By Leo Babauta (Zen Habits)
If you’re like me, you are constantly learning new skills — gardening, carpentry, pizza-making, languages, sports, and so on. And I think this is a fun and wonderful thing to do.
But what’s the most important skill?
That’s debatable. I think compassion is a huge one, as is mindfulness. I’d go with those two any day of the week.
But if I had to pick just one, it would be this: learning to be happy with yourself.
That seems too simple, to trite! Too mushy and New-Agey! And I’ll grant all of that, but I stand firmly by my pick.
Why? The answer has to do with how this one thing can affect everything else in your life. If you are not happy with yourself, or your body, you become insecure. You think you’re not good enough. You fear being abandoned and alone. You do lots of other things to compensate, and these lead to problems.
So many of the problems people have stem from this one thing — being unhappy with themselves (often in the form of being unhappy with their bodies). Let’s take a look at why, and then look at some ideas of how to master the skill.
Why It Affects Everything
Let’s say you’re unhappy with your body. You think you are too fat, or too skinny, or your butt is too small (or too big). Or your boobs are too small, or your pecs aren’t big enough. Your stomach is flabby, or loose, or covered in stretch marks. Your thighs are too thick. Your hips are too wide, or too narrow. The list goes on and on.
We’ll get into why we’re unhappy in a minute, but for now, just imagine the unlikely scenario that you’re unhappy with your body. What does that do to you? Well, you might be envious of other people (who, you know, are also unhappy with their bodies). You might be worried that you’re not attractive enough to meet someone, and therefore sabotage your chances for a relationship. If you’re in a relationship, you might think your boyfriend/girlfriend will leave you for someone more attractive. You might then act jealously, and do things out of this jealousy that actually leads to your partner being unhappy, and possibly eventually leaving you.
If you’re unhappy with your body, you might not want to look at it. You might obsessively undereat, and then binge eat, and then feel worse about yourself. You might avoid exercise because you don’t want to even think about the problem. You might eat junk food to comfort your bad feelings, and then make the health problems worse.
You might have anxiety about all of this, about your body, your health, your girlfriend leaving you. Then you eat more to assuage the anxiety, and it gets worse. Or you shop to make yourself feel better, and you get deeply in debt and your life fills with clutter. Or you drink alcohol or numb yourself with drugs or television so you don’t have to think about all this.
At work, you’re unhappy because you aren’t confident about yourself or your body, so you don’t do the things that require confidence and that would further your career. You might not leave your work to find work you’re more passionate about, because you don’t think you’re good enough. Even at the work you’re in, you do what you can to not think about the unhappiness you have, so you procrastinate with social networks, games, and other diversions.
There’s much more that’s possible, but you get the idea. Not everyone has all of these symptoms, but they’re possible for anyone. Many of our problems stems from this one problem, and fixing it can change everything.
That’s why, if you have a finite amount of time to learn (and we all do), investing that time into learning this one skill can pay off in innumerable ways. It’s the most important skill you can master.
Why We’re Like This
If this is so bad, why are we like this? How did it get this way? Well, there’s no one answer. It’s a building up of lots of reasons, including:
- Mass media. We see beautiful celebrities with perfect faces, stomachs, thighs, abs, chests and asses all over the place — on the Internet, on TV and movies, in magazines. Everywhere. They’re celebrated as the pinacle of our society, and we all want to be them in some way. They’re not real, of course — they’re Photoshopped, make-upped, did upped in so many ways that what we see is an illusion. We’re comparing ourselves to an illusion. But even if they were, why would we need to be like them? Why can’t we be like ourselves, and let that be the ideal?
- Comments from others. Friends, family members, co-workers, even spouses might make a seemingly innocent comment about our butt or boobs that makes us feel bad about ourselves. These comments are small but hit our self-esteem very hard. They’re not really about us, though, even if we almost always take them to heart. They’re about the other person, who is having a bad day, or jealous of you, or projecting their own insecurities on you, or comparing you to the mass media celebrities they idolize for no good reason. See these comments for what they are, and don’t take them to heart.
