What comes to mind when you hear the word “relationship?”
For most people, this word brings up images of couples, families, or friends interacting with each other. That makes sense, considering relationships with other people are a big, and extremely important part of our lives and our well-being. However, I believe that there is one relationship that is quite important for our well-being but doesn’t get as much attention: our relationships with ourselves.
You Can’t Get Away from Yourself
Think about this for a moment: would you say you treat yourself with the same love, kindness, and respect as you treat a close friend or a loved one in your life? According to researcher Kristin Neff, most people tend to be much harder on themselves than they are on others.
The challenge we often run into is this: while it is easier to select the kind of people we want to spend time with and avoid the ones we don’t, we are bound to ourselves. So, while you may choose to spend time with a friend who is kind and fun and avoid the one who can’t stop complaining about everything that’s wrong with her life, you can’t get out of spending time with yourself. Now, even though you may temporarily escape yourself by binge-watching Netflix or drowning yourself in alcohol or something else, deep down, you know that that’s not the best way to live. It might serve you better to learn how to be a better friend to yourself, to become someone you don’t need to escape from.
How to Be a Better Friend to Yourself
How might you do that? While there are numerous ways to develop a healthier relationship with yourself, one simple way is to follow what Dr. John Gottman refers to as a magic ratio that makes love last. In his extensive research on romantic relationships, Dr. Gottman has found that a 5:1 ratio between positive and negative interactions between couples is a strong predictor of whether the couple will stay together. In other words, couples end up staying together if, on an ongoing basis, for each argument or negative interaction they have with each other, they have at least 5 pleasant or positive interactions.
Now reflect on this for your own relationship with yourself. What is the ratio of positive to negative interactions you have with yourself?
If the ratio is low, consider this. You cannot divorce yourself, so that’s like being stuck in an unhappy marriage for the rest of your life. To make matters worse, unlike in a marriage, in this case, you have no one to blame but yourself!
Increasing Positive Interactions with Yourself
Let’s say you didn’t want to end up that way. What you may want to do is start increasing the number of positive interactions you have with yourself on a regular basis. This can be accomplished in various ways – you could think about the specific actions you take to show someone else that you care about them, and turn some of those inward. For example, if you express your love by spending quality time with someone, you could set aside some dedicated time for self-care.
In addition to what you come up with on your own, here are three of my favorite evidence-based ways that can help you increase the number of positive interactions you have with yourself, thereby nurturing your relationship with yourself:
- Say “I love you!” to yourself everyday. If you’re squirming at the thought of doing this, you’re definitely not alone. I came across this practice through a TEDx talk by Shauna Shapiro, and when I started trying it out, it felt extremely awkward and uncomfortable. With practice, though, it started feeling more natural. I find it to be one of the simplest, quickest to have a positive interaction with myself.
- It’s easier to have positive interactions when we’re in a good mood. However, there are times when we really need some love and compassion because we’re experiencing distress. Researcher Kristin Neff offers a variety of tools to practice self-compassion, and taking a self-compassion break is a simple and effective strategy. Neff recommends a 3-step process to take such a break:
- Acknowledge that you’re experiencing suffering (“This is a moment of suffering.”)
- Remind yourself that everyone experiences suffering (“Suffering is a part of life.”)
- Remind yourself to be kind to yourself, saying something that would bring you comfort (“May I learn to accept myself as I am.”)
- Having a positive interaction doesn’t mean that you must experience positive emotions all the time. Have you had an experience when someone sat with you in your discomfort, not trying to cheer you up or change anything but simply letting you feel what you needed to feel, before you were ready to move on? Chances are, such experiences enriched your relationship with that person. You can do the same for yourself. Researcher Susan David talks about the skill of emotional agility, which enables you to take a flexible approach, accepting and learning from all your emotions rather than trying to avoid the challenging ones. This is a more complex skill to develop compared to the other two, but it can truly transform your relationship with yourself.
As you may have realized, there is a range of activities you can do in order to nurture your relationship with yourself keeping a simple ratio of 5:1 as a guiding principle. If you believe there is room for improvement in the way you treat yourself, I encourage you to start with something, whether big or small, that helps you treat yourself with a little more love, kindness, and acceptance.
Benson, K. (2017, October). The magic relationship ratio, according to science.
David, S. (2017, November). The gift and power of emotional courage [Video file].
Neff, K. (2013, February). The space between self-esteem and self compassion [Video file].
Neff, K. (n.d.). Self-compassion break.
Shapiro, S. (2017, September). The power of mindfulness: What you practice grows stronger [Video file].