How to use visualisation to boost your self-love

happy-and-confident_smallLots of people use visualisation. The most popular way is to visualise what you want. Some people picture their ideal house, their ideal car, or a perfect partner who ticks all the boxes, for instance.

The idea with this kind of visualisation is to picture what you want, the end result. It’s also useful to picture yourself in the visualisation; living in the house, driving the car, or with the perfect partner.

There’s a different kind of visualisation you can do for self-love, though. It’s centred on the fact that your muscles are in constant communication with your brain.

Why is that important?

Before I get into that, I’d first like to say what I mean by self-love. You can think ‘self-esteem’ instead of self-love if you prefer that term. The main reason I use the term self-love rather than self-esteem is that many people get their self-esteem from external sources, from their seeming successes in life and from other people’s positive opinions of them. But it’s not a stable self-esteem because failure, or a change in people’s opinions, give it a serious shake.

I think of self-love, on the other hand, as an inner sense of worthiness and value. It’s more of an inner self-esteem. It’s mostly independent of successes, achievements and external perceptions of you. It is stable, because if seeming failure occurs or opinions seem to change, the inner perception of yourself is untouched.

OK, so let’s get back to why it’s important that your muscles are in constant communication with your brain.

When you’re lacking in self-love, it comes across in your body language and in your facial expressions. Not all the time, of course, but especially when you’re challenged. This happens because your muscles are connected to your brain. It’s the same reason that your muscles and face tense when you feel stressed, or that your body feels light and floppy when you’re in love, and that you smile when you’re happy. In real ways, you wear your feelings on your body.

But it goes the other way too. Just as your body responds to how you feel, you can use your body to create how you want to feel. Making adjustment to how you sit, stand, how you move, and to your facial muscles, quickly impacts your feelings. A consistent practice of adjusting how you hold and move your body, so that it says, “I love myself,” or “I am enough,” or something else along those lines, can impact your self-love by literally creating the wiring of self-love in the brain.

More than this, though, is that your brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. When you imagine moving your muscles, your brain processes it as if you actually are moving your muscles. Elite athletes and rehabilitation specialists use this fact all the time.

When you imagine holding and moving your body in way that says you have self-love, your brain processes it as if you do have self-love. The key difference between this and ‘classical’ visualisation (of the sort I mentioned at the beginning of this blog), is that you don’t put all your focus on an end result. Instead, you visualise the posture and movement of your body.

As you do this consistently, your brain wires in the habit of holding and moving your body in that way. As this happens, you start to feel the feelings that go with this new body posture and these new ways of moving. With enough consistent practice, the feelings of “I love myself,” or “I am enough,” or something along these lines, becomes habit too.

So to get started, simply notice right now how you’re holding your body. Is your body tense or relaxed? Is your spine straight or slumped? How about your facial muscles? Are you smiling or frowning? Is your brow relaxed or furrowed? Then make some shifts.

Do this as often as you can remember to.

Watch what happens!

 

Want to check out ‘I Heart Me School’? Watch the video. Click here to find out more.

The 4 Components of Emotion

Most of us think of emotion purely as a feeling. We might feel happy or sad, for instance, or love, joy, or grief. But there is much more to emotion than a feeling. Emotion is really smeared all over and all throughout the body.

The diagram below shows how this is so.

4 components of emotion
Reproduced from ‘I HEART Me: The Science of Self-Love’

Let me explain. When you feel an emotion, a pattern of brain chemistry follows it. For example, happiness is often accompanied by changes in serotonin, dopamine and even endogenous opiates (the brain’s own versions of morphine). If you then feel a different emotion, brain chemistry shifts to a pattern that reflects your new emotion. Brain chemistry alters in response to how you feel at any moment. So far so good.

Your emotions also affect your muscles. You smile when you feel happy while stress causes your brow to crease and your shoulders to tense. These muscle movements are not conscious choices you make. They are like reflex reactions because your muscles are in communication with emotional centres of your brain.

Emotions also play tunes throughout the autonomic nervous system (ANS). OK, they don’t actually play tunes but I like the sound of that expression. I basically mean that your ANS responds to your emotional state. This is why an emotion is technically smeared all over your body. Your ANS connects your brain to your heart and other organs in your chest, your abdomen and pelvis, and also to your eyes, larynx, and through your blood vessels and sweat glands to your skin.

