less religious, are smarter, have cooler hobbies, or whatever, people will love us more.

So, we change because we are fearful of losing love.

Once again, this kind of fear can be motivating initially because we all want to be loved by the significant people in our lives.

However, fear motivated by this kind of change is ultimately self-undermining, too. When people refuse to love us unless we achieve some standard of beauty or body perfection or wealth, they don’t really love us–they love beauty or appearance or wealth.

Either that or they are trying to use our accomplishments to make them feel better about themselves—to make them feel whole.

In either of these cases, we will never be able to change enough to earn their love. In the first case, they love something other than us (i.e. wealth or appearance). In the second case, we will never be able to change enough to make someone else feel whole (because the problem is with them and not us).

The one exception to this is when friends and loved ones tell us that we are hurting them and treating them disrespectfully. They may even tell us that they are not willing to be around us unless we change our behavior. If we are hurting or disrespecting people (and they are the best judge of this), then we do have the responsibility to change this behavior, and those loved ones do have the right to refuse to be around us if we do not change.

When we change because we are afraid of losing someone’s love, however, we eventually realize that no amount of change in the world can earn authentic love from other people.

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A Good Reason to Change: Dignity-Driven Change

If we want to make long-lasting, beautiful change, it is important we make change based on kindness, respect, and compassion for ourselves, which is the practical expression of love.

We are already worthy as we are. We always have the light of dignity in us. But there are some habits or behaviors that diminish our light.

For instance, here are some of the common things we do that diminish our light:

We think mean and critical things about ourselves on a constant basis.

We don’t listen to our feelings and dreams and hopes (perhaps because we are afraid to listen or are afraid of being disappointed).

We hang around people who belittle us and make us feel bad about ourselves.

We do not permit ourselves time to rest.

We deprive ourselves of or don’t make time/space for things we need to be healthy like nutritious food or movement or sleep or loving relationships.

We listen to or watch things that fill us with constant dread, anger, or cynicism about the world.

We devalue ourselves out of sense of false humility or out of problems with self-loathing.

Our natural state is to express love, wisdom, compassion, and creativity in relationships with others to make the world a more loving place. This is our vocation, and this is a drive that all of us have.

So, whenever we have habits like the ones above that diminish our light, we feel anxious, depressed, powerless, and struggle with despair.

But there is good news.

If we realize that our natural state is our dignity, then we can further realize that the light in us is very powerful, and it wants to remove any obstacles that get in the way of us expressing our dignity, whether that is unhelpful thinking habits, physical habits, or relationship habits.

This realization can help us fuel dignity-driven change. We change because we realize that we are making it hard for ourselves to expression and realize our unconditional worth. This can be a powerful, long-term motivator because it is fueled by love instead of fear.

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We see the value of our worth, and we decide to honor it. This is an act of love. And it is okay if you don’t feel love for your worth initially. Just honoring it and taking action on that realization is an expression of love.

How can we bring about such dignity-driven change? Below are some helpful steps in our journey.

One:  Cultivate the habit of believing in your own unconditional worth.

I know it is hard to do this because we are so used to viewing our own worth conditionally. Here are two things that help me.

First, if you are not religious, you might like using the baby or flower reflection. (I am religious, but I still find these meditations helpful).

Baby Reflection: We know that babies are unconditionally worthy. Babies do not have to earn our love by being more beautiful or thinner or smarter. We honor their dignity and love them and as we do so, they grow strong and develop their unique beautiful personality. You were a baby once, and you never lost your unconditional worth. You can recognize this intellectually (even if you don’t feel it) and act on it.

Flower Reflection: It would be weird to demand that a flower be shorter or taller or thinner or fatter or a different color or species. Flowers possess a unique beauty that they naturally manifest when they have appropriate nutrients and a supportive environment. When we lovingly support flowers (for instance, in a garden), they do their amazing thing. When we neglect them or try to make them into something they are not, we damage them. You are like a flower in that you have your own unique beauty. The more you lovingly support yourself and hang around people who do the same, the more you express your beautiful uniqueness.

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Second, if you are religious or are open to exploring religious ideas (even if you are agnostic or atheist), you might find these quotes helpful about our unconditional dignity.

