How To Learn To Finally Love Yourself With Jason Hartman & Vinodha Joly

Self-love and self-acceptance is so interconnected with love and acceptance of others — it is a circle — one can’t really differentiate one from the other. It is the root of all empathy. When one can finally have self-compassion, and can forgive oneself for past mistakes, then one can see that every other person is […]

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Self-love and self-acceptance is so interconnected with love and acceptance of others — it is a circle — one can’t really differentiate one from the other. It is the root of all empathy. When one can finally have self-compassion, and can forgive oneself for past mistakes, then one can see that every other person is also doing their best, given their personal history and emotional baggage. It frees us from taking anything said or done by others personally.

As a part of my series about “Learning To Finally Love Yourself” I had the pleasure to interview Vinodha Joly. Vinodha is a licensed psychotherapist with a private practice in Pleasanton, California.She specializes in treating adults who are the survivors of childhood abuse and neglect, and helps them embrace and accept all parts of themselves. Before transitioning to her current vocation as a psychotherapist, Ms. Joly worked as a computer engineer for over a decade in high-tech companies (Hewlett Packard, Google) in Silicon Valley. In her personal life, Vinodha Joly struggled to find a sense of belonging having lived in several countries (Sri Lanka, Nigeria, India) before immigrating to the United States as a young adult. Now, finally, she feels firmly rooted in Pleasanton, California where she lives with her husband and young son.

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.

I grew up in an achievement-oriented South Asian culture where academic success was greatly valued. My initial career choice of computer engineering was therefore based on my aptitude for analytical thinking and the social norms and values that idealized the sciences. After graduating from top engineering schools and working in well-paying jobs in Silicon Valley, I began to realize that I was not feeling personally fulfilled. I wanted to make a direct positive impact in the lives of others. The workings of our minds and how we create our inner worlds fascinated me. I was also drawn towards developing my empathic and authentic self. So finally in 2009, in my mid-thirties, I quit my engineering career and went back to school full-time to become a psychotherapist.

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?

In this highly polarized political environment, I see many parallels in the division between different psychotherapy models in the field of psychology and ideological/value differences in the technical/business world. Each group is entrenched in their views and there is less tolerance in hearing different viewpoints. To make progress as a society and to improve our relationships with self and others, we have to be open to examining our own personal and historical experiences that lead us to automatically make assumptions and judgments about “the other”. It is only when we can accept and own all parts of ourselves, including our own biases and prejudices, that we will stop projecting our disowned parts onto others.

I have been examining my own biases and prejudices in the following two topics:

1. The division between psychotherapy practitioners into “person-centered” and “techniques-centered” groups and the debates around “evidence-based” claims.

2. Revisiting James Damore’s Google Memo Controversy.

I hope this will invite others to examine their own prejudices and preconceived notions, a key step in the path to self-understanding, acceptance, and better relationships with others.

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 learned as a child to be overly self-reliant and responsible. I was also afraid of getting too close to others, afraid of loss and of being disappointed in relationships. A tipping point that I clearly remember was in my own personal psychotherapy in 2016. I was narrating some unhappy childhood memories when my therapist explicitly expressed her compassion for me. Until then, I had always been critical of my younger adolescent self, holding her responsible for the unhappiness of those around and fervently refusing to feel any compassion for her/myself. It was only by connecting with the genuine compassion that my therapist felt for the younger me, that I began to feel self-compassion and allowed myself to feel the grief and sadness that came along with it. This was a pivotal step towards my self-acceptance and healing. Now as a therapist, I use my authentic, compassionate and non-judgmental stance in sessions to help clients cultivate self-compassion and self-acceptance.

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?

We are greatly influenced by the messages we receive from family, society and the media, especially in our formative years. Unfortunately the most common message that a child internalizes is that the child is lacking in some way. Dissatisfaction with appearance can be traced to a deeper dissatisfaction with oneself or a lack of feelings of self-worth. With the proliferation of the use of social media, the pressures mount due to comparing one’s own appearance with impossible to attain standards of physical beauty that is then assumed to be the norm, further fueling feelings of not being “good enough”.

