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How should we treat other people? Well, if you look at ancient traditions, they’re very often on the same page. Golden Rule for the win:
But there’s another question that gets a lot less attention:
How should you treat you?
On this subject we hear a lot of conflicting stuff. Some say confidence is critical and we should always be pumping ourselves up. Others say humility is key and we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. And some think we should be hard on ourselves in order to become the best we can be.
But I read something recently that really clicked. It actually made me stop and say, “Wow.”
Treat yourself as if you were someone you were responsible for helping.
Sure, you might be indulgent or impulsively do something you enjoy — but how often do you really approach yourself with the care and concern that you do for a friend in need, a beloved family member, an adorable pet, or a child in your care?
We’ll tell others they need to ask for help — but not reach out when we need it. We’ll be there for friends during difficult times — but not be as sympathetic with ourselves when the problems are our own. And all too often we believe in others when we don’t believe in ourselves.
Heck, even your car gets a tune up now and then but we have no such program of care and maintenance for our own lives.
And then I realized why this idea clicked with me so strongly: it’s supported by no small number of scientific studies.
Research by Kristin Neff, a professor at University of Texas at Austin, has shown something that you’ll probably intuitively agree with: you’re often far harder on yourself than others. Why is that?
Part of it comes down to neuroscience. Your brain is wired to care for friends in need. But that same system doesn’t naturally kick in when we beat ourselves up. When I spoke with Kristin, here’s what she said:
When a friend fails, you don’t feel threatened. You can easily access a part of your physiology: the care-giving system. As mammals we all have part of ourselves that is devoted to care-giving for a friend in need. But when I’m threatened my natural response is fight, flight or freeze. Now, of course, that system developed in order to protect our bodily self, but the problem is that when we fail, our self-concept gets threatened and our body reacts exactly the same way. When we feel threatened we can’t access the care-giving system. Our most immediate and strongest reaction is this fight or flight response. We fight the problem — which is ourselves. We attack ourselves, we judge ourselves, or we feel really isolated. In a way, I think that’s the reason it’s so much easier to be kind to others than ourselves, because we aren’t threatened by others’ problems. We are being hard on ourselves and we’re tapping into the reptilian brain as opposed to the more mature care-giving area.
So we can really benefit by treating ourselves like someone we’re responsible for helping.
Let’s look at three ways the research shows this perspective can lead to a better life — and to your best self…
Ever felt like the advice you give to others is smarter than the things you actually choose to do yourself? You’re not crazy…
In my interview with Duke professor Dan Ariely, he said you’re more likely to do the right thing if you take the “outside perspective” — in other words, if you ask yourself, “What advice would I give to someone else in this situation?”:
If I had to give advice across many aspects of life, I would ask people to take what’s called “the outside perspective.” And the outside perspective is easily thought about: “What would you do if you made the recommendation for another person?” And I find that often when we’re recommending something to another person, we don’t think about our current state and we don’t think about our current emotions. We actually think a bit more distant from the decision and often make the better decision because of that.
You wouldn’t let a close pal do something rash and stupid. So give yourself the advice you would a good friend — and then act on it.
The old saying is “love your neighbor as yourself.” But when it comes to making smart decisions, you also want to “love yourself as your neighbor.”
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
So treating yourself like a friend can help you make better choices. But what about when it comes to your health?
No, you don’t have to eat dog food. But the irony here is studies show people buy healthier food for their dogs than they do for themselves:
The survey results also show that dog owners are more serious about buying healthy dog food than buying healthy human food.
And they’re more likely to fill and use prescription medicine properly when it’s for their animal friends than for their own bodies:
People are better at filling and properly administering prescription medication to their pets than to themselves. That’s not good. Even from your pet’s perspective, it’s not good. Your pet (probably) loves you, and would be happier if you took your medication.
And I think we all know people who take a lot more walks and hikes because of their dog than they would if they didn’t have a furry friend.
So most of us would be a lot healthier if we treated our bodies like they belonged to the canine companions we’re responsible for.
(To learn the seven-step morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
So this one principle can help you make better decisions and make you healthier. What about happiness?
In her research, Kristin Neff found something that surprised her: being compassionate toward others and being compassionate with yourself aren’t linked. Shocking? Think about it for a second…
How often are you very nice to friends but very hard on yourself? Pretty often. Here’s Kristin:
I assumed that people who were higher in self-compassion would also be higher in compassion for others. Among undergraduates, at least, there’s zero correlation. At first I was surprised but then you start thinking about it and it makes sense because people are naturally a lot more compassionate to other people than they are to themselves.
And when you are mean to others it frequently gets corrected quickly — people fight back. But when you beat yourself up, whose job is it to defend you?
Exactly. The only voice in your head is yours.
You’re compassionate with others all the time. You need to start showing more self-compassion, and treating yourself the way you would a friend in need.
So how do you do it? Next time that voice in your head starts saying critical things, reframe the thoughts into something positive and forgiving.
The best way to counteract self-criticism, therefore, is to understand it, have compassion for it, and then replace it with a kinder response… Reframe the observations made by your inner critic in a kind, friendly, positive way.
Imagine someone who loves you (like Grandmom) saying the kind words. Research shows this delivers serious results.
Practitioners first instruct patients to generate an image of a safe place to help counter any fears that may arise. They are then instructed to create an ideal image of a caring and compassionate figure… The training resulted in significant reductions in depression, self-attacking, feelings of inferiority, and shame.
You need to dispute negative thoughts and reframe them into something positive. Every time that critical voice starts yammering, instead imagine Grandmom giving supportive advice.
As Kristin explains in her book:
Who is the only person in your life who is available 24/7 to provide you with care and kindness? You.
(To learn 6 rituals from ancient wisdom that will make you happy, click here.)
Okay, we’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it all up and see how this can make us motivated enough to actually get started…
This is how to be your best self:
So why don’t we follow through on much of the self-improvement advice we get? Why can’t we muster the motivation to do what we know will better our lives?
Part of it is because we really don’t like being told what to do.
Former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss says that people are much more likely to follow through on a plan when it’s their idea. And bestselling author Dan Pink says one of the keys to motivation is a feeling of autonomy. Here’s Dan:
Autonomy is, “Am I directing my own life, rather than being directed?” Autonomy is simply self direction. Giving people some sovereignty over what they do, when they do it, how they do it, where they do it, who they do it with.
So, luckily, this simple sentence is not only great advice but it also includes an antidote to that problem: “Treat yourself as if you were someone you were responsible for helping.”
Don’t do anything because I told you to. Do it because you told you to. Help yourself.
So take a second and think: what do you do to help someone when you really love them?
Okay, now show that love to yourself.
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