Quakers believe that each one of us possess an Inner Light—you can imagine this as the light of our highest selves (if you are not religious) or the light of God:

“I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness: and in that also I saw the infinite love of God…” ~George Fox

“The Inner Light is the doctrine that there is something Divine, ‘Something of God’ in the human soul.” ~Rufus Jones

“The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask, they will know one another though the [different religions] they wear here makes them strangers…” ~William Penn

Marianne Williamson writes,

“We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”[1]

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Hindu mystic Yogananda writes,

“Self-realization is the knowing in all parts of body, mind, and soul that you are now in possession of the kingdom of God; that you do not have to pray that it come to you…all that you need to do is improve your knowing.”

“You do not have to struggle to reach God, but you do have to struggle to tear away the self-created veil that hides him from you.”

“Be afraid of nothing. Hating none, giving love to all, feeling the love of God, seeing His presence in everyone, and having but one desire – for His constant presence in the temple of your consciousness – that is the way to live in this world.”

The Apostle Paul in the New Testament writes,

“Long before the he laid down the earth’s foundations, he [God] had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love.” [2] (My take on this verse: Why would God love us from the foundation of the world? Because he already saw each of us created out of his light and reflecting this beautiful light in our own unique way.[3])

The more frequently you reflect or meditate on ideas like this or the baby and tree metaphor, the more you will realize that you are worthy right now, and your only job is to let that worthiness shine through loving yourself and other people, too.

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Two: Understand that your natural state is loving change.

The light in you wants to express itself through you, and it wants to remove any obstacles to that expression. This is why we feel badly when we or others engage in habits that crush our dignity. It is also why we long to change when we do things that continually undermine ourselves.

This doesn’t make change easy, necessarily, but it does help us realize is that we possess a deep power that is always on our side. The more we realize this, the more it becomes a powerful force that helps fuel long-lasting change. (If you would like to read about two changes in my life fueled by dignity, you might like this post and this post.)

Three: Work on what you say to yourself.

Stop for a minute, please, and think about the things you have been thinking about yourself today. Have they been primarily loving or have they been harsh and critical? If you are like a lot of people, you say a lot of harsh and critical things to yourself throughout the day like…

I am stupid.

I am a failure.

I am never going to be successful.

I will never get what I want.

I don’t deserve good things.

I am ugly.

I am fat.

I am stupid.

I never change.

My life sucks.

If you find that you say things like this on a regularly basis to yourself, I sympathize with you, Friend. I have been there.

And I know these things can feel true when you are feeling bad about your life. But I want to point out that when you say things like this to yourself, you ignore your unconditional worth, and you deplete the strength, hope, and courage you need to change.

The alternative is not to suddenly start spouting all sorts of cheery aphorisms you don’t believe like, I’m brilliant, I’m an amazing success, I am totally successful, I get everything I want. I mean, if those encouraging sayings (or affirmations) feel truthful to you, go ahead. But usually if you have been feeling horrible about yourself and your life, these kinds of affirmations make you feel even worse.

So instead, I recommend saying things to yourself that are based on the truth of your unconditional worth. You can call these affirmations, or you can just call it speaking your truth. Here are some affirmations or ways of speaking your truth to yourself.

I recognize my light.  (You can change light to worth or dignity if those words feel more accurate to you.)

I honor my light.

I trust my light to guide me.

My light now expresses itself in love, wisdom, creativity, compassion.

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My light possesses power for loving change.

I make any loving change I need to.

I make changes that strengthen my light.  

Note: Affirmations are kind of like clothes. Not all clothes are a good fit for you. So please feel free to tailor these affirmations or make your own affirmations. Or, you may be a nudist when it comes to affirmations. That’s cool. Just don’t say mean things to yourself that take away hope you can change.

Four: Imagine yourself making this beautiful change.

When I was young, my mom used to tell me that I looked for things with my eyes closed. She was partially right. I had a weird strategy of looking for stuff—I would often halfheartedly gaze around the room and not really believe I could find the thing I was looking for. I am not sure how I developed this strategy, but it’s no wonder that I didn’t find things very often. I mean, how could I when I wasn’t looking for them very carefully and didn’t really believe I could find them?

Several years ago, I was looking for a movie, and I found myself looking around halfheartedly, not really believing I would find the movie. I remember thinking, “This is silly. I’m looking with my eyes closed again.” So, I got a clear picture in my mind about what the movie looked liked, and I decided I would find it.

