As a part of my series about “Learning To Finally Love Yourself” I had the pleasure to interview Vania Nikolova, Ph.D. Vania is the Head of Health Research at RunRepeat.com. She has struggled herself on her path to self-acceptance and self-love and she wants to share her insight on the matter.
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.
For me this is still more of a personal journey than a career path. I have seen the devastating effects of the lack of self-compassion, self-love and self-acceptance in my own life and the struggles I’ve been having. I am glad that at a point in my life I was able to afford counselling, so I realized where most of my suffering was coming from and I have made great progress in alleviating it.
This journey has made me personally invested in the subject, and I have also delved in it professionally.
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 wouldn’t say that I have new and exciting projects. It is a long and hard journey to relearn to love yourself, and my focus now is to be observant and aware of my own patterns and to make meaningful changes. And of course, to find ways to extrapolate from my experience and to help other people.
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?
Yes. My biggest struggle on my way to self-love has been dealing with my perfectionism.
For example, when I was studying Psychology, I got a B on my Social Psychology course. I was devastated. Even when I write this, I know how absurd this sounds, but then I was feeling worthless. I felt like I didn’t try hard enough, that I didn’t study enough, and of course, that maybe I am not smart enough and that I am not enough. And that was a sign that I won’t be a good psychologist.
These kinds of spirals happened to me a lot, and they still do, but much less often and a lot milder.
It has been a great challenge for me not to put my self-worth on the table, whenever there was a minor setback or a failure. It has been a great step for me from “there’s something wrong with me” to “I could have done this better, how can I improve next time”.
I could say that there is something like a tipping point. You make these small incremental changes, you make mistakes and you self-correct, it’s like drops of water in a glass. And after a while, you just notice, that you have changed, that you’re handling things differently. I know that I have felt this, but I can’t give a clear definition of what it is and when it happens.
It is also important to note, that you reach different tipping points for the different things you are improving on. It’s not one tipping point, after which you’re all right, and you don’t need any improvement anymore. But these are small victories which motivate you to keep going and they build your trust in yourself, and the belief that what you’re aiming for is possible.
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?
I would say that even those percentages seem a little high to me. I would guess that even less people are satisfied with their bodies. But maybe this is because I was suffering from an eating disorder for a long long time. And now, I work with people, suffering with the same issues. So, body dissatisfaction is something that I know deeply and is really salient in my mind as a problem.
I would say that the culture is still very toxic and not conducive to body-acceptance. The amount of diets and diet pills marketed is staggering. Even in TV shows, the characters are commenting on their own and other people’s appearance and dishing dieting advise. The retouched images in commercials and magazines and don’t help as well.
We’re so enveloped in body-judgement and preconceived notions of what a “good” body should look like, what healthy looks like, and what are the reasons for any deviation, so we very readily judge with vengeance anyone that doesn’t fit the bill. And this isn’t helping anyone, because the people who judge most are the ones that feel worst and are most insecure about their bodies.
I really love the new movements for body-acceptance and health at every size. And I think that they were long overdue and people were starving for acceptance and a way to feel ok with their perfectly imperfect bodies. This is why I think these movements are successful, but there is a huge rebellion from the diet-culture, of course. I hope that love and acceptance will win.
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, we don’t accept ourselves, we struggle with our sense of worth and our self-esteem.
This leads to self-doubt, not taking chances, not knowing our worth, not asking for what we want, thinking that we don’t deserve it, settling and living unsatisfying lives. Not loving ourselves hampers living up to our full potential, and having a fulfilling life.
So, what helps us live our best lives is self-love.
Why do you think people stay in mediocre relationships? What advice would you give to our readers regarding this?
People stay in mediocre and unsatisfying relationships for a multitude of reasons. But I’ll briefly talk about the main ones.
A lot of people are afraid of being alone. But the core fear is that they can’t make it on their own, which is doubt in their value and abilities. So, this could be traced back to lack of self-love.
A lot of people think that they can’t do better. This is also based in fear and self-doubt.
Other people think that they don’t deserve better. This is also traced to a sense of worthlessness, and not being enough and not deserving what you want. And this is also a consequence of not loving oneself.
So, the advice here is again, focus on learning to accept yourself, love yourself, knowing yourself, finding out what you want and don’t want, and on setting some boundaries.
For other people this is all they know. They haven’t seen anything different and even though they don’t like it, they don’t know how anything else feels. They might see couples that look happy, but they might think that things under the surface are different and that no one is really happy. Or that this kind of relationship is for a different type of person. This is a really tricky situation, because the leap of faith and the strength it takes for the person to change their situation is huge. And in this case without friends and support it’s almost impossible to change. And I would suggest, to try everything in your power to find that support.
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?
I think that accepting where we are and what we need to change is key. A lot of people mistake acceptance of where you are as reconciling with the situation and refusing to change.
Accepting the truth about ourselves is the only way we can change.
For me it was hard to accept, that I don’t listen to understand, but to reply. I wasn’t very supportive or very accepting. And when people were in crisis, I wasn’t the best person to call.
