In my practice, I encourage an exploration of one's personal values. This is a very common thing among practitioners as it is a very uncommon thing in society. Our society, rather than encouraging each person to explore what's important to them, tells us all what's important and they tend to be "things" or "goals" rather than values. In psychotherapy, bringing out the values people want to live by, helps ground people and aids in decision-making. One form of therapy, ACT Therapy, devotes one-third of it's model toward living a values-driven life. Naikan therapy is 100% values-driven. Its goal is to imbue one's life with gratitude.
I've written about values in many other posts, but in short, as one of my clients stated so clearly, "goals go away, values stick around." And that is one of the very important reasons we need them to be an ingrained part of how we live our lives. If I'm currently feeling fat or chubby (and I am), if I begin living each day with the goal of losing ten pounds, what happens after I lose ten pounds? I might feel the glow of that for a while, and it isn't something to discount at all, but what will that mean after a year?
Values are the things we want to live by that continue to enrich our lives after a year, two years, ten years, and not just for a few days after we've met a goal.
One thing I try not to do with clients is to do the same thing society, their parents, and most everyone else has done throughout their lives -- which is to tell them what to do. I try to identify themes that they bring up, and then when it's time to identify values, I reflect back to them some of the things they have brought up in our discussions. This usually works well.
So while I encourage anyone who wants to explore their own hierarchy of values to do so independent of my explication, I want to share what I've come to believe is the most important value for me to live my life by: loving my true self. This isn't narcissistic love, which is actually a form of self-hatred, a reaction to wounding during the early developmental stages. While the self-absorption of narcissistic love presents itself as someone who only "cares" about herself, this isn't care so much as it is an obsessive drive to manifest an idealized version of one's self. Narcissistic absorption is the opposite of loving one's true self (Horney, 1950).
What does it take to love oneself?
Loving one's actual self is a long process. The most difficult part of the process is seeing that most of the time we are actually trying to manifest an idealized version of ourselves rather than our true selves. The idealized version can come across in three basic styles: expansive, self-effacing, and resigned. Expansive types want to master their lives and others. They may be perfectionists, live lifestyles to try and feel superior to others, or be generally hostile to others. Self-effacing are the opposite, though still driven by an underlying reaction to self-hate. They put others above them and see themselves as less-than in most circumstances. Finally, there is the resigned type who rather than try to master life, or give oneself entirely to external forces, they check-out of life and refuse to engage with it.
Underneath these self-hating process is an actual self. The actual self is flawed, vulnerable, but also wanting to be actualized and live a life of continual growth. The self-hating processes are pessimistic. The self-loving processes are optimistic. Where self-hate is cynical and misanthropic, self-love is hopeful and generous. As long as the self-hating processes are largely running the show, growth is stunted and the actual self cannot emerge. Because of this, I believe that love of one's actual self is the most important value to live by.
Before Brene Brown
Karen Horney's "Neurosis and Human Growth," expounds on these ideas with a clarity that unfortunately is overlooked by most modern psychology. Before the popular vulnerability talks of Brene Brown, there was Karen Horney. Dr. Horney developed a theory of personality that I believe is strongly relevant still today. Yes, vulnerability is a critical component to human growth. Brene Brown is completely correct about this. However, the approach of Brene Brown feels to me like a watered-down version of the more accurate theories of Karen Horney.
Beyond being vulnerable, there's a lot more work that has to be done to help the actual self emerge -- and how do you do that?
Much of the work is understanding the self-hating processes operating inside ourselves so that we can challenge them, or at least notice when they are operating. This is where a good therapist can help. A good therapist should be able to help bring these self-destructive processes to light and help you to start noticing when they occur so that you may work to slowly dissolve them, or at least minimize their impact on your life.
Beyond that, self-hating processes must be replaced with self-loving, or self-caring processes. This might start out as something as small as brushing your teeth longer, or walking an extra block to work. During these self-loving activities, it's a opportune time to be very aware that you are doing it as an act of caring for oneself. Rather than make it another "should" or "have to," it’s important that the spirit of the activities align with the spirit of love you want to have for yourself.
Other values are excellent counterparts to loving one's actual self. For example, while I embrace the idea of gratitude, and try to manifest it regularly, it can also be easy for self-effacing types to use it as a defense against actually bringing out their actual selves and growing. Kindness is another fantastic value that for the same reason as gratitude, takes a seat beneath love of one's actual self in my hierarchy of values.
In short, becoming our actual, self-loving self involves:
Being willing to be open, or vulnerable, so that we can grow
Working with a therapist to understand our neurosis, or self-hating processes
Practicing awareness of when self-destructive processes are operating
Working diligently to replace self-harming processes with self-loving processes.
This is a very simplified summary of the path one might take to move away from self-hate and toward self-love. Each person takes a unique path and the process has no end. Like any practice, it must continue in order for it to bear fruit. This is why I encourage anyone and everyone to find a therapist that they like working with and forge a therapeutic relationship for the long walk ahead.
Horney, K. (1950). Neurosis and human growth: The struggle toward self-realization. New York: Norton.