Time Travel: I often think about my Past Self and Future Self. I can do favors for my Future Self, like putting away my clean clothes, and I can thank my Past Self for things like flossing, building friendships, or saving money. The three of us are becoming a good team. Since it’s sometimes tough to do something for ourselves, thinking of the Past Self and Future Self makes it feel more like I’m doing kind things for someone else. This approach also helps me generate compassion for myself (and my selves!).
As a part of my series about “Learning To Finally Love Yourself” I had the pleasure to interview Dr Jo Eckler. Dr. Eckler, known to many as “Dr. Jo,” is a licensed clinical psychologist and registered yoga teacher in private practice in Austin, TX, as well as the author of I Can’t Fix You — Because You’re Not Broken: The Eight Keys to Freeing Yourself From Painful Thoughts and Feelings. She has spent her entire career working with survivors of trauma as well as helping her clients and students make peace with their bodies and themselves. She has been interviewed for O Magazine, Reader’s Digest, and Bustle, among others, as well as presented at conferences and conducted workshops and trainings. You can learn more about her at www.beyondtherapy.us.
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’m so honored to be here! This topic is so important and really close to my heart.
This career path found me — I just finally decided to accept it. I’ve always been the person that everyone went to with their problems. Strangers would tell me their life story without prompting. After years of this, I decided I’d go and get training to be better able to help the people who came to me. In that process, I found many ways to help myself too. I had some pretty traumatic experiences as a teenager, resulting in depression, anxiety, and PTSD along with a hefty amount of self-loathing. As I went through the (ongoing) process of healing from those experiences, I didn’t want all that I suffered and learned to be for nothing. Thus, I embarked on this career of helping others who have experienced depression and trauma make peace with themselves and learn to build lives that feel meaningful.
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?
Right now, I’m having a great time recording the audiobook version of I Can’t Fix You — Because You’re Not Broken. I had taken audiobooks for granted and never realized how much work goes into them! I’m also playing with ideas for an online course version of the book to make it more accessible, since I think the tools in it are so key to having a better relationship with ourselves as well as being able to connect more fully with the people in our lives. I’d also like to create resources for healers and helpers to use so that they can better sit with pain without burning out and be more effective helpers. Of course, I have many more ideas, but I’m focusing on these for now.
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?
For me, as a person who has never fit the mold of traditional attractiveness and who has been haunted by imposter syndrome for most of my life, self-acceptance is a continual process. There have been many tipping points for me along the way. When I was 17 years old and anxiously stepped into my first goth club, I looked around and realized that there were many bodies like mine and that they could be beautiful, adorned in eye-catching outfits, and dance, not just hide in the corner under baggy clothes. I got so comfortable with my body there that I was usually the first person on the dance floor (and totally sober). It wasn’t dancing like no one was watching, either — lots of people were watching! Still, I decided to let myself have fun and dance if I liked the song that was playing, regardless of what others would think. At first, it was terrifying, but over time, I realized that there were no negative consequences, and I kept on dancing. I’ve carried that idea of letting myself do what I enjoy, regardless of what others might think, with me ever since. Sometimes I’m better at it than others.
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?
It’s not news that we are constantly told that we are not attractive enough. Everywhere we turn, we see images of “perfect” bodies and faces, of impeccably dressed people. Unless we have skilled photographers and Photoshoppers, full-time chefs, and spend hours a day on exercise and grooming and tons of money of clothes, most of us are not going to live up to those impossible ideals. There’s this disconnect between how we actually are and what we are told we should be, which can lead to anxiety, low self-esteem, and poor self-image, as well as conditions like eating disorders. Over time, especially if we’re trying and failing endlessly to meet societal standards, we can develop a state of learned helplessness, which can turn into depression.
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?
When we don’t love ourselves, there is a whole cascade of consequences. I’m not saying this to make anyone feel guilty about not being able to love themselves yet — I’m saying it to make it clear how vital it is. In our personal lives, not loving ourselves can lead to not taking good care of ourselves, which affects those around us. For example, if we aren’t sleeping enough, doing things we enjoy, or going to the doctor when needed, we end up irritable, burned out, and sick. We then take our discomfort out on others or turn it on ourselves, digging ourselves into a deeper hole of self-loathing and misery and repeating the cycle. We can also become defensive and struggle to take in constructive feedback. On a larger scale, not loving ourselves means we are more likely to have strong negative reactions to people or groups who remind us of what we don’t like about ourselves. We are also less likely to stand up for ourselves and people like us when we don’t love ourselves.
Why do you think people stay in mediocre relationships? What advice would you give to our readers regarding this?
Fear drives so many of us to stay in places that we’ve outgrown or that never fit in the first place. We worry that we won’t find anything better and that no one else will ever love us. This is especially true when we don’t love ourselves. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to be with us when we don’t see ourselves as worthy of love. However, there’s a feedback loop here. Staying in a mediocre relationship, job, etc., sends us the message that we don’t deserve anything better, that we don’t deserve to be happy. This in turn reinforces our negative view of ourselves, making us feel even less capable of finding a better situation. Doing something different helps shift the cycle. Acting as if we are a person worthy of an enjoyable relationship can help us feel worthier of that kind of love, whether that looks like leaving the current relationship or taking steps to improve the current one.
