Befriending oneself

People often throw around phrases like "practice self-compassion" or "love yourself". While this might be something that in theory possibly is helpful to some people, it is not immediately clear why it should be good and in practice the typical results seem to be bi-modally distributed around two poles:

  • people become self-entitled and egoistical
  • people become more destitute because they have very good reasons to not love or feel compassion to themselves

These poles are not exclusive, so this well-meant tip, like most well-meant things, often does more harm than good, leaving people in miserable places, with both factors reinforcing each other.

We are better to others than to ourselves

On the other hand, when it comes to helping other people, especially friends, we often perform exceptionally well and are relentlessly forgiving:

  • we are on time and handle even tasks we normally put off
  • we are compassionate for their failures
  • we cheer every tiny little progress and every tiny win

Furthermore, usually have a clearer view of their problems and how to approach these, at least as long as we are not conflicted, and we are better at being somewhat strict about it and we might even try to discipline our friends. As the saying goes, friends don't let friends squat high. But people still squat high, and while it would seem obvious, not everyone is aware about it or they otherwise make it seem okay to themselves. The outside perspective helps greatly to cut through the bullshit here.

Having friends is also kinda nice, as being in places with a friend usually is less awkward and more than than being alone there, and you are probably less anxious about random interactions.

Now, while completely appropriate and surprisingly reasonable in this setting (maybe for another issue), this is not the cue for the talk about our lord and savior, Jesus Christ, but about befriending oneself.

the infamous american psycho bed scene
Impressing strangers does not fill the void, even if the stranger is you (taken from the movie "American Psycho" (2000), fair use due to the cultural embeddedness of this particular scene)

Befriending yourself

The propositional meaning of this is kinda obvious: to be a better friend to oneself (or even a friend in the first place), because it is a friend you could theoretically always have with you. On the surface this sounds kinda meh, but when we explore how to accomplish this and in light of aforementioned benefits of friendship, it becomes clear that this is can be a transformative process.

Being a friend to yourself basically requires three things:

  • entering an I-Thou relationship with yourself (in the Buberian sense)
  • spending time with yourself
  • developing an appropriate and actually positive attitude

The self

Both is kind of what we would call spiritual in nature, but that is just fancy speak for "you can experience this yourself if you just observe yourself". To enter an I-Thou relationship with yourself you first have to discover the I and the Thou. Since it is yourself, this basically comes down to differentiating between oneself and one's feelings and thoughts and all that relatively impermanent crap.

In case you wonder, this is essentially the intro to probably any non-corporate meditation class. Basically it comes down to exploring these questions:

  • Are you your thoughts?
  • Are you your feelings?
  • Are you your body?
  • Are you the story you or people tell about yourself?
  • What is constant?

And the only thing that remains the same is the capacity of experiencing these things, but not any of these things.

The I-Thou relationship with yourself

Great, we found the self. Now, what does I-Thou relationship mean? Well, it is not an I-It relationship, where you, the subject, interact with an object. The I-It relationship is transactional and does not recognize the object as a subject. It is how you interact with most inanimate things, NPCs or also, it is how you are being interacted with by HR, corporate entities and government. In the I-Thou relationship, both sides are connected and relate to each other. Both sides wish to experience agency and acknowledge each other's wish for agency. It's how you interact with actual players.

Recognizing how you interact with yourself is the next step. Some interactions are immediate, some are not. You might talk to yourself (the stuff you mutter under your breath), which is kind of a direct interaction. But also the things you do now affect your future self, and actions of your past self interact with your present self. What you do at work might interact with what you experience at home and vice versa. All actions have consequences, but you can never force yourself to do something specific at a different time, at a different place, even if you really would wish for yourself to do exactly this. Just like you could not force a friend to behave a certain way, even if you think it would be the best for them, underlining that not only it is possible to enter an I-Thou relationship with oneself, but also that it is more appropriate than assuming continuous agency.

Spending time with yourself and developing unconditionally positive regard

Spending time with oneself is also hard, for various reasons, some people just do not have the time, other people are constantly occupied with running from themselves and distracting themselves with hedonism, people and media. Well, to be fair, if you assume yourself to be all powerful and being able to decide now what will be done for a person at a different time and place, but then failing at this basic task of exerting godlike powers, you definitely feel bad.

So this at least gets partially easier once we move into a more reasonable relationship with ourselves. Which is good, because you need to spend more time in solitude, and also just hang out with yourself. Ideally we could just sit in a cave in cold mountains all day long, but since this is for most of us not an option, we can resort to the usual things we do with friends and all activities obviously are postfixed with "without checking your phone", like taking a walk, going to the gym, having a nice meal, going to the sauna or just hanging out on the couch.

And because now we are spending time with a friend, me-time is not anymore a hedonistic shitfest, but you can explore the interaction, how some things are hard for one at certain times, and try to find ways to make it easier for one you at a time and place to act in accordance to another you at a another time and place, as well as find compassion for various perceived failings. It also helps to make biography, and not only make it into a set of excuses.

Now, not all interactions are friendly, but in friendship we aim for one where both people have an attitude of unconditional positive regard to each other, and it is totally okay if at first you can not relate to yourself in a positive regard. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise. But of course, you are stuck with yourself for the rest of the life, so you have a strong incentive to make it a good relationship and at least you can start with a truce and try to not make each other's life harder than it needs to be. And there will be conflict and you need to resolve it, and sometimes, well, it even takes another, external friend to resolve these conflicts.

Befriending oneself in the general landscape

First and foremost, we now have found the proper perspectival shift to make "self-compassion" and "loving yourself" into non-bullshit concepts and can see how these actually can be helpful. By distinguishing between ourselves in the present moment and at other times, but also acknowledging the interaction between these two, we can forgive parts and work together, instead of beating ourselves up. It helps us getting unstuck in our heads and have more of an outside, less entangled perspective, at least concerning our interactions with ourselves.

This also gives us another perspective on how solitude is the cure to loneliness, though while it would be convincing, this perspective is incomplete.

We also find that all the underlying mechanisms which psychotherapeutic schools have isolated, e.g. part-work is the resolution of conflict between our selfs, Freudian-style psychotherapy is biographical in nature, reflecting of actions and reframing is cognitive restructuring, so indeed, we have even have evidence of the effectiveness of each of the mechanisms, but in a framework which does not require differential diagnostics to choose the right solution for the right problem, but in a continuous dialogue and evolving meta-cognitive process. By practicing kindness to ourself not only in thought, but also in action, like proper exercise, hygiene and organization (remember, we try to work together here and if future you always forgets what they wanted to buy in the store, you write it down for them!), we also can uncover and utilize the whole toolkit of CBT.

Finally, epistemological it is a more appropriate representation of our agency, because decisions are made in the present and if we wish to change how decisions are made, we have to negotiate with the person in charge at that time and place.