Valentine’s Day: Love, health and happiness

Love yourself, so you can love others

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Like being in an aircraft emergency, you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others

A retiree got very upset at being ticked off by a stallholder at the wet market over something trivial.

Before he retired, he was a senior police officer, used to giving orders to his subordinates. But now, being at the receiving end made him depressed.

He had let his job define what he thought of himself, said Dr Adrian Wang, who has his own psychiatric practice at Gleneagles Medical Centre.

And when that image no longer gelled with reality, the retired police officer found it hard to accept.

Resilience is a bulwark against the blows of life that comes with being able to accept oneself, flaws and all.

OUTLASTING THE PAIN

It's not just about finding happiness... Self-love is about developing resilience. And resilience is about developing the endurance to outlast the pain.

DR ADRIAN WANG, who has his own psychiatric practice at Gleneagles Medical Centre.

Today is Valentine's Day, a celebration of romantic love. What is often neglected, but which is just as important, is the ability to love and be kind to oneself.

Dr Wang said some teenagers consult him because they are struggling with academic stress.

One student from a top school here told him: "I did badly. I was second in class."

Dr Wang said this inclination for youngsters - and their parents - to place unrealistic expectations on themselves is more widespread than one might expect.

"These children lack resilience. They have not encountered failure in their lives and when there is a setback, they feel depressed."

People who are depressed feel bleak and are unable to focus on the present moment.

Calling it an error of thinking, Dr Wang said depressed people tend to put a magnifying glass on their problems.

In order to break that cycle of thinking, people have to learn to accept themselves for who they are. Self-love, really, is about nurturing one's own well-being. "It's not just about finding happiness but about finding resilience, as you can't be happy all the time," said Dr Wang.

"Self-love is about developing resilience. And resilience is about developing the endurance to outlast the pain."

Those words may sound depressing but the truth is that pain is part of life.

And it is not all pain. Part of being resilient is to know what it takes to make you feel positive, whether it is having a relationship, cultivating a hobby or doing exercise that takes you outdoors every day.

Happiness is derived from having a sense of purpose in one's daily life, said Dr Wang.

"It's about having a job, contributing to society in some way. It's doing something that you find meaningful."

And this can mean very different things to different people. It can be training to compete in a marathon, losing 5kg or simply taking care of the house, he added.

FORGETTING TO LOVE ONESELF

What self-love is not, however, is egotism, narcissism or selfishness, which can be viewed as self-absorption, said Dr Alvin Liew, a psychiatrist and the director of Adult & Child Psychological Wellness Clinic in Pacific Plaza.

Narcissism, characterised by a grandiose sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy and a need for admiration, or egotism and selfishness can push others away and lead to loneliness, he said.

Self-love, paradoxically, is outward-looking because the focus is on how you can make your life count.

But "in the midst of a hectic lifestyle, self-love usually takes a back seat", said Ms Cheak Ching Cheng, a senior clinical psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health.

Many people find it hard to take time to care for themselves, especially with the demands of work and other responsibilities, she said.

Some are critical of themselves and feel they are undeserving of love, or they may feel that it is selfish to care for themselves and, thus, end up neglecting their own needs.

But it is only by taking care of your own physical and psychological well-being, said Ms Cheak, that you can have the capacity to care for others better.

Dr Wang likened it to being in an emergency situation in an airplane, where you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others.

Practising self-care is also important for each partner in a relationship. "You can't expect your partner to take care of you all the time," said Dr Wang.

Taking care of oneself is a continuous process of reframing one's perspective. He added: "As we go through life, we encounter different types of stress."

If school stress is the bugbear of the young, a person's life in middle age and the later years can be beset by illness, death and divorce.

Self-love requires continuous investment in the things that bring you meaning. But the investment pays off.

Ms Cheak said: "People who practise self-love are better able to cope with challenges, have more authentic relationships and greater life satisfaction."

So make this Valentine's Day different. Do something for yourself and, in so doing, celebrate the unique individual you are.


How to practise self-love

You have the power to create opportunities for happiness. The key is to take time out for yourself regularly and treat yourself as you would someone you love, said senior clinical psychologist Cheak Ching Cheng from the Institute of Mental Health.

Here are her suggestions on how to practise self-love.

1 DEVOTE FIVE TO 10 MINUTES A DAY TO 'ME-TIME'

Use "me-time" to do what you enjoy or simply to relax and stretch those aching muscles. You can also use the time to make positive statements about yourself or do something to show appreciation for yourself, for instance, wear your favourite clothes, buy something small for yourself or plan your next vacation.

2 EAT AND SLEEP WELL

Take care of your body by eating nutritious food, having enough rest, exercising regularly and avoiding harmful substances like cigarettes, alcohol and drugs.

This is important because the mind and body are intertwined. Poor physical health can affect your ability to function at work or do things that you enjoy which, in turn, can affect mental health. People with chronic ailments have a higher risk of developing poor mental health.

3 DO SOMETHING THAT YOU LIKE

Take care of your mental health and do things that make you feel positive. These include activities you enjoy, such as learning something new, attending a course, pampering yourself at the spa or taking time out to meditate.

4 STOP CRITICISING YOURSELF

Accept yourself for who you are, including all your flaws.

Show compassion and kindness to yourself by embracing your human imperfections.

Acknowledge that you have weaknesses just like anyone else and remind yourself of your strengths.

For instance, you can tell yourself: "I have flaws and it is all right, as I have my strengths too."

Self-acceptance is about accepting that you have flaws and that you can work on making improvements, rather than criticise yourself for them.

People who are critical of themselves because of their flaws may develop mental health issues such as depression and anxiety as they continue to engage in futile efforts to be perfect.

5 DON'T PUT YOURSELF DOWN

Affirm yourself instead of listening to the inner critic that belittles you.

Instead of judging yourself for not meeting expectations, encourage yourself with positive statements such as "I am doing the best I can and I can try to do better next time".

When you have a break-up with someone, do not think that you are unworthy and unlovable.

Remind yourself of your positive attributes and that you are a caring person. When someone breaks up with you, it does not mean that you are worthless.

Remind yourself of other meaningful relationships that you have with friends and family, and think about how they can help you move on from the break-up.

6 BE BRAVE: LEARN TO SAY 'NO'

It is important to set appropriate boundaries with others, so that you do not overburden yourself and burn out.

For example, be assertive and learn to say "no" to demands that may overstretch your resources or to unhealthy relationships, such as those that are abusive or where the other person does not respect you.

Joyce Teo

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 14, 2017, with the headline 'Love yourself, so you can love others'. Print Edition | Subscribe