I was so scared, that I wasn’t the smartest person in the world and that I didn’t understand everything and that I didn’t have all the answers. So, when someone was sharing something hard, I would make a snap judgment and run with it. I would start giving advice, and it was usually things that people have thought of, because they’ve been having the problem for a while, and I am just hearing about it.
I wasn’t trying to understand their experiences and their struggles. I was trying to alleviate the discomfort that I was feeling from their struggle. I was rushing to find reasons to prove to myself that this could not happen to me and so on. I was very judgemental and I was blaming the victim a lot. And of course, this was affecting my relationships. I was wondering why I don’t feel very connected with my friends and why it’s hard to form new relationships.
So, from this struggle came the realisation that there must be something I am not doing quite right. I had to take my part of the responsibility. This was very hard for me — to realize and to improve on it. But I had to examine how I felt when people were treating me the way I was treating them, I also read a lot of books, did a lot of exercises and little by little I improved. It’s hard to accept such a fundamental flaw, but I had to. And I can say, the improvement on my part has changed my life for the better.
So, my advice is, see what key areas in your life you’re struggling with and start examining. Deconstruct how you are treating people in some situations. See how they are reacting. Ask them what they might need from you. Ask yourself how do you feel when someone is treating you this way. Start paying attention.
For everyone it will be different questions that need to be answered, because we have different problems and we have different values. But our struggles are the best place to start.
Another great thing to do is to really dig in and establish your core values. They are very valuable, when you are changing our behaviour. If what you do is not aligned with our values you will be struggling and you will feel discomfort and resentment. They serve as a great compass for orienting our behaviour.
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)?
In my personal and professional opinion, being able to be alone is very valuable. We know that in life anything can happen, and the only person we can always rely to be there is ourselves. So, having a good relationship with ourselves, knowing that we can make it on our own, and that we can trust ourselves gives us courage and makes our lives better.
Unfortunately, to learn how to be alone, you have to be alone. Some people rush from one relationship to the next, just because they are afraid of this void that opens when they are alone. These decisions are made out of desperation, and they are not the best ones. We all know that when we don’t feel pressured, then we can decide optimally. We can be picky, and we can think about what’s best.
It is very difficult, but we have to embrace this empty space. We have to embrace that sometimes all that you’ll have is yourself. And we are enough.
To be able to achieve that we have to allow ourselves to be alone. It’s important to get to know ourselves, to find our values, our dreams, what we want and don’t want in life. And this is solo work. If we don’t decide these things for ourselves, the world will decide for us, and we’ll be pulled in so many directions that we don’t want, that some day we might have the feeling we’re living someone else’s life.
So, if you want to be happy and to love your life, you should learn to be alone.
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?
I think that you can love, accept and understand others to the extent you understand, accept and love yourself. So, when you improve your capacity for self-love you improve your capacity for loving others. Being able to accept yourself more lets you accept others more. And this is what it takes for better and more fulfilling relationships.
In your experience, what should a) individuals and b) society, do to help people better understand themselves and accept themselves?
I think that both are very important — when we change on the individual level, society changes on its own, but societal environment can be more or less conducive for these individual changes.
Now, we’re having more conversations on the topics of self-love, self-kindness, etc., and public awareness of their importance has risen. I think that this is conducive to more meaningful personal change. So, this is a great step in the right direction.
Also, reducing the stigma for people searching for help, and going to therapy will be great. I see some shifts in this direction, but there’s more to be desired. Being able to talk more openly for our struggles will help us feel less alone and overcome them more successfully.
On personal level, we should work on ourselves and examine our lives and our struggles. It’s also important to find a safe way to let people in and built strong relationships, because they can help in our journey to self-discovery.
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?
I am sorry, but I can provide 4.
1.Self-acceptance. Accept that you’re not perfect, and that you’ll make mistakes. It’s ok, you’re human. What I have found out in my practice is that owning up to not being perfect and taking responsibility makes it easier. When you own up to your transgressions, and make amends, if you can, then you have done all you can. Trying to accept that imperfection is a part of life and no amount of self-berating will change that is a huge step.
Example: For me the greatest test for self-acceptance was my recovery from my ED. Reaching my set-point weight and learning to live with my perfectly imperfect body was hard, but it was so worth it.
I realized that I feel much better, and I am a much more aligned with my values when I am not obsessed with thoughts of food and body image. I was able to be more present in my life. And when I let go of the mania that if I don’t look a certain way, no one will ever care about me, I was able to notice that people were caring about me all along.
I gained so much, when I stopped being afraid of the weight and what people would think of me. My relationships got a lot better, I made new friends and I gained more courage. I was able to focus on what I want, and not on what the world wanted from me. This was the point when I realized that it wasn’t my weight that was holding me back, it was me.
So, when I accepted the way I look, now at my set-point weight, I was able to focus on so much more things, that bring me joy and make me happy.
2.Let go of being a control freak. We really want to believe that the world is predictable, that we can mitigate every risk, and that we can simulate every scenario in our heads, and that this will protect us. But as you know to your cost, it doesn’t really work that way.
And predicting the worst outcomes doesn’t really soften the blow, it just makes us weary and joyless before the worse happens.
