Self-love can sometimes feel impossible with depression. Here's how Dr. Jonathan Rottenberg learned to be more kind to himself.
When I was depressed, I felt that I was being punished. Did I deserve it?
When I was depressed, I withdrew from other people. Was I a terrible friend, spouse, and father?
When I was depressed, I could no longer do the things I did before. Was I a good-for-nothing?
When I was depressed, I had trouble thinking clearly. Was I stupid?
Depression can brilliantly teach you to be your own worst critic. It’s like you almost become adept at dishing out abuse to yourself. It becomes hard to have a balanced view of yourself. And self-love may seem hopelessly out of reach.
Yet, self-love is important. Research has shown that practicing self-compassion may help to reduce self-criticism and even decrease depression symptoms.
I somehow opened myself up to self-compassion during a phase of recovery, after I’d managed to dig myself out of depression. On my better days, I even say that I’ve gained self-love.
But how did I turn it around? How can you learn to love yourself if you struggle with depression?
No formula is guaranteed to work for everyone. But I reconstructed five key steps that helped take me in the right direction.
Realizing I actually had a choice in how to treat myself was pivotal.
I spent a lot of time during my depression working on relationships with my friends, fiancé, and family. I spent nearly zero time trying to improve my relationship with myself… when it was arguably the most important relationship of all.
I had no idea how to make things better, but knowing that it was possible to make a change was a big breakthrough.
The next step in improving my relationship with myself was to take a fresh look at what I routinely said to myself. My words were often petty, cruel, unforgiving, and downright inaccurate.
I asked two new questions. Would I talk to a friend this way? Would I have any friends left if I did? The obvious answer to both questions was no.
I knew I couldn’t banish self-criticism all at once. So, I decided to make a smaller change instead. I checked whether my tone gave me the same respect that I offered others.
Sometimes I caught myself being rude to myself, and I stopped it right there. Other times I just tried to find a way to rephrase my self-criticism. Instead of saying, “I can’t do anything right!” I said, “This is frustrating. What help do I need to get this done?”
I can never be perfect. After all, no one is. And it was that realization that helped me to tone down my constant self-criticism.
I took a step back and woke up to the fact that depression is part of who I am. This baggage is inconvenient, yet my flaws and history are what make me unique.
Lots of people struggle with emotional pain, physical pain, trauma, or a difficult childhood. We are all works in progress, and we all have our unique set of flaws and blind spots.
With this in mind, I tried to be a little more compassionate to everyone in my life — including myself! That was another baby step toward self-love.
Knowing that everyone struggles helped me to reframe my journey with depression. I started to feel proud of what I’d been through. Maybe someone who struggled through years of depression — like me — deserved a little more patience and even kindness.
I used to think, “I’m a failure.” Or, “I’m broken.” Now I think, “I’ve survived a lot and have the bumps and bruises to prove it.”
I realized that I could never truly love myself if I only changed my way of thinking. Did my actions show that I respected myself and prioritized my needs? What was I actually doing to show that I cared about my mind and my body?
Everyone’s loving actions are different. For me, self-loving actions included:
These actions proved that I could do more than just talk about self-love. I could actually walk the walk.
I know that I’m far from being an expert at self-love. I still fall down all the time. But I get up.
I’m now convinced that change is possible, although it’s not necessarily easy. But it can be absolutely life-changing to build a better relationship with yourself.
For more information on how to manage depression, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team.
NPS-US-NP-00501 May 2021
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