Therapists like myself spend a lot of time talking about self-love. But if you’re like many of my patients, you might not know what self-love means exactly. Many people mistakenly believe that self-love is the same as narcissism, or having a big ego. It’s not. So, what do we mean when we say “self-love”? Self-love means having a high regard for your own wellbeing and happiness. Self-love means taking care of your own needs and not sacrificing your wellbeing to please others. Self-love means not settling for less than you deserve.
Loving yourself doesn’t mean you think you’re the smartest, most talented, and most beautiful person in the world. Instead, when you love yourself you accept your so-called weaknesses, appreciate these so-called shortcomings as something that makes you who you are. When you love yourself you have compassion for yourself. You take care of yourself like you’d take care of a friend in distress. You treat yourself kindly. You don’t nitpick and criticize yourself. For many, especially those of us who grew up in households that lacked love or in which love waxed and waned, loving yourself will take work. Self-love is a practice and it’s a skill that takes work.
Self-love isn’t about instant gratification. A new pair of shoes or eating an entire pizza might make you feel good in the moment (or taste delicious), but the feeling isn’t lasting–and could be damaging in the long run. Self-love means giving yourself what your body, brain, and soul needs for the marathon that is life. It isn’t hedonism and it isn’t chasing a physical or emotional high. The practice of self-love is the practice of nourishing yourself.
Self-love means taking care of your needs. If your needs were neglected when you were a child, it’s important that you develop the ability to recognize what you need and to meet your own needs. If you were sent the message as a kid that you didn’t actually need what you asked for, or you where always ignored when you asked, you likely didn’t learn how to meet your own needs and may even have trouble recognizing what your needs are. Whether it’s food, comfort, exercise, or something as simple as a long, hot shower, self-love for those who missed out on consistent love and care as children can mean starting with the basics. Self-love means you care for yourself the way a loving parent should.
When self-love isn’t something that comes easily to you, or something that you’re used to, there can be a learning curve. You need to explore what makes you feel cared for. Is it taking a long yoga class? Bubble baths? Curling up with a good book? Try different things. Keep track of what works and what doesn’t.
Self-love means self-respect. Boundaries are essential when it comes to self-respect. Learn what your boundaries are, express them to the people in your life, call people out when they step over your boundaries, and remove people from your life who consistently disrespect your boundaries.
Self-love means you don’t compare yourself to others. Looking to other people for an idea of what you should be like, look like, or act like is always a path toward self-hate. For those of us who struggle with self-love and self-esteem, it can feel like we’re surrounded by people who make us feel inferior. A good remedy for this is to spend time doing what you’re good at and what makes you feel good about yourself.
The more you feel capable of, the easier loving yourself will be; it’s hard to feel good about yourself when you feel incapable. When we surround ourselves with people who treat us like we’re incapable––or we were raised by parents who were critical and constantly told us that we weren’t good enough—we internalize that message. Self-love can mean not letting people do things for you. Push yourself a little. Remind yourself that you’re capable. You can take care of yourself. You can do this.
Self-love is an important skill to learn and practice not only because it means our day-to-day happiness, but also because it affects our relationships. Self-love determines the quality of our romantic partners. The person you’re with is dependent on what you think you deserve. If you lack love for yourself, you’ll settle for a partner who doesn’t treat you well.
When we lack love in our childhoods, we often fall into the trap of relying on our adult romantic partners to parent us. We rely on them to take care of us, to do things for us that we don’t feel capable of, and we rely on them to love us the way a parent should––love that’s not tied to results or reciprocity. But that’s not how a healthy relationship works. Our partners aren’t our parents. They can’t, and shouldn’t, do everything for us, take care of our every need, and love us no matter what. That’s what we need to provide for ourselves. We need to take care of our own needs and love ourselves no matter what. We need to be there for ourselves, to stand by ourselves through the ups and down, because if we don’t love ourselves like this, we will fall apart when our romantic relationships break down.
Learning to love oneself isn’t easy. At first, self-love may feel uncomfortable. It may even feel indulgent. But, keep at it. Loving yourself doesn’t mean you’re selfish or self-centered. On the contrary, the more you love yourself, the more you’ll have of yourself to give to others. But you can’t spread your love, smarts, talent, and kindness around to the people in your life if you neglect the person who should be most important to you: you.
**Dr. Andrea Brant is a marriage and family therapist in Santa Monica, California who is an expert in treating a full range of emotional issues, including anger & aggression, anxiety & trauma, aging, relationships, work-life balance, workplace, and women’s issues. In her workshops, patient sessions and presentations, Dr. Brandt reveals positive paths to emotional health that teach you how to reinvent and empower yourself. To learn more about her seminars and workshops, go to mindfulangerworkshop.com for details.