martha beck on happiness
Photo: Ann Cutting
You've heard Tolstoy's old line about all happy families being alike, and all unhappy families being unhappy in their own way? Sorry, Leo, but I'm not sure you have that right. And when it comes to individuals, you've got it completely backward. Happy people are as unique and beautiful as snowflakes, while unhappy people are tediously, monotonously, excruciatingly the same. In fact, though I deeply respect therapy, I became a life coach rather than a therapist because I suspected I'd go crazy having to dole out the same basic remedy to every patient. You see, most unhappy people need to learn just one lesson: how to see themselves through the lens of genuine compassion and treat themselves accordingly.

The compassion I'm referring to isn't about narcissism. It's about giving yourself the acceptance, love, and esteem you'd give your best friend. And it's such an effective cure for so many ailments that I've come to believe it deserves its own acronym. Personally, I like the term SALVE: self-acceptance, love, value, esteem. No matter what problem you're facing, from a dreary commute to the end of your marriage, a little SALVE never hurts, and it almost always helps. Here are seven reasons why, if I were you, I'd be reaching for some right here, right now.

1. Applying SALVE is way less bothersome than killing yourself.
We all know that being accepted unconditionally feels wonderful, while being hated, rejected, and shamed is devastating. And since you're the one person whose company you'll never lose, using SALVE means there will always be someone in the room who accepts you, even on your most sleep-deprived, bad-haired, hormonally imbalanced days. Reject yourself, and you're permanently embedded with an emotional abuser. After a few decades (trust me on this), life with such a relentlessly judgmental critic can feel worse than death.

If you've reached this dreadful pass, please recall that suicide is logistically taxing, and (as Hamlet pointed out) may not even work as a pain reducer. Wouldn't you rather steer away from the logical extreme of self-destruction, and toward the conviction that your life is worth living?

2. Applying SALVE is the only way to break negative patterns and improve yourself.
Many people believe that self-hatred is a catalyst for positive change. Au contraire. Reject anything about yourself—your bad habits, your appearance, your impulse to laugh uncontrollably at funerals—and you'll get brief, white-knuckle attempts at self-improvement that consistently end in relapse.

This is why rehab programs try to connect addicts with people who can love them exactly as they are, and can teach them how to apply SALVE. (FYI, this isn't the same as enabling the addiction. You can accept someone who craves alcohol without buying her a drink.) Tough love and unconditional acceptance, not blame and rejection, ultimately ease an addict's inner pain and its accompanying compulsions. Ditto for anything you want to change about yourself. SALVE is the magical habit-breaking ingredient.

Next: How to make your loved ones actually feel loved
martha beck on happiness
Photo: Ann Cutting
3. Applying SALVE is the only way you can make your loved ones feel loved.
I have a friend I'll call Emma whose standards for herself are so high, she almost never meets them; few humans could. Recently, while chatting with some other friends of Emma's, I discovered that we all feel anxious in her presence, afraid of not measuring up. Though Emma never judges anyone but herself, her friends unconsciously reflect that self-judgment. Self-loathing drags her loved ones down even as she tries to cheer them up.

If you won't apply SALVE for your own sake, at least do it for others'. Believing that you're not doing enough, that you need to work harder, often comes from a desire to give more to others: You "sacrifice" yourself out of love. But your nearest and dearest won't feel this love; they'll feel what you feel about yourself. This strange truth seems to have something to do with mirror neurons, brain cells that play a role in our ability to share other people's emotions. It takes the Golden Rule to a whole new level: Feel about yourself what you would have others feel about themselves.

4. SALVE helps you lose weight.
Years ago I noticed that many of my clients started slimming down, often without trying, as their self-acceptance increased. I did tons of research (actually wrote a book about it) and found that self-loathing tends to increase stress eating and the production of fat-storing stress hormones.

On the other hand, people who apply SALVE find it much easier to stop unhealthy eating. My son, Adam, who has Down syndrome, uses SALVE every day. (He happens to be a genius when it comes to unconditional acceptance.) Several years ago, when Adam found himself getting chubby, he asked me what might help him trim down. Since he always accepts, loves, values, and esteems his body, once he knew something was bad for him he was no more tempted to eat it than to stick a fork in the dog. He switched to an extremely healthy diet-and-exercise program without any sense of self-deprivation.

With Adam and my clients as models, I began applying SALVE every time I winced at my own body in a mirror. I replaced bouts of mental self-flagellation with deliberate kindness, finding something to like or even admire about my physique. (It helped when I thought of my body as ski equipment—I really love my ski equipment.) I strongly encourage you to do the same. Every time body shame hits, slap on some serious SALVE.

5. SALVE helps you make money.
Imagine you're interviewing two people for a job that will require them to work alongside you, interact with your clients, and market the product you're selling. One candidate looks sullenly at the floor, wincing and cursing, apologetically explaining that she's overwhelmed by shame and self-doubt. The other candidate seems happy, relaxed, and genuinely interested in you and your business. Which one do you hire? Whose energy will add more value? Duh. When you go out into the moneymaking world, you've got to reach for the SALVE. Nothing else is a better magnet for abundance.

Now, you may be thinking, "Well, I can fake a happy, confident, unself-conscious persona at the office." This is true...almost. Self-haters can mimic the joy that comes from SALVE, but not completely. Our real feelings flash across our faces in microexpressions lasting a fraction of a second—too brief for most people to consciously identify them, but long enough that they can leave observers unnerved. People who fake confidence may come across as less than trustworthy, and being an effective money earner is all about trust. With the help of SALVE, you'll be far more successful in any negotiation, meeting, sale, or other interaction that involves financial stakes.

Next: How your home benefits from a new way of thinking
6. SALVE spiffs up your house.
Try this: Write a description of your home, stream of consciousness, no editing. Presto! You now have a metaphorical description of your inner world. If we're overwhelmed by life's burdens, dragging psychological baggage from our childhoods, or emotionally empty, our homes reflect it in clutter, ugliness, or barrenness. Carry pockets of self-hatred in your heart, and you'll have spaces in your home you just can't clean. Hold your abusive grandmother's insults as beliefs about yourself, and you won't be able to discard the hideous tchotchkes she gave you. Really detest yourself, and your whole house will look disgusting.

Take a look around your home and find the ugliest places. Notice how they correspond to places inside yourself where you don't use SALVE. Change your mind, and see how easy it is to change your home. It may be shallow to recommend compassion as a decoration strategy. But if appealing to house pride will get you to self-acceptance, I'll go there.

7. SALVE aligns you with truth.
There's one final reason you absolutely must love yourself as you are: You are lovable. Can you show me any baby in any nursery who isn't priceless? No. There's no such thing as a worthless newborn. And the essential value that was born into brand-new-baby you can never be extinguished. This means that even if you think you're being absolutely honest, believing yourself to be anything other than astonishing, incomparable, and infinitely precious makes you a habitual liar.

So if ease, abundance, and health aren't motivating enough, remember that failing to love yourself as you are causes you to lose your grip on reality. That way madness (or at least profound unhappiness) lies. Conversely, learning to apply SALVE aligns you with truth: the truth that heals, the truth that enriches the world, the truth that finally lets you be uniquely, perfectly you.

Martha Beck's latest book is Finding Your Way in a Wild New World (Free Press).

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