How To Love Yourself
Yes, you really do have to love yourself first.
Here's why… and how.
How to Love Yourself
++ Note: Learning how to love yourself is such an important, core topic that I decided to post this both as a written article and a podcast so that you can access the info in whichever format is most helpful to you. (Scroll down for the podcast link). I sincerely hope this information helps you cultivate the love and compassion for yourself that you deserve. With love — LMB ++
“You have to love yourself first.”
For many years, I would hear that and wonder — what does that even mean? I would hear the words, and think “Yup, that sounds like a good idea,” but how to actually create this state of self love was a total mystery.
I didn’t feel a lot of love for myself. And on some level I thought that it sounded sort of selfish and weird to think about being deeply in love with one’s self.
I imagined Narcissus cooing at his reflection in the glassy water of the river bank, and think, “People keep telling me I need to love myself. But how exactly is that supposed to improve my life or my relationships?”
I didn't get it. I do now.
Here's what I've learned on my journey of growth, and what I teach my online therapy and life coaching clients now about what self love is, why it's important, and how to love yourself.
But first, let's talk for a moment about what self love is NOT, and the traps people often fall into when they want to love themselves but don't know how.
Malignant Self Love
This skepticism around “self-love” I originally had was not helped by my journey into becoming a therapist. I’d hear that phrase, “You have to love yourself first” get tossed around by therapy clients using it to — quite frankly — justify all kinds of unhealthy things in the name of “self-love.”
People can use, “But I have to love myself!” to rationalize the worst kinds of self indulgence, refusal to accept responsibility, breaking of commitments, abandoning of values, displacement of blame, or breathtakingly insensitive actions towards other people. (“Yes, I stole the money and lied about it, but I deserve to be happy! I love myself!”)
This is not healthy self love. Healthy self love does not make your needs, rights or feelings more important than those of other people. Just the opposite: Healthy self love makes you more empathetic and compassionate. More on that in a moment…
Using “Self Love” as Another Way To Judge Yourself
Here's another thing that self-love is absolutely not: Judgment. Ironically, people will find ways to use the idea of self love against themselves. I can't tell you how many times in therapy or life coaching sessions I’ve see lovely, beautiful people welling up with tears as they spoke their truth and said things like:
“I don’t love myself. I don’t like myself. The only love that matters is the love I get from other people. But I know I should love myself. And the fact that I don’t love myself is one more reason for me to hate myself.”
Looking at the level of self love you have and using that as just another way to beat yourself up, judge yourself, and feel like you're failing.
I have therapy and coaching clients with the expectation that they should love themselves, and that they didn't feel that way was only more evidence that there was something terribly wrong with them. Is that true for you?
It is okay if you don't feel like you love yourself. Being able to accept yourself — with compassion, as you are — is self-love. Bashing yourself for not being good enough or because you don't feel like you love yourself is the opposite of self love.
Understanding Love: Love For Yourself, and Love For Others
But over many years as a therapist, a marriage counselor, a wife, a mother, and a person on her own even-winding journey of growth, I feel that the true nature of love is starting to become clearer to me.
Love does not hurt. Real love is never an excuse to do bad things to other people, and it's definitely not anything that should result in more self-criticism or self loathing.
What I’m realizing about self love or love for others is that you don't have to feel love to have love, and you don't have to feel like you love yourself or that you love others.
Love is much, much bigger than any of the feelings that blow through us on a given day. Striving to have a feeling of love is not how love works.
People who love themselves may not feel the emotion of having love for themselves.
Here's a secret: Love is not actually a feeling. Love certainly can be a feeling. Love can be a felt emotion. But love is really something that we do. Love is an action. Love is a choice.
Choosing to have tolerance, compassion, and acceptance for yourself as you are — even if you don't feel like you love yourself — is, paradoxically, what self love actually is.
Every once in awhile we might have the wonderful treat of feeling self love, but that’s just a warm patch of sunlight on a path that’s dappled with the subtle lights and darks of the emotion we walk though every day.
True Love, real love, is more like a state of grace that we can choose to live in: The energy that prioritizes the well-being of people over everything else. Love is compassion, empathy, support, hope, and help that is extended for the benefit of others… And that includes us, too.
True Love For Others
True love allows us to set our self-focus and ego aside and do what needs to be done for the benefit of others. Have you ever stayed up late to do laundry or gone to the grocery store in the middle of the night because your kid needed clean clothes or lunch for school the next day, even though you were tired? That’s the kind of true love I’m talking about. Simple prioritization for the wellbeing of another.
In that state of everyday grace, it doesn’t really matter what you’re thinking or feeling or wanting: You’re simply understanding what someone else is feeling and needing, and being of service to them.
Throwing someone else over the wall is the height of heroism. Good parents do that for their children without even thinking of it. And through our relationships we all get the chance to practice softening ourselves, choosing compassion over criticism, and showing others that their feelings are as important to use as our own.
