Dr. Lisa S. Larsen: “When you love and understand yourself, relationships can be much easier and fulfilling”

Knowing your values is important to self-esteem because they are guides for directing your behavior and charting the course of your life. People feel guilt and shame when they are not living up to their values, but that is different from feeling shame about who they are as people. As a part of my series about […]

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Knowing your values is important to self-esteem because they are guides for directing your behavior and charting the course of your life. People feel guilt and shame when they are not living up to their values, but that is different from feeling shame about who they are as people.

As a part of my series about “How To Learn To Finally Love Yourself” I had the pleasure to interview Lisa S. Larsen, PsyD. Dr. Larsen is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Lancaster, California. She has spent the past 15 years helping people love themselves unconditionally through various crises and conditions, including trauma, grief, depression, anxiety, codependence, and chronic illness. During the coronavirus, she is providing video sessions to help people cope with the anxiety and despair that the current times bring.

Thank you so much for joining us! I’d love to begin by asking you to give us the backstory as to what brought you to this specific career path.

Thank you for interviewing me. I became a therapist because I saw many people not taking good care of themselves because they did not love themselves enough to care for their bodies. This led to behavior that endangered their physical and mental well-being, such as drug abuse, unsafe sex, and ignoring their physical and emotional needs. My dissertation for graduate school was on the HIV disease epidemic among African-American women in the San Francisco East Bay. That project brought this realization home quite poignantly. After that, I wanted to help people see their inherent value so that they would stop treating their bodies and themselves so poorly. That is not a judgment against them, just what I observed. In the process, I also saw areas in my life where I had to follow my own advice. It’s one thing to recommend good self-care to others, but sometimes it’s hard to follow it. Nonetheless, good self-care and positive self-esteem benefits everyone, from individuals to their loved ones and all the other macro levels of community, state, nation, and globally.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you hope that they might help people along their path to self-understanding or a better sense of wellbeing in their relationships?

*I am currently working on videos of trance work that help people feel safe and healthy during this pandemic. It feels good to be able to contribute to the greater good in this way. I post these on my YouTube channel. I also share them with my clients. I believe that one of the first steps of loving ourselves is to take time to be with our own bodies, sense them, get to know them, and listen to their wisdom. So many times, clients and friends have overextended or injured themselves because they did not listen to what their bodies were trying to tell them. I hope that these videos will help viewers get comfortable in their own skin and learn how to be within themselves harmoniously. The ability to sense and take ownership of our bodies, is very empowering and can lead to a lot of self-discovery and growth. Otherwise, we are ignoring an entire wealth of information, i.e., how our bodies are responding to internal and external stimuli. Once we learn how to be present in our bodies, we can accept ourselves much more easily because we are familiar with ourselves and not trying to avoid the inevitable contact with our sensations, perceptions, and emotions.

Do you have a personal story that you can share with our readers about your struggles or successes along your journey of self-understanding and self-love? Was there ever a tipping point that triggered a change regarding your feelings of self-acceptance?

*I recently became injured in ways that required a lot of care from other people. This put an enormous strain on me financially and within my marriage. I had to finally take ownership of my well-being. I could see how other people did not take care of their own health, but I didn’t realize that my self-esteem was not as good as it could have been. I also did not understand how that impacted my health physically. I had to work hard to become more present in my body as well as remove the negativity that prevented my taking better care of myself. It has been a long, difficult process but a very worthwhile one. It’s one of those situations that is not enjoyable to go through, but looking back I realize that it was a necessary journey that I had to take. The tipping point was realizing how negatively I was impacting other people and limiting our social life. I didn’t want to believe it at first, but I couldn’t deny the facts as they were. This journey has been pivotal for me to help other people appreciate, value, and embody their lives more completely and successfully. Sometimes you teach what you have to learn yourself.

According to a recent study cited in Cosmopolitan, in the US, only about 28 percent of men and 26 percent of women are “very satisfied with their appearance.” Could you talk about what some of the causes might be, as well as the consequences?

