How can we truly love others if we don’t care for ourselves first? Psychologist Suzy Reading explores why we need to make self-love an urgent priority for all of us…
We’re all familiar with the concept of self-love. But when was the last time you paused to reflect on what self-love means to you? The bottomless hole created by consumerism, the ubiquitous messaging from the hustle-and-grind and the beauty/fitness/diet culture, and society’s preoccupation with body image – all have muddied the water. Making self-love is an urgent priority. We have to change things.
We nod in agreement with the idea that self-love is the basis for all love; that for us to care for others, we must care for ourselves. So why do women put others first so often that we fall down, or even off, our own list of priorities?
Let’s take a look at why self-love is fundamental to our happiness, wellbeing and healthy relationships, and – most importantly – how we can cultivate
What is self-love?
Self-love is a regard for one’s own happiness. In practice, it is caring about your own wellbeing, and prioritising it. Deborah Khoshaba defined it eloquently in Psychology Today: ‘A state of appreciation for oneself that grows from actions that support our physical, psychological, and spiritual growth.’ Self-love is fundamentally about valuing ourselves as human beings, and taking nurturing action.
But here’s the stumbling block: many of us don’t feel worthy. And we think we need to feel worthy before we can engage in self-nurturing behaviour. But my plea to you is: don’t wait to feel worthy. Nourish yourself and the feeling of worth will come. (And, whatever your current feelings towards yourself, you are abundantly worthy – right now, as you are.)
How does self-love differ from narcissism?
Another barrier to embracing self-love is the very human desire to avoid being selfish or self-obsessed. Excessive self-love could slip into the territory of narcissism, but the two are distinct.
Self-love is an urgent priority. It is acknowledging your worth as a human, with no need to look down on others; taking pride in your achievements while accepting all your glorious imperfection.
Narcissism is very different, with its roots in asserting oneself over others, and craving external validation and admiration. When we tease those concepts apart, it is easier to feel comfortable with self-love.
Why is self-love important?
We need self-love to nourish ourselves; to be healthy in relationship with ourselves. A caring attitude to ourselves helps us engage in behaviours that support our wellbeing. And it dials down our tendency to self-sabotage. Self-love, quite simply, helps us identify and meet our own needs.
This doesn’t just benefit us. It benefits everyone our lives touch; we’re more likely to be kind and compassionate with others when we’re well nourished. A tangible example is sleep: giving ourselves permission to meet our sleep needs is an act of self-love. Good sleep is vital for our relationships: a Nature and Science of Sleep study found that, when we sleep poorly, we tend to interpret even neutral facial expressions as hostile. So when we take care of ourselves, we are nicer to be around and are more effective empathisers.
And we need to make self-love an urgent priority so we can care for others. From a place of depletion and resentment, it is hard to be in tune – let alone be generous – with our nearest and dearest. Self-love protects our relationships with other people. An appreciation for oneself is an essential foundation for honouring our boundaries with others, which promotes healthy relationships. It helps us to connect with our needs, and to articulate and honour them in a safe, constructive way. And being connected with our own needs helps us build the skills to notice, respect and support the needs of others. It’s a beautiful win-win.
How do we cultivate self-love?
Self-love is a skill that we can all build with practice. But, before we start, it’s helpful to examine thoughts that might get in the way. Consider the following:
• How was self-love modelled – or not – for you growing up?
• What messaging about self-love have you absorbed from home life, work life, and the media?
• What associations do you make with the concept of self-love and your ability to practise it?
• Do any of these beliefs need unpicking? Come back to the definition of self-love being a tender relationship with yourself; allowing you to meet your basic needs so that you can grow and evolve. This is the fuel for you to show up as you aspire to in this world, nurturing relationships that you hold dear
• What does self-love facilitate in your life? Write down why it is okay – and indeed necessary – to commit to developing this capacity, for you and those close to you.
How do we build our capacity for self-love?
If you feel overwhelmed by the idea of ‘loving yourself’, go gently. Take your time and cultivate the ability in increments. Start by checking in with yourself and noting your thoughts, feelings, sensations and emotions. Build to respecting your needs, then accepting and appreciating yourself. Feelings of positive regard will flow from this foundation.
You don’t have to feel a sense of love to behave in a loving way towards yourself. Take nurturing action and the feelings will soften and develop into a
The four pillars of self-love – identified by wellness author Katie Lips for thriveglobal.com – help us here: they are acceptance, appreciation, nurture and transformation.
Like the four legs of a chair, they provide a firm foundation:
• Acceptance refers to embracing ourselves as we are, as perfectly imperfect humans. The mantra is ‘permission to be human’ or ‘I am learning and growing’, tapping into the power of self-forgiveness
• Building on acceptance, we develop our capacity for appreciation. Ask yourself what you respect or admire about yourself. Ask a friend if you find this difficult, or reflect on challenges you’ve weathered and the achievements in your life. Consider the qualities you drew on to get through those challenges
• Nurture is the active component of self-love: all the things you do daily to tend to your needs
• Transformation is the stage where we commit to significant goals, connecting with personal purpose.
What does self-love look like?
On a practical level, self-love involves how you talk to yourself, treat yourself and think of yourself.
What we are aiming for is gentle and coaxing self-talk, tender and caring action, and kinder attributions to self.
Start with the commitment to gentle self-talk. With practice, we can transform our inner dialogue from criticism and judgement – which do nothing
to help us grow or perform better – to the kind of language you’d use when speaking to a friend. Start with just noticing, then build to reframing self-talk as supportive statements. Don’t let failure here be another thing you beat yourself up about.
A simple strategy to create kinder self-talk is to refer to yourself by a pet name, rather than ‘you’ or ‘I’. A Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study showed that this naturally helps us be more tender with ourselves.
Commit to rituals of self-nurturing
• Feed and hydrate yourself with care – it’s not only what you consume, but how you savour food and drink
• Clothe yourself in garments that allow you to move and breathe freely (ditch that too-tight bra!), in colours and textures you love
• Move your body in ways that feel good to you
• Give yourself permission to rest your body and mind
• Address your sleep needs
• Enjoy rituals of loving touch. This can be as simple as being mindful of how you moisturise your face and body, or taking off your makeup gently. Try this beautiful ritual to extend kindness to yourself: rub your hands together to create heat, then cradle your face in your hands. Feel the warmth of your hands on your face, how calming it feels to be supported, and the soothing sensation of your fingertips at your temples. Offer yourself tenderness with the words, ‘I am deserving of kindness. I can be my own safe place. I give myself permission to feel. I can be here for myself.’
• And get to know yourself: your strengths, your values. Rather than focusing on all the ways you want to improve, identify your strengths and get clear on what matters to you. Just as you top up your phone battery, refuel your car or reboot your computer, you can lovingly tend to yourself, free of guilt. Know that your nourishment, respecting your human needs, will help you take action in service of your values, modelling all the qualities that are important to you. Feel how this galvanises you into loving action, for your benefit and for everyone else.