Via the ANS, your skin actually responds moment-by-moment to the contents of your mind. Let’s say you have a stressful or worrisome thought, for instance. Your skin starts to sweat. It’s quite obvious when you feel really stressed and your palms become moist. But even a little stressful thought causes micro amounts of sweating. In fact, this is the basis of the polygraph (lie-detector) test. When a person tells a lie and knows it’s a lie, the tiny (or large) amount of emotional stress they feel increases sweating. This is detected by sensors that measure the electrical conductance of the skin. When there’s sweating, conductance goes up!

So you can see how emotions are connected with brain chemistry, muscles, and all throughout the autonomic nervous system. And the connection is ‘bi-directional’, meaning ‘both ways’. Just as emotions affect chemistry, muscles, and the ANS, so chemistry, muscles, and the ANS affect emotions.

Here’s a few examples. That brain chemistry affects emotions is the basis for the pharmaceutical model of treating depression and other psychiatric disorders. If serotonin can be increased, for instance, it can cause a person to feel happier. Similarly, low levels of EPA or DHA (omega-3 fatty acids) following childbirth has been linked with post-natal (partum) depression where higher levels seem to have antidepressant effects.

We can also use our muscles to affect our emotions. Straightening your spine, relaxing your shoulders and breathing comfortably can boost mood and confidence. Smiling on purpose can also improve mood. It is the basis of laughter yoga.

Changes in ANS activity affect emotion too. The ANS has two components. There’s the sympathetic strand, which is the fight-or-flight part. It’s the bit that’s active when we feel stress or worry. Then there’s the parasympathetic strand, which is the rest-and-relax part. People who are stressed or worry a lot have more activity in the sympathetic portion and less activity in the parasympathetic portion.

Conscious breathing exercises (like meditation, yoga, Tai Chi) are a good way to increase parasympathetic function, and with the increase in parasympathetic function we tend to see an increase in positive emotion, coupled with a decrease in negative emotion.

So not only does emotion affect chemistry, muscles, and the ANS, but chemistry, muscles, and the ANS affect emotion. That’s what the double arrows in the diagram mean.

You can see why we can’t actually disentangle emotion from the brain or body and that we really can think of emotion as ‘smeared’ all over and throughout the body.

In some ways, we can start to think of the body and mind as a single thing – the bodymind – where changes in the mind affect the body and changes in the body affect the mind, with neither operating independently of the other, but rather operating as a single holistic entity.

The magic of vulnerability

Oscar, my labrador dog
Oscar

I have found myself crying on stage a few times recently. One of these times was a couple of weeks ago in front of an audience of around 400 people at Hay House’s ‘I Can Do It! Ignite!’ conference in London.

I was speaking about my latest book, ‘I Heart Me: The Science of Self-Love’ and that having the courage to show our vulnerabilities is a big part of self-love.

I was sharing how I had learned about vulnerability from personal experience last year, from when Oscar, my beloved 2-year-old Labrador, was diagnosed with cancer through until he passed away in November. I had known about the academic research around vulnerability but life sometimes has a way of giving us a more personal experience of what we think we know.

I was sharing with the audience what had happened following Oscar’s diagnosis, about how my pain had deepened my relationships with the people around me. I shared a particular example involving my Dad, of how he opened up in a way I hadn’t known before as he witnessed my raw pain. But as I spoke about Oscar on stage that day, the raw pain of losing him rose to the surface of my mind and I began to cry.

My old self would have found crying in front of so many people highly embarrassing so I would have gulped down some deep breaths, maybe cleared my throat and pretended to look at the ceiling, all to hide my emotion. I would have tried to ‘Man up’.

But I’ve learned not to hide who I am any more. It’s a legacy of having had Oscar in my life, of having had the privilege of being his Daddy for those two short years. He taught me so very much, including the importance of being myself regardless of what anyone thinks.

