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 it is. With love — Lisa ++
“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, “And how exactly is that supposed to improve my life or my relationships?”
Malignant “Self Love
This skepticism around “self-love” was not helped by my journey into becoming a therapist. I’d hear that phrase, “You have to love yourself first” get tossed around and used to — quite frankly — justify all kinds of unhealthy things in the name of self-love: Self indulgence, 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!”)
Or even more poignantly, with my individual clients I’d see lovely, beautiful people welling up with tears as they spoke their truth: “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.”
The expectation that they should love themselves (and didn’t feel that way) was only more evidence that there was something terribly wrong with them.
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. True 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 True Love is that it isn’t a feeling at all. Love is not an emotion, though it can be. Love is a choice. Love is an action. Love is much, much bigger than any of the feelings that blow through us on a given day. Every once in awhile we might have the wonderful treat of feeling 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 is more like a state of grace that we can choose to live in: The one that prioritizes the well-being of people over everything else. And that includes us.
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 feeling are as important to use as our own.
True Love For Ourselves
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.
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. This means treating yourself with the same kind of compassion and devotion to your health and genuine best interests that you give to other people.
Loving yourself is treating yourself as you would a cherished child:
1) Being an emotionally safe person, and speaking to yourself kindly, compassionately, and wisely. Offering yourself guidance, reassurance and emotional support instead of criticizing yourself, scaring yourself, or being negative towards yourself.
2) Setting firm limits that support your health and wellness, like going to bed at a reasonable hour and taking care of your health. Even when you don’t feel like it.
3) Directing yourself to make choices that demonstrate your commitment to your own well being. This might involve setting boundaries with others, listening to your inner wisdom, 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 be living in a state of True Love towards 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.
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, you are basically abusing yourself from the inside out. You are simply not going to be well, and you won’t have much to offer others either.
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. Because that’s what True Love is.