Valentine’s Day (or “single-awareness day” as my clever sister used to joke) is a time when the concept of love is on everybody’s mind, single or coupled. This over-focus on romantic love can lead us to overlook the most important form of love: self-love.
Perhaps you have heard that we can only love others as much as we love ourselves. There is certainly truth in this. If our capacity to love ourselves is limited, so will our ability to fully love those around us and to experience love from others be limited. Reading this may feel discouraging to you. So many of us struggle to even understand what self-love is that just thinking about it can raise feelings of confusion and insecurity. I’d like to provide you with some clarity and direction in this area.
First off, it can help to think of love as an action rather than a feeling. This way you needn’t despair if you don’t feel love toward yourself yet. You can begin to cultivate self-love by what you do and especially how you treat yourself. For a useful starting point, think of how your treat someone you truly love.
The essence of practicing love (remember, it helps to think of love as a verb) involves treating someone with trust, respect, kindness, and fairness. It does not mean “letting them do whatever feels good.” Instead, it means carefully considering what will help you feel better about yourself, not worse.
Loving yourself means holding yourself accountable and fairly evaluating your actions while having compassion for the feelings and struggles you experience. This allows you to strive to reach your own goals and to understand and forgive the mistakes you will necessary make along the way. To further enrich your practice of self-love, read my post regarding self-compassion.
How you talk to yourself is critically important. It is the sad truth than most of us talk to ourselves in ways we would never talk to someone else, even our worst enemy! Try writing down the things you say to yourself for a week and you’ll quickly see what I mean. Experiment with talking to yourself in more understanding, compassionate ways and notice the difference in how your feel.
There are some very real obstacles to loving ourselves. To truly love ourselves (or anyone else) we must accept ourselves as worthy of being loved right now. This is not easy since we are used to basing our worth on conditions. We often hold our self-love hostage and insist we can only love ourselves when we are thinner, more successful, happier, better at handling things…the list goes on and on. Another powerful obstacle to self-love is shame. Brene Brown, noteworthy shame researcher, defines shame as “The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” We all experience shame throughout our lives and it has a profound impact on our relationships including that with ourselves.
Learning to accept yourself and heal from shame is a fruitful but challenging process. Working with a good therapist can be essential in this endeavor. Therapy can help you assess your personal obstacles, heal and grow from them and cultivate authentic love for yourself and others.
Resource: The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown