Our toughest critic is often the one staring back at us in the mirror. We’re quick to shame ourselves for a mistake that we made or for not meeting the expectations we — or others — had for our lives.
Research shows self-acceptance is the key to a happier life, but it’s also the habit many people practice the least. So how can we start? What are the secrets to showing ourselves love and kindness? HuffPost spoke with experts to find practical ways to help you start feeling good ― really, truly good ― in your own skin.
Aim for eight hours of sleep
Sleep is one of the most basic human needs. Yet more than one-third of American adults are not getting enough, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sleep deficiency is linked to a number of health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, stroke, obesity and depression.
The amount of sleep we need changes as we age, with adults ages 18 to 64 requiring seven to nine hours of sleep and those older than 65 requiring seven to eight hours, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
“Carving out enough time for sleep can be the greatest act of self-love,” said Heidi Kristoffer, a wellness expert and creator of CrossFlowX, a yoga and cardio-based workout program.
As a mom to three children ages 3 and younger — including twin girls — Kristoffer understands the sleep struggle for parents in particular. But she’s found a few hacks that have worked for her: “Eat dinner with the kids at 5 [p.m.],” she advised. “Yes, 5. If you eat early, you can sleep early, and you will get good sleep since you won’t be digesting a meal you just ate.”
Recognize your negative thoughts — and replace them
There’s a roommate inside your head who weighs in on your every move. They might catch a glimpse of your reflection in the mirror and make a snide remark about an ill-fitting shirt. Or, when someone doesn’t respond to your text right away, they lead you to believe you said the wrong thing — again.
“The way that we would talk to our worst enemy is the way that we talk to ourselves when we’re stuck in this toxic cycle,” said Rachel Wright, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in New York.
Wright, who co-owns Wright Wellness Center with her husband, Kyle Wright, added that one of the most common issues she helps clients work through is negative self-talk, which sometimes develops due to a number of influencers, including our parents, gender, culture and even our socioeconomic status.
Negative words that your parents used toward you growing up can often resurface as the things you tell yourself, she continued. However, with practice, you can learn to recognize these toxic thoughts and replace them with positive ones.
The first step is to identify the toxic thought (“OK, I’m thinking this thought”), Wright explained. Second, acknowledge and validate the thought (“OK, this is a terrible thought. I don’t want to be mean to myself”). Third, replace the thought with the new one. For example, if you struggle with feelings of inadequacy, Wright said, you could set an alarm to go off on your phone every day that reads, “I am enough.”
Start journaling every morning
Seeing your thoughts on paper is a great way to help you become more aware of them. It’s also a great way to look inward when you likely spend so much of your day pouring energy out. If you haven’t kept a journal since, say, your Lisa Frank diary in the third grade, start out with something simple. Write down what you’re grateful for each day.
Research shows that “practicing gratitude for a few minutes each day can boost people’s well-being — and even their experience of their physical health,” said Alison Ledgerwood, social psychologist and professor at the University of California, Davis.
It only takes about five minutes each morning or night, she added, and you can write about anything — big or small — that you appreciate. It’s like a rehearsal session for your mind to focus on the positive.
“You start thinking that way a little bit more spontaneously through the rest of the day as well,” Ledgerwood said. “It gets easier. The first time you sit down to write it, you’re like, ‘I’m grateful for my dog. And uh, my dog. I guess it was sunny today.’ The second day it’s a little easier and the third day, you’re writing about a lot more stuff.”
Fill your plate with foods that nourish your body and mind
After a bad day, have you ever cleared through a can of cheddar cheese Pringles? (No judgment.)
It’s widely known that emotional eating can be used to suppress or soothe feelings, including stress, anger and loneliness. However, in recent years, health experts have made the case that we don’t just turn to food in response to our emotional state — food might actually be the catalyst.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps regulate sleep and appetite, manage your mood and prevent pain, according to Harvard Health. Nearly 95 percent of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract. As a result, your digestive system doesn’t just help your body break down food, it helps guide your emotions.
Rachel Hollis, author of Girl, Wash Your Face, has also noticed a connection between her wellness routine — including diet — and her mindset.
“I’m actually much better able to control my thinking when I control my daily habits and routine: working out, eating well, staying hydrated all work as a physical practice that reinforces the mental practice I want to have,” Hollis said.
To get more from your meals, consider a balanced diet of foods that provide premium fuel to your body and brain. What’s that look like? A plant-based diet rich in fruits and vegetables, especially green, leafy vegetables and berries, is associated with better brain health, according to research. You might also consider fish and other types of seafood, which have been tied to improved cognitive function.
Make your world smaller
We spend much of our day seeking affirmation from others, especially through social media. On average, more than 95 million photos and videos are shared on Instagram every day, with posts garnering 4.2 billion “likes” each day.
Each “like” on our posts or photos gives us a boost of dopamine, a chemical in our brain that plays a role in our reward system. However, that satisfactory feeling is fleeting.
That’s why Wright and her husband periodically take breaks from social media — to be more present in the moment but also to spend more time with their own thoughts. “We automatically go external instead of turning internal, which is really where most of our answers live,” Wright said.
Take the social media apps off your phone for a period of time or only use your phone as a camera on vacation to quiet the external chatter and refill your cup.
Find physical movement that feels like a reward, not a punishment
Data show a good chunk of people ditch their New Year’s resolutions ― like hitting the gym ― pretty early in the year. Reasons for ditching a fitness goal may vary, but there’s likely one commonality: They signed up for something they never really wanted to do in the first place.
The physical and mental health benefits of exercise are well-known, but it can be hard to reap the rewards if you’re forcing yourself to do something you dislike. Choose physical movement that feels good for you, not like a punishment, Kristoffer said.
“You need to find your version of physical movement that makes you come alive, and feel amazing, and that you look forward to,” she added.
Stop “shoulding” on yourself
In our society, there’s this concept of where we “should” be, based on expectations set by our parents, our peers or ourselves, Wright said. If you’ve ever broken into an emergency bottle of wine after a family gathering filled with questions about why you’re single, haven’t had kids yet or aren’t in a higher position at work, you already know the impact “should” can have on your self-worth.
Renowned psychologist Albert Ellis used the term “shoulding” to emphasize the destructive power of made-up milestones, Wright said. People worry that they’re not “where they’re supposed to be” by a certain age, thinking to themselves, “I should be married by now” or “I should be making more money,” for example.
To stop “shoulding” on yourself, Wright suggested listening for the phrase “I should be” in your internal chatter and external conversations and ask yourself, “How can I say this differently?”
Spend five minutes a day meditating
Do you spend most of your days jumping from one task to another? In the pursuit of what’s next, we often miss out on the beauty of what’s happening right now.
Meditation helps to refocus your attention on the present moment. It can also help to gain perspective during a stressful situation, increase self-awareness, reduce negative feelings and increase creativity, according to the Mayo Clinic.
There are a number of ways to meditate but most involve a quiet setting, a comfortable position and deep, relaxed breathing. For a little guidance, consider downloading a meditation app, such as Insight Timer.
“Just five minutes of seated meditation a day will change everything,” Kristoffer said. “If you can focus on loving yourself in that meditation, even better.”