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?

The first step towards loving oneself is developing self-awareness: to become aware of one’s own gifts, strengths, and imperfections, and to develop a non-judgmental attitude towards self and others. People who are critical of others are often much more critical of themselves. It is the non-acceptance of our own parts that we project onto others that causes unhappiness and un-ease in relationships. For example, many parents are simply not aware of how they project their own self-criticism or non-acceptance onto their children — something that stems from their own experiences of lack of approval or acceptance from others. So cultivating self-acceptance and self-compassion also helps a parent develop empathy for their child’s separate mind and life path and to love the child unconditionally. This breaks the intergenerational transmission of non-acceptance and critical judgments.

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

What does one mean by a “mediocre” relationship? Is it how it is perceived by others or experienced by the partners? Are one’s needs not being met? This is a complex question and the answer depends on many, many variables — what is right in one situation may not be for another. A simple rule of thumb is to ask if your decision to stay in the relationship is rooted in fear (e.g., fear of change, fear of being alone), and what happens when you decide to acknowledge and face the fear. If you want the dynamics of a relationship to change, you have to focus on the changes that you can make on your side.

When we talk about self-love and understanding we 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?

In many ways, self-love and understanding is in identifying and breaking free of the many obstacles that we have created for ourselves that are based on fear and negative experiences. It is in identifying the dysfunctional patterns of thinking and behaving that no longer serve us. It is in acknowledging and facing our fears.

Some questions to reflect on:

  1. Are my actions aligned with my values?
  2. Are my actions motivated by love or by fear?
  3. Am I projecting my needs and expectations onto others?
  4. What is it that is triggering such an intense aversion/reaction within me.

The above questions necessitates first knowing oneself, one’s values, needs, and wants and noticing one’s reactions to others, as well as becoming aware of our internal self-talk. It is usually by looking at what we don’t like in others that we can recognize the disowned, disavowed parts of ourselves. It is important that we identify and own our own failings and imperfections.

Here’s an example of an internal shift that I had to make recently. Having grown up in an achievement-oriented culture, I was having unrealistic developmental standards for my pre-school son. Knowing well that a child is deeply scarred when they sense that a parent is disappointed in them, I had to stop projecting my needs and expectations onto my son. I had to learn to see my child’s unique individuality and learn to express my unconditional acceptance of him, which is crucial if he is to develop to his true potential. In the role of a parent, I continue to change, learn and grow, as well as to delight in the bond that I am co-creating with my son.

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)?

Many of us who have very strong negative self-beliefs are afraid of self-reflection, afraid of finding out that the negative self-beliefs may indeed be true. So we distract our minds with external preoccupations. However, there can be no spiritual growth without self-reflection and self-reflection requires the capacity to be alone, paying attention to our inner world. How often are we in the grip of our thoughts, being constantly swayed by their opinions and attachments? Are we able to observe our thoughts mindfully so that we can create the space and time needed to respond thoughtfully to our surroundings, rather than react automatically?

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?

Self-love and self-acceptance is so interconnected with love and acceptance of others — it is a circle — one can’t really differentiate one from the other. It is the root of all empathy. When one can finally have self-compassion, and can forgive oneself for past mistakes, then one can see that every other person is also doing their best, given their personal history and emotional baggage. It frees us from taking anything said or done by others personally.

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

We are all interconnected. The health of a society depends on the health of the individuals. In these times, I think the most important step is to not get caught up in the divisive rhetoric of politicians. That is possible only when we are not too attached to our opinions and judgments, and to recognize these as just that — opinions and judgments. We have to recognize that all of us have biases and prejudices and that it is most easy to adopt a stance that reinforces them. Right now, I think each of us needs to question the either-or mode of thinking in extremely polarized environments and how identity politics tend to divide rather than unite.

