In one context or another, you've probably been told that you "just have to love yourself." And if you don't feel that way, it's an annoying, corny, if not painful, suggestion. It's freakin' hard to to love yourself, especially since our culture seems to conflate the idea of self-love with buying expensive face creams — because you deserve it — and posting selfies. These types of things don't necessarily foster a deep sense of connectedness and self-acceptance. Part of the frustration of the "need to love oneself" is that it's impossible to do it if you don't actually know how, or what that means, or what it should feel like.
"Self-love is — at its core — the unshakable, uncompromising belief that we are worthy of love, respect, safety, and belonging, regardless of our thoughts, feelings, or actions," Arianna Smith, LPC, EMDR, a psychotherapist in Denver, Colorado with extensive experience supporting individuals who are struggling to love and accept themselves, often due to childhood trauma or domestic violence, tells Bustle. "One of the easiest, yet hardest, measures of self-love and self-respect is how much we honor our own boundaries and needs."
Smith says that self-love is a verb, and a continual commitment to showing up for yourself every day, even when you feel that you don't deserve it. This does not, by the way, mean that you always feel good, or that making supportive choices for yourself is easy. It does not mean that you don't feel insecure or have doubts.
"One of the best ways to recognize if we are not giving ourselves love and respect is how we are treating our body, our mind, our heart, and our time," Smith says.
There are questions you can ask yourself to give some kind of measure to this, Smith says. "Are you consistently skimping on sleep? Are you continuing to date people who aren't a good fit for you? Are you believing all the negative thoughts about yourself without question? Are you consistently saying yes to requests for your time, when you'd rather say no?"
When you realize that you aren't taking good care of your mind, body, heart, or time, Smith says that it's very easy to spiral into shame and guilt. You may overcompensate with more thoughts or behaviors that are not self-loving. But this is absolutely normal.
This is where self-compassion shows up, Smith says. True self-love involves showing up for yourself even when you feel unlovable, or shameful. It involves taking the steps to listen to yourself, identify what caused you to not respect or identify your needs or boundaries. And, ultimately, it's deciding to make a commitment to move towards improving those feelings, while knowing that you're still learning and will continue to make mistakes. One of the most difficult parts of this is understanding that you don't have to like everything you do in order to extend compassion towards yourself.
"You don't just show this love to the shiny and happy parts you show the world, but the dark [...] parts that you wish did not exist," Smith says, adding that there are many resources on the internet that will teach you about how to practice self-compassion.
"If you've experienced abuse or trauma in the past, it may feel impossible to be compassionate for yourself — this is where a trained mental health professional can support and guide you in this process."
You might wonder where a person gains access to some of these foundational aspects of self-love in the first place. or how you're supposed to develop these tools or behaviors if you've never been taught them. Not surprisingly, Smith says that our caregivers as children were the first to model self-love and self-respect to us. We learn when we are young that we are "only as worthy as our parents treat us."
"If your parent was distracted, overwhelmed, neglectful, and abusive, then at a very young age you learned that you were not lovable or worthy of having your needs met," Smith says. "Additionally, the adage 'monkey see, monkey do' also applies to self-love in that children will observe how their caregivers practice self-love and self-respect. If your parents are not modeling self-love and self-respect, how could you possibly know what it looks like for you?"
If self-love feels impossible, these are usually the causes for this. Especially if you have experienced, or experience, neglect or abuse from caregivers or romantic partners. It makes it impossible to know what your needs are if you are in survival mode.
"If you are part of an oppressed or marginalized group (i.e. LGBTQ+ people, People of Color, People with disabilities), you may also be getting messages from society that your identity and experience is not valid, or is abnormal," Smith says. "This can add to the difficulty of self-love and self-respect when your community, society, or media outlets are continually broadcasting that you are unwelcome."
As for some practical ways to begin the process of self-love, counselor Dea Dean who often works with women dealing with issues of identity, anxiety, depression, shame and grief, tells Bustle that in part it is about "defining and protecting your sense of self" and "refusing to adopt outside definitions of who you are."
People might tell you things about yourself: that you're not successful, that you're mentally ill, that you're not doing life the right way, that you need to change your body. "You must first define 'self,' or 'who you are,' and have that be a separate entity from 'what you do,'" Smith says. "When you separate the two, you are more fully able to hear peoples experience of your behaviors without becoming defensive or crumbling under condemnation of yourself."
Ultimately, Dean says, you want to be able to maintain respect and care for yourself while also being able to respect and care for others with equal measure.
"Often we do one or the other," Dean says. "We can over-inflate our needs, opinions, or wants with a sense of entitlement, displaying little regard for others’ experiences or feelings, or conversely, sacrifice or diminish them."
Being compassionate about how we affect people in our lives is absolutely part of being healthy as an individual and being a healthy friend, partner, and citizen, Smith says. But we cannot be true friends, partners or citizens if we hide, dismiss, or deny parts of ourselves that think, feel, believe, or want.
Self-love, Dean says, on the simplest level, is a willingness to show respect for the validity of our humanity and inherent worth. We develop an unwillingness to allow others to invalidate that worth.
Even with an understanding of what self-love is, to get there is not easy — and it's much more harrowing for some than it is for others. Humans are complicated, feeling, and stick to habits long after they've dragged them right to the ground. But just remember that change is possible. And it's not a process you have to go at alone.