It’s easy to encourage and cheer on others—especially those you love. Doing the same for yourself, however, can feel like a struggle. Do it anyway, urges Mel Robbins, author of The High 5 Habit: Take Control of Your Life with One Simple Habit. She suggests starting your day by giving yourself a high five in the mirror. If it sounds and feels weird, your resistance may be stemming from one of two things.
“You may have spent a lifetime in the mirror criticizing or ignoring yourself,” says Robbins. “What you bring to the moment is regret, judgment, shame, and thoughts of who you were in the past that you don’t like. You may not feel like somebody worthy of celebration and support.”
The second reason the thought of giving yourself a high five feels awkward is that you’re somebody who believes worth is determine by what you accomplish—a common feeling for overachievers.
“Overachievers harp on shit that’s not going right, and you may not feel you deserve it in the moment,” says Robbins. “Maybe you’re chasing the next thing. If you aren’t actively accomplishing something, you may not feel worthy of being celebrated right now.”
Put aside those reasons and consider that the most important relationship you have is with yourself, says Robbins, and becoming your own cheerleader helps you in your relationships with others.
“If you’re insecure with yourself, you’ll be insecure with other people,” she says. “If you’re judgmental of yourself, you’ll fear the judgment of others. Build a new partnership with yourself by simply adding a high five in the mirror to your morning routine and you can bring that self to others.”
Stumbling on the power of the high five
Robbins discovered the power of the high five when she was at a low point in her life—facing bankruptcy, a failing marriage, and unemployment. Standing in her bathroom mirror one morning, she started picking apart her reflection, focusing on the things she didn’t like about herself. She felt completely overwhelmed and wanted to escape the things that were troubling her.
“I realized that no one was going to swoop in and fix my problems,” she says. “It had been a hell of a few months of nonstop stress. I’d been so busy taking care of everyone and everything else.”
She says she doesn’t know what came over her or why she did it, but she lifted her hand to her reflection and gave herself a high five.
“I was saying, ‘Come on, Mel. You’ve got this,'” she says. “If you can wake up and drag your ass out of bed and to the mirror, you deserve a high five. Look for what’s going right in your life and leverage small wins to create momentum and resilience.”
Robbins continued her high five morning ritual. On the third day, she looked forward to seeing herself. “I know it’s weird, but it’s the truth,” she says. “It felt like I was about to see a friend.”
Why the high five works
The impact of the high five is rooted in science. In a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers looked for the best way to motivate students during a challenging situation, such as taking an exam. Dividing a class into three groups, the first was given verbal praise about their own traits, such as “You did well because you’re smart.” The second group was praised on their efforts, such as “You did well because you worked so hard.” And the third group was simply given a high five.
The students were asked to evaluate their performance. Both groups that had verbal feedback ranked themselves significantly lower than the group that received the high five.
“That’s because the high five gesture has had a lifetime of programming into your brain as being positive,” says Robbins. “Without saying anything, a high five sends the message, ‘I believe in you. I see you. You got this.'”
The gesture also helps you rewire how you think about yourself. Lawrence Katz, the late neurobiologist at Duke University Medical Center, found that exercises designed to keep your brain active and learning, which he dubbed “neurobics,” help your brain create new pathways and connections. High fiving yourself is a neurobic exercise: a routine activity (such as looking at yourself in the mirror) paired with something unexpected that involves your senses (like giving yourself a high five) elicits an emotion (like celebrating).
Instead of seeking the validation and support you need outside of yourself (like getting a certain number of likes on your social media posts), you can develop a new habit of finding the courage and confidence to empower yourself wherever you are, says Robbins.
“Feeling supported and loved is the most motivating force on the planet,” she says, comparing the feeling to a marathon runner getting a high five from a spectator. “What keeps them going is knowing they’re being celebrated and cheered for. It affirms and fulfills our deepest need, which is to be seen, heard, and celebrated. A high five is a transfer of energy. When times get hard, developing habits of celebrating and cheering for yourself can be huge. It’s impossible to think ‘I suck’ when you give one to yourself.”