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?

Let me first acknowledge that I am still a beginner in this journey of self-acceptance. The following practices have been helpful to me, although I have not been able to commit to a daily practice of them yet.

  1. Mind: Mindfulness practices — observing thoughts, emotions, physical sensations in the body and what is perceived through the senses without judgment. This helps to be present and in the moment and increases our capacity to connect with ourselves.
  2. Body: Nurturance of the physical body with healthy eating, exercise, sufficient sleep, and mindful movement such as yoga. All emotions are stored in the body, so connecting with our body helps to be more connected with our emotions.
  3. Boundaries: Setting healthy boundaries with others. This means that I don’t take responsibility for the reactions of others, and neither do I blame or project my expectations and needs onto others. I take responsibility for my own intentions and behaviors, and do not take things said or done by others personally.
  4. Communication: Being aware of my needs and wants and the ability to be able to express it in a healthy way to others, without assuming that the other will magically read my mind.
  5. Self-care and balance: Knowing my priorities and living my life by them. Skillfully balancing competing priorities between work, family and personal interests by making time for what is truly important. Choosing a career that is personally fulfilling and is of service to others.

Above all, to be kind and compassionate to myself every time I fail in any of the above practices, to forgive myself, and to remind myself of my intentions behind the practice.

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?

My favorite books are “The 4 agreements” and “The Mastery of Love” by Don Ruiz Miguel. “The 4 agreements” lists the four rules that can positively transform your life and relationships. There are:

  1. Be impeccable with your word: Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using words to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of the word in the direction of truth and love. Many of us may be aware and careful not to speak ill of others, but we may have been conditioned to keep putting ourselves down with self-critical talk cloaked as modesty. How we use our words towards ourselves is as important as how we speak of others.
  2. Don’t take anything personally: Nothing others say or do is because of you, but simply a projection of their own reality. When you are immune to the opinions and judgments of others, you will not be a victim of needless suffering.
  3. Don’t make assumptions. Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid drama and misunderstandings.
  4. Always do your best. Your best will vary from moment to moment, for example it will be different when you are sick vs. when you are healthy. Simply do your best, not more, not less, and you will avoid self-judgment and regret. Sometimes it is a good reminder for us not to try to do more than our best. We do not need to take on as our responsibility something that is not.

I find Rule 3 challenging in practice, as I am always inferring and making assumptions based on the limited information I have. I have to learn and practice to ask questions to check my assumptions, and also have to work on the skill of communicating clearly. Being open to feedback and being able to acknowledge and own mistakes goes a long way in repairing ruptures in relationships.

The book “The Mastery of Love” expounds on the above 4 agreements and illustrates how to achieve peaceful, loving and healthy relationships.

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…

I have certainly not achieved the status of “a person of great influence” yet. However, I do have an idea of a movement that I think is much needed in these times. The idea is to have groups of people who have strong views and opinions on certain political and social issues (e.g., abortion) to make the conscious decision to listen to the other side’s point of view, simply with the intention of understanding, and then repeat what they heard. This does not mean that they now agree with the other side, but it will promote empathy on the side of the listener and validation for the speaker. To have groups where individuals check their assumptions and stereotypes of “the other” (e.g., Democrats vs. Republicans in the political sphere). It may help opposing groups realize that they have a lot more in common than they might have originally thought. The hope is that we as a society move away from the either-or arguments of tribalism, and build communities with open minds and open hearts.

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?

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it. — Rumi

I would generalize this to anything that we seek (success, peace, happiness) and not just love — we have built the obstacles against achieving it through the workings of our own minds, especially when our thoughts are rooted in fear. I am learning and practicing how to get out of the way and to simply be receptive to what is unfolding within and externally, without trying to control the outcomes.

The most recent example of how this has been relevant in my life is my participation in this interview.

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

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