When you love someone, you’re willing to do things for them. Someone who loves their child might work tirelessly to ensure that the baby is safe, seen, soothed, and secure. Loving oneself is similar — taking consistent, daily action to protect and nurture ourselves. The challenge is that there are many harmful ways to do this.
I have worked with hundreds of people — as a mentor, coach, and educator — from conferences and classrooms to prisons and rehabs. I have seen trauma, depression, and addiction up close and personal. I’ve witnessed self-hatred and self-destruction at their worst. I have watched people recover, and I have watched people die. And loving oneself makes all the difference in the world.
This is what I have learned about self-love.
It Doesn’t Have To Be Pretty
Self-love doesn’t necessarily mean you jump out of bed and kiss yourself, exfoliate with apricot scrub, and sing on your way to work.
Sometimes self-love is just getting out of bed before noon without calling yourself a lazy piece of shit.
Self-love and self-hate take many forms, and one person’s self-care can easily be another’s self-destruction. So it’s really not about what it looks like on the outside. No, it’s definitely an inside job.
Ok, Yoda. So how do I know if I’m doing it right?
Self-Preservation and Self-Destruction
Your mind and body are always working to protect you. If I throw something at your face, you will react within milliseconds to protect yourself — before your conscious mind even registers that a decision needs to be made. Humans, like all animals, are wired for self-preservation. However, our survival tools and coping mechanisms are often self-destructive.
For example, some children learn to lie to avoid getting their asses beat. “Yeah, Dad, I for sure did my homework.” Being a habitual liar may have been a practical skill at one point, but it will later become a shameful hindrance.
Some people numb-out or dissociate when their ability to cope with reality is overwhelmed (i.e. trauma). This will carry them through a painful experience. But because self-medicating works so well, it may then become their default reaction to adversity.
Maladaptive traits might work in a pinch, but that doesn’t make them wholesome life skills.
I have Type 1 Diabetes. If I have a low blood sugar, my body needs glucose immediately so I don’t die. In an emergency, I might squirt a tube of cake icing into my mouth. This is a perfect solution. But if I then decided to only eat cake icing for the rest of my life, I would literally die from malnutrition. This is how coping mechanisms destroy us.
So, ironically enough, self-destruction usually starts as self-preservation.
The Work Of Self-Love
Behind every self-destructive habit is an unmet need or a wound that was never tended to.
Self-love is being willing to finally do the work of caring for those wounds and learning to meet your needs in healthy ways. This is called reparenting.
This work will look different for everyone. It could involve coaching, therapy, or rehab; 12-step groups, self-help books, or Tony Robbins conferences; yoga, reiki, meditation, or prayer. There are many avenues for self-discovery and healing.
Of course, there may be some people who are not recovering from any childhood dysfunction, abuse, or neglect. I have heard that these people exist. I’m not one of them. But if you are, your journey of self-love may simply be improving your self-care practices: diet and fitness, work/life balance, or pursuing your passions and creativity.
Self-love cannot coexist with negative self-talk and self-destructive habits. Even perfectionism, with all of its glamor and glitz, is a seductive form of self-loathing. It’s basically shame in a prom dress.
In my experience, self-love looks like:
- Accepting yourself for who and what you are in this moment
- Working to replace self-defeating beliefs and habits
- Protecting and nurturing yourself
Notice that self-love does not involve being perfect, having it all figured out, or being happy all the time.
Doing It Wrong
Many people fall victim to the belief that once they achieve all of the things, have all of the things, and know all of the things, then they’ll love themselves. This is categorically false. It’s based on a premise of achievement as worth. And external-worth is actually the opposite of self-love.
I have met plenty of talented, beautiful, intelligent, successful people who hate themselves. They travel the world, accomplish great feats, and win the respect and admiration of many, hoping to one day prove their worth. But they’ve got it backwards.
Self-love is not the finish line. It’s the starting point.
If you want to love yourself, start now. Be kind, thoughtful, and generous to yourself — in thought, word, and deed. Watch your self-talk. Lovingly correct your negative habits. Stop judging and comparing yourself to others.
Self-love isn’t a trophy or a winning lottery ticket. You can’t frame it or hang it in your office. It’s not a raise or a rousing round of applause. Self-love isn’t some giant living in the hillside, coming down to visit the townspeople.
Self-love is how you treat you.
I’ve personally wrestled with anxiety, depression, addiction, and self-loathing for my entire life. Cultivating self-love is not some flowery, hippie shit that I do as a virtue signal. I do it because it keeps me from suck-starting any shotguns.
Loving myself is non-negotiable. It is a central focus of my existence. As such, I couldn’t possibly list all of the techniques and strategies I have used, but here are a few that have changed my life. Feel free to take them for a spin.
1. What I Love About Me
Write a list of all the things you love about yourself — strengths, qualities, characteristics. Ask friends and family members what they love, admire, and appreciate about you. Write their answers down too.
Now, hang this list on your bathroom mirror and read it every morning while you brush your teeth. Once you hang it up, there is zero time commitment to the practice (assuming you brush your teeth regularly).
This is how to start every day with self-love.
If you want to build a relationship with someone, you have to spend quality time with them. Meditation is just that. I meditate every morning to cultivate a stronger relationship with myself — my body, breath, thoughts, and feelings. I carry these with me all day, every day, and they determine the course of my existence. Seems reasonable to give them some attention.
This is how to deepen self-love.
3. Precious Baby Me
Find an adorable picture of yourself before the age of seven. Place copies of it everywhere. Make it your lock screen on your phone.
Now imagine that you are in charge of taking care of that precious kid. Everything you think, say, and do for yourself you are doing for this beautiful child. Make all your decisions based on what would be best for that sweet pea.
This is how to make decisions with self-love.
4. Habit Tracker
Decide on a couple of small habits that, if you did them daily, would improve the quality of your life. Type them into a spreadsheet with a box for every day of the week and print it out so you can physically check the boxes at night.
My habits are prayer, meditation, pushups, and Duolingo. I keep my habit tracker on my nightstand and never climb into bed until I check all four boxes. You can do as few or as many of any habit as you want (read, write, run, floss, whatever).
This is how to hold yourself accountable to regular acts of self-love.
5. Gratitude List
Every night, write down three things from the day that you’re grateful for. No repeating items from previous days! New day, new gratitude. For added accountability, swap gratitude lists with a friend or partner.
This is how to end each day with self-love.
If you’re going to try these, I recommend doing them for at least a month. They’re designed to challenge long-standing, often unquestioned habits of thinking and being. They are simple, free techniques that can be done in a matter of minutes each day. But consistency is vital if you want to rewire your brain for self-love.
People always fall back on their training. And, like it or not, your childhood programmed you to think, feel, and act a certain way towards yourself. If you want to change that, you have to retrain your brain. It’s not easy, but it’s by far the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.
In a world of paid-followers, plastic surgery, and desperate pleas for love and attention, self-love is a revolutionary act. It takes tremendous courage.
And only you can do it.