And wouldn’t you know it, I found it about thirty seconds later. It was in a place I had already looked several times. I didn’t work any kind of magic trick in this situation. I started looking with my eyes open.

It is important to look with our eyes open when we want to make dignity-driven changes. Because  dignity-driven changes are changes we make to strengthen our light, these kinds of changes are always possible. Once we remember we can always make this kind of change, it is also important to get a clear picture of what such change would look like. This helps us to head in the right direction and find what we are looking for.

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Five: Take the next easy and comfortable step.

One of the most common ways that we undermine our ability to make change is by trying to make big changes all at once.

Occasionally this change method is helpful or necessary for people, and if making really big changes all of a sudden works well for you, please follow your own intelligence in this matter.

But please know that it’s okay to take the next step that is easy, comfortable, and non-threatening to you, and I recommend that you do this. If you try to take big, scary steps all at once, it may overwhelm you and make you want to give up before you get started. This is what often happens to me. (You can read about making small changes here and here.)

Whether you take big steps or little steps is up to you. Sometimes big steps are exciting and exactly what we need. But please know that little steps are completely legitimate, too.

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Six: Keep going, and it’s okay if you mess up.

It is completely normal to mess up and fail sometimes in the process of change. There is nothing wrong with you.

Remember, your light is on your side.

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[1] Marianne Williamson. Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles. Harper Collins, 1992. Chapter 7, Section 3 (Pg. 190-191).

[2] Ephesians 1:4

[3] Also, this isn’t some weird interpretation that I have made up. The Old Testament says repeatedly that we are made in God’s image and that that God looked up his creation when he made it (of which we were a part) and saw that it was very good.

7 thoughts on “What to Do When We Don’t Like Ourselves and We Want to Change”

  1. Shelly, good post here. I see the point that you are making here. A lot of us want to change something about us. 90% of the time, we want to change it in order to fit in with the societal ideals. I have seen people with the perfect looks, who want to so badly change something so minor that i do not even consider it a flaw in them. However, we do need to stop to see the vanity in these things. The truth is, in life, no matter how you look and how you are, your blessings and the things meant for you, will locate you if that is God’s will. We also need to see our place in God’s big picture, each and every one of us is a small piece in a big puzzle. We might be small, but we are critical to the completion of the sequence. When we feel pressure to be different, we should pray to God about it. He has the power to help us. Prayers to God and faith in him are key. 🙂

    If you want to know about God in more detail, you can find further information here https://christcenteredruminations.wordpress.com/2018/10/23/a-few-things-that-i-have-learned-about-god/ And Here https://christcenteredruminations.wordpress.com/2018/08/29/how-to-build-a-relationship-with-god/

    1. Hi Friend: Thanks for your comment and thoughts. Although I am a Christian, I always write this blog as a hospitable space for people of all faiths or those who do not have a particular faith. I believe deeply in the love of God for all of us, and so my goal is to write posts in which readers encounter the love of God, which is the light inside us and all around us. Peace, Friend.

  2. As always, it is clear that you have spent a lot of time thinking through the different motivations to change. I love the way that you use such clear language, whilst not coming across in the least bit preachy. Your analogies are perfect too. I love the flower analogy; it is a celebration of diversity.

    In my work I have sometimes drawn attention to how we find that everything a baby does is delightful, and in the moments when they are distressed we come to them from a place of compassion. Then something happens when they hit toddlerhood, and we can start to see them as difficult and testing, and interpret their behaviour as malicious. The challenge is to celebrate their burgeoning individuality and ‘inner light’, and allow some difference and conflict. And I guess this is an ongoing challenge as we rub along with others through life. The occasional tantrum or sulk is inevitable, but it is how we take responsibility for our less-than-delightful moments, and put the effort in to resolve the conflicts.

    I appreciate too the distinction you make when it becomes necessary to ask someone to change because they are causing harm. And that sometimes it is necessary to move away from a person who does not acknowledge that harm.

    Your blog is an outer light to guide the inner light. Keep it shining bright, Friend!

    1. Ali, thank you so much for your very thoughtful comment–all of your comments are so thoughtful. And I am so glad my language is clear without being preachy. To be honest, I have had enough of preachy language. I have been exposed to it a lot in my life. It usually creates a lot of shame and crushes our spirit. I always want people to feel safe and loved when they read my blog. Thank you, Friend.

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