- Childhood incidents. In childhood, perhaps our parents made some comments about us that made us feel bad. Perhaps our parents got a divorce, or our dad was never around — if dad left mom, maybe that meant she wasn’t good enough for him, and by extension maybe I’m not good enough for someone else? If dad left, maybe it’s because I wasn’t good enough for him? This might sound like psychological mumbo-jumbo, but it’s real. I’ve experienced it, and so have countless others. It doesn’t mean we have to let it rule our lives, but we should be aware that it’s there, and learn to deal with it.
- Failures. Perhaps we’ve made some mistakes and failed at some things we tried to do. Honestly, everyone does, but when we do it, we take it to heart. It makes us feel bad about ourselves — we’re not disciplined, we’re not good enough. This leads to further failures, further hurting our self-image.
- Health problems. While having thick thighs or a bit of flab on the tummy is nothing to feel bad about — love how you look! — a completely separate problem from how we feel about our bodies is the health of our bodies. We tend to mix them together — being fat makes us feel bad about ourselves, for example — but really they can be separated. We can feel good about our bodies but realize that being overweight can lead to heart disease and diabetes down the road, so it only makes sense to lose some weight. Not because we want to look like a celebrity and feel better about ourselves, but because we want to be healthy. Being healthy, by the way, can help your self-image, and even though I said they can be separated, this is one positive benefit from conflating the two that you should accept happily.
- Spiral of negative thoughts. One bad thought leads to another, and then another, until we have a bundle of bad thoughts that become our self-image. This negative self-image can affect everything we do. But this self-image and these bad thoughts are not us — they are things that happen within us, but we don’t have to let them become us. We can cope with them, and turn them into positive thoughts, into gratitude, into happiness.
These are just a few reasons. In fact, so many things affect our self-image that it’s impossible to list them all, but it’s good to start to be aware of them, so we can cope with them.
How to Master the Skill
Let’s say you’ve accepted my premise that learning to be happy with yourself (let’s call it “love thyself”) is the most important skill to master … how do you get started?
The simple answer is practice. The complicated answer is that it takes awhile, because our self-image wasn’t formed overnight and it won’t be changed overnight. That’s OK. Just focus on this moment, and you’ll learn as you go.
I can’t give you a complete guide to learning to love thyself, as that would take a book, and I’m still learning myself, but here are some tips for starting out:
- Become aware of your mental movie. You have a movie (perhaps a series of them) that you play inside your head about yourself. Usually we aren’t aware of this, but it happens, throughout the day. The movie is about who we are: you have a flabby stomach, you are fat, you are too skinny, you aren’t disciplined, you aren’t lovable, your braces look weird, you aren’t good at anything. Start to pay attention when this movie plays — it affects everything you do. Realize that this movie isn’t you — it’s just playing in your head. Realize that it isn’t true, and isn’t based on reality. Realize that it can be changed.
- Start to make a new movie. This new movie will replace that play-out old one that keeps running in your theater. It will be a Michael Bay production, with a gorgeous lead actor (hey, that’s you!), great visual effects, lots of excitement … except with more character development and a lot smaller budget. Let’s base this movie on reality, not fears from childhood or illusions of celebrities or comments from others. Instead, it should be based on the fact that you are a good person, wonderful even, who is loving, kind, beautiful, passionate. This might not be what you think about yourself, but let’s make the movie like this anyway. Ask other people why you’re lovable (people who are likely to give a kind answer). Use these images in your new movie. When negative images start coming up (my boobs are too small!), cut them out and tell them they have no place in your production. Put better images in.
- Consciously play the new movie. Learn to recognize the flicker of the old movie starting, and shut it off. Put the new movie in the projector instead, and play it. Practice this like it’s your new religion. You will get better with constant practice. Put up reminders all around you so you don’t forget.
- Learn mental judo. There will be things coming in all around you that will try to attack your new movie. Comments from friends, celebrities, things you see on Facebook. When they are hurtling towards you, learn to lean to one side and let them whiz by. Give them a small shove, with a thought like, “That comment is not about me, it’s about you.” (And then go give your friend a hug — she’s probably having a bad day.) Or a thought like, “That celebrity probably is also worried about her body — having big boobs or a flat stomach doesn’t solve that problem.” Give the celebrity a mental hug, then play your new movie.
You are already perfect — you just need to realize it. You don’t need anything to solve this problem — you already have it. You just need to practice, like it’s the most important thing in your life, because in many ways, it is.