*This culture has completely unrealistic standards for physical appearance. I also think that we are programmed to be dissatisfied with who we are, what we look like, what we have, etc. If we as a society are all dissatisfied with our appearances and our belongings, then we are much more potentially lucrative consumers. The advertising world can have its way with us as long as we are insecure and always comparing ourselves negatively to someone else, whether they are real or not. I see in my work as a therapist how negatively comparing ourselves to other people or two models in magazines destroys our self-esteem. Why do we have to be better than or worse than anyone else? Why can’t the standard for beauty vary, based on body type and cultural or ethnic background? I suspect that many people are going around comparing themselves negatively to airbrushed models who are starving themselves or people who have time to go to the gym for hours on end each day. Most of us don’t fit in either category, so I think we need to have a better and more realistic goal for physical health and beauty. I like the Healthy at Any Size movement because I think that there are so many variables in what is healthy and what is beautiful that are idiosyncratic for each individual. Perhaps we can return to our subjective sense of what is healthy and beautiful, instead of relying on society or other people to define that for us. I believe that if we don’t change our standards and expectations, people will continue to feel bad about themselves. What I’ve noticed is that when people feel too negatively about their appearance or their bodies, they give up because there very ashamed and don’t think there’s any hope for them. I especially see this with people who are significantly overweight and have tried numerous diets to get thinner. Accepting and loving ourselves the way we are now, and seeing weight as just one aspect of our identities, can be a way to start healing the damage that is done by comparing ourselves to unrealistic standards.

As cheesy as it might sound to truly understand and “love yourself,” can you share with our readers a few reasons why it’s so important?

*If you think of how you invest your time and energy, it is usually into something about which you are passionate. I know people who spend hours washing, waxing, and polishing their cars while someone else might go months between carwashes. If I ask you about racecar driving and your excitement and interest are high, you can probably tell me all kinds of statistics and facts about it. You could probably even tell me when it’s on TV, what channel, etc. Where attention goes, so does energy. Where energy goes, improvement and growth can happen. Basically, if you are not interested in loving and knowing yourself, you will not put very much energy into taking care of yourself. If you don’t care about yourself, you won’t investigate that lump that you suspect might be cancer. Furthermore, you will not watch what you eat, exercise, drink enough water, take vacations when you need them, etc. I put so much time and energy into my career that I neglected to pay attention to my body in ways that would improve my health. As a result, I suffered and sometimes I jokingly tell my clients, “don’t wind up like me. Pay attention to your body when it’s just talking to you, and don’t wait until it screams at you.” If you think about it, you’re the only person that you will know your entire life. Why attend to and care for the one person who will always be with you, no matter what? The alternative can be painful and ugly.

Why do you think people stay in mediocre relationships? What advice would you give to our readers regarding this?

*I believe that people stay in relationships that don’t satisfy them for various reasons. Sometimes, the beginning of the relationship was great but then it peters out, so that they are chasing after that ghost of who they thought their partners were at first. Sometimes they stay because they don’t think they deserve any better. There are a variety of reasons, but many people think they cannot find anyone else and they are afraid to be alone. For too many people, being alone signifies that nobody wants them and they place a lot of importance on being wanted or loved by someone else. Unfortunately, that puts them in a vulnerable position in which they tolerate behavior and attitudes that denigrate them or degrade them. Sometimes when I talk to people in unhealthy relationships, they also feel sorry for the other person and worry what will happen if they don’t stay. They are willing to sacrifice themselves in order to make the other person happy.

A relationship should bring out the best in both people and encourage positive growth, as well as intimacy, companionship, and love. If you’re not sure whether your relationship is satisfactory, you can ask yourself how you feel in the presence of your platonic friends versus with your romantic partner, and see if there’s a difference. How do you feel about yourself and about them? What emotions come up when you’re with your friends, and what comes up when you’re with your lover? If you feel worse with your partner, you may be in an unhealthy or unsatisfying relationship. You can try talking to the person and find a better way to communicate, or you can try couples therapy to find the joy and connection in your relationship. I recommend a very good book, Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, which explains a healthy way to communicate about difficult topics with loved ones. I recommend that all couples read that if they don’t already communicate well.

Ultimately, we do better physically and emotionally when were connected to other people. The caveat is that our relationships with these other people need to be healthy in order to promote well-being. The people with whom we connect should be nurturing and supportive. If you feel more comfortable being alone, that is fine but I recommend that you do it by choice, not out of fear. Don’t stay in relationships or avoid them out of fear. Whatever hurt you are trying to avoid, resolve that hurt so that your choice is based in the present moment, not in the past or the future. Being alone can be better than being in a situation that harms you emotionally.

When I talk about self-love and understanding I don’t necessarily mean blindly loving and accepting ourselves the way we are. Many times, self-understanding requires us to reflect and ask ourselves the tough questions, to realize perhaps where we need to make changes in ourselves to be better not only for ourselves but our relationships. What are some of those tough questions that will cut through the safe space of comfort we like to maintain, that our readers might want to ask themselves? Can you share an example of a time that you had to reflect and realize how you needed to make changes?