It’s funny how, through my tears, while I tried to teach about the importance of vulnerability and the magic it produces, the audience were given a practical demonstration. What I most remember was the overwhelming empathy from the audience members. Some leaned forwards. Some also welled up with tears as they shared my pain as if it was theirs. Many spoke with me afterwards and offered their own experiences of loss, and in our conversations we found some common ground.

What I was trying to explain during my talk was that vulnerability not only opens us up but it opens others up too. It gives them permission to share what’s in their hearts. It gives them permission to be themselves, without any pretence. What I could see was that my own vulnerability had helped others to show their natural selves, that part of us that, no matter what is going on in our lives, we still reach out and help someone in pain, and we realise that doing so feels oh so right, that this is who we are, this is what it’s all about.

On that stage, I was privilege to a display of the kindness of empathy that I am deeply grateful for and that I will never forget.

In moments of vulnerability, people don’t judge us. They support us. The fear of being judged, or embarrassed, derives from feeling that we will be exposed, alone, rejected. To move past this fear, vulnerability takes courage.

Humans have a biological need to connect with each other. It’s a legacy of our evolution, where our ancient ancestors learned that to survive and thrive we needed to form strong bonds with each other. Over time, genes that make connecting with other people healthy and feel good found their way into the human genome. It’s nature’s way of ensuring the continuance of life. Nowadays, we simply need to connect with other people. It is a biological need. It lies deep in our genes and deep in the human psyche.

It’s why research shows that connecting with others is good for our hearts, our minds, our immune systems, and it even helps us live longer.

But in the human psyche, the need to be connected gives birth to a deep fear… the fear of not being connected, of being rejected, shunned, alone. This is why we’re afraid of showing our vulnerabilities. It’s not just that we’re afraid of being judged or embarrassed, deeper than that is the fear that we will be rejected, because if we’re rejected we won’t be connected.

Being rejected is like a threat to our very survival. It’s why it feels so scary and hurts so much.

This is the underlying reason why we hold back from showing our vulnerabilities, even of letting people see our true selves. How often do we just show our good sides and avoid any reference to our ‘wobbly’ bits?

The truth is, though, so long as we’re holding back from being our true, authentic selves, it is not actually possible to service our deep biological need for connection. The only way we can truly service the biological need for connection is to be ourselves, our whole selves, and that often means to find the courage to show our vulnerabilities, or at least let them surface and don’t bury them inside.

It’s a no-brainer, really. Think about it. Do you feel more connected to the people who know you best, who know about your successes and failures, your delights and your tantrums, your ups and your downs, who know you when you’re happy and also when you’re sad, who have witnessed some of your vulnerable moments, or to the people whom you hide most of this from and only show your ‘best side’ to?

The thing is, vulnerability is our best side. It’s our human side. Everyone has fears, worries, concerns, everybody feel insecure at times, everybody worries whether they will be liked or accepted.

Vulnerability takes courage, but the courage returns connection. And, of course, there is always the risk of rejection. But it’s more important that we express ourselves than hide ourselves.

The courage to be vulnerable is a massive statement of self-love. It says, “This is who I am, World, just as I am. Right now, in this moment, I don’t need you or anyone else to like me or even to approve of me. This is me, as I am, and I know that I am enough.”

Vulnerability doesn’t call for you to be an open book, of course. It only asks that you not be afraid to be yourself, just as you are, and that you understand that being yourself is most definitely, absolutely enough.

Use your body to change how you feel

Power Pose
Leading an audience in a Power Pose at Anita Moorjani’s Being Myself workshop in London, Feb 28 2015.

If you’ve read ‘I Heart Me’ recently you’ll be very familiar with Power Posing. It’s a simple way of using your posture to change how you feel.

Research at Harvard University led by Amy Cuddy found that just a couple of minutes standing in a Power Pose, like Wonder Woman, (OK, if you’re a male let’s go for Superman) could dramatically alter your body chemistry.

Basically, your muscles are connected to your brain. Notice that when you feel happy you smile. You don’t feel happy and then remember that you’re supposed to smile. The muscles on your face do that automatically because they are connected to your brains’ emotional areas.

Similarly, when you feel stressed you don’t suddenly remember you’re supposed to frown or tense your shoulders. These things happen automatically because your muscles are connected to emotional regions in your brain.

