Most people like receiving thanks for what they do, and for who they are. In fact, many of us feel annoyed, taken for granted and grumpy if our efforts or gifts aren’t met with thanks. Marriages break up because one spouse doesn’t feel appreciated by the other. Parents and children, siblings and siblings, friends and colleagues fall out because people think their efforts aren’t appreciated.
We want the words, but we also want to feel appreciated.
Yet there’s one person we hardly ever ask to give us appreciation, and it’s the person most easily available to do it.
We even go so far as to think it’s wrong for this person to give us appreciation, and for us to receive it. Many of us actively resist receiving appreciation from this person, believing:
- it will mean we are big-headed, a show-off or just generally obnoxious.
- if we get it, other people won’t like us.
- it wouldn’t mean as much as it would from other people.
Of course, the person I’m taking about is yourself.
Why is it we find it so hard to appreciate ourselves, to give ourselves what we want from other people?
Our excuses for not appreciating ourselves exploded. Tweet
Will it really mean we are big-headed, a show-off or just generally obnoxious?
This belief assumes that if we appreciate ourselves, it means we think we’re better than other people.
It might. But it doesn’t have to.
I can appreciate my cat or my children, my mother, my husband, sisters and friends without thinking they are better than other people (or cats!) I can even say, “You are the best mum in the world,” to mine and know that everyone else thinks the same about their mother.
I used to tell my daughters, “You are my favourite three-year-old,” or “four-year-old,” (or whatever age they were.) I never once thought that meant they were superior to every other three or four-year-old on the planet. I just knew they were my particular favourite!
Yet imagine saying to yourself, “You’re the best…!” Or: “You’re my favourite… anything!”
Big head! Narcissist.
In the article, Self-Appreciation: The Flip Side of Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff says: Another fear is the perception of being vain. Nobody likes a narcissist — except the narcissist.
Do you balance on a tightrope, trying to feel good about yourself, whilst also caring about others? Do you fear stepping too far off the tightrope in case you fall over into arrogance, become insufferable? Yet, I’ll bet you are willing to fall the other way into self-deprecation or even self-hatred.
Your fear arises because of confusion between self-esteem and self-compassion. In her book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, Neff points out that most of us chase after self esteem, striving to be ‘above average’ better than others. This creates a sense of separation. Self-compassion, on the other hand, emphasises our common humanity. The antidote to that sense of separation is to value everyone. Here’s Neff again: we appreciate ourselves not because we’re better than others, but because all people have goodness in them.
So just as I can adore my cat for her cuteness and cuddliness, I can appreciate my own kindness towards her. Just as I feel deep gratitude for a phone call from a friend at a difficult time, I can appreciate my own willingness to support people through difficult times.
Will other people like you better if you don’t like yourself?
The weird thing is that when we attack ourselves, we hope other people will appreciate us for it. We believe that if we like ourselves other people won’t, but if we don’t like ourselves, other people will. Neff also identifies a related fear that used to be habitual for me, and that I still catch myself indulging every now and then. She writes: Underplaying our good points means that we’re more likely to pleasantly surprise others by doing well rather than disappoint them by doing poorly.
Women are reputedly prone to this; for example apologising before making suggestions at meetings. We say things like: “I’m not an expert, so of course this might not be of value… I might not have the full picture, but…”
I’ve also heard that women in writers’ groups apologise before they read out their work. “It’s just a first draft.” “This is just a silly piece I wrote.” And so on.
My experience in writers’ groups? Well, I’m not an expert, and I apologise because I haven’t done a study so I might not have the full picture, but yes, I have not only noticed other women do this, but I catch myself doing it sometimes too! (I have also noticed the odd man do it.)
The consensus is that women get called bitchy if we don’t couch our language in apologies and deference. Girls are called “bossy” more often than boys. Writing in The Guardian, Jill Filipovic says: behind the hostility toward women who are seen as aggressive or self-promotional – is a regressive view of what a woman should be.
Most of us grow up trying to be “good” and for girls, even more than for boys, that can mean suppressing our natural abilities and putting ourselves down. We watch for signs of bossiness in ourselves (which includes being assertive) and we try to stamp them out. We get used to putting ourselves down. It becomes a habit.
For all of us, female and male, self-hatred is an attempt to get love. Because we judge ourselves as not good enough, our opinion doesn’t count as much as other people’s. When we were children and our parents punished us, we accepted their opinion that we were bad. We had little option, because we were dependent on them. Badly abused children often don’t speak up because they accept the adult’s view that they deserved the treatment, and because they want whatever connection they can get, even if it hurts. Psychologists describe the shame children experience from abuse as creating a “damaged self.” Abuse doesn’t have to be physical or sexual – emotional abuse also shames, as can other forms of trauma.*
So the first thing to realise is – your self-hatred is not based on anything factually true about you. It doesn’t mean you are unlovable, just that you have had experiences, most likely as a young child, that led you to believe that.
Will disliking yourself make other people like you more?