*I agree that love sometimes requires hard questions and setting limits. When you take action, first observe your own motives and intentions. Does your action align with your values or are you acting in haste, from a hurt or emotionally charged place? What is your intention as you act? Many times, people tell me about actions they took that they later regret because they were not thinking about other people and the consequences of their actions. For this reason, it can be vitally important to become conscious of your own mind and what drives your behavior. Along those lines, sometimes it’s helpful to take a situation that hurts and try to see it from another person’s perspective. In other words, tell yourself the same story but from their perspective. This forces you to get out of your own victimization and have empathy for other people in that situation. You can also think about people whom you admire and how they would handle your current dilemma. It may not be obvious to you because you might think that person has no problems, but if you know them well enough you’ve probably seen them cope with adversity effectively. You can use them as an example of how you would like to handle similar circumstances in the future.

So many don’t really know how to be alone, or are afraid of it. How important is it for us to have, and practice, that capacity to truly be with ourselves and be alone (literally or metaphorically)?

*I’ve seen many people both personally and professionally stay busy to distract themselves from having to reflect on and experience negative emotions. Sometimes people use being busy to avoid looking at their painful past. Other times they simply don’t have the coping skills to be present with their emotions. I think it is healthy to have a balance between time spent with people and time spent by oneself. Being alone requires a certain amount of maturity because one has to to be able to entertain oneself without other people around. If a person never has time by themselves, how can they truly know who they are, or have time and space to think their own thoughts or feel their own emotions? That is why I like meditation so much, because it is an intentional time to set aside for experiencing everything that occurs to me and not shutting down from it. Instead, it involves inviting all of my internal experience to emerge and not judge it, simply be with it. Otherwise, I am simply running away from the parts of life that I don’t want to experience. Eventually, they will catch up to us all and we will have to experience them anyway. Unfortunately, when they do catch up, they will be much worse because we have neglected them and you haven’t handled them properly the first time.

How does achieving a certain level of self-understanding and self-love then affect your ability to connect with and deepen your relationships with others?

*When you love and understand yourself, relationships can be much easier and fulfilling. Self-love does not necessarily mean that you think you are incapable of hurting someone else’s feelings or that you are always perfect. If you understand what your limitations are, you cannot not only work on them to improve them but also be humble when you need to admit that you’re mistaken. Then you can take responsibility and be open to learning from your mistakes. Your discussions and negotiations will go better because you are not coming from a place of being better than someone else or less than the other person. Both of you are equals and you recognize that you both of you have valid points, as well as blind spots. You can love the other person even with those shortcomings, just as you love yourself completely, warts and all. Finally, self-love and self-understanding allow you to feel whole and not depend on the other person to validate you or quell your self-loathing. I see so many people use relationships to avoid feeling unworthy, and unfortunately, those relationships often have abusive or exploitive elements. You do yourself a great favor by coming to a relationship feeling good enough and yet also humble. Humility is only possible if you are willing to be vulnerable and secure enough to love yourself even when you make a mistake.

In your experience, what should a) individuals and b) society, do to help people better understand themselves and accept themselves?

*If people could learn how to discern what messages they want to take in about themselves, it could make a big difference. I often work with people on self-talk and identifying the origins of some of the things they say to themselves. Often, they might not even believe their own insults, but they pick them up from caregivers or other people as children. When a person can critically evaluate what the other person’s motive might have been when they insulted the person, it is much more empowering. Questioning the person’s motive or intention in saying that insult makes a person less vulnerable to the whims and moods of those around them.

Societally, I think we should teach about life skills and self-esteem in the schools. Learning about how to handle emotions in a healthy way, how to take responsibility, and how to love oneself unconditionally are all missing from our curricula in elementary and high schools. Yet many of the strange things that are happening in schools might be prevented if children and teenagers knew how to get along with themselves and others better. Teaching children about leadership, taking responsibility, and being mindful of how they impact others would lead to more responsible adults later on. We all make mistakes, even as adults, and we need to help people redefine discipline for ourselves as well as our children.

What are 5 strategies that you implement to maintain your connection with and love for yourself, that our readers might learn from? Could you please give a story or example for each?

*As mentioned above, I help people recognize what their negative self-talk is and what are the sources. Then I help them identify what the possible motives behind that person might have been. I also help people decide what would be helpful in their self-talk and what would be good to discard. Sometimes there is truth in a harsh statement, but we don’t need to hold onto the part that is the other person’s opinion. We can still learn and grow from most feedback while disregarding the part that is mean-spirited or simply a matter of taste. For example, if someone says that you were rude to them and they are angry about it, you can think for a minute about what you said and ask yourself if there is any truth to it. If you can see what you did could be construed as hurtful, you can take ownership of it and apologize, but not take on the label “rude.”

Another way to maintain your loving connection with yourself is to think about all of your successes in life and remind yourself, when you start to slip into negative self-talk, of the things that you’ve accomplished. Your successes do not have to be grandiose or societally defined as impressive, like winning a gold medal in the Olympics or the Pulitzer Prize. They can be simple things like being kind to a friend when they needed to talk or raising a responsible, healthy child. We overlook some of the successes that make the most difference in the long run.

