A licensed psychologist and neuropsychologist, Dr. Marsha Lucas, Ph.D. has a great deal to say about the importance of self-love. Lucas has been studying the brain-behavior relationship for nearly twenty years. A former faculty member at the Emory University School of Medicine, Lucas now practices in Washington, DC. Much of her research has been devoted to understanding how mindfulness stimulates the brain to grow new, more integrated circuits. In this growth, says Lucas, may be the secret of true human well-being, as well as more of the requisite empathy and connectedness we so desperately need in today's world.
As with many challenges in life, it is often difficult to identify problem areas and solutions when we lack the ability to look inwards with discernment.
I asked Dr. Lucas the following questions to help unmask the mysteries of self-love, and how mindfulness plays an integral role. You can read more in my book, Kensho, A Modern Awakening.
How can we genuinely gauge our level of self-love?
This may sound flip, but one relatively simple place to start is to listen in on the voice in your head. In terms of just everyday stuff, what do you hear? Keep a count of how many times a day - even how many times an hour or a minute - you say something judgmental, cruel, or harsh to yourself.
I'm not suggesting that the path to greater self-love is to tell yourself a bunch of Stuart Smalley-style affirmations. Rather, take a measure of how much compassion you show yourself. How much contempt do you hold over your own head? If I get lost while driving (which I'm phenomenally good at doing) and I feel my gut get tight, I check to see what I'm saying to myself. My automatic reaction used to be to berate myself in a way I'd never speak to a friend. Things like, 'What were you thinking? Why do you always have to get lost? This is your own neighborhood, for crying out loud!'
Now some people think that then the thing to do is just stop saying those things to yourself, to literally or metaphorically put a rubber band on your wrist and snap it hard whenever you catch yourself doing it. That, unfortunately, just keeps the same patterns going: 'Oh, man, there I go again with a mean message about myself. What the heck is wrong with me?!'
The answer is more along the lines of creating a new path -- quite literally, new pathways in your brain -- for how you relate to yourself and how you might better love yourself. And it does take practice, compassionate practice.
Is there a way that we can re-wire our brain to generate feelings of self-love?
Yes! Our capacity for healthy self-love depends in large part on what we learned when we were very young. The extremely good news is that your brain has the capacity to grow new pathways, and even new neurons, throughout your entire life. What prompts the brain to do this? That's the role of your experiences, including your thoughts.
Whenever you ask your brain to do more of something, it will commit more resources to building better, faster pathways to accomplish it. If you practice piano, for example, it builds more pathways in the sensory-motor cortex, the part of your brain that controls your hands and finger movements. If you practice driving around a major city center, the pathways for your visuospatial skills bulk up and get more efficient. So you have to practice being more attuned to yourself, as a parent attunes to a child, and reacting to what you find within yourself in contingent ways. As a result, you'll have beefier, more luxuriant brain pathways, allowing you to achieve a healthier, more loving attachment to both yourself and others.
There is a rapidly growing body of scientific research on how the brain changes in response to meditation, and I encourage everyone to learn more about this work. My book Rewire Your Brain for Love explores how we developed our current relationship wiring, and how to modify it through mindfulness meditation.
Can you suggest a simple exercise that may assist us in boosting our feelings of self-love?
Here are a couple of simple exercises although they're not necessarily easy. So be kind to yourself as you practice them:
1. Basic mindfulness meditation.
There are many great resources for how to practice mindfulness meditation which is a practice of attention to the present moment as you experience it. It's a very well-developed system, refined over the course of 2,500 years in the Buddhist tradition, but I hasten to add that no religion is required. You also don't need to be able to 'clear your mind' or get rid of all thoughts. It's the noticing of the thoughts we naturally have and then gently bringing our attention back to the moment that seems to bring about the rewiring we're after.
2. Metta (loving-kindness) meditation
This is another simple practice for increasing self-love. It is a practice by which you progress from yourself, for example, to a mentor, then to an acquaintance, then to a person whom you find to be difficult, on to a community of people, and then back to yourself. For each of these, you practice generating love and compassion by focusing your thoughts on statements of compassion, such as 'May you know peace.' There are excellent resources on how to practice metta meditation.