In 1986, pop-singer Whitney Houston had a worldwide hit with her version of The Greatest Love Of All.
Much of the song's appeal - aside from Houston's soulful and compelling delivery - comes from the lyrics at the end of the chorus:
The greatest love of all
Is easy to achieve.
Learning to love yourself
Is the greatest love of all.
These are stirring words, and many people have found them inspirational. But unfortunately they are not true.
Loving yourself may very well be - as the song says - the "greatest love of all".
But it is not always "easy to achieve".
Many of us find it difficult - or even impossible - to love ourselves.
This may seem like a strange thing to say given that we are all so preoccupied with our own wellbeing.
We all put lots of time and effort into trying to make ourselves feel safe and comfortable.
So in that sense we seem to love ourselves well enough.
The trouble is, we are all intimately acquainted with the negative aspects of our lives - our flaws, failures and regrets.
And this means that we can always find plenty of reasons to dislike ourselves.
We are all imperfect.
We all have a mixture of good and bad in our lives.
We all have positive and negative character traits.
We all have strengths and weaknesses.
This is part of being human.
As the psychologist and Buddhist teacher, Tara Brach, says in her book, Radical Acceptance: "Imperfection is not our personal problem - it is a natural part of existing."
But problems arise when we forget that faults and failings are a natural part of existing, and refuse to accept our imperfect selves.
DENIAL, BLAME, AGGRESSION
If we are unwilling or unable to accept our flaws and failures we will do one of three things: we will deny them; we will beat ourselves up over them; or we will shift the blame onto others.
None of these responses are helpful or productive.
Denying our imperfections, refusing to acknowledge and accept them, deprives us of the opportunity to grow and change.
It leaves the aspects of our lives that cause damage to ourselves and others unchallenged.
Plus it leads to inner tension since we cannot help knowing, deep down, that things are not right.
Beating ourselves up over our faults and failings is no better.
Guilt and self-loathing - as anyone who suffers from them can testify - never lead to positive and lasting change.
Rather, they lead to anxiety and self-absorption, and reduce our capacity to live fully and freely.
It is impossible to behave open-heartedly toward others when we close our hearts to ourselves.
Pushing the blame onto others is perhaps even worse.
Not only does it deprive us of the opportunity to grow and to change, but it also adds bitterness and resentment to our other woes.
It may temporarily relieve the burden of guilt and failure, but it also adds to the sum total of negativity in our lives, and ultimately reinforces the dissatisfaction we feel with ourselves.
Our only productive option, then, is to treat ourselves with love and compassion; to accept ourselves, as we are, with all of our faults.
Only by doing this can we become better, happier people.
In the words of the great American psychologist, Carl Rogers: "The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change."
But despite what Houston sang, this kind of healthy self-love is not always "easy to achieve", especially if self-criticism has become a deeply ingrained habit, or if we have major sources of failure or regret preying upon our minds.
In such cases, it can take time, effort and even courage to learn to love ourselves.
This article was first published on March 5, 2015.
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