Knowing your values is important to self-esteem because they are guides for directing your behavior and charting the course of your life. People feel guilt and shame when they are not living up to their values, but that is different from feeling shame about who they are as people. I think it would be a great idea for everyone to examine what their values are and do some self-exploration as to whether their actions and their lives reflect those values. A social psychologist named Milton Rokeach developed a value survey based on his research, which could be helpful to explore which values resonate with you. If a person values a world at peace, for example, and they have lives that are full of conflict or disharmony, they will feel less satisfied and it will be more difficult to feel proud of the life they’ve created.

Learning how to spend time with oneself is important, in my mind, for good self-esteem. Doing a simple mindfulness exercise of each part of your body and checking out how it feels, what emotions arise, and what your body might be saying to you is a good way to start. I have people start with breathing in from the belly and sing to themselves, “breathing in, I notice my ears (for example); breathing out, I feel my ears.” This is very similar to a meditation that Thich Nhat Hanh has developed. You can also say to yourself on the out breath, “I love my ears,” or “I accept my ears.” It may sound too simple and basic, but with practice it helps connect you with yourself in a nonjudgmental way. Another variation of this is to go through each body part from top to bottom and be grateful for that body part, whether or not you think it looks good or whether or not it functions perfectly. Then you can develop an appreciation for yourself, just as you are.

Finally, I think forgiveness of yourself and others is key to developing a more loving relationship with yourself. Holding on to past hurts that you’ve either received or inflicted on others only serves to separate you from your true nature and your ability to love. You do not have to excuse or release people from their responsibility, but allowing those hurts to linger in your mind only pollutes your sense of peace. There is a quote that is often attributed to Buddha, but says “holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” It took me a long time to let go of my tendency to judge other people and myself. It’s an ongoing process, but the less I judge myself and others, the more peace I have and the more I can work on making my life better in the present, rather than worrying about being hurt in the future or dwelling on how I’ve been hurt in the past. Also, I feel better about myself and others when I am not criticizing other people. If you’ve ever heard yourself when you’re gossiping about someone else, you might notice how disgusting it feels. Sure, in the short run it seems satisfying like binge eating potato chips. However, I am only inviting the same kind of treatment from others when I negatively evaluate others or myself.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources for self-psychology, intimacy, or relationships? What do you love about each one and how does it resonate with you?

*If you haven’t noticed, I am very excited about Eastern spirituality and I think we can learn a lot from people like Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama. Along those lines, I love the work of Jack Kornfield, especially The Roots of Buddhist Psychology. I also like positive psychology and the work of Martin Seligman, as well as the legendary psychiatrist and hypnotist, Milton H Erickson. I also appreciate Anodea Judith Ph.D. and her work on energy centers in the body. All of these foster mindful awareness and an intimate, loving connection between mind, body, and spirit.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? Maybe we’ll inspire our readers to start it…

*There are so many things that we need to do to address the problems of this world. Lately, it seems as though we need to learn from the differences between human beings rather than fearing those same differences. We need to have a civil discourse about our opinions, values, cultural backgrounds, and beliefs in order to make space for everyone. That said, I do not think there is room for hatred based on race, gender, sexual preference, gender identity, class, etc. while we can learn from everyone’s opinion, we must minimize the damage that we do to one another with hate speech. I think if we were to instill compassion and empathy in families and children, that could go a long way to accomplish what I am suggesting. I’m not sure how it can be done, but there will always be people who do not avail themselves of the many opportunities to open one’s mind. If enough people realize that despite our differences, we are all worthy of respect and dignity, perhaps the voices of hate will be drowned out.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that you use to guide yourself by? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life and how our readers might learn to live by it in theirs?

*My favorite quote these days is, “don’t believe everything you think.” An author named Allan Lokos is credited with that pithy little saying. It speaks to the essence of what I try to do myself personally as well as teach to my clients. Not everything that we say to ourselves is true, nor is it helpful. I like the four-way test of statements by the Rotary club, which provides a good guideline for speech in general. They are, “is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be Beneficial to all concerned? “I try to keep that in mind for the way I speak to others, about others, and to myself. There are a lot of negative messages that we internalize on a regular basis if we are not careful. Keeping our speech to beneficial words is an antidote to all the negativity in the world. Sometimes we must take action beyond watching our internal and external dialogue, but this is a good place to start in purifying our intent. Our intention should always be based on love, not fear and separation. When we denigrate ourselves or others with our words, we are contributing to that negativity and doing the opposite of loving ourselves and others.

Thank you so much for your time and for your inspiring insights!

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