There’s a great quote attributed to Lucille Ball: “Love yourself first and everything else falls into line. You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world.” And you really have to love yourself to love others, and to create a fulfilling life.
However, many of us aren’t sure what self-love even looks like. Once something becomes a buzzword, it tends to lose its meaning and significance. It becomes relegated to a trend. It gets dismissed.
So what does it mean to love ourselves?
Loving ourselves is saying “I am worthy of love from both myself and others”—no matter what our bank account says, no matter how many years of education we have, no matter the number of Facebook likes we’ve received, said Julia Kristina, MA, RCC, a Vancouver-based therapist.
Loving ourselves has no conditions.
“Loving yourself is grounded in respect for all parts of yourself and your life experiences, even the difficult ones,” said Rebecca Scritchfield, a well-being coach, registered dietitian nutritionist and certified health and fitness specialist. It is “the desire to continue to look after your well-being.”
Loving ourselves is having the courage and grace to be imperfect, said Kristina, also a researcher and online course creator. It is allowing ourselves to have flaws and to make mistakes without chastising or punishing ourselves, she said.
Loving ourselves is “continuing to believe in ourselves even when we fail. It looks like trusting ourselves even when we are not totally certain…It looks like allowing ourselves to be exactly who we are—flaws and all—and feeling pretty darn good about that.”
It is identifying and meeting our needs. Which will look different day to day because our needs are different day to day. For instance, loving yourself might mean sleeping through your workout because your body needs rest. Or it might mean waking up early because your body needs to move, said Scritchfield, author of Body Kindness. Loving yourself might mean adding a tomato to your cheeseburger. Or it might mean eating an entire salad for lunch. It might mean making dinner plans with a friend because you’re craving connection. Or it might mean staying in because you’re an introvert who needs alone time to refuel. It might mean skipping alcohol (maybe forever) because you’ve realized that you’re drinking to escape a deeper pain.
Loving ourselves is multilayered.
But you might not be there (yet). You might hate your “flaws.” You might see your worth as conditional, as something that must be earned. You might have a hard time meeting your needs. That’s OK. Below are several ways to start loving yourself, no matter how you’re feeling.
Start with compassion. One of the biggest myths about self-love is that it means never having another negative thought about ourselves. Ever again. But “having unhelpful thoughts is a normal part of life,” said Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C, a therapist in private practice in Rockville, Md., specializing in working with teens and adults struggling with eating disorders, body-image issues, anxiety and depression.
“What matters is that we learn how to respond to those thinking patterns and to recognize that we do not have to believe everything that we think.”
When you notice you’re being harsh, try to speak to yourself like you would a loved one, a partner, your best friend, a child. Replace your criticism with kindness, patience and understanding.
Let’s say you have the thought “I gained weight and I look disgusting. No one will ever want to date me,” Rollin said. She suggested revising it to something more compassionate like: “I’m definitely not alone in struggling with this. It’s understandable that I’m having a tough time, yet my worth isn’t found in my weight. I deserve love and acceptance at any size.”
In another example, let’s say you’re trying something on, and it’s too small or doesn’t look good. At all. Which sparks a barrage of self-criticism. Which is when you say, “I don’t like being so hard on myself. Yes, this top doesn’t fit, but bashing my body isn’t the kind of thing I want to do,” Scritchfield said.
According to Kristina, these are other helpful phrases we can tell ourselves: “Having a failure doesn’t mean you are a failure. It means you have more to learn’; and “It’s understandable you’re feeling hurt, angry, frustrated, discouraged, etc., because that was a difficult, upsetting, hurtful, etc., experience.”
Practice “opposite action.” According to Rollin, this is a skill from dialectical behavior therapy. For instance, if you have the urge to restrict your food, you instead savor food you actually enjoy, she said. If you have the urge to self-harm, you instead “put lotion on yourself to self-soothe.” What opposite action can you take that contributes to your well-being?
Surround yourself with supportive people. Rollin stressed the importance of being with individuals who help you to feel good about yourself. Surround yourself with individuals who have your best interests at heart, who cheer you on, who accept you for you.
If you have anyone in your life who’s critical of you, have an honest conversation about how their remarks make you feel, Rollin said. “If they are unable to honor this, that’s when you might look at setting boundaries around how often you see them.”
Give yourself the permission to practice self-love—even if you feel anything but loving toward yourself. Give yourself the permission to start.