The idea of self-love and self-nurturing baffles most people, especially codependents, who by and large received inadequate parenting. The word “nurture” comes from the Latin nutritus, meaning to suckle and nourish. It also means to protect and foster growth. For young children, this usually falls to the mother; however, the father’s role is equally important.
Both parents need to nurture children. Healthy parenting helps the grown child be his or her own best mother and father. A child must not only feel loved, but also that he or she is understood and valued by both parents as a separate, unique individual and that both parents want a relationship with him or her. Although we have many needs, I’m focusing on nurturing emotional needs.
In addition to physical nourishment, including gentle touch, care, and food, emotional nurturing consists of meeting a child’s emotional needs. These include:
- The importance of empathy
A child’s thoughts and feelings need to be taken seriously and listened to with respect and understanding. One way of communicating this is by mirroring or reflecting back what he or she is saying. “You’re angry that it’s time to stop playing now.” Instead of judgment (“you shouldn’t be jealous of Cindy’s new friend”), a child needs acceptance and empathic understanding, such as: “I know you’re hurt and feel left out by Cindy and her friend.”
Empathy is deeper than intellectual understanding. It’s identification at an emotional level with what the child feels and needs. Of course, it’s equally important that a parent appropriately meets those needs, including giving comfort in moments of distress.
Accurate empathy is important for children to feel understood and accepted. Otherwise, they may feel alone, abandoned, and not loved for who they are, but only for what their parents want to see. Many parents unwittingly harm their children by denying, ignoring, or shaming their child’s needs, actions, and expressions of thoughts or feelings. Simply saying, “How could you do that?” may be felt as shaming or humiliating. Responding to a child’s tears with laughter, or “That’s nothing to cry about,” or “You shouldn’t be (or ‘Don’t be’) sad,” are forms of denying and shaming a child’s natural feelings.
Even parents who have sympathetic intentions may be preoccupied or misunderstand and misattuned to their child. With enough repetitions, a child learns to deny and dishonor natural feelings and needs and to believe that he or she is unloved or inadequate.
Good parents are also reliable and protective. They keep promises and commitments, provide nourishing food and medical and dental care. They protect their child from anyone who threatens or harms him or her.
Tips for Self-Love & Self-Nurturing
Once grown, you still have these emotional needs. Self-love means meeting them. If fact, it’s each person’s responsibility to be his or her own parent and meet these emotional needs, irrespective of whether you’re in a relationship. Of course, there are times you need support, touch, understanding, and encouragement from others. However, the more you practice self-nurturing, the better your relationships will be.
All of the things a good mother does, you have the superior capacity to do, for who knows your deepest feelings and needs better than you?
Here are some steps you can take:
- When you have uncomfortable feelings, put your hand on your chest, and say aloud, “You’re (or I’m) ____.” (e.g., angry, sad, afraid, lonely). This accepts and honors your feelings.
- If you have difficulty identifying your feelings, pay attention to your inner dialogue. Notice your thoughts. Do they express worry, judgment, despair, resentment, envy, hurt, or wishing? Notice your moods. Are you irritable, anxious, or blue? Try to name your specific feelings. (“Upset” isn’t a specific feeling.) Do this several times a day to increase your feeling recognition. You can find lists of hundreds of feelings online.
- Think or write about the cause or trigger for your feeling and what you need that will make you feel better. Meeting needs is good parenting.
- If you’re angry or anxious, practice yoga or martial arts, meditation, or simple breathing exercises. Slowing your breath slows your brain and calms your nervous system. Exhale 10 times making a hissing (“sss”) sound with your tongue behind your teeth. Doing something active is also ideal for releasing anger.
- Practice giving yourself comfort: Write a supportive letter to yourself, expressing what an ideal parent would say. Have a warm drink. Studies show this actually elevates your mood. Swaddle your body in a blanket or sheet like a baby. This is soothing and comforting to your body.
- Do something pleasurable, e.g., read or watch comedy, look at beauty, walk in nature, sing or dance, create something, or stroke your skin. Pleasure releases chemicals in the brain that counterbalance pain, stress, and negative emotions. Discover what pleasures you. (To read more about the neuroscience of pleasure, read my article, “The Healing Power of Pleasure”.)
- Adults also need to play. This means doing something purposeless that fully engages you and is enjoyable for its own sake. The more active the better, i.e., play with your dog vs. walking him, sing or collect seashells vs. watching television. Play brings you into the pleasure of the moment. Doing something creative is a great way to play, but be cautious not to judge yourself. Remember the goal is enjoyment – not the finished product.
- Practice complimenting and encouraging yourself – especially when you don’t think you’re doing enough. Notice this self-judgment for what it is, and be a positive coach. Remind yourself of what you have done and allow yourself time to rest and rejuvenate.
- Forgive yourself. Good parents don’t punish children for mistakes or constantly remind them, and they don’t punish willful wrongs repeatedly. Instead, learn from mistakes and make amends when necessary.
- Keep commitments to yourself as you would anyone else. When you don’t, you’re in effect abandoning yourself. How would you feel if your parent repeatedly broke promises to you? Love yourself by demonstrating that you’re important enough to keep commitments to yourself.
A Word of Caution
Beware of self-judgment. Remember that feelings aren’t rational. Whatever you feel is okay and it’s okay if you don’t know why you feel the way you do. What is important is acceptance of your feelings and the positive actions you take to nurture yourself. Many people think, “I shouldn’t be angry (sad, afraid, depressed, etc.). This may reflect judgment they received as a child. Often it’s this unconscious self-judgment that is the cause of irritability and depression. Learn how to combat self-criticism in my ebook, “10 Steps to Self-Esteem,” available in online bookstores.