What most people don’t realise is that it goes the other way as well. Just as a feeling causes responses in your body, so holding your body in a certain way affects how you feel. It’s one of the reasons why laughter yoga is so popular. It works! And it does so because laughter actually produces positive emotion at the neurological level.

It’s like ‘fake it until you make it’. But please note, when I say fake it I’m meaning to do it on purpose, wholeheartedly; not as a pretense that everything is hunky dory in your life.

There’s a world of difference between smiling or laughing to pretend that everything is OK when it’s not, and smiling and laughing on purpose with an awareness that doing so can actually change your emotional state.

At Harvard, Amy Cuddy found that standing in a Power Pose for just a couple of minutes increased hormones associated with confidence by 20% and lowered cortisol (a stress hormone) by 25%.

I have found that power posing is a really great way of actually ‘wiring-in’ self-love. It was one of my key practices during my self-love project.

When we find ourselves lacking in self-love, whether it’s in a testing situation, around certain people, in particular environments, or if we feel self-conscious in any way, we wear the feeling on our body. But if we practice holding and moving our bodies in a way that says, ‘I am enough’, ‘I matter’, ‘I am important’, ‘I’m worth it’, or some other version of these, the practice quite quickly affects how you feel and therefore how you function in these environments and around these people.

During my work on self-love, I found it very useful to practice it for only a couple of minutes in the morning just after I got up and before I took shower or had breakfast.

The brain is ‘neuroplastic’, which means it’s always changing. It changes in response to what you learn, what you do, what you experience, but also on account of what you think and, importantly, how you hold and move your body. Learning ‘I am enough’ body language is a sure-fire way of altering the emotional architecture of the brain, specifically in the areas that control how we feel about ourselves.

Think of the practice like going to the Self-Love Gym (that’s what I call it in the book). Just as going to the gym to exercise makes your muscles grow, so doing a regular self-love practice like power posing makes the self-love areas of your brain grow.

Have a go. Try it on for size and see if the simple exercise fits.

The Acceptance Paradox

caterpillar to butterflyWhatever you accept begins to change. That’s the acceptance paradox in a nutshell.

I first started thinking about it after the first deadline for my self-love book. I’d worked on the book (and on myself) for about 8 months but I’d tried to write it in the same way I’d written my seven previous books. I’d know a little or a lot about a subject and then find scientific evidence to back it up.

I’d written on the mind-body connection. I knew, initially from my time as a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry, about the placebo effect and I also knew that meditation had physiological and neurological effects. I knew that people sometimes healed because of a belief or through a shift in their emotional state. So I found scientific evidence to back this up so I could reach lots of people and help them recognize their own power.

I’d also written on kindness and compassion. Again, I already knew that kindness could make us happier and that compassion was good for the heart, so I simply uncovered the research and shared it all in a book.

But writing ‘I Heart Me’ was different. Once I discovered what self-love actually was and the different ways it affects our lives, I realized that I didn’t have very much self-love at all. My self-love ‘deficit’ was having some real negative effects in my life. Writing a self-love book requires self-love and I was writing to try to obtain self-love. Working in this back-to-front way was really reinforcing that I didn’t have self-love… otherwise, why would I by trying so hard to obtain it?

Fortunately, my publisher (Hay House) recognized that I needed to do more work on myself and kindly gave me as much time as I wanted. That took the pressure off and I soon began to accept where I was in my life.

That’s when the real growth began. Acceptance was the key. Accept that it’s OK to not be healed, to not be a master of self-love, to not be as progressed as some other authors I knew, OK to have a lot of personal and emotional challenges, because, you know what?… that’s normal and it’s called being human.

Once I accepted myself, I began to change. The more I accepted myself, the faster I changed. It’s a version of whatever you look at disappears.

The theme has often emerged at my workshops and especially with regard to losing weight. Some people who want to lose weight and who feel they don’t have much self-love (not everyone, of course…we’re all different in our own ways) don’t want to love themselves because they fear that self-love will make them love themselves so much that they won’t want to change. Since losing weight has been such an important thing for them, the result is a resistance to doing any self-love work.

