We’ve all heard the saying that “you can’t love another if you don’t love yourself.” While this sounds logical, few of us have any idea of how or why we fell out of love with ourselves in the first place.
The complexities of our families and unavoidable traumas big and small often destabilize our self-love, and, sadly, few of us have been given the tools to help reestablish it. The good news is that these tools exist, and I’ll share several of them below.
As you fall back in love with yourself, you’ll notice that you become a magnet that attracts healthier and healthier partnerships.
The Importance of Secure Attachment
Let’s start with a little background on “attachment theory.” The term was first coined by psychiatrist John Bowlby, MD, in the 1950s. He proposed that healthy personal development and growth begins with a “secure attachment” between a child and primary caregiver.
The ingredients of secure attachment include providing a child with appropriate boundaries, structure, consistency, safe physical touch, support to express emotions, and unconditional love. These lead to the development of confidence, curiosity, and self-exploration — all of which are the foundation of a cohesive relationship with self and an accurate assessment of the world.
When childhood attachments are successful between a parent and child, the child will mature into an adult with a resilient nervous system and the skills to manage life’s stressors with a sense of mastery. Haven’t we all met someone who seems to navigate the world with a sense of ease and flow no matter what life throws in their path? Chances are, their primary caregiver was able to provide them with a secure attachment.
But what happens when a child senses that they are not safe with their primary caregiver? For example, If a child cries when they are upset and the primary caregiver reprimands the child for crying, the child will suppress their feelings to avoid crying. The message the child receives is “it is not okay to be you.” With a caregiver who is unpredictable in their reactions and unreliable in their actions, the child will begin to detach from herself as a means of survival, and the relationship with the primary caregiver will take priority over the relationship she is developing internally.
Experiences like these leave an imprint on the developing brain and body, stifling our ability to express ourselves and to evolve our personality and character in ways that lead us to greater fulfillment.
If our attachment issues remain unresolved, they can lead to significant health problems over our lifespan. The Adverse Childhood Experiences questionnaire (ACE) was the largest study of its kind (with 17,000 participants) to examine adverse childhood experiences. It found that the higher a person scored on adverse childhood experiences, the greater the negative impact on emotional and mental health later in life.
Luckily, as humans we have an innate capacity to heal. When we can access our essence and connect with our inner voice and desires, we shift our energy. And when we have deep and safe connection internally we gain more capacity to be engaged and present with others and the world around us. I’ve witnessed this rebirth in many of my clients — and myself — and I know that you can experience it, as well.
Find the Words
Because breaches in attachment force us to abandon our own experiences, the first step to healing is to learn how to put words to our experiences and find words for the body’s non-verbal experience.
Have you ever felt challenged in this area? Maybe someone has asked you to describe an experience and you could not find the words? This likely has much to do with how you were forced to abandon your own early experiences.
A good place to begin learning how to do this is by using a feeling list, such as this one on my website. I invite you to carry this list with you and use it twice a day to put words to two different interactions. By creating a vocabulary for your feelings and non-verbal experiences, you will begin to acquaint yourself with… yourself. Think of this task as dating yourself, as though you are slowly getting to know the person you really are. Creating this vocabulary gives you more capacity to connect to your feelings and communicate your needs and wants to others.
Practice Non-Judgmental Observation
Observe, observe, and observe. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this. Paying attention to your experiences is the first step in learning how to be present. This increases our capacity to contain negative emotions without fear and positive emotions without overstimulation. This also assists in changing our internal dialogue from why we are experiencing something to what we are experiencing.
Begin by noticing your experience. For example, rather than asking yourself why you are sad today, see what it is like to notice and simply be with your sadness. Maybe you notice that you want to judge yourself for feeling this way? Maybe you notice that you would rather distract yourself?
Resist the temptation to tell yourself how you “should” be feeling. Whatever shows up, simply try to lean into the discomfort and observe your actions and thoughts. Notice the internal dialogue you are having with yourself. For example, let’s say I’m working with a client, Jane, who often tells herself that it is not okay to feel angry, even though she can feel the rage in her body. I would invite Jane to allow herself to simply notice that she feels angry and give her permission to express the anger even though it feels uncomfortable.
Create Safe Connection
If you did not experience safe connection as a child, developing safe connection as an adult can be a challenge. I often hear clients say that they find people draining and that they prefer their own company. Believe it or not, safe connection is as vital to human development as oxygen is to breathing. Safe connection is one of the greatest ways to nurture a positive sense of self and also encourages new neurological pathways for social, emotional, and cognitive development.
I encourage you to step up your game and actively create more safe connection by reaching out to friends and family who support who you are and allow you to express yourself freely. One of the qualifications in selecting these individuals is that you feel accepted and loved by them. I understand that this may be a challenge, but it’s worth it. I invite you to notice how you feel after interacting with them. I am almost certain you will feel more positive and energized. The more safe connection you can consciously add to your life, the more you will begin to attract it without any effort.
When we can attend to ourselves and attune to our inner being the world around us looks different. Each positive experience trains our body to build more resilience and changes our body chemistry. Positive experiences and connections build a sense of competence and well-being. They reassures us that we are capable of having more of these feel good experiences. These help our bodies produce more of the “feel good” hormone oxytocin and less stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.
As we continue to move through challenges with a sense-of well-being, we build a sense of mastery over our lives. This mastery gives us a sense of pride, satisfaction and/or gratitude, raising our self-esteem and our hopes for our future.
Healing is possible. You can take charge of your relationship with yourself by gently and slowly getting to know yourself. Be patient; think of this as you would think of meeting and dating someone who you hoped to have a long and loving relationship with. Think of the excitement and curiosity you experience when getting to know a new and important person in your life. Pretty soon, as you have more and more good experiences with yourself and build self-trust, you may find yourself falling in love…with you.
Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., . . . Marks, J. S. (2019). Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 56(6), 774-786.