One other thing here is that we have to let go of our hindsight bias, and we have to stop punishing ourselves, because we should have predicted what happened. We have to accept that we’re working with limited information, and that we’re making the best decisions we can.
And also, we can’t change the past, we can only learn and do better in the future.
Example: When I drive, I get uncomfortable when the car behind me is too close, especially, when we drive at high speed.
Now I can say that it makes me a little uncomfortable, before I was outright terrified. I kept thinking how I’ll have to do an emergency stop and that the guy behind will smash into me. This thought was torturing me a lot. So, I would start mitigating the risk — try to change lanes, drive faster, so he’ll stay behind and things like this. But then I realized, that by trying to control the environment, I was putting myself in a much greater risk, because I was acting impulsively and reactively.
Also, I realized that no one knows what might happen and all this unstoppable worrying is making me less present and less responsive to the real environment.
So, now I don’t let myself go down this road. I notice that the car behind me is close, but that’s it. I take care of my driving and my behavior on the road, and leave the responsibility for other people’s driving to them.
3.Find your shame triggers. We all know shame, this awful feeling that tells us that we’re not good enough. Noticing which situations make us feel this way could be life changing. When we’re aware of what is going on, we can trace it back and see how our past has affected us and why we’re feeling like this at this point in time. We can realize, that the same conditions do not apply here. And also, we can rationally dispute, if what happened actually means what we think.
Example: As I mentioned before, getting a B grade on my Social Psychology exam sent me on a shame spiral. What I was able to do after the fact was to examine the situation.
I realized that feeling stupid is a huge shame trigger for me. And every intellectual task that I didn’t do perfectly made me feel stupid. There is a huge reason for this — when I was a kid, my parents will always make the remark that A- is not an A, and that I didn’t try hard enough, or that maybe I wasn’t smart enough to learn things properly. This has stayed with me for a lifetime.
But when I realized the pull from the past, I was able to free myself from it. Even though this is what my parents thought about school, this is not what I have to think. Also, I realized that there were a lot of other factors involved in my less than perfect performance. And also, that I have learned a lot from this course, and that I know enough. So, I was able to reconcile.
Now, every time, I notice that I feel small because I feel stupid, I make a mental note to examine the situation, and to rationally dispute it. And it works. These things happen less and less with time.
4.Thinking about the worst that could happen. I have noticed that I worry and spin out of control over small stuff. For a lot of things when I think about what’s the worst that could happen, I see that is not that bad. We all to catastrophizing to some degree, but it’s a good thing to keep it to a minimum. So, when I start worrying too much about something, I start thinking about what’s the worse that could happen. And also, what are the consequences of my worry now.
This will become clearer with this example:
Example: I used to worry a lot about my job performance. Even though my performance reviews were good. I had a strong case of imposter syndrome, I thought that I would be found out, and that my boss will finally realize that I am not that valuable to the team and he’ll fire me.
Then I started thinking, what’s the worst that could happen if he does. Well, I would have to find another job. But I had some savings, that could last a few months, I am well educated, I have done well on job interviews. So even if he fires me, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
Yes, my current job gives me a lot of flexibility, which I enjoy, but even if the conditions at my new job are less favorable, it is still not fatal.
I had to also consider how my fear was affecting me. A lot of my energy was focused on worrying of what I was doing wrong. I was afraid to take risks and to try new things. My performance was really suffering, but it was all due to my anxiety, and not due to lack of skills or anything else.
When I realized that, I was able to let go of that fear, and just focus on giving my best.
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?
I would recommend everything from Brene Brown. I don’t listen to podcasts, I prefer to listen ad to read books.
What I love about her work is that it’s authentic, it’s very honest and it’s very relatable. She really shines a light in all the dark places and we need more of that. Subjects like shame, worthiness, acceptance and belonging are still somewhat taboo, but they are the corner stone of our happiness and fulfillment. So, I highly recommend her work.
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 would say a kindness movement. A movement that inspires people to be kinder to each other and kinder to themselves.
I am kind of tired of the “no pain no gain” prerogative and the tough love. It’s so easy to be harsh and unsensitive and to bust people’s balls.
I really think that the world needs more kindness.
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?
The quote is “this too will pass”.
It comes from a story, which I’ll tell in brief. There was a wise man who gave a country man two boxes — a blue and a red one. And he told him to open the blue one when hard times came, and to open the red one in good times.
After some time, there was a very harsh winter, the county man’s crops all died, and he hardly survived. In the midst of this disaster he opened the blue box, and inside was a note saying: “this too will pass”.
After this winter, things got better, the country man did well for himself. In the midst of his success he opened the red box, and he found the same note as before: “this too will pass”.
This quote reminds be that though times don’t last, tough people do. So, no matter how bad things are right now, they’ll get better.
And also, that even if things are going extremely well, I don’t know what might happen, so it’s better not to forget that tough times might come, and to prepare. The purpose is not to squander joy, but to be prepared. When you have done some preparation, tough times don’t scare you as much.
Thank you so much for your time and for your inspiring insights!