But this is where the Acceptance Paradox works. When you do accept who you are, and how you are, even make a start and try to find something good or beautiful in yourself, spontaneous change begins. This influx of self-love gives birth to inspired change. We start to make healthier choices.

Rather than self-love resulting in not losing weight through becoming so comfortable with yourself, self-love actually often leads to losing weight. But the very important distinction is that the weight loss isn’t in an attempt to be someone or something you’d love more, but originates from someone of something you’re starting to love, just as you are.

That’s how The Acceptance Paradox works.

Oh, and please know that I’m making quite a generalization here, touching on an issue that I know affects a lot of people. But I know others who would class themselves as overweight, but who are inspiring examples of self-love. I just wanted to make that distinction because overweight does not equate to low self-love. It’s simply something that is relevant to some people.

 

If you haven’t read ‘I Heart Me’ and would like a taster, you can read some of it here for free. Hopefully you’ll find something you’re looking for.

Love the Skin You’re In

smiley face stickyPart of self-love is loving yourself as you are. Nobody is perfect. We’re all human. We all make mistakes. It’s OK to be you, just as you are.

As many of my readers know, I’m all about self-love this year. My new book (I Heart Me: The Science of Self-Love) is out in October. One section of the book is called ‘Love The Skin You’re In’, which reminded me of the poem that my partner Elizabeth wrote for the positive self-image campaign, ‘Body Gossip’, which has now been performed by celebrities (YouTube link below).

I’ve included it in the book but I just wanted to give you a sneaky look right now. It’s called, ‘Mocha Choca Latte, Yah Yah… Please’:

 

MOCHA CHOCA LATTE, YAH YAH… PLEASE

 

Yah, I’ll have a decaf extra skinny mocha choca latte please

My waist will be smaller to accentuate my double D’s!

 

You see, that’s the only part of me that’s allowed to be big

Otherwise the press will have a field day and call me a pig

 

They papped me on holiday, lying in the sun

Then proclaimed to the world, “Ha, look at her bum!”

 

In a terrible state I rushed to the gym

Pleading my trainer, “Please make me thin!”

 

The next two weeks I was worked to the bone

My ass, thighs and abs ordered to tone

 

My dairy became soya and steak became fish

The pounds were dropping off, I was getting my wish!

 

I grabbed my trainer and said, “You’re my hero!”

“I’ve dropped 3 dress sizes, I’m now a size zero!”

 

On top of the world, I attended a premiere

Expecting the press to say, “Wow, what a derriere!”

 

Instead though they didn’t and this is what I read,

“She looks like a rake and has a lollipop head”

 

Shocked and confused, just what the hell do they want?!

I thought I’d be praised for looking skinny and gaunt

 

What, I get slagged for being fat and for being thin?

Well I give up, I don’t know how to win

 

Now young girls are starving to look like me

Viewing my airbrushed pictures, if only they could see

 

That I have blemishes, lumps and bumps just like them

See if they could see that, well, maybe then

 

Things could change and we’d be allowed to be free

No dangerous diets and starving but we could just be

 

Whatever size we naturally are

And we’ll be admired from close-up and afar

 

They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder

We should believe this, instead of looking over our shoulder

 

At who is thinner, prettier and who’s bones sticks out most

Its time to take a stand, I don’t wanna be a ghost!

 

When will we be happy with what we see in the mirror?

We are beautiful – let’s stop getting thinner and thinner!

 

You know what, forget what I ordered – for goodness sake

I’ll have a full fat latte – and a carrot cake!

 

A healthy balanced diet with a few treats thrown in

That’s the way to go – that’s the way to win!

 

So what if I have a few dimples on my thighs

It’s about time that magazines stopped telling lies

 

I’m taking a stand and being happy, not just thin

It’s time to be content with the skin that I’m in.

By Elizabeth Caproni

 

Links:
Here’s a YouTube video of the celebrity performance of the poem

Self-Love Workshops
Here’s a couple of links to some ‘I Heart Me: The Science of Self-Love‘ events I’m running:
1) Glasgow (weekend workshop) – 6 & 7th July 2013
2) Bridge of Allan (3-day intensive) – 8th – 10th November 2013
3) London (4-week course) – 23rd & 30th November 2013, 11th & 18th January 2014