Loving yourself is a tall order in a society that stacks the odds against you. But with some understanding and acceptance, having compassion for yourself is a tiny rebellion that starts from within.
The term “self-love” gets thrown around frequently in the wellness community, and its meaning—and how to achieve it—can be mystifying. Self-help culture reminds us how important it is to “love ourselves,” while at the same time, social media urges us to pick apart our flaws and companies promise that self-love is just around the corner if we purchase their latest product. This internal conflict can lead to feelings of shame, guilt, and inadequacy—and that doesn’t sound like love to us.
So why does it matter? While self-love may induce eye rolls from skeptics, there’s scientific evidence to back up its importance. Studies have shown that having compassion for yourself reduces stress and boosts overall well-being, encourages resiliency so you’re more willing to take healthy risks, improves your ability to be empathetic, boosts your confidence and self-agency, and encourages you to set healthy boundaries that can protect your energy and mental health.
That all sounds great, but how can we learn to love ourselves in a world that encourages us to do the opposite? It turns out the answer may lie in how you define love in the first place.
The concept of what it means to love yourself is a tricky one to define. Determining what a healthy relationship with yourself looks like is the first step—and it can be different for everyone.
When you love someone, you accept their flaws and imperfections, appreciate them for the unique gifts and traits they possess, forgive them when they make a mistake, and seek to understand them the best you can. You don’t wait for them to become a perfect version of themselves—perhaps you see the potential in them, but you genuinely like them for who they are in this very moment. It might even upset you to see them comparing themselves to others, or to feel like they need to upgrade themselves by buying products or burning themselves out trying to be something they’re not. You view someone you love as valuable and worthy simply based on their existence—how they complement you, how they show up for you, or how you can rely on them. These qualities have nothing to do with how they look, and aren’t reliant on them doing the “right thing” all the time.
The components that make them uniquely themselves are what you appreciate the most—not some perfection-washed version of them that doesn’t allow you to see their authenticity. It takes an incredible amount of vulnerability, forgiveness, acceptance, and understanding to truly love someone. If we can apply these same feelings to ourselves, this is how we can begin to shift what our definition of self-love looks like.
Understand and Accept Your Behaviours
One of the main components to self-love is to understand and accept your motivations. Let’s say you find yourself getting angry at work lately, and you’re one interaction away from flying off the handle at your boss. You may think you’re simply hot-headed or quick to anger, but if you approach the situation with the intention of understanding and accepting these behaviours, you might look into your past to see other instances of anger flare-ups, and notice a pattern that emerges. For example, perhaps as a child you didn’t get the attention you desired from your parents unless you acted out loudly. That pattern could stay with you throughout your life, and rear its head when you feel as if you’re not being heard.
There’s empathy and compassion for yourself in coming to this realization: You didn’t have the tools you needed as a child to find another way to be heard. But now you’ve got more information and experiences to be able to find a new way to react. Next time you feel rage building inside you, you can ask yourself if you feel that your opinion is being disregarded or unheard, and calmly share that you’d appreciate your statements being taken into consideration. Even in this basic example, you’ve found ways to understand your motivations, forgive yourself in a kind way, and then grow to forge your own path. This healthy pattern is at the core of what it means to love yourself.
Don’t get it twisted: Diving into patterns and behaviours can be a challenging and lengthy process. Journaling can be a positive practice in untangling and understanding motivations, but it may also be wise to seek guidance from a qualified professional if you run into behaviours that are particularly challenging or difficult to understand.
Alter Your Inner Dialogue
Have you listened to your self-talk over the duration of a day? You might be surprised at how negative your inner dialogue can be—altering this habit is another integral step towards self-love. Notice that we said “habit”—it truly is one. And just like any other bad habit, you can replace it with something healthier.
First, become aware of your negative self-talk—really listen to yourself and notice what your inner dialogue sounds like. You can make a point to notice it throughout the day, or try keeping a notebook close by and jot down all the negative thoughts you have in a day. You might find that your inner dialogue is really an inner saboteur that works to pick apart your flaws. Then, begin to weave practices into your day that shift this dialogue to something more positive—or at least neutral, to begin.
Give yourself a “go-to” thought that you can use at a moment’s notice when you feel negativity creeping in. Maybe it’s thoughts of your pet, or an exciting project you’re working on, or weekend plans you’re looking forward to. Additionally, try downloading an affirmations app that you can scroll through to flood your mind with positivity. It takes practice, but slowly you’ll begin limiting space for negative thoughts and creating more space for positive ones.
Connect with Others
While self-love may seem like a solo pursuit, communication and community are not to be overlooked—in fact, they’ll help solidify the next step of your journey. How we interact with others can cause even more positive shifts in your life. For instance, many women have the inclination to brush off compliments from others; but understanding our value and appreciating the hard work we put in allows us to feel pride in ourselves—our achievements deserve to be recognized.
On a deeper level, engaging in conversations with others about the work you’re doing with self-love can be powerful for both you and your companion. Talking about your actions, the obstacles you’ve run into, and your triumphs and lessons will reaffirm the work you’re doing, and inspire others to take their own first steps. By communicating and engaging in these conversations with your community, you create the opportunity for compassion to live outside of yourself and spark cultural change.
The concept of self-love is often discussed in the wellness community, but its meaning and implementation can be perplexing. While self-help emphasizes the importance of loving yourself, media and commercial influences can lead to internal conflicts and feelings of shame. Scientifically, studies support the significance of self-compassion and its ability to reduce stress, enhance well-being, foster resilience, empathy, and confidence, and empower you to set healthy boundaries. Redefining self-love involves accepting flaws, appreciating unique traits, forgiving mistakes, and valuing yourself unconditionally. Understanding and accepting motivations, altering inner dialogue, and seeking community support are essential steps in cultivating self-love.
What Self-Love Truly Means and Ways to Cultivate It (betterup.com)
What is Self-Love and Why Is It So Important? (psychcentral.com)
Self-Love and What It Means | Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (bbrfoundation.org)
The Power of Self-Love | Psychology Today