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?
You’re so right that we love our comfort! It is so challenging to look at ourselves clearly and ask ourselves things like “Is this situation still working for me?” or “What is my role in creating or maintaining this problem?” It’s also hard to consider questions such as “What am I trying to hide or distract myself from feeling or thinking right now?” and “What am I scared to admit to myself?” When I catch myself scrolling endlessly on my phone, I have to ask myself about what I’m avoiding at that moment. I had to do this on a larger scale (I talk about this time in my life in I Can’t Fix You) when I was sent to a retreat for mental health providers. For the year or so before that retreat, I had been dealing with health issues and depression that had reduced my life down to work and living on my couch when I wasn’t at work. My time at that retreat made me ask myself if I wanted to continue to live that way, if I was happy with the way things were, and to realize how small my world had become. I had to look how I was using some of my health issues as an excuse to not do the more challenging work of building a fulfilling life and creating connections with others. It really sucked, to put it bluntly, and there were many tears and scribbled journal entries. Eventually I did end up building a life, though, and I’m really grateful to my past self for doing that work! It takes constant maintenance, to be sure, but even when I slide back into my old ways, I don’t have as far to go to get back to a more fulfilling way of life.
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 see the ability to be alone as a superpower. If we know with certainty that we can enjoy our own company and living on our own, then we can be selective about who we allow into our lives. We’re not coming from a place of desperation. And we’re much less likely to tolerate being treated poorly. Sure, we might be sad if a relationship ends, but we know we didn’t need it to survive.
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?
Compassion for ourselves enables us to be compassionate towards others. We can be more understanding with others when we feel more loving towards ourselves. If we have that self-understanding, we are able to take in feedback without defensiveness, meaning that we also have the ability to improve and grow the relationship.
In your experience, what should a) individuals and b) society, do to help people better understand themselves and accept themselves?
To start with, let’s ditch the pressure to constantly be positive. Life is really painful sometimes! If we as individuals and as a society can learn to make room for that pain, we can learn to embrace and care for those tender, hurting parts of ourselves instead of feeling like failures because we’re in pain and can’t seem to “think positive.”
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?
1) Kid Talk: I talk to myself like I’m a nervous five-year-old child. “I know you’re tired and this hurts, honey. Let’s just try five minutes of exercise/one bite of broccoli/one phone call and then we can do something fun.”
2) It’s Natural: I work really hard to remind myself that I’m just human. Messiness, struggle, and pain are all part of life, part of nature. There are squirrels outside my office, and I use their never-ending hunt for food as a reminder that daily work and struggle aren’t punishments inflicted on me because I’m bad at doing life — they’re just how nature operates.
3) Solitude: For me, time alone is as essential as breathing or food. I become irritable and disconnected from myself if I don’t have enough solitude on a regular basis, so I fit that into my schedule as best I can, even if it’s just driving somewhere on my own to give myself a breather between social events or getting up a little earlier in the morning before the rest of the house wakes up.
4) Acknowledge Reality: Since the word “acceptance” is often misunderstood, I tend to use the phrase “acknowledge reality” in its place. When I am able to let myself clearly see the reality of a situation, I’m better able to care for myself and to deal with situations effectively. I’m also less likely to set myself up for failure, which helps keep a positive cycle going. This applies to everything from letting myself buy clothes that actually fit me, no matter what size is on the label, to how much I put on my daily schedule and my to-do list.
5) Time Travel: I often think about my Past Self and Future Self. I can do favors for my Future Self, like putting away my clean clothes, and I can thank my Past Self for things like flossing, building friendships, or saving money. The three of us are becoming a good team. Since it’s sometimes tough to do something for ourselves, thinking of the Past Self and Future Self makes it feel more like I’m doing kind things for someone else. This approach also helps me generate compassion for myself (and my selves!).
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?
Anything by Brené Brown, but especially I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t). I carried that book around the house for two days, reading it every second I could. The concept of shame vs. guilt along with the tips she gave on how to build shame resilience created a massive shift in how I related to myself.
The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf helped me shake free from the societal expectations about appearance that I had struggled with for decades. For me, once I can see the larger societal context of something, I am better able to take the pressure off of myself. Reading books like this help remind me to ask myself, “Who benefits from me hating this thing about myself?”
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain helped validate my need for alone time, which in turn has helped me be friendlier and more present with people at the times I do choose to be social. I can better explain to people how I communicate best, improving my relationships and work collaborations.
I can’t leave Geneen Roth off this list. Her books, like Feeding the Hungry Heart, have been my companions on a journey of making peace with food and exploring my relationships with myself as well as with others.
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’d love to inspire a movement to accept ourselves as being human, with all of its pain and messiness and wonderfulness! If we could do that for ourselves and others, we could drop a lot of the shame and struggle that we pile on top of the hurt that’s already there.
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?
“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’” -Mary Anne Radmacher
This quote is on a magnet in my office, reminding me that I can always try again and that I don’t have to be fearless to be brave. We can take that next step shaking and terrified, as long as we take it. And if not today, we can try again in the next minute, hour, day, or week. We always have another chance to face our fears and reclaim our lives, again and again. Don’t give up.
Thank you so much for your time and for your inspiring insights!
Thank you for this opportunity. I hope this has been helpful for your readers.