During my master’s program and newly into seeing online therapy and couples counseling clients, I was paired with a woman seeking individual treatment. Throughout the first session, I learned that she had an adult son who was new into recovery for alcohol and substance addiction, which was her primary reason for seeking services at the time. It was easy to tell that she cared for her son immensely, but that she was placing a considerable amount of blame on herself for enabling her son’s addiction. While there was attention placed on the reason she initially sought therapy, after exploring parts of her life, we discovered a much bigger overarching issue that was causing problems in several areas in her life – she did not know how to practice self-love.
After we had talked greatly about her son’s previous addiction, his newfound recovery, and how she could best be supportive to him, I began to ask deep questions about her life. Sadly, her mother had passed away when she was very young which led to feelings of not truly belonging anywhere. Throughout her childhood, there was a spotlight on her from her remaining family and community to ensure she was taken care of, which brought about discomfort from always being the center of attention. Once she was old enough to begin making her own decisions, she worked tirelessly to take herself out of the spotlight, which inevitably shifted that attention to others. From then on, she unknowingly had dedicated her life to serving others, at the expense of her own happiness and wellbeing.
Throughout therapy, we focused on the importance of putting herself first in life and took note of the impact those changes were having on her relationships with others and herself. After a year of work together and her deciding it was time to use those new skills on her own outside of therapy, she was able to terminate successfully with an entirely different perspective of her own life.
Can you too relate to this story? Many of my online therapy and life coaching clients that come to me seeking a better understanding of self and wanting to experience true happiness find themselves in this exact same situation – putting others consistently before themselves.
Why Is Self-Love Important?
I often think back to our work together, as I learned a tremendous amount from her and truly looked up to her for seeking change in her life. There were times that we cried together because of the unhappiness she had experienced in her life due to putting herself last on her priority list. Knowing that she placed importance on taking care of other people, I chose to start her work by having continual conversations about what she would be telling someone if she saw they were not making themselves a priority.
She had a profound insight and ability to speak to the imaginary people we were discussing, which led to conversations about why she could not give herself the grace to do the things she was preaching. I remember the first session we had after she had done something for herself during the week and pointing out how giddy she was. “It was uncomfortable to do something for myself, but it felt great and put me in a better mood for the rest of the day,” she said. I beamed with pride as I realized that she was not only willing to make this change but that she also felt relief through the process as well.
There are many questions that came up during our sessions that have since then affected my work with my clients. “Is it selfish of me to be putting this much focus on myself?” she asked. This sparked a conversation about the metaphor of not being able to pour from an empty cup. For those that have not heard this metaphor, it states that if you have nothing left in your metaphorical “tank”, then you will not be able to serve and help others. Eventually, we all run out of “gas” and cannot continue to give on an empty tank.
Ways to Practice Self-Love
In order to refill your cup, you must do things that recharge your body and soul. This looks different for every person and takes inner reflection and planning to understand what activities will revitalize you. In the case of the client being discussed, we brainstormed and landed on several solutions.
First, she was going to prioritize her health by taking walks and eating healthier. By taking care of others for so long, she had lost sight of what made her mind and body feel good. There was a visible difference in the way she presented herself once she started making healthier decisions in her daily life.
Additionally, she wanted to spend time making her home feel like hers again. Her adult son that was mentioned previously had lived with her until he entered recovery, which led to her feeling that her home had become a shared space. We were able to set many goals, some of which were for a few weeks’ time and others were larger goals to have completed by the end of the year. By being able to have an action plan in place, she stated that she was relieved to feel that her home would reflect who she is as a person, rather than who she is as a mother.
While these solutions may seem ineffective or intuitive to others, they were things that had become difficult for her to do, as this would mean she was not focused on taking care of someone else in those moments.
Finding what works for YOU is the most important step in your self-love journey. I will share more on this, but if you are still wondering What is Self Love? This article will help answer your questions: How To Love Yourself
Path to Self-Love
The topic of age came up during many of our sessions, as she was in her mid-70s and I was in my mid-20s at the time. Our focus on age was particularly around her internal battle surrounding the question, “Is it too late in my life to be making significant changes?”
I wanted to ensure that when discussing this issue, I presented my opinion in a way that truly made her value the idea that she deserved to find self-love and happiness for the rest of her life. I focused on breaking down the impact that the word change had, as we often associate changing with shifting 180 degrees, which can be overwhelming. I had recently read an anonymous quote that said, “If the path you’re walking on seems to be leading you to nowhere, stop and choose another. It’s never too late to change direction.” With this quote in mind, we discussed how she had been on a path that was not leading her to daily happiness but how she possessed the power to pick a new direction.
We also discussed how much life she had left to live and made a list of the things she wanted to do for herself that had not been done yet. During these conversations, I questioned whether those things could be done on the current path she was on or whether a new direction could inspire the growth she needed to mark things off her personal checklist. Eventually, she came to the realization I had been hoping she would reach – and that was the last time her age was mentioned in our work together.
At some point in time, most of us wonder how to love ourselves in the best way possible. Even as a mental health professional that is trained to help others achieve their happiness and goals, I have struggled to figure out what I need to be doing for myself in order to lead my own self-love. There is no perfect solution to this problem, and as we grow and move throughout life, the answer will undoubtedly change.
Regardless of which season of life you are in or the struggles happening around you, there is always room for grace. We can award ourselves the forgiveness to know that we aren’t always going to get it right, but despite the obstacles ahead, we realize we are making efforts to make ourselves feel loved. In the words of the great former First Lady, Michelle Obama, “We need to do a better job of putting ourselves higher on our own ‘to-do’ list.”
How to Practice Self-Love
In order to begin practicing self-love, I recommend first taking time to reflect on what makes you feel loved or appreciated. I encourage clients to think about what their love language is with others, and how that can impact the love for themselves. Love languages not only provide insight into how others can show us appreciation in a way that makes us truly feel loved but ways that we can work towards self-love practices that leave us feeling valued and respected.
The 5 Love Languages
If you feel loved by hearing words of affirmation, write positive notes to yourself or keep a gratitude journal where you focus on the positives in your life that you are thankful for. You can also spend time complimenting yourself in a way that brings you happiness and comfort.
For those that find receiving gifts as their ideal way to be shown love, take time to create a calming self-care kit for yourself or spend time engaging in hobbies that bring you joy. The idea of giving yourself gifts is to treat yourself in a way that makes you feel valued and appreciated.
Acts of service can show love by having something done for you that holds meaning. If you feel that you experience love deeper when someone is able to take time to show you love by kind gestures, you might consider being able to show appreciation for yourself by personal acts of service. You could cook yourself a favorite dinner or declutter an area of your living space that has been bringing on stress.
If physical touch leaves you feeling loved, focus on things that make your body feel taken care of, such as skin care routines or relaxing baths. You can also do things to take care of your body like eating fruits and vegetables or higher quality foods that leave your body feeling nourished and respected.
Quality time is often viewed as needing to be shared with someone else. There is great value in being able to spend quality time with yourself by doing things such as time alone in nature, either hiking or enjoying a sunset. You can also watch a movie that holds meaning to you or take time to read your favorite book.
There are endless possibilities for how to show yourself the love that you deserve. Share with me your favorites in the comments below!
Kaily Moore, M.S., LMFTA