“You have to love yourself first.”
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 back then. And on some level, I thought that it sounded sort of selfish and weird to think about being deeply in love with yourself. I imagined Narcissus cooing at his reflection in the glassy water of the river bank.
I’d think, “People keep telling me I need to love myself. But how exactly is that supposed to improve my life or my relationships?”
I am now able to teach my therapy and personal growth coaching clients what I learned on my own journey of personal growth, and that self love is so much more than just narcissism by another name. I’ve collected some of my thoughts on my evolving understanding of self-love here, as well as on a recent episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast. You can find the episode on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
What Does It Mean to Love Yourself?
So, what is “self love” anyway? 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.
This skepticism around “self love” I originally had was not helped when I became a therapist.
I’d heard that phrase, “You have to love yourself first” get tossed around by therapy clients who were using it to — quite frankly — justify all kinds of unhealthy things in the name of “self love.”
People would say, “But I have to love myself!” to rationalize the worst kinds of self-indulgence: refusing to accept responsibility, breaking commitments, abandoning values, shifting blame, or breathtakingly insensitive actions towards other people.
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…
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 and create self-limiting beliefs. I can’t tell you how many times in therapy or life coaching sessions I’ve seen lovely, beautiful people welling up with tears as they spoke their truth and said things like:
“I don’t love myself. 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.”
These people are told constantly “You have to love yourself,” without anyone explaining how it even happens, and see the fact that they don’t feel that way as more evidence that there was something terribly wrong with them.
What Is Self-Love?
Over many years as a counselor and coach, a marriage counselor, a wife, a mother, and a person on her own ever-winding journey of growth, I feel that the true nature of love and of self-love is starting to become clearer to me.
Love does not hurt. It 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 lower self esteem.
What I’ve learned about both self love and love for others is that you don’t have to feel love to have it, 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 loving yourself unconditionally works.
People who love themselves may not feel the emotion of having love for themselves, because, here’s a secret: Love is not actually a feeling.
Love certainly can be a feeling. But it is really something that we do. Love is an action. Love is a choice.
Choosing to have tolerance, compassion, and radical acceptance for yourself as you are — even if you don’t feel like you love yourself — is, paradoxically, what self love actually is. It’s the choice to start making positive changes in your life, for you.
Every once in a while 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 through 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.
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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 well being 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.
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.
Learning to Love Yourself
But how do you love yourself? It’s easier to see how you can be compassionate, tolerant, and generous with other people – but towards yourself?
“Isn’t that the opposite of True Love?” You might be thinking. “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 well being 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 practicing self-love 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 just have to do it. And that is 100% within your ability, all the time.
Here’s how it works:
Think of loving yourself as 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 self-care, 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 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. It’s how to be your best self.
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 harmful or toxic to you, and take steps to protect yourself.
This might involve setting boundaries with others, listening to your own inner wisdom, and avoiding harmful situations or unhealthy relationships.
How to Love Yourself First
Self love is also shown by taking positive action to create positive things for yourself, and leaning into the power of risk – 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).
We are all growing, developing, and evolving all the time. We not only have a right to try to be better today than we were yesterday, we have a responsibility. Just as parents must help their children learn, grow, and develop into happy, healthy adults, you are responsible for helping yourself evolve continuously throughout each phase of your life. When you have a vision for the direction of your life, and take intentional steps to grow in the ways that will help you create it, you are showing yourself the ultimate act of self-love.
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 be kind to yourself, set healthy limits for yourself, or to invest in your own growth.
Your commitment to loving yourself and 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 feel 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 Is Self-Love Important?
Think about a child who is being mistreated by their parents: Verbally and emotionally abused (or worse), given junk food, encouraged to watch too much 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.
When you’re not loving yourself, not giving yourself what you need, not meeting your basic needs for health, self-care, nurturing, acceptance and mindful self-compassion, you are basically abusing yourself. 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 saying:
“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 and moving forward.”
Choosing to have a good, nurturing, responsible and compassionate relationship with yourself is what it means to love yourself… 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.
Therapy for Self-Love
Learning how to love yourself is a process, and one that takes a long time. Ironically, 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. If you’d like to meet with a caring counselor on our team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.
P.S. — For more advice on creating a healthy, loving relationship with you, check out our “cultivating self-confidence” collection of articles and podcasts.
Music in this episode is by Minnie Riperton with their song “Les Fleur.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: minnieripperton.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
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How to Love Yourself
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- What is Love?
- Love is not a feeling. It’s a choice, an action. Love is much bigger than the feelings we have on a given day.
- True love is what allows us to set aside our own self-focus and ego to just do what needs to be done for the benefit of others.
- From our relationships with other people, we get the chance to practice softening ourselves, letting go of our own ego, and choosing compassion for other people.
- Treating Yourself Like a Child
- Treat yourself like you would treat a cherished child. Be an emotionally safe person for yourself.
- Speak to yourself kindly. Protect yourself from your toxic inner critic.
- When it comes to healthy habits, don’t feed yourself anything that you wouldn’t give to a four-year-old.
- Set firm limits with yourself just like you would set limits with a kid.
- How Do You Love Yourself?
- Turn true love towards you. Act in your highest and your best even when you don’t feel like it.
- Treating yourself with self-love will also help you have more love to give to others.
- Figure out what kind of support you really need.
- Once you have figured out what you should give to yourself, make a commitment to give it to yourself no matter what.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.