While nobody likes a narcissist, and people do enjoy someone who can laugh at themselves, you need a level of self-acceptance to be able to do that. Appreciating yourself won’t make you into an arrogant fool, but not appreciating yourself is unlikely to get you the appreciation you’d like from others. It’s more likely to do the opposite.
First, when we attack ourselves, we are subtly inviting others to do the same. The most graphic instance I experienced of this was when my children were little, and out of the blue, one of them kicked me. Except it wasn’t really out of the blue – I had been mentally beating myself all day long. I actually felt grateful when I realised this – my daughter’s kick jolted me out of the thought pattern I’d been stuck in. But it’s better not to wait till someone kicks you to realise what you are doing.
So often we compare ourselves to other people and think they are better than us. They seem more confident, more organised or just “more.”
There are several reasons not to do this. First, it doesn’t make us happy. Second, you aren’t comparing like with like. A few weeks ago I wrote a post about how insane it is to judge another person’s parenting style because we don’t know what occurs in people’s lives to make them react as they do. It’s equally insane to look at other people apparently doing better than us, and to assume we aren’t good enough. We only know the part of their lives that is visible – the outside. We know our own inside, including ever bitter, spiteful, selfish or miserable thought we’ve ever had. So let go of comparing your inside to someone else’s outside.
Besides, so what if someone else works harder or has more positive thoughts than you do? How does punishing yourself for not being them help you? How does not appreciating your own qualities and actions make you more like who you’d like to be? When I trained as a high school teacher, we learned that a very effective discipline method was to notice and praise a disruptive pupil when they were behaving in a way you wanted them to. The same applies to ourselves.
Are you doing others a favour by not appreciating yourself?
Sometimes people think that by not appreciating themselves they are doing others a favour. But really you aren’t. Have you ever had the experience of being with a friend who feels angry with someone else yet blows off steam at you? Anger and hatred spill out – even if your anger is directed inward, it may come towards the people closest to you.
I’ll illustrate this with a couple of examples.**
Julia is running late for school. Her mother asks if she has eaten breakfast.
Julia yells, “Quit bugging me.”
Julia is actually annoyed at herself for staying up late and not getting organised, but she thinks if she admits this, her mother will agree she is flawed. If Julia’s mother takes what she said at face value, she’s likely to react with irritation, and a full scale argument ensues, leaving both of them feeling hurt, angry and inadequate.
Adam is away on a fishing trip with friends. When he rings home, his wife says the kids are sick and the air conditioning isn’t working. She can’t find the instruction manual and asks him if he knows where it is. Adam wishes he was home to help, but instead of saying so, he says, “Well you’re not the only one having a tough time. At least you’re dry. It poured last night and the tent leaked so I’ve caught a cold too!” His wife has no idea he feels guilty, and snaps back at him, leaving him feeling even worse.
Not appreciating yourself really doesn’t help others. It keeps us stuck in the cycle of blame and shame – wanting to lash out to stop the attack coming towards us. In The Mindful Way Through Depression, Williams, Teasdale, Segal and Kabat-Zinn point out that when we feel under stress in any way, our flight or fight response is activated. Self-criticism intensifies this response. Self-compassion and self- appreciation calm our nervous system, reducing our desire for flight or fight.
It’s okay to appreciate yourself
It’s okay to appreciate ourselves. And far from making us think we’re better than anyone else, the more we genuinely appreciate ourselves the easier it becomes to appreciate others.
This isn’t an invitation to put on a fake smile and say, “I’m great and you’re great too.”
It’s an invitation to go deeper into who you really are, to what is beyond both pain and joy. It’s an invitation to give yourself the appreciation you wish someone else had given you, instead of harboring resentment.
Oddly enough, feeling gratitude often starts with allowing that resentment. This morning, I was cleaning up in the kitchen and feeling irked that everyone else had gone off leaving dishes around. I wanted to get on with writing, but I also didn’t want the mess. I felt rushed and my irritation grew. Then I remembered the welcoming practice I use, and I allowed myself to feel resentment, without judging myself for it. As soon as I’d done that, the resentment eased and then I remembered the self-appreciation practice I have developed recently. When I want appreciation for something, I give it to myself, so I could feel grateful to myself for clearing up.
I also noticed how my mind was racing, imagining the morning disappear amid cleaning and putting on a load of washing, leaving no time to write. I realized that not focusing on what I was doing right then would delay things and leaving me feeling scattered when I sat down to write, making it harder to concentrate then too. So I let go.
A few moments later, I was cleaning the cooker, which I hadn’t even intended to do. And I was happy.
That is power of self-appreciation.
The more we appreciate ourselves the easier it becomes to appreciate others.Tweet
*If you have experienced trauma or abuse, you may need more support than this article alone can give you and you deserve that support. Whatever terrible things you believe about yourself, they aren’t true. You are lovable and worthwhile. I advise you to find a qualified counsellor, therapist or coach.
**Names changed and to preserve the anonymity of others, these examples are composites of several incidents.