That is how we love others. We may or may not have the feeling of love as we do what love requires. The fact that we do it anyway is evidence of the power of the love we have. It's easy to do what you feel like doing. True love does the hard stuff, even when you don't feel like it. That is the definition of love.
True Love For Yourself
But how do you love yourself? It's easier to see how you can be compassionate, and tolerant, and generous with other people – but towards yourself? “Isn't that the opposite of True Love?” You might be thinking. Or, “If love is about doing things for the benefit of others, and to help, support and lift up others, isn't it taking away from them if I turn that compassionate energy towards ME? Isn't that SELFISH???”
Loving yourself is not selfish. Loving yourself is the foundation of wellbeing that supports you in your ability to love others. Loving yourself means treating yourself with the same kind of compassion, support, encouragement and devotion to your health and genuine best interests that you give to other people.
What I’m learning is that being a healthy person who is able to give love to others means that you are having a “true love” kind of relationship with yourself first. Because if you refuse to love yourself you will be too unwell physically, mentally, and emotionally to be of benefit for others.
Note that I just said, “If you refuse to love yourself,” rather than, “If you can't love yourself.” Remember, love is not something you have to feel. You cannot actually make yourself feel like you love yourself (or anyone else for that matter.) And you don't have to feel that. You just have to do it. And that is 100% within your ability, all the time.
Here's how it works:
Think of loving yourself is treating yourself as you would parent a cherished child:
1) You can choose to be an emotionally safe person, and speak to yourself kindly, compassionately, and wisely. You can offer yourself guidance, reassurance and emotional support instead of criticizing yourself, scaring yourself, or being negative towards yourself.
If you wouldn't say it to a small child who needs help and support, it's not good enough for you either.
2) Setting firm limits that support your health and wellness. Good parents who love their children help them stay healthy by going to bed at a reasonable hour, eating nutritious foods, getting some exercise, and and taking care of their health. Even when they don't feel like it.
You paying attention to what you need in order to be physically safe and healthy, and then making sure you get that, is self love in action.
3) Directing yourself to make choices that demonstrate your commitment to your own well being. Self love is self protection. Pay attention to what feels hurtful or toxic to you, and take steps to protect yourself. This might involve setting boundaries with others, listening to your inner wisdom, and avoiding harmful situations. Self love is also shown by taking positive action to create positive things for yourself, and going after things that you know will bring out the best in you (and staying away from the things that will harm you in the long run).
Loving yourself isn't a feeling. It's a commitment.
The key here is that, just like you don’t have to be overwhelmed with feelings of love in order to be a good parent, you don’t have to feel “love” in order to love yourself.
Your commitment to loving others is much bigger than anything you feel.
- You can feel totally frustrated with your kid and still be kind and responsible.
- You can be annoyed with your partner and still control yourself and be generous.
- And you can not feel like exercising, or like beating yourself up mercilessly, and still decide to act lovingly towards yourself: Taking yourself for a walk, or shifting into more compassionate, self supporting language.
Why Loving Yourself Matters
Think about a child who is being mistreated by their parents: Verbally and emotionally abused (or worse), given junk food, encouraged to watch TV, chaotic or overly strict routines, no support with academics or friendships….
What would you expect from that kid in terms of his ability to maintain emotional stability and be a good partner or friend to someone else? Not a lot? Yeah. When you’re not loving yourself, not giving yourself what you need, not meeting your basic needs for health, self-care, nurturing, acceptance and compassion, you are basically abusing yourself from the inside out. When any of us are being abused, we are simply not going to be well. If you are abusing and neglecting yourself, you won't have much to offer others either. How could you?
If you're reading the above line and it resonates, let's use this moment as one of self-compassion and self-acceptance instead of self-recrimination and another way to make yourself feel bad. Try this instead:
“Of course I haven't been well and have not been at my best. How could I possibly be? I have not been treating myself with the love and respect I deserve. I'd like to do a better job of that, and I'm committed to learning how.”
That language is accepting. It's compassionate. It's understanding. It's also hopeful, and leading you towards something better.
Choosing to have a good, nurturing, responsible and compassionate relationship with yourself is what it means to love yourself. To behave in the way that supports your highest and best… even when you don’t feel like it.
Figure out what kind of support you really need, and then decide to give it to yourself. No matter what.
Also, know that learning how to love yourself is a process, and one that takes a long time. It's also very hard to do alone. An enormous act of self love can be reaching out for help and guidance to learn how to treat yourself better. Everyone needs support, and sometimes before you can support yourself from the inside, you need to be supported and build up from the outside through a healing relationship with a compassionate therapist or coach who is devoted to your personal growth.
I hope these ideas help you find your way forward. For even more on the important subject of how to love yourself, I hope you listen to this podcast episode too.
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How